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Not a Sage on the Stage, Not a Guide on the Side: Who Am I?

  October 5th, 2011

A Guide on the Side, that’s one of the best things to be when you teach.

At least, that’s what I heard.  As a guide on the side, you never ignore the ways students learn from each other (and do not fall under a #5 pitfall of designing an online class!).  You center your perception around student learning rather than your own teaching.  I like this idea, but perhaps it’s the “on the side” part of the metaphor that throws me off; perhaps the “guide” part is more important.  I would like to guide students on their own path of learning toward the class learning outcomes. But what exactly does it mean to be “on the side”?

Sure, there was a Sage on the Stage, who, probably, was one of your favorite professors ever.

Wasn’t there? Well, mine was, because there were no other kinds. My schooling happened in traditional dimly lit classroom environments in Eastern Europe (former USSR) where classroom activities were not encouraged.  Even the chairs and desks wouldn’t move. However, the professors were passionate for teaching and learning, and they were inspired, inspiring, enthusiastic, and came across as a “students’ revered and primary access point to the desired knowledge”.  Many students held them as role models and wanted to become as bright and knowledgeable.

In graduate school I took classes from the US professors who came to teach to the former USSR countries. They were no less impressive in terms of how much they knew in their chosen discipline, yet a different breed altogether. They structured classes between lecture and discussion; they let students bring in what was important for them, but they always made sure that some topics got developed and some died out. Perhaps, the concept of a “content curator” describes this approach which shaped my learning in graduate school.

In the context where the word curator is used most often, that is, in museums, the curator is the one who has a lot of power and authority over visitors. The curator is the one who has the last word on what gets included in an exhibit and what gets taught in a program.

I have rejected being a sage on the stage, so I won’t want to fall for a curator.

I do like the way Elizabeth St. Germain continues talking about it, “the one who prunes and trains the branches that extend from your expertise out into the world”.  I like the idea of students growing the thoughts and ideas and me suggesting, “Feed this one with the works of C. Wright Mills, and it will flourish.”  “This idea needs some time in a dryer environment.”  “If you want to grow this, it might now grow here.”  Can I be a master gardener in an online classroom?

Being a master gardener in an online classroom means supporting the branches that lead us toward the learning outcomes. Perhaps, sometimes branches that lead away in a way that is putting the entire plant off balance can be snipped.  We all do it, and it seems to me that it is easier to do in the classroom face to face than online. What is said in the classroom disappears in the air if it is not supported by the instructor and the rest of the students. Online, it is written down on the discussion board.

How do you train and prune the branches on the discussion boards?

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23 Responses to “Not a Sage on the Stage, Not a Guide on the Side: Who Am I?”

  1. “Even the chairs and desks wouldn’t move.” Wow — this observation is downright poetic.

    I was certainly wowed by a few sages on the stage, but in those classes, I always felt like an audience member. My favorite professor, the one I learned the most from, was the one who wrote “So what?” on the bottoms of my papers and motivated me to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until I finally had something worth saying.

    I love your master gardener metaphor and all of the interaction it implies.

    Comment by Shannon Riggs - October 6th, 2011 @ 8:13 am
  2. Thanks, Shannon! I appreciate the “poetic” comment. As a poetry lover, I’ll say that poetry often combines a very precise and real observation and an exact and laconic choice of words to describe it.

    That said, the desks and chairs just really did not move. At all.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who was wowed by a few sages on the stage. I’m glad to put it out in the open — that way I will be more aware of my own responses to situations as I move to this new metaphor I like, the master gardener.

    Comment by Olga Rowe - October 6th, 2011 @ 8:59 am
  3. Olga,
    I love hearing about your background in Russia and the classes. You sound so lucky to have had inspiring teachers, so even if you do not see yourself as a sage on a stage — especially in Ecampus where you might be a disembodied voice on a screen 🙂 — your inspiration and enthusiasm are very apparent.

    Interesting master gardener idea – I have used the analogy of coach. And Atul Gawande has a great article in New Yorker recently on coaching for music, teaching, and even surgery — http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande

    I hope the link opens – I used to know how to use code but I cannot find my little cheat sheet. Sorry!

    Comment by Sara Jameson - October 6th, 2011 @ 7:32 pm
  4. Thanks for the great article link, Sara.

    As a performing musician, I regularly touch in with my old teachers and coaches to get an outside perspective on my technique or interpretations etc.

    I think that being coached once in a while keeps me in touch with the learning process and serves as a reminder that one always needs to step back and re-visit the basics of any discipline for growth and mastery.

    With online teaching, I am always learning something new from my students. They frequently post new music videos with the class. I encourage them to make associations with their chosen discipline and how (directly or indirectly) it relates to what we are covering in class. In many respects, I can only see what I teach as ultimately cross-disciplinary.


    Comment by reasonmd - October 7th, 2011 @ 8:03 am
  5. Sara,
    thanks for the link! It opens just fine.
    And thanks for your kind words. I do try to consciously bring my enthusiasm and allow it to direct my word choices in online communication.

    when I taught Introduction to Sociology I had my students bring in the songs that addressed sociological issues. It was great fun, our music board!

    Ladies, thanks for making me consider coaching metaphor. I will read the article and say more about it.

    Comment by Olga Rowe - October 7th, 2011 @ 8:57 am
  6. Sara, that is a wonderful article. Not only does it help us know what it takes to be a good coach, it reminds everyone that no matter their profession, a coach can help bring out their best. As I read it I thought about the traits of the coaches that I’ve had – what made them effective or not so much….as well as my own ability to act as a coach. Thanks for sharing this!

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