By Tonya Davidson, Instructor II, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
My first year teaching a third-year qualitative methods course at Carleton went all right. It was a small class and I assigned some challenging readings, attempting to pair theoretical and methodological how-to readings with demonstrations of those same qualitative methods in practice.
While I thought the course went ok, my student evaluations were not entirely positive. They were ok, but not great. One student simply commented, “meh.”
Unfortunately, my first response to the feedback was defensiveness. I hypothesized that the students didn’t enjoy the quantity of reading required or that methods courses were always a drag (at my last institution, the one time I taught qualitative methods I also received my lowest student evaluation scores). And I just harrumphed and carried on.
Then I took a course on experiential teaching through the EDC. It was a great course; the instructors clearly laid out the why and how of incorporating experiential learning opportunities, large and small, into any course.
Inspired, I radically re-wrote my qualitative methods course. I designed a term project that required students to collect, analyze and represent their own data. All projects were oriented around a theme that I carried throughout the course: “The Dream of the 1990s: asking qualitative research questions about millennials”. I incorporated two field trips, one to Library and Archives Canada, and one to the Carleton University Art Gallery. I brought in many guests who the students interviewed about their methodological practice, an activity I coined the “Cool Seat”. I didn’t reduce the quantity of reading required.
My teaching scores from my new version of qualitative methods went up by 20 per cent. And, the students were required to do more work! This experience has reinforced my feeling that students do not want the easiest possible education, they want meaningful education.
The students had to work harder in my second iteration of qualitative methods, but the tasks assigned were deeply satisfying. Most had learned theoretically about qualitative methods before, but for many this was their first time actually designing and carrying out their own small-scale qualitative research project. And the “Cool Seat” visitors helped them to connect their learning to what sociologists were actually doing in real life.
They could also see the value of the field trips. At the art gallery, Fiona Wright led the students through an analysis of art created in the late 1990s. This visit complemented our two weeks of studying semiotic analysis. At the National Archives, students visited the site for the first time and got a first taste of archival research when they found the newspaper from the day of their birth.
Many instructors want to make their classes fun. There is a real value in having fun classes – retention, for one. But fun – if it’s not clearly tied to meaningful learning – can be a fleeting sensation (like donuts, empty carbs).
Many might presume (as I initially did), that students also resent having to work hard. However, my experiences with teaching qualitative methods have taught me that in teaching, we should strive for that deeply satisfying sensation – the umami sensation – learning that is savoury and meaningful. Students will do the work.