Educators can’t just be providers of information, Professor Edoh argues; they have to be nurturers of their students’ intellectual growth.
By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant
Assistant Professor M. Amah Edoh is a young faculty member, young enough to remember what it felt like to be a student. Her approach to teaching reflects this fact. The Instructor Insights section of the OpenCourseWare site for her course 21G.026 Global Africa: Creative Cultures provides interesting details about how she taught that specific course, but it also offers a generous helping of observations about pedagogy in general and the role faculty members can play in helping students move from mystery to mastery. Here are a few highlights.
Every academic course has a central topic or idea, but Professor Edoh emphasizes that the instructor should also consider what the central question is, so that the course can be an exploration rather than a mere transfer of information:
“It’s crucial to be clear on what the core issue is, what the question is that animates this class….As long as the core question is clear, you can tailor the building blocks to your interests.”
Of course, students will bring more energy to the classroom if their work there also draws on their own interests, not just their professor’s. So Professor Edoh used the final project assignment in 21G.026 to draw on the different creative skills–cooking, drawing, horticulture, creative writing, and so on–that each student brought to the course.
“I had no idea how it would turn out, because I didn’t know what they were bringing to the table, what particular creative skills they had. But I want to believe—this is something I try to enact in my own life—that we all have creative skills, and that whatever you have, we can do something with it.”
The Need for Flexibility in Teaching
New faculty members, Edoh suggests, may not immediately realize that successful teaching depends on not always having every moment of every class planned in advance, and that lecturers need to be able to revise their teaching plan constantly in response to the needs of the moment. Doing this effectively doesn’t necessarily come easily, but it’s a core competency for a master teacher:
“When you’re a student, the professors up front seem to know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re talking about; you don’t fully appreciate the fact that it’s a lot of intuitive and improvisational work. You can be surprised at how taxing it is.”
Teaching at MIT
To counteract the tendency of the university to become a closed circle or the proverbial ivory tower, Professor Edoh asks her students to attend cultural performances out in the world to supplement and enrich their in-class learning:
“Even the experience of leaving MIT is really useful. Part of our duty as educators is to help broaden our students’ horizons, not only in the classroom but also by encouraging them to explore beyond campus.”
She also seeks to show students that the humanities have something to say about technology, and that we can fruitfully examine the meanings and cultural implications of technical systems and practices, not just the details of their operation or their practical potentials:
“At MIT in particular, we tend to fetishize technology and consider it as existing in a realm outside of other material practices, other ways of knowing. One of my personal missions is to show that technology is no different from these other practices—they’re all objects, ways of doing, ways of knowing. So whether we’re talking about plant healing or developing the next nano-technology, we can think about these things next to each other, no matter where they’re happening.”
Academic Study and the Wider World
As Professor Edoh sees it, the so-called ivory tower is an illusion; it’s neither possible nor desirable for the academy to remain divorced from the wider world. At its best, she suggests, academic work exists in constant dialogue with real-world experience, with each enriching the other:
“What we do in the classroom is not separate. Academic work isn’t separate from life, and it’s not something that’s only accessible to some people. We’re always theorizing. Making sense of our experience is about theorizing. If we can help students make links between what they’re reading for school and what they’re experiencing in the world around them, we’re in great shape as educators.”
Nurturing Student Growth
Professor Edoh distinctly remembers what it was like to be a student struggling to make sense of the often-obscure writings one encounters in academic life:
“When I was in grad school for my PhD, I was frustrated by the fact that academic texts often feel like they’re written to not be understood. This made me really angry. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been in school for many years. How is it that this still makes no sense? If it makes no sense to me, what are we doing here? What is the point of the academic enterprise if we produce work that can’t be understood?’…The danger when you’re a student, especially at elite institutions, is that when you don’t understand, you think there’s something wrong with you: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough. But it’s actually a structural issue, and it’s the writers’ responsibility to write better work, to write more clearly.”
She feels passionately that it’s a professor’s job to make academic discourse less intimidating, and to encourage students as they take their first tentative steps toward being confident participants in scholarly and intellectual work:
“What made the biggest difference for me in the classroom as a student was instructors who made me feel like I had something to offer. Having instructors who make you feel you have nothing to offer is not just neutral, it’s damaging. It’s really important for me to valorize students’ voices, to show that I’m taking their work seriously.”
“My teaching philosophy stresses the importance of using classroom time to build students’ confidence, to instill in our students a sense that they’re capable of doing this work, to undo some of the damage that academic work has done for so many people—to try to make it less alienating. To say, ‘We can do this. And we know how to do this. It’s OK not to know this particular material, because we’re in school to learn. We’re not supposed to know everything when we come here. But we know how to learn and that’s what we’re here for.'”