Teaching and Learning Spotlight: Demian Hommel

LIFE@OSU and the Center for Teaching and Learning are introducing a new semi-monthly series highlighting the stories of successful teaching on campus. Faculty featured in the series have all utilized CTL resources in order to better enhance their classroom experiences. For more information about CTL: http://ctl.oregonstate.edu/


Demian Hommel, instructor of geography

This month’s featured faculty member is Demian Hommel, instructor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

What (or who) drew you to teaching?

I was fortunate to have several genuine, passionate teachers growing up—individuals who absolutely shaped the way I think or see the world. Most of them had similar qualities: curiosity, humor, skepticism and honesty, and all were ethically motivated to try and create a better world.

I never planned on becoming a teacher—I wanted to conduct research—but I was asked to assist with field courses, and then in classes as a teaching assistant, and very early on in graduate school I was given my own class. At first, I was completely lost. I had no idea what I was doing. Practice, and thinking analytically about how to be better, slowly provided results. The few small successes were enough to keep me working at it, and here I am.

How much of your current workload is focused on teaching?

Officially my job description is 90% Teaching 10% Service (working on committees, advising graduate students, etc.). I’m lucky that there is incredible diversity in what “teaching” means, however. I’m only in class for ~6 hours per week. The rest of the time I’m prepping for classes, grading, answering emails, working on publishing and research projects, and trying to think broadly about what I’m trying to do in my courses.

I am extremely fortunate that the leadership in Geography and the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science allows me full creative control. Inevitably this means I’m constantly changing my curriculum and looking for ways to improve. This also means I’m likely focusing on both the theoretical and practical aspects of teaching most of the time.

How would you describe your teaching style or philosophy?

Non-traditional. I agree with many educational theorists that our current models of education are somewhat out-dated and obsolete. Are we best preparing our students to go out into an incredibly uncertain and dynamic world by doing what’s been done before?

My classes are deliberately a blend of academic content, skill development, and broad, meta-level discussions aimed at answering the “so what?” questions. This allows me to get past the assumption that classes are simply content delivery/reception exercises. I want students to deeply consider the ways they can benefit from knowing more about the planet we live on. Of course, I want them to be ready for a competitive job-market. But I also want them to learn to think differently, divergently, critically and spatially. It’s a tough sell, but I believe putting effort into more non-traditional approaches to teaching and learning will actually make them more adaptable, which by all indications will be an essential skill to have.

What stands out to students about your teaching?

One of the most common (positive) comments I consistently get in evals is that I’m “real.” I think this means students know I’ll tell them when I don’t know something, when I’m confused or conflicted. I also think they appreciate my honesty about the challenges of college, of finding a job, a career, and of making a meaningful life. I know they’re not often taking a Geography course because they’re fascinated with the topic—the vast majority of my students are taking my classes as electives for the baccalaureate core. I accept this as an opportunity to teach them more than they might learn in a course they feel they need for their major or career.

I’m not concerned that students agree with me about everything. Instead, I’m interested in them understanding the process through which I came to think the way I do. It’s then up to them to interpret information through their own frameworks.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in the classroom?

All of my courses fulfill one Bacc core requirement or another, which means the majority of my students aren’t taking the course because they’re interested in geography, or think it will be important for their career. This sets up an immediate barrier in some students, I believe. Not all, but some fully expect the class to be boring, useless, or both, just because it’s not a required course. This resistance is one of the biggest challenges to learning, initially anyway. In most cases, when students are willing to give my classes a chance, they eventually see that they’re important and relevant.

I also find that students generally don’t know much about the world around them—not just the traditional details like where things are, which countries are which, etc., but very basic information about politics, economics and culture for example, and how these are all expressed differently in different places. I see this challenge as an opportunity, however. I believe that a curriculum of big questions about context help students assimilate and understand the details they perhaps should have learned already.

Describe an ‘Aha! Moment’ you’ve had in the classroom which altered your teaching.

The issue of devices (phones, laptops, tablets, etc.) in the classroom is a contentious one. Anyone can understand why it’s distracting, especially because of the entertainment capacity of the internet: how can I compete with Netflix, Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, or any of the other million sites, apps or services that could occupy students’ attention?

I tried banning all devices in all of my classes for a term with mixed results. Some students were so conditioned they would risk humiliation in order to stay engaged with their technology. Others felt it was too oppressive. After all, where would you work where you couldn’t access your phone?

In the years since, I’ve gone in the opposite direction, requiring students to use specific apps in class. This does condition them to stay connected to their devices, but it also does something else—something that was a bit of an “aha moment.” We’re all susceptible to getting sucked into something on our phone, for example. It’s becoming a skill to be able to be able to navigate between media and reality. Using technology in the classrooms essentially trains this ability to switch attention between the digital and real worlds. In effect, I’m helping to train this skill.

In what ways have your teaching practices evolved over time?

I’m less concerned with orchestrating the precise experience students have in my classes. Instead I’m more comfortable with a student-directed and student-centered experience. Feeling pressure to ‘get through’ content is not a sustainable strategy for me, and it generally doesn’t lead to effective learning.

I’m also much more interested in active rather than passive modes of teaching and learning. I lecture, but I try to integrate information-heavy moments with activities, discussions, low-stakes quizzes and multimedia. I want students to feel engaged in the learning process, and I genuinely believe that this happens best when they teach and learn from each other.

Do you have teaching mentors you look to for guidance?

I have tremendously supportive colleagues in the geography program and CEOAS who help me with all sorts of issues, large and small. I still rely on my graduate mentors and peers sometimes, and I’ve met many like-minded educators at OSU through different workshops and committees. I feel a strong sense support from a patchwork community I’ve built over the past decade. And my wife’s an incredible help—she was willing to proofread my responses to these questions, for example.

What would you tell other OSU faculty about the benefits of working with CTL?

To me, teaching is about exchange, risk and reward. And it’s like many things—it takes work to be successful. Especially in higher education it seems, teachers are often aware of a subject or discipline but are not always trained in—or aware of—methods of teaching, learning, communication and cognition. CTL provides thoughtful, evidence-based strategies and techniques that are aimed at revolutionizing the way we offer our courses. Further, these activities are done in a supportive, thoughtful, and non-judgmental way that allows growth to happen regardless of where someone might be on the learning-curve.

Are you not happy with the way you feel after finishing a lecture or course? Is there a gap between your expectations and reality in the way students respond or perform? Are you overwhelmed with the planning, performance or assessment in specific modules, or entire courses? Sign up for a CTL workshop and expect that you will leave with a clearer picture of what’s possible, and the steps you might take to resolving these kinds of challenges.

What do you wish you’d known about teaching before you first stepped into the classroom?

I wish I had known that no one’s born a gifted teacher. As mentioned, I had some incredible teachers growing up. Particularly during my undergraduate degree, I was irrevocably influenced by a few remarkable people and I assumed that they were simply talented. I feel very fortunate to stay in one place for all three of my university degrees (instead of following the traditional logic that I needed to bounce around in order to get a diversity of perspectives). This allowed me to get to know my mentors very well, ultimately allowing me to understand their dedication, discipline and cultivation of what naively appeared as talent. Knowing this might have reduced some of my earlier concerns that I was just not a gifted lecturer. But I’m happy enough to be a slow-learner in this case. As I said, if it were initially easier I might not have wanted to get better.


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