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Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor: A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work!
Date Reviewed: September 16, 2015
We are used to seeing Tim Gunn as the mentor on Project Runway, forgetting that Gunn is a teacher and chair at The New School’s Parsons School of Design where he also was a dean. The Natty Professor is part memoir, part reflection in which Gunn explains his T.E.A.C.H. philosophy, which involves:
Truth-telling: “Injecting reality into situations” (xviii) . . . “because the world certainly will” (xvii).
Empathy: Compassionate understanding of students’ experiences (75). Teachers evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each student to help her become who she is as a thinker, not to shape a “mini-me.”
Asking: Presenting insightful, tough questions, but also listening to help students ask and translate questions into practical application. For Gunn, good questions are the key to teaching, signaling creative curiosity. Questions also lead to cultivating and being in community: locating oneself where one is so as to open new paths in learning (178). Gunn urges us to keep curiosity supple by reading, traveling, and going, for example, to museums.
Cheerleading: Supporting our students and helping them achieve their visions, even if we would do things otherwise (189); but also
Hoping for the Best: Letting go because, in the end, it is up to them (223). Teachers cannot do the work for students. Gunn discusses difficult issues here, like discipline and grades.
Gunn explains his principles through positive experiences, as well as through problems that teachers face, from making sure students read the syllabus to curriculum development. He also analyzes bad teaching: the bullies, the authority abusers, and the “drones,” the burnt-out and bored (156), saying that if you do not love it, leave. Interspersed through the book are testimonies from a variety of people about their most influential teachers.
Three elements struck me strongly. First, perhaps because his is partly a practical field, Gunn offers powerful insights about mentoring, helping a student to reach her vision (13), which uses creatively, and sometimes transgressively, the skills and knowledge we teach. Second, Gunn cannot abide “preciousness.” Work will be shared with audiences: students become professionals in the world. Finally, Gunn argues that all and a variety of knowledge is important because, “Nothing . . . is ever wasted” (xv). Knowing generates capacities to adapt and to draw on knowledge so as to work effectively with challenges at hand. This is a good response to those who question the humanities’ demands for reading and writing with care within traditions and conventions. Diversity is also knowledge, serving us all as we work with a variety of persons, experience their knowledge and practices, and learn from them.
I will watch Tim Gunn on Project Runway and Under the Gunn differently after reading his book. He is a wise master teacher in love with all classrooms. “Love your work!” above all (245). Gunn, as an administrator, teacher, and human being has much to teach us. I will be stealing shamelessly from his wisdom.
The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach
Date Reviewed: April 23, 2015
As the director of the Doctor of Ministry degree program at my school, I quickly grabbed The Handbook for Advising Graduate Students in hopes that it would serve as a companion for advisors in the program. Perusing the table of contents continued this hope. Many advisors of graduate students follow the axiom of teaching: we advise as we were advised. Advisors generally lack the time to reflect on and improve our practices of advising above or beyond what we ourselves received. Additionally, program directors rarely take the necessary time to invest in the pool of graduate advisors for the sake of our students. The Handbook for Advising Graduate Students attempts to invite reflective practice toward improving the graduate student experience.
The book is a primer on the intention and attention necessary for the advising relationship. The table of contents alone is instructive for advisors to remember what matters in advising; the order moves from defining the relationship, to student-centered practices, to boundaries and sticky situations, to career support, and finally to developing a culture for student-centered advising.
Part one covers the basics of the student-advisor relationship, namely offering different models for advising. Bruce Shore names three dominant models for how advisors or students select one another: pedigree (specialist relationship), patronage (for research funding), or kindred spirit (interpersonal connection) (10-11). Regardless of which of these models an advisor chooses, Shore argues it must be tied to the student’s interest and the advisor’s strengths.
Chapter two takes up practices for student-centered advising. Shore makes clear that student-centered advising is not coddling or enabling; it is empowerment. He writes, “The most valuable thing an advisor can do with a graduate student is to welcome and empower her or him from the first encounter into the shared process of creating knowledge, conceptualizing grant applications, preparing conference presentations, writing for publication, helping with editing and so on” (22). Advising is mentoring for the academic vocation and encouragement toward career fulfillment. Shore emphasizes that time counts, especially time spent in providing feedback and being accessible (37).
Advisors need to develop the skills that increase advisor accessibility and student empowerment. Shore proposes this work as an interrogative skill known as scaffolding. Scaffolding makes the student an active participant in the graduate school process and locates the advisor as the interrogator toward student progress. The advisor’s role is to regularly ask, “Where are you now? What is the next step? What can I do to help you get to that next step?” (41). This last question is an evaluative step that takes time and presence, yet also solidifies the relationship toward its necessary end – degree completion and employability.
The book concludes with a chapter for degree program advisors. Advisor development or enrichment is key in developing a culture of student-centered advising. Just as the scaffolding process works for students, deans and program directors can use the scaffolding questions to assist advisors. Appendix 3 provides a checklist for assessing advisors according to student-centered practices.
The Handbook for Advising Graduate Students is an important idea and assists program directors and advisors in recognizing the content and process of the advising relationship. The book raises important issues in advising graduate students, but is limited in its ability to coach advisors in the work. Shore offers several helpful tricks from his own work in advising, yet because his experiences is the only perspective included, the book lacks the best practices of advising that could come from a broader work engaging multiple types of advisors from multiple kinds of institutions.
Shore’s volume gives reason to write a second book on advising graduate students. Advisors and program directors need a volume that gathers best practices from graduate student advisors and that also includes the voices of students. I would recommend that such a volume adopt a success case methodology that begins with asking recent PhD and professional program graduates about their experiences with advisors. A volume that gathers student stories and advisors’ self-understanding would be helpful in developing advisor training and enrichment exercises for doctoral and professional degree programs.
Reflections From The Field: How Coaching Made Us Better Teachers
Date Reviewed: January 19, 2015
Who looks to middle or high school athletic coaches for innovations in pedagogy? Our stereotype of the coach in the classroom is of someone in a polo shirt with a whistle on a lanyard, teaching health class or low-tracked sections of history. In Reflections from the Field: How Coaching Made Us Better Teachers, Eric J. DeMeulenaere and Colette N. Cann, along with Chad R. Malone and James E. McDermott, undermine this image and offer glimpses of master coach-educators who are adept at discerning the unique needs of a team or class of students and crafting a coaching/teaching style that fosters not only athletic success and acquisition of knowledge, but also growth in students’ interpersonal skills and sense of their own potential.
At the heart of the book are essays by each of the four named above, recounting how the narrators addressed difficult coaching situations and then applied what they had learned on the court or field to transform their classroom pedagogy. After each coaching essay, DeMeulenaere and Cann analyze the team and classroom dynamics in light of educational theory. They also supply an introduction and two chapters of concluding analysis and reflection.
The athletes/students in question were all “at risk” or otherwise unpromising. McDermott’s principal had called one of his baseball players the “worst piece of ____[expletive deleted]” the principal had ever seen. Malone agreed to coach the Highland Park Lady Cougars basketball team after they had lost a game 90-6. Cann coached a volleyball team with no height, no strength, and no stars. And DeMeulenaere took on a fledgling girls’ soccer team whose members were more concerned about the boys watching practice from the bleachers than about training to win.
The brilliant strategies crafted by each of these coaches go beyond inspirational speeches. McDermott persuaded his athletes to stop using foul language by making himself the “designated swearer”: when a player felt a need to cuss, he would raise his hand (one finger for English and two for Spanish) and McDermott would oblige, shouting at practice but speaking into his hand during actual games (13). This use of a humorous method to encourage professional demeanor complemented other techniques McDermott employed to convince players that they could be serious athletes -- and, in McDermott’s English classroom, serious students. But to use the word “techniques” to refer to what McDermott and the other three coaches did suggests a bag of pedagogical tricks. What the narrators offer are not miscellaneous tips or even best practices, but testimonies about how acting as servant-leaders on practice and playing fields and in the classroom transformed all involved. Teaching, for these coach-educators, is never paint-by-numbers, but requires capacity to read the situation, listen to those being coached or taught, and innovate in courageous ways. Although the word does not figure prominently in their narratives, coaching and teaching in this vein require extraordinary love.
Reflections from the Field is relevant for theological educators. Despite the seeming disjuncture between the contexts described in this book and those of a religion classroom or theological seminary, readers will find analogies. They will also be prompted to think about ways that students -- and faculties -- could be strengthened by higher emphasis on collaboration and mutual support (the “team” aspect). Finally, the book will renew conviction that great teaching matters, and renew inspiration that it is more than worth all that it costs.
Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: December 24, 2014
This book stands out for its simplicity of style, transparency of voice, and modesty of ambition. It makes an argument about the power of intentional “mentoring communities,” composed of peers at different stages of career. The authors ground the argument in their experience participating in such a community under the auspices of the Fetzer Institute and also organizing and participating in mentoring communities on their own campuses over a two-year period. Their conclusion: mentoring communities, by supporting and challenging their members to “identify and reconnect to their core values, revitalize their individual dreams, and renew their commitment to goals that serve as the foundation for their work and their lives,” help their members orient their choices and creative projects around their deep purposes and values, and so animate, from within the group, reform in higher education (5-6, 31, 87-88). The authors demonstrate what too few believe: that the solution to what ails higher education, in no small part, lies within the people whose vocation it is to teach and support students’ learning.
The transparency of their reporting and reflection on experience lends credibility to the authors’ argument – they “show” far more than they “tell.” The authors refreshingly avoid both indulgence in lament and speculative grand proposals. In language free from jargon yet saturated with the vibrancy of lived experience, they provide a readily accessible “how to” for initiating mentoring communities. These are decidedly not committees, which have “institutional mandate[s] and goals,” or therapeutic groups – which focus on “participants’ emotional wounds and disorders” (20-21). Rather, they are groups of four-to-six colleagues who commit to mutual mentoring, with the intention of helping “participants explore, form, articulate, and live out of their values” (21). The groups focus on “strengths and virtues” not “wounds and weaknesses” (21). The authors refer to these communities as “formation mentoring communities,” using the term “formation” to highlight the orientation around helping members develop as whole persons, cultivate “shared human capacities,” and advance “each person’s particular gifts and talents” (14-15).
This slim volume is a superb guide to preparing groups to enter into and sustain serious conversation. In four short chapters the authors describe mentoring communities, elaborate on the practice of conversation, explain how to organize a mentoring community, and illustrate how to do collaborative leadership in the groups. In the last chapter they argue for the centrality of such communities to any serious institutional change in higher education. The authors also provide a rich bibliography of resources on education, convening and facilitating, dialogue and conversation, formation and spiritual direction, mentoring, and community.
While not directed explicitly to theological education or religious studies in the liberal arts, deans, department and program heads, and faculty in these settings should read this book. It will provoke thinking regarding and offer strategies to those desirous of welcoming new colleagues into institutions; those wanting to provide better support for colleagues contemplating the next phase in career or life; those wanting to support graduate students; and those concerned with how to compose more satisfying, sustainable, meaning or purpose-anchored lives across the career span.
Teaching Applied Creative Thinking: A New Pedagogy for the 21st Century (ACT Creativity Series) (Volume 2)
Date Reviewed: May 28, 2017
The “new pedagogy” offered here is an integration of educational theory, common-sense pedagogy, and the authors’ own experiences in applying a different way of teaching and learning. The particular focus of the book is on teaching “applied creative thinking” to the teaching and learning process.
The 168-page book -- in workbook format -- has twenty-five short chapters, so readers should not expect deep coverage of the varied topics reviewed. Chapters I through XI (some as short as three pages) present core ideas of the pedagogical model. Chapters XII through XX present sketches of nine specific teaching strategies.
The authors offer a creative thinking pedagogy applicable across subject matters. They borrow from Holbert and Taylor’s definition of pedagogy as “intentional teaching, that is, the embodiment of principles in practice” which entails a combination of theory and praxis (4). The new pedagogy the authors propose is essentially a reframing of the teacher’s role as “Mentor-from-the-Middle” (borrowed from the work of Erica McWilliam) in a learning context (physical and attitudinal) that will help make the shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-focused pedagogy in order to foster creative thinking as both process and outcome. Of necessity, agency for learning requires a shift in the center of authority from teacher to student in order to facilitate self-directed learning. A “Key Concept” of Chapter VIII, “The Meddler-in-the-Middle is a theory that is difficult to translate into practice” is not encouraging (48). Their response to this challenge is to reframe the Meddler-in-the-Middle approach using the metaphor “Mentoring-from-the-Middle” as a “new paradigm.”
The new paradigm replicates established educator roles and reframes the function of the teacher under the metaphor of Mentor-from-the-Middle. In this model the teacher assumes the roles of scholar, mentor, facilitator, coach, model, and critical reflector. These roles in turn, purportedly, combine to help transform the learner into an active creative thinker. Aside from helping to facilitate the shift away from a teacher-centered pedagogy, how this reframing of the teacher’s role translates into students becoming “active creative thinkers” is not explicated satisfactorily.
Following the shift in the teaching role, the authors present a structure for the learning experience. They organize the learning experience into six phases: information gathering, crystallizing, creating the project, completing the project, skill-making, and evaluating the learning unit. This scaffolded constructivist approach to structuring the learning experience, coupled with a shift in the teacher’s place in the classroom environment (moving from the front of the classroom to the middle of the classroom, among the learners) represents the book’s new pedagogy.
The parts of the book that specifically address the ways creativity is fostered speak to the importance of the setting (environment) for learning (Chapter V), some portions of Chapter VII summarizing insights from neuropsychology, and Chapters XII through XXI which present sketches of nine specific creative teaching strategies (including mainstays such as brainstorming, collaboration, pattern recognition, metaphors, crossword puzzles, and video games).
The chapter on instructional technology (Chapter VI) could have been left out as it added little substance to the matter of creative thinking, nor did it advance new ideas about the use or impact of instructional technology on teaching and learning, or particularly, on creativity.
This is not a poor book, but it is also not a great one. The authors overpromise on a “new” pedagogy for the twenty-first century, but do offer a sound model that reflects a helpful shift in the role of the teacher, a particular model for organizing the learning experience, and responsible attention to studies in relevant fields that can inform effective educational practice.