The Benefits Of Being Uncomfortable

This summer began with a 3 week trip to China to teach at Dalian Nationalities University. In less than a week, I’ll be heading to Malawi to work with a not-for-profit organization for 4 weeks as part of the Leave for Change program. While the reasons for these trips are varied, they both offer things that I will be able to bring to the classes I teach this fall.

While I was visiting Dalian Nationalities University (DNU), I was presented with the opportunity to teach CIS3750 – one of the 3rd year classes that I have taught here at Guelph for the past 4 years and will teach again this fall. Teaching at DNU offered several challenges1:

  • How would I deliver relevant course content in a way that was accessible to, and respected the students’ current computer science knowledge? The students in my DNU class were 1st and 2nd-year students. As a result, they lacked certain foundational courses necessary to accomplish the goals I would normally have for my class in Guelph.
  • How would I present a complete and meaningful course given the considerable time constraints? Instead of having the typical 24 classes and 12 labs over 12 weeks, my time at DNU was limited to 12 classes and 0 labs spanning 3 weeks.
  • How would I manage the potential language barrier? While all of the DNU students have been learning English since 1st-year, this would be their first time being taught by an English instructor. My tendency to get excited about a topic often means that I find myself speaking too fast, or using more complicated language than necessary; two things that wouldn’t work in this particular setting.
  • How will the students respond to a different teaching style than that which they are accustomed? The students at DNU have a very different student experience than those at Guelph. In most cases, their professors lecture from a podium with little, if any, classroom debate. I try to teach using a far more active style to encourage debate and discussion.

But what does this have to do with the classes I’ll be teaching in the fall?

In the case of CIS3750 this fall, there are some very specific tools I had to design based on my experiences at DNU that I’ll be bringing to the classroom this fall. This includes new ways to teach some of the core concepts, including user stories, requirements gathering and evaluation, categorization & prioritization, time estimation, and use cases. It also includes a new way for me to present a high-level view of the course that I think brings it all together in a more cohesive way than I’ve presented previously. Ultimately, I believe that my experiences in DNU, and my time in Malawi will help me present this fall’s CIS3750 course in a more accessible format.

Beyond this, the idea of removing myself from a comfortable classroom situation to one with new challenges and unknowns forces me to think in new ways. It forces me to put myself in another’s shoes to try to better understand how their experience and understanding affects their learning. And it forces me to be far more flexible and agile and adaptable. And I think that these skills can only help to make me a better teacher, and hopefully improve the classroom experience for my students.

I’m very fortunate to have opportunities like this.

1 I imagine my time in Malawi will be faced with challenges that parallel those I had while at DNU, except they’ll fall outside of a classroom setting. What should I teach to best assist the work that the not-for-profit is doing? How will I cover the necessary topics given the 4-week time constraint? How will I manage any language barriers2? How will I address cultural differences? More than that, I’m sure the way I address these challenges will be completely different.

2 I’m not terribly concerned about this since English is the official language of Malawi.

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