A Gem of a Contribution
Lee Gass
June 2003

The most gem-like event of all for me occurred near the beginning of the pre-conference workshop Arshad Ahmad and I ran, on large group teaching. Rather than talk “at” the participants about what we have read about or experienced during our careers, we decided to mine their experience and work with it. In our preamble, we suggested that challenges in large-group teaching (and in all teaching) may not be fundamental in their own right, but symptoms of other, more basic problems. If so, then meeting fundamental challenges should fix whole sets of difficulties and make things work inordinately better. With not much more preamble than that, we asked participants to tell us about some challenges of working with large groups.

The very first contribution was from one of the six graduate students in the group, Brett Gilley from Simon Fraser University, and it was a real gem. Not only did he identify one of the more fundamental challenges of all, but the teachable moment he provided structured the pre-conference workshop and spilled far beyond. This is the story of Brett’s suggestion and how it has influenced my teaching since.

To Brett, one of the greater challenges in teaching is to create a kind of “feeling”, or atmosphere, in which learning is safe, fun, exciting, deep, fast, and lasting. When that feeling is in the room, problems seem to fall away. When that happens, our “problem”, if we can even think of that way, is to stay out of students’ way and let them learn. With the feeling, our work is a thrill. Without it, problems are everywhere and teaching is hard work. Brett argued that for all kinds of reasons the feeling is easier to get in small groups,. But it happens in large groups too. And, it seemed to him, large classes must be a lot easier to teach with the feeling than without it. They should be more fun for students and instructors, and be more effective in a host of ways including all traditional measures of academic success (and more).

Talk about teachable moments! Largely because of that, the pre-conference workshop was by far the most successful of the four Arshad and I had run on the topic. It helped me present the keynote address I gave two days later, and was very useful in listening to and interpreting the many sessions I attended. Later in the same week, several things happened, each of which is related to Brett’s contribution. Here are the short versions of those stories.

First, I attended a workshop at the STLHE conference in Vancouver on passion in and for teaching, by 3M Teaching Fellow Clarissa Green. In various activities, we discussed our own sources of passion in our work, and considered the miracle that some teachers maintain it for our entire careers. In a breakout group, I said that in the workshop at UVic, Brett literally injected passion into our community, and suggested that that was a very good thing. The group agreed, and someone added that the feeling couldn’t have developed had we not nourished, protected, and perhaps guided that development. That also made sense, and it was consistent with many memories of the workshop and earlier. The benefits of the second workshop for me were multiplied by the benefits of the first workshop.

Second, I attended another workshop later the same day, by 3M Teaching Fellow Guy Allen, on narrative writing. Within seconds of the beginning of that workshop, before any of the participants had spoken, an incredibly powerful feeling pervaded the room and the community. Already, mediated by Guy’s preamble, we were in communication not only with Guy, but with each other, even as Guy invited us to be in touch with our own personal narratives. What a jolt it was for me to realize that the third workshop embodied the most important lessons of the first two! And what strong reinforcement of a whole nexus of ideas about how to help people learn!

The third thing happened at the end of the week, in a talk I gave to a group of distance education teachers at the BC Open University. I had been asked to give a “keynote address”, and I began to give one. Within a couple of minutes, however, I could tell that something wasn’t right. My words sounded hollow, and I felt inauthentic. Although the people seemed to be with me, I knew they would drift away if something did not change. The feeling wasn’t developing as it should. Fundamentally, I realized, the problem was that I spoke from a perspective that did not map directly into the experience of my audience. I was speaking from my experience, but I needed to speak to theirs.

For 40 years, my career has been about decreasing the figurative and literal distance between people in face to face learning environments, and I knew nothing about distance education. So I stopped. I told them the story of the pre-conference workshop at UVic, including Brett’s suggestion about the importance of developing “the feeling” in our classes. Then I suggested that something very similar must be true in telephone mentoring of distance education students, and asked them to educate me about it. The feeling changed in the room immediately, and for the next hour and a half we explored a wide array of methods distance education teachers use to establish and maintain it over the telephone.

I left with an appreciation for the importance of distance education, and with a deep feeling of the unity of the helping professions. I left with a strong feeling of passion for teaching, for teachers, and for their students, and with a sense of hope for us all.