This post is the third in our second annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.
In my spare time I like to watch and study film. Capraesque is a term used in literature and film to describe a classic fish-out-water story, a recurring theme found in many of Frank Capra’s films. Capra, the Italian-American auteur, most famously used this motif in two depression area films, Mr. Deeds Comes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Comes to Washington (1939). Each of these films, starring Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart respectively, is filled with fast-paced dialogue and screwball goofery and is near identical in their central themes. They each present a naive protagonist who is forced to navigate the foreign, and sometimes dangerous, big city aided only by their small town values, which are incompatible with the ways of big city life.
I had several of my own fish-out-of-water experiences this year as a first year assistant professor in the Psychology Department at UND. In one class with over 180 students I had lofty goals of sculpting young minds through rich and intense dialog using the Socratic Method. Of course, my colleagues’ warned me of the quiet Northern Plains stoic culture. But I was convinced that these accounts must be an exaggeration. That was until early Spring semester when I discovered that if you get the auditorium in Abbott Hall quiet enough you can actually hear a pair of crickets auditing the course. Instead of the masterful teacher played by Roger Williams in his memorable role in Dead Poet’s Society, I found myself channeling Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?…”
I also naively believed that as one of the youngest faculty members in the Psychology department that I would have an easier time seeming relevant and hip to my undergraduate students. I listen to indie rock music, shop at Urban Outfitters, and when feeling casual I have been known to teach in my Chuck Taylor All-Star high tops. But I quickly discovered that my repertoire of pop culture references was a little dated for the Millennial Generation running around campus (a point you may have ascertained from the films referenced above). This became apparent in my Abnormal Psychology class where less than half of the students were familiar with the film Rain Man, which I referenced when discussing autism. Even fewer students (approx. 3%) knew of Marc Summers, the host from Nickelodeon’s Double Dare, who has written extensively about his own life experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder. These and other challenges (and I am not even talking about the ND weather) made me feel a bit like a fish-out-of-water at times during my first year.
Some classic film buffs reading this post may cry, “Foul”, having realized there are some holes in my Capra films analogy. Perhaps most apparent is the fact that Capra’s films take small town folks to the big city. Most of us would probably not consider Grand Forks a big city. It may be the only campus where students make a fashion statement by wearing camouflage. Having been raised in the San Francisco Bay area my experience coming to North Dakota has probably been closer to City Slickers, a reversal of Capra’s fish-out-of-water motif. My Capra films analogy falls apart in another important way. Capra’s characters are inflexible in their perspectives as they ultimately save the day by bringing small town values and good ol’ common sense to the city folks. I may bring a valued perspective to my department, in terms of my training and research, but I have found that to be successful as a teacher it is important to be flexible.
Being flexible means more that updating my pop culture references (although I have learned to incorporate Snooki and Lady Gaga in my lectures). It also means being willing to adapt to the needs of my students. I have already worked to change my lecturing style to help students feel more comfortable in sharing their experiences and opinions in class. I have also made better attempts at identifying questions that are relevant to our students, both in terms of their age and background. I have also made a concerted effort to get out from behind the PowerPoint slides. Earlier this semester I was amazed when a colleague of mine revealed that she never uses PowerPoint slides in her lectures. The medium appeared to me to be such a standard fixture in college and university classrooms. A few weeks later, my entire slide presentation was erased minutes before lecture began. Lecturing with only my handwritten notes, I had one of the best experiences this year. I realized that while PowerPoint can be a helpful tool, it can also impede class discussion.
I have also relied on my mentors, both in Psychology department and through the Alice T. Clark program, to identify teaching strategies that they have used to effectively teach students at UND. The Alice T. Clark program has been an invaluable resource, providing important and useful information on teaching, research, and service. I would encourage all new faculty to attend. These resources have helped me to understand that although my classes may not be like Dead Poet’s Society, I can still shape young, eager minds in a large auditorium in North Dakota.