Up to CSM to observe Jasminka teaching on the MA Applied Imagination course, which is a bit like Graphic Design only they don’t have to make anything themselves. The class starts with a briefing during which a tutor confusingly speaks of 2D printing facilities, then we separate into groups of five.
Jasminka sits at the head of the table, with two student at either side. I am trying to follow the instructions we received which specify I must place myself where I am “able to see both the teacher and the student(s), and out of their direct eyeline”. I soon realise this is physically impossible so I sit opposite Jasminka at the other end of the table, but further back and off centre where I can partially hide behind a student. This seems like a solution but the group is now out of my direct eyeline, whereas I am very much in theirs. The only person who definitely can’t see me is the student closest to me who seems slightly unsettled, as he is often turning his head to look back at me.
The instructions stress I must “avoid participating in the session as this would change the focus of the activity and reduce the capacity for observation” but I wonder if this extends to explaining why I’m sitting here. My discreet distance from the desk, also means I have to rest my computer on my knees and am very self conscious of my flapping legs.
Jasminka starts by outlining what the groups did last time, and then going through everything that they will do in class today. This seems to be standard academic practice as it is usually done in our PgCert classes after which they also ask us if we have any questions. I never do. I suppose it provides clarity but I find myself switching off.
I can’t tell if the students are switching off or not, as they’re all on their phones. There’s no way of telling whether they are bringing up some important project PDF to discuss or just scrolling through their Instagram feed, they are completely expressionless. But it’s a relief to see other people’s students do this, so I know it’s not only me.
Apart from arriving in time, the instructions also explain that however interesting the class is, I must try not to focus so much on the content of the session, but on what the students are doing and what the teacher is doing to enable this. I make my first observation: “Not use mobile phones?” I add a question mark as I’m still not sure their phones are work related or not.
The project topic is ‘Obsolesence and Transformation’ and sounds good. The group have decided to look at greeting cards which are going obsolete, although after further discussion the group casts doubt on their own assumption and conclude greeting cards are thriving in weddings, funerals, birthdays, and especially in China where people make their own greeting cards.
Now they are moving on, discussing how it’s nicer to receive a card than get an email. Jasminka summarises this using the words ‘electronic’ and ‘physical’ which I like. I make another note.
As I type on my laptop I wonder if I am participating in the class this way, since there is a flurry of keyboard activity after someone speaks, so it’s also a bit like I’m approving or disapproving what’s been said. I become quite self conscious as I’m particularly active after Jasminka speaks and she occasionally glances up. I want to smile at her, but that would be inappropriate as she looks quite serious. Plus she’s teaching a class not looking for confirmation from me. I wish we had more instructions on these observer-observee dynamics, rather than just suggesting I make myself invisible.
Jasminka seems concerned that the group hasn’t come far enough and the presentation is next week. Everyone is very quiet. I write “Does it help to tell them the truth? They seem demoralised.” I wonder if there is a positive spin you can put on such things. Rather than “You haven’t done any work” can it be “What will you do for next week?” or something like that. I write this in my notes too.
I’m trying to remember if I was ever motivated by a tutor telling me I hadn’t done much work but I can’t remember. I decide that my feedback to Jasminka will be in the form of questions, as I really don’t have any answers for her.
That’s taken off the pressure so now I’m flying ahead. “Is it better if there is a single laptop they can refer to, so they don’t all use their phones?” I then realise it would be a nightmare with login issues and USB sticks but I keep the question there anyway, as it’s part of my observations now.
Now the students are stalling and have returned to the brief which they no longer understand. They have to produce a film and a poster, but they have many questions including “What is the purpose of the film and the poster?” and “Which one do we do first?”.
I realise students often question the brief late in the process, and I wonder now if this is a way of handing responsibility back to the tutor, by asking what they are ‘supposed to do’. It feels like hard work for Jasminka though, as they have joined forces and she is also being observed by me, so I feel a bit sorry for her. I want to smile at her but she’s looking at the brief, quite intensely now.
Jasminka looks up and calmly explains that the video comes first as it provides background, then the poster grows out of it as it delivers the message. It is so short and to the point that nobody has any questions now. It would appear she has successfully handed responsibility back to students, as the conversation resumes. Now I’ve gone from feeling sorry for her to feeling sorry for myself about how I would have handled this situation. Not well, I decide.
This seems to be affecting my notes as I write something then add “I don’t know, of course, just wondering.” in case Jasminka takes my feedback seriously.
The student closest to me, who I am using to obscure myself from the group, has a tic of zooming in and out of windows on his laptop which is grating on me. He is doing this continually and it seems to get faster when someone else talks.
I start to wonder if there is an underlying sexual nature to it as there is a powerful thrusting motion involved and he has definitely built up a rhythm. He is also facing four women. Anyway, I am not supposed to make my presence felt but wonder if I can ask him to stop, as it’s making me nauseous.
One student has an idea, where she suggests doing a post box, only the other way round, one where you take a greeting card out of it, not put one in. I don’t fully understand it, but it turns out she doesn’t either, so it’s OK. Jasminka is now telling the group to be realistic with regards to their expectations, which is a relief as I have no idea how they plan to do everything they’re talking about.
There seems to be some good energy now. Three of the students have found a consensus with an idea that involves a typewriter and they are quite excited about it. I’m not sure what the idea is, but I remember I mustn’t focus on the content, but on what the students are doing and what the teacher is doing to enable this. It would appear that the students are actually having an idea, and the tutor is helping them by letting them have it.
The fourth student is not taking part in the typewriter discussion and is showing Jasminka her mobile phone instead, which suggests she’s using it for work after all. Jasminka shares this idea as it involves copywriting and the group seem positive, perhaps because they hadn’t yet considered what they’d be typing on their typewriter. Either way, it appears the ideas are complimentary.
The guy closest to me is now looking at second-hand typewriters on ebay, there is definitely a buzz. Jasminka takes advantage of this moment and calls for a break – a masterstroke. I sometimes carry on talking through a tutorial’s peak, only to see it go back down again, so I must learn to incorporate breaks into my teaching more.
This concludes my teacher observation session so Jasminka and I go for a coffee to discuss the class. I offer her my observations, suggestions and questions, and don’t ask if she’s Greek despite the fact she has a Greeks-sounding surname. On my way out, I go past a new art installation at CSM which looks like McDonald’s although I’m sure it’s got nothing to do with it.