Peer Review, Winter 2005
The Art of Engagement
By Catherine Hurt Middlecamp, department of
chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Engagement (n): An act of promising,
committing, becoming engrossed, occupied, interlocked, enmeshed,
entangled, or otherwise involved.
What engages students? And what engages
faculty in engaging them? Both of these questions need our
attention as we consider how and why we should teach. The
stakes are high. If students do not engage, they are unlikely
to learn. And if we do not engage, we are unlikely to engage
our students. Furthermore, if we do not engage, we miss out
on opportunities to learn ourselves. Thus, the engagement
of all involved in the teaching and learning processes would
seem to be a worthy and mutually beneficial goal.
Worthy or not, engagement is no simple
process. It involves the commitment of self and energy from
students and instructors. And even with such a commitment,
engagement may remain an elusive goal. These observations
serve as the rationale for the assertion made in the title;
namely, that engagement is an art. Engaging one's
students is not simply a matter of dutifully following a set
of rules. Rather, like any art, engagement requires creativity
and must be developed and continually practiced. In short,
the art of engagement is worthy of reflection and study over
the entire span of one's teaching career.
A Philosophy of Engagement
I teach a large general chemistry course
for non-science majors. In my experience, these students are
smart, multitalented, and themselves engaging, although occasionally
a bit science-phobic. Recently, a student from this course
After taking the final today, I realized
how great it felt to take a test after learning about things
that I really care about. I never wanted to take chemistry
in college--I came into this class thinking of it as
nothing more then a prerequisite. But you changed something
What changed for this student? Although
several explanations are possible, I propose that at some
level, she engaged. As is common for many nonmajors
in our science courses, she was not taking the class by choice.
Yet something changed her mind, and many others over the years
have echoed similar sentiments.
My students are diverse. In terms of
their area of study, just over a third are from the College
of Letters and Science, and many have yet to declare a major.
Another group (20 percent) is from the College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences, including majors such as biological aspects
of conservation and agricultural journalism. Nurses are required
to take one semester of chemistry early in their program and
usually elect this course. Elementary education majors also
often elect this course and co-enroll in a learning community
designed to help them prepare chemistry activities for their
future classrooms. No matter which areas of study students
bring, these are an asset for me to tap. In exploring the
complexities of real-world problems, the prior knowledge,
interests, and experiences of students serve as a resource
for classroom interactions. As my colleague Conrad Stanitski
from the University of Central Arkansas once cautioned, "Don't
let your students park their majors at the door."
My students also enroll in large numbers,
that is, 150 to 300 each semester. In the spring, the number
is lower, presumably because of the timing of the course with
respect to their major. In either semester, the course carries
five credits and has no math prerequisite. The course meets
three times a week for lecture, twice for small discussion
sections with a graduate teaching assistant (TA), and once
weekly for lab. My role includes both engaging the students
in the lecture component of the course and creating an atmosphere
in which the TAs can most readily engage the students in the
other activities of the course.
Engagement in Content
Finding a "content hook" is one way to engage students in
their study of chemistry. To be successful finding a hook,
you must know your audience, know your subject, and find
a connection that strategically brings the two together.
Personally, I have found three types of hooks that work well:
intriguing questions; current issues/concerns; and topics
that speak to our common human condition, such as life, death,
sex, and food.
For example, my approach to nuclear chemistry
utilizes all three: an intriguing question (how can radiation
both cause cancer and cure cancer?), a current issue (what
is a dirty bomb?), and a connection to an issue of life and
death (cancer treatment). Given how quickly the world is changing,
I continually must change my approaches.
Nuclear chemistry is one of five real-world
topics that I teach from the textbook Chemistry in Context
(2005), a project of the American Chemical Society. This
book has a philosophy of engagement: to teach through
real-world issues to the underlying chemical principles.
For example, teaching through the issue of global climate
change might be represented as shown in Figure 1, and teaching
through the issue of nuclear power as shown in Figure 2.
By design, each chapter of Chemistry
in Context starts with a hook. It can be an intriguing
storyline, a photograph, a pair of opposing quotes: in essence,
anything that has the capacity to engage the reader. Frankly,
finding these hooks has been an ongoing challenge for me and
for the authors of the text. In part, the difficulty lies
in our knowing what might intrigue today's students. For example,
although tales of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl might
hook students on the topic of nuclear chemistry, a recent
survey of my students revealed that half had not even heard
of Chernobyl. Another difficulty lies in the varied interests
of students: what interests one may not interest the person
sitting next to him or her, and what is successful in catching
the interest of students one year may not even appear on the
radar screen of those the next. Clearly, selecting the hook
involves both a working knowledge of current society and culture
and the ability to hit a moving target.
Engagement at Multiple Levels
Engagement is more than simply selecting
content. Equally vital is to simultaneously engage students
at several levels, including their lives, our own lives, and
the world in which we all live. These levels are interconnected
in complex and meaningful ways. Furthermore, as we successfully
engage our students, they in turn will engage us. Truly this
synergism characterizes teaching as no other profession. Of
all these levels, engaging students through stories of our
own lives perhaps elicits the strongest reactions to the contrary.
I have heard colleagues say that they never would want to
reveal personal information to their students. They speak
of the personal discomfort they would incur in doing so or
of their need to maintain a proper distance from their students.
I also have heard the admonition that we should not talk about
extraneous content (such as our own lives), because doing
so would be both unprofessional and wasteful of precious minutes
of class time.
Although truth underlies all of these
arguments, my own experiences in the classroom speak to the
contrary. When I teach, remaining distant from my students
simply doesn't work. In truth, it never has worked for me,
and I suspect it never will work. Most simply put, if
I disconnect from myself, I disconnect from my students.
In turn, they disconnect from me. Assuredly, there are topics
that I don't reveal in the classroom; in fact, I may never
reveal them to another human being. But this is the exception,
not the norm. Most of my hopes, fears, dreams, and life experiences
can claim a rightful place in the classroom.
Does this mean that we must reveal
our innermost selves to our students? Not as such, but I do
believe that we should select relevant parts of our lives
to reveal. If we allow them to, our personal stories can become
woven into the daily rhythms of teaching. Some stories are
told one semester; others told another. Some stories get told
repeatedly, others never again, and some stories never get
told in the first place. The art is in selecting the story
that fits the needs of the moment: encouragement, humor, drama,
tales of those before us, or our hopes and fears from the
past and for the future.
One caution: telling personal stories
does not mean "dumping" our personal lives into
the classroom. It also does not mean appropriating large chunks
of time that distract from the task at hand. How do you evaluate
the effectiveness of your own personal storytelling? In part,
you learn through experience--feedback from your students
will help you gauge the effects. The art lies in telling stories
to open paths of communication, especially to those who have
not trod the ground before and are glad if somebody else can
point the way.
The Courage to Engage
Frankly, I never expected to be so engaged
in teaching non-science majors. In planning a career path,
the possibility of spending so much time teaching those not
in my field never crossed my mind. But once my students engaged
me, I was hooked, and perhaps rightly so. In my earlier attempts
at finding a hook that would engage my students, I found myself
on the hook as well.
Parker Palmer writes in The Courage
to Teach (1998), "We did not merely find a subject to
teach--the subject also found us." I strongly agree. Real-world
topics such as nuclear radiation, plastics and recycling,
and smog found me. With these and other issues that deeply
affect all of us on this planet, I became engaged. In turn,
I hope to engage my students in the complexities of these
issues. Furthermore, I would assert that "we do not merely
find students to teach, the students also find us." And once
they do, a certain amount of courage is required on our part.
Why courage? For at least three reasons:
- First, to engage students you have to know and connect
with them. This is not for the faint of heart; you will
be drawn into their worlds in ways that are perhaps unfamiliar
- Second, once you engage students, they will engage you
as well. This engagement has a cost in time and energy,
and you will discover the boundaries you can cross, the
personal frontiers you can negotiate, and those which (for
a variety of reasons) you simply cannot.
- Third, engagement carries an intellectual challenge.
To explain this intellectual challenge,
please allow me to offer an analogy. When teaching a first-year
course, I often feel as if I were teaching a special-topics
course at the graduate level. With the topic of ozone depletion,
for example, I must update my syllabus with each new finding:
a press release from NASA, an international meeting to amend
the Montreal Protocol, news about the breakup of a Freon smuggling
ring, a recent industrial accident with ammonia, or new findings
about the chemistry of chlorine in the upper atmosphere. Whew!
I sometimes long for the days when I could simply pull the
same old titration problems off the shelf year after year.
It truly takes courage to commit to a course that in turn
commits you to such a serious degree of engagement.
Practicing the Art of Engagement
I return to an assertion made in the
title: Engagement is an art worthy of a lifetime of reflection
and study. It comes neither easily nor cheaply, but rather
with a personal commitment and a willingness to practice.
This art involves making good choices about the content that
is taught and about one's personal involvement in the teaching
process; it also requires the ability to recognize the subtleties
and challenges of the larger learning context for both our
students and for ourselves.
Think for a minute about practicing any
art: a musical art, a martial art, or a medical art. The "practice"
needed for any of these involves a significant commitment
of self. Engagement is no exception. With one attempt at engagement,
we may overdo it at too great a personal cost. With another,
we may underdo it, failing to connect to either ourselves
or to our students. When we expect to engage our students
quickly and with minimal effort, we deny the very art form
of engagement. By embracing the need to practice, we find
paths of engagement that work for us, for our students, and
for the world that connects us.
Any art also requires a willingness to
enter it as a beginner. Beginners can allow themselves to
feel clumsy. With their minds and hearts set on the goal of
improving their practice, beginners can act ineptly or ungracefully.
Beginners are free to seek the counsel of teachers and other
experts. Fortunate is the beginner willing to practice in
the company of one who shows mastery of the art! Equally fortunate
is the expert who can hold the openness of "beginner's
mind." If we fail to embrace our status as a beginner,
we lose the freedoms we need to learn.
A recent issue of Chemical &
Engineering News, the weekly journal for members of the
American Chemical Society, reported on a conference aimed
to reform the chemistry curriculum.
The speakers addressed topics relating
to the curriculum that we offer our chemistry majors. One
speaker, Judith A. Ramaley, then assistant director of the
National Science Foundation Education and Human Resources
Directorate, pointed out that
Major curricular reform must be grounded
in a clear institutional mission and a coherent educational
philosophy. Such reform is not about transmitting the knowledge
of chemistry. It's about drawing people into the world
I couldn't agree more. And for both our
majors and our nonmajors, I also would add: "It's about
drawing chemists into the world of people." Engagement
of our students cuts both ways. We must draw our students
into our intellectual world. But we as teachers must be drawn
out into the world of our students as well. At issue here
is the human journey we all share. Our chemistry courses,
especially those for our students studying other liberal arts,
need to connect with this human journey.
Eubanks, L. P., C. Middlecamp, N, Pienta,
G. Weaver, and C. Heltzel. 2005. Chemistry in context.
5th ed. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.
Palmer, P. J. 1998. The courage to
teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.