In this section, Mitali Thakor discusses navigating her role as lead instructor for the first time. She shares how she drew on acting techniques used outside of academia to help students engage with the material, and how she dealt with the dilemma of needing to adapt learning experiences for students with vastly different engagement preferences.
From Knowing to Explaining and Exploring
I am a graduate student, and this was my first time being the lead instructor of a course. My dissertation research is on trafficking, so it’s a topic I know very well, but I wasn’t used to teaching it or explaining it to others in such detail. Teaching the class allowed me to explore many elements of the topic that I don’t study myself. It took a lot of emotional energy to teach the class, but I loved the experience.
Drawing on Acting Techniques: The Fishbowl
The social justice work and acting techniques I use outside of academia influenced how I facilitated 21A.445J Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century. In particular, I help organize a youth summer camp, and I used several strategies from the camp workshops, such as role-playing and debates, in order to help students engage with the material.
Early in the semester, I started noticing that some students in the class talked a lot during discussions, while others did not. I think this is a common occurrence in discussion groups. One way I encouraged participation from people who didn’t normally talk was to do a fishbowl exercise.
During a fishbowl exercise, a small group of students has a discussion in the center of the room, while the rest of the class forms a circle around them, observing what happens in the “fishbowl.” The idea behind the fishbowl is that the people in the center don’t need to face the whole classroom while they talk—they just interact with the people in the fishbowl with them. A student on the outside of the fishbowl can tap a discussant on the shoulder to indicate that he or she would like to swap places with the person in the fishbowl.
The first time we did the fishbowl exercise in class, four students volunteered to read four pieces of poetry that were related to food and exploitation. The students sat in a circle facing just each other and read their poems. The rest of the class sat on the outside of their small circle and observed the readings. After the students inside the fishbowl had read their poems, they each offered one response. Students on the outside of the fishbowl tapped a discussant on the shoulder to signal they wanted to enter the fishbowl to continue the discussion.
Responding to Different Learning Styles
Some students loved the fishbowl exercise and wanted to do it all the time. A few students found it terrifying. As a new instructor, I wasn’t sure how to adapt learning experiences in the class to accommodate students’ completely different learning styles. I ended up discussing this dilemma with the students. I opened the discussion by observing, “Some of you reacted differently to this activity than I was expecting and I want to try to accommodate different learning styles.” I noted that some people tend learn by talking things out in front of others, so while it may have seemed like some students were taking up a lot of space during the discussion, it was their way of processing information. I also shared my observation that other people in the class tended to process information through writing.
I explained that the need to accommodate different learning styles was one of the reasons that we read poetry and looked at artwork in addition to reading academic texts in the course. If this was someone’s first time in a humanities class, an academic text might seem very dense, challenging, and scary to work through, so I supplemented the academic texts with poetry to provide an entryway into the content.
I think having a discussion with students about how I was attempting to accommodate their different learning styles helped them understand the pedagogy behind the course and helped them respond more openly to learning experiences that may have initially pushed them out of their comfort zones.