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The Blue & Gray Press | June 23, 2017

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Professors embrace flipping the field to learn from their students

By MARY PRAUGHT

On a recent Sunday afternoon I met with Gwendolyn Hale, the director of the Writing Center and writing intensive program, to teach her a card game called Trash.

The premise of the game is simple: to be the first person to flip over all 10 of your cards. Once someone flips over all of their cards, new cards are dealt. However, this time the person who won the previous round has one less card than everyone else.

While it’s not a very complicated game, the easiest way to get the hang of it is definitely by playing it yourself. We eventually played a whole game of Trash, with other students who work at the Writing Center joining in.

This may not sound like the typical student-teacher dynamic, but two professors here at Mary Washington are starting to change all that.

“It helps build relationships you don’t necessarily build in a classroom and lets students see we don’t know everything, and that we can be clumsy and ignorant about certain things, but that we have flaws and that we’re always learning,” Hale said. “We’re always telling students to be life-long learners, but I’m not necessarily sure we always demonstrate that openly to students.”

Shawn Humphrey, associate professor of economics, also has his students teach him lessons outside of the classroom, which has led him to learn a whole host of skills he would never have otherwise experienced.

“I did the shot put,” Humphrey said. “I swam. I played basketball, and rugby, and soccer. I got beat in them all, which is what I expected and desired. I learned how to play the game Magic. I learned how to read music on the piano. I learned how to sign Guns and Roses ‘Patience’ in sign language. I learned how to play a Ukrainian card game.”

He believes it has changed the dynamic of his relationships with his students. “In the process of competing against them on their field of play we learned from each other and connected,” Humphrey said. “Moreover, being in their space allowed for open and honest communication about their struggles [if any] in class.”

Humphrey came up with his table-turning idea called Flip the Field in the spring of 2016, after 11 years of teaching at Mary Washington. The idea behind it allows teachers to learn a skill or talent from their students as opposed to the other way around.

He is known for coming up with nontraditional ideas, as he also came up with the Two Dollar Challenge, which requires students to experience something like poverty by restricting how much they spend each day. The event happens every spring. “I am always looking to meet my students in untraditional spaces,” he said. “Flip the Field is another extension of that desire.”

Humphrey sent out an email spreading the word about his challenge, hoping other professors would try it too. So far, Hale is the only one he knows of who has accepted the invitation.

“It’s so easy to forget what it feels like to be in the students’ seats, and to think I’ve always known this and I don’t remember learning it,” Hale said. “I just thought it was such a great idea.”

But so far Hale hasn’t had any students accept her challenge. It might be because she doesn’t offer extra credit like Humphrey does.

“I think at first a lot of people were caught off guard by the idea, but there’s still this notion of instructors up here and students down here and we’re somehow above our students in our knowledge. I just don’t think students felt necessarily comfortable,” Hale said. “The facade that’s been created is that instructors are too busy and important to have relationships outside of the classroom in which they can interact with students, but the things I remember more are the interactions I had with my instructors on a more personal level.”

Hale plans on incorporating the Flip the Field opportunity into her office hours next semester, along with an extra credit opportunity to see if that would help bridge any uneasiness students have with seeing her for the first time in such an atypical dynamic. She also believes that having students ask their teachers to participate would help get more teachers involved.  

“Students have more sway with faculty than we have with each other,” Hale said. I had such a great experience with Hale that I wondered why others hadn’t taken up her offer. So I asked them.

“I couldn’t really think of anything I wanted to teach her,” said junior Kirsten Whitley. “I thought about it briefly, and I’m sure I might have eventually found something, but I felt odd and not very confident in the concept of teaching my professor…I think there’s a certain intimidation in trying to educate an educator.”

Others shared similar sentiments. But they did think the idea was compelling. “It could potentially help the teacher see what a student’s thought process is and how they approach specific problems, which could translate into how they approach different assignments, said Meredith Fierro, a senior. “I definitely think it’s important.” Humphrey does hope that his Flip the Field idea will catch fire.

“Spread the word,” he said. “Get the university administration to participate and lead the process of getting not only faculty, but also staff to participate.”

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