Teaching Reflections— Professoring in DC, in Fall 2016

I’ve asked my #smpasocial students for radical transparency in a time when they are all too aware of their digital footprints (case in point below), and I get it.

But it’s only fair that I do the same — and take the same risks. Reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses in teaching on a public forum is risky: future employers should I change universities will definitely be on the hunt for anything they can get. My current colleagues will probably have some responses, ones I might not be so excited about hearing (self-criticism, one thing; peers or superiors’ criticism-less fun). But I am committed to radical transparency, something I learned all too much about when writing the new book (shameless plug here → it’s on programming, hacking the news, and data journalism).


  1. GOOD: Active learning is the bomb. But it is so, so hard.

I’m an absolute convert to active learning. A week-long course development seminar offered by GW completely changed the way I thought about teaching. Just look at half of one day’s material that we worked to absorb:

Active learning isn’t anti-lecture, but it really does turn the tables on trying to get students to drive their own learning. I worked hard to create activities that applied course readings in my research methods class, from in-class journal reading exercises to interview practice to writing reflection. My final semester project in my social media class was a reflection assignment (see results here) which I NEVER would have done before.

But I did a way better job applying active learning in research methods than #smpasocial, where I spent way too much time lecturing about how to use social media and develop social media strategy rather than trying to have students try some of this stuff in class.

However, in research methods, I also didn’t figure out how to keep students reading because they thought they could come in and just “do” an activity. And my #smpasocial students probably didn’t read all that much because I had way too many lectures based on practical PowerPoints that didn’t actually have assigned reading materials.

2. NOT AS GOOD: My organization was particularly poor this semester.

GW’s budget constraints meant that I lost my RA — and my RA did a lot of tasks that were really useful and took the burden off me having to be, well, organized. From grading small assignments to yes, reminding me of due dates I needed to tell my classes about, my RAs have been invaluable. They’re also taken some of the academic tasks that take time, like citations and paper formatting, and made it possible for me to focus on more important ones. Losing my RA really made a huge difference. As a result, I made some beginner errors that haunted me.

I also made the mistake of putting due dates in my syllabus. Never, never, do this. The due dates appeared firm, when in reality, the class (a class) never stays on track, either because of school events, a lecture or an activity or a speaker that takes up too much “time” but was more than worth the indulgence.

And when I changed those due dates, I forgot to update my syllabus. I use some sort of online document for a syllabus — Medium or this semester, a Google doc. This is easy to update. But just because it’s online doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes become a dead document that everyone, including students forget about.

Slack really isn’t an LMS. (or learning management system). I started using Slack in my classes in Fall 2015. Most of my students had never seen it before. As a result, it was an eh success. I even wrote and reflected about using it on Medium — but somehow I didn’t take my own advice. Even though more and more students are using Slack for their student orgs or for their internships, it’s just too hard to make it clear where course assignments are posted. It’s hard for students to scroll back and look for answers to past questions. Theoretically, Slack messages were supposed to make me more accountable, but I had so many assignments turned in via Slack that I often ignored notifications. My department chair in my annual 2015 review told me to reconsider using Slack in the classroom. I didn’t listen. And our relationship, dear Slack, is over :(

However, this year, my students really did use the general tab, and in that regard, I was extremely successful in creating a community-driven collective-knowledge-based learning experience.

See here!

3. ONE TIME ONLY?: This election was maddening and I pushed a little too hard to develop my public profile at the time expense of a lot of other demands and more important obligations, like teaching.

I’m in DC and I’m an academic. My colleagues at other universities (even in NYC) don’t quite understand the culture here. For example, I wear a suit to school at least once a week for some outside obligation in the city (going to the State Department, giving a talk for an association, going to schmoozy parties). Being in DC, I guess GW puts huge value on press appearances, even if it doesn’t actually “count” for tenure. There’s a list that gets sent out once a month and the Dean of our college certainly pays attention. The pressure is on.

But beyond these cultural sensitivities, I feel like being a journo-academic in the press serves a greater purpose (indulge me). We can bring key insights from journalism and communication research into the public conversation, informing not journalists thinking about the future of news but also the public at large. I was on NPR’s All Things Considered and explained cultivation theory as a way to account for all the fear of violent crime. I hope I brought some additional perspective. Maybe some commentary in press actually makes a difference. Maybe we can raise the level of public conversation. This is my goal, at least. (And it’s my goal for the year, so bookers, hit me up!)

But there were days that I spent 3! hours doing press hits, and this wasn’t unusual, and certainly took away from everything else I was supposed to be doing.

BTW, even our anthropology department gets a ton of regular media hits (see below). The newsletter btw, looks like this:

OVERALL: The entire semester flew by. DC was caught in a frenzy. I was too. Mistakes I wouldn’t have made were made, in part because I didn’t have the infrastructure but in part because I was simply distracted. But I am really proud of innovating in teaching, even if sometimes it’s a massive fail. So here’s a toast to radical transparency and being a better teacher, always.


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