Solga: Making teaching both active and activist

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Kim Solga is, admittedly, “kind of a weirdo” when it comes to her teaching.

“There are lots of ways to make lectures more dynamic. But I’m a fan of turning the tables and asking the students to participate in the learning process,” said the English and Writing Studies professor. “A lot of my colleagues love getting up and talking about historical ideas and novels. And everyone uses discussion tools as it’s a convenient way to convey knowledge. But I don’t think students retain much of lectures. I almost never lecture.

“It’s my job in the classroom to help shape students’ ideas of what it means to be a part of a group of people having a conversation about important ideas. The kinds of things we do in the classroom may shape new ways to think about stuff in the world.”

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and government policy-makers from around the world.

Solga’s teaching method has been influenced by those who have taught her. She freely tells her students she doesn’t remember much content from her education, especially her undergraduate studies. What she remembers, however, was how she was taught and the ‘a-ha moments’ that opened her to the learning process.

On her blog, The Activist Classroom, she shares her experiences as a teacher, what’s happening in her classroom and, in relation, what’s happening in the world from a performance perspective.

To her, performance – be it on stage, in the classroom or in everyday life – is a way of thinking about citizenship, about activism. It is a way to shape the world.

“Teaching is both active and activist. I’m trying to bring to other teachers and graduate students, a kind of experience of both thinking of performance as a public good and also my experience as an active learner and teacher,” Solga said.

“My students are actively learning. I’m actively learning. We’re all co-creating knowledge together. At the beginning of every course, I tell my students they are going to be influencing the way I think and I’m going to be guiding them. They find that empowering; it makes them feel part of a community, which is a big part of my goal.”

Open and honest feedback on how well that process is going is also key, she stressed.

“The most important ways I test to see if students are actually engaged is simply by asking them. The best way is to just get it out on the table,” said Solga, who is comfortable making mistakes in front on her students.

“Do you want more lectures? More shorter lectures? I may give 15- or 20-minute lecture snippets that outline an idea or set the stage, but I hold to that or students tune out. There are moments where students are with you and moments when they’re with Facebook. Being aware and attuned to your audience is an important thing.”

Being open to having these conversations – in a variety of ways – gives insight into making adjustments. Then it’s about being flexible.

“I get that can be scary. But I am a real proponent of finding ways that suit you as a teacher to invite your students to give honest feedback, and then demonstrate to them you are willing to receive it and incorporate it. If you do, they will go with you. They will trust you and appreciate it to no end. In the end, it’s a component of building a class community.”

Part of that community structure is having the opportunity for research to find its way into the classroom. Solga said teaching and research must go together.

“Otherwise, you’re miserable as a professor and your students don’t get the best of your ideas. I get excited going into the classrooms – but I’m also nervous,” she said. “The crossover is essential. For me, it’s quite natural. One of the things I found I love most in my research is finding ways to communicate it to a wider audience.”

If she’s read something interesting, whether it be in a scholarly journal, a blog or a podcast, if it connects to something she’s thinking about with her research, she will bring it to the students.

“They love getting mixed up in those ideas,” Solga said. “They have changed my thinking about core concepts. If you don’t incorporate research into teaching, you end up teaching stale things. I always end up making connections and finding ways to share with students what I’ve been thinking about outside the classroom.”

Solga stresses the need for instructors to spend time talking to each other about teaching.

“So much of the work we do in our daily lives is teaching related, yet we don’t really talk about it. We toil away in little isolated cubbies getting more exhausted as the term moves on,” she said. “Sharing ideas about what’s working and not working is important. It’s like personal development.  I’m thrilled this summit is happening at Western. It’s a wonderful time for this university to showcase its extraordinary teaching innovation and strengths.”