I spent the next several years making modifications to the class all the while in subordination to the strong influences cited next. I refer to them as the forces of sameness, safety, and security. They were eventually offset by the countervailing forces of wholeness and vitality, which are identified thereafter. These forces represent a combination of both objective and subjective realities that I grappled with as I taught the course. Thus, the following content is a retrospective teaching journal of these key themes, or forces. The writing style reflects the dialectic between the internal and external dimensions of the course revision process.
Content Coverage. There were numerous course objectives, each hatching subcategories and spawning derivative progeny of their own ... all besprinkled with ideas such as Diversity, Critical Thinking, Global Perspectives, and an Evidence Base. Also, there was the integration of chapters and articles ... I had my work cut out for me.
Pace. With the first class devoted to icebreakers, syllabus review, and general housekeeping, there are 11 meetings left. Skill-building activities, videos, and guest speakers further reduce the time for unspooling content.
student satisfaction. Early on, I developed a customized class evaluation to target feedback beyond the generic evaluation our school offers students. They complete this customized version during the last class. We discuss their input, and I include questions I have about the course that accumulated throughout the semester.
Fidelity to Master Syllabus. Too much drift between different sections of the same course running simultaneously may prompt comparison by students and trigger complaints.
Privilege and Responsibility. The academy bestows a tremendous privilege, responsibility, and trust on the adjunct instructor. There is a reverence befitting such trust that applies itself when making decisions. It resulted in me being too careful and cautious for too long regarding creative innovation.
Critical Self-Talk. “You are not a researcher. You are not a scholar. You are not from the academy but from the streets of practice. Your membership is provisional and as with any social worker in a host setting, you serve at the pleasure of your host.” Much of this one-down status narrative was my own mental doing, but I diluted it, in part, by reminding myself that I could bring things to the classroom that research-oriented faculty do not (see Powell, 2003).
In retrospect, I have come to think of this part of my path as the genuflecting phase, a disguised form of fear-based teaching. Although the previously mentioned forces held me confined during the first few years, I slowly began taking creative license. Over the years that followed, I continued building a strong case to overhaul my class. I had attended teacher workshops, read, talked to colleagues, and made incremental changes that reinforced my inclinations. One of these changes occurred in 2012 and is synopsized in the next section. I cannot recall the linear progression, but key contributors to this momentum appear later. These are the forces of wholeness and vitality.
By the Numbers. I taped a pie diagram, bar graph, and stratified pyramid side by side on the wall over my worktable in my office. They reinforced one another, stating the same thing about how students learn. Each pie slice, bar, and pyramid layer included percentages oflearning efficiency by method. Reading and writing were the least effective for retention and proficiency. More successful were modes of learning that mobilize more of the learner's faculties (hearing, watching, and doing). Even though I knew it was true from my own experience that learning becomes deeper and more durable, I felt bolstered by the numbers and wanted to display them. If experience really is the best teacher, perhaps this is why (see Kolb, 1984). I began using this insight as a discussion trigger while training supervisors and teaching classes. “What's the difference between a thought and an experience?” I would ask. Students reliably agreed that an experience mobilizes more of the whole person than a thought.
Learning styles. If, in fact, the majority of our students learn best by watching and doing, how then do we explain the tsunami of reading and writing required in most courses? I suspect that the dominant student learning styles (watching and doing) are not aligned with those of the academics (reading and writing-publishing) who teach them. This hypothesis would help explain the dissonance and its persistence.
Seminar as Laboratory. During the past 13 years, I have taught a seminar on supervision to first-time field instructors. I pilot tested methods in this seminar throughout the years and then transferred successes to the classroom with MSW students. There was a content-driven syllabus, but I set up structured inquiries starting with a probing question that led to reflection and problem-solving based on insight. We utilized the collective experience assembled in the room to co-create our own best practices and then compare them with what the experts said. I continuously culled content in favor of depth and discussion. Facilitating this process was fulfilling and well received by the participants. Attendance increased enough to necessitate adding an additional section of this seminar.
Permission From Afar. During this period, I stumbled onto a column by David Locher (2004) in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “When Teaching Less Is More.” Locher spoke of his early days covering as much material as possible at a breakneck speed, gradually making incremental changes to the course but longing for something more radical. Having forgotten his notes one day, he had to wing the entire 3-hour class. Without a list of names, dates, and details, he spent the entire 3 hours discussing the day's topics in general terms, focusing more intently on ramifications for the student's lives. He stated, “Afterward, three students told me it was the best class period they ever attended. I realized what made the class exceptional was the depth of discussion, not the number of details presented” (p. 1).
What stood out was that Locher reinterpreted his responsibility as a teacher, giving himself permission to cut content in exchange for depth, and instead of leaping, he was pushed off the ledge by necessity. The discoveries followed. The experienced instructor had suspected that something was missing and yet suspicion alone was insufficient to propel a transformation. He needed evidence. As for me, I was past suspicion and well into conviction, while still stockpiling evidence. I needed something else. I needed fellowship and support. Locher's disclosure was a start, knowing I was not alone in my longing for depth and animation.
Art Class Syllabus. One year, I decided to cash in on my tuition remission as an adjunct instructor and take a class in the Art Department. I located my preference, received permission to audit, and picked up the syllabus at our first meeting. It was a one pager. In fact, it was less than a full page. I wondered, what allowed this syllabus to be so different? A different field, a different culture? Different standards? An advanced elective? A seminar? I taped this up on my wall beside the pie, bars, pyramid, and a copy of David Locher's (2004) story.
A 1-Page Syllabus Versus 12 Pages. I have spent 30 years off and on defending social work against its public reputation as a half-baked profession. Its struggles both internal and external for legitimacy are well-known, scratching and struggling for a place at the table with medicine and law. Could a profession have self-esteem issues and be prone to overcompensate? Might my own profession have just as bad a case of physics envy as other softer sciences? Try as social work researchers might, they cannot produce the mathematical precision to measure up.
Practice Roots. We are all creatures of our culture. As a creature of practice, now embedded in the academy, it became clear that the course, as inherited, did not work. It needed more emphasis on proficiency and the person of the learner/ practitioner. This insight became a driver for me to adapt. If I think of conflict as growth trying to happen, the tension between these two lists becomes significant. The first list is filled with constraints representing a “safety first” position. The second list represents a fueling up for escape velocity.