November 13, 2014
Engaging Large Classes with Professor Deborah Moon
Cross-posted on the Teaching Culture Blog by The University of Toronto Press in the Anthropology Teaching Forum Series

Student engagement and active participation in class is on every professor’s mind at some point or another during the semester. Professor Deb Moon in the Department of Anthropology at UTSA was our guest speaker on November 13, 2014, focusing on the challenges and creative solutions for active learning in large classroom environments. Deb is dedicated to the Socratic method of teaching, and always emphasizes student participation and input in class. She is well-known around the UTSA campus for her Language, Thought, and Culture classes, and it is from her experience in this area that she draws her emphasis on non-verbal communication and proxemics in the classroom environment. Proxemics (also known as the “language of space”) refers to the study of the use of space and feelings and/or perceptions associated with differential use of space.

Whether we mean to or not, as professors we can make judgements based on non-verbal cues of our students, such as choosing to sit at the back of the classroom. With large classes in stadium-style classrooms, we might perceive these students populating the last two rows as unmotivated, uninterested, and generally distinct from the “good” students that sit at the front with their chipper smiles, ready to retain our wisdom (note the sarcasm please). In an effort to challenge the traditional proxemics of her classroom and traditional perceptions of students, Deb shakes things up by asking all students to sit in the front rows of the class without any space between each student. Changing the proxemics of the class means changing the way those “back-row” students participate in discussion. This one change instantly transforms a stadium space into a more intimate classroom space. Students can no longer hold claim over their corner of the classroom, or distance themselves from everyone else (and the instructor). By shaking up the proxemics of the class, Deb created a community atmosphere that encouraged participation and sharing.

Christine, an undergraduate student who has taken several classes with Deb, including Language, Thought, and Culture, joined the discussion. She underscored the importance of proxemics, stating that all the students felt more comfortable when closer together, and were more willing to share their viewpoints, create study groups, and engage with each other on course material outside of class. Christine also talked of the time that Deb asked students to sit wherever they wanted in the classroom. Some sat on the tops of the desks, other in the aisles, and some on the podium itself. Deb integrated this different proxemic environment into the class by discussing structure and authority. The students at the podium were expected to control and conduct the class. Not only were proxemics flipped on their head, but participation was flipped as a way to engage with key anthropological topics.

As Deb suggests, proxemics are as important for instructors as they are for students. Deb described her active style of teaching, which includes walking up and down the aisles, through the seating rows, braving stairs and other obstacles. This demonstrates to her students that she is also actively engaged in the class. As a group, we discussed the obstacles that traditional classrooms can create for less lecture-based teaching styles and ways to mitigate these issues. (Deb suggested being brave and going for it! If you trip, oh well, at least you got their attention!) Other possibilities included: changing the venue of the class every now and then, booking a room in the library, going outside on a nice day, using other spaces, and the proxemics that might develop within them, as an advantage to shaking up the class and inviting participation in new venues. Deb has found that non-verbal communication such as leading students into participation by gesturing towards them, making eye contact, as well as verbally using their names, are all ways to show that they are part of the community and are “invited” to participate.

When Deb finished her presentation there was a flurry of comments and questions outlining concern for less experienced students (like freshmen) who may not have encountered such non-traditional learning environments. Deb described her practices in normalizing proxemics in her classes. She emphasized this idea of challenging space and non-verbal communication in the first several weeks of class (admittedly this is bolstered by the subject matter in Language, Thought, and Culture where proxemics are a big segment of class content). Further, Deb discussed how she emphasizes active listening as a key component to active discussions in class. Students must demonstrate that they are actively listening to the discussion before they can contribute, thus ensuring that the discussion remains relevant and on-track. We noted that sometimes there are contributions to a discussion that are unexpected but extremely relevant, so active listening does not mean that students must follow a script, but that they must contextualize their points. Deb also emphasized modeling active listening. In the first class of each semester, Deb works the students through an active listening exercise to get them acquainted with the expectations, and continually models active listening in her own discourse and responses to students over the semester.

Discussion also touched on the potential issues one might face in a classroom of diverse students. What about large classes where every seat is taken? Instead of everyone moving down to the front, ask the students to move to the opposite side of the room and/or experience a different area of the classroom and thus a different perspective on the class. What about students who experience extreme anxiety in classroom situations? Deb allows students to personally confer about anxiety or other circumstances that may inhibit their ability to comfortably participate in proxemics activities. What about students who have mobility concerns? Because proxemics activities typically involve physical movement, some students may be more or less able to move within the classroom space. These needs must be accommodated but this does not deny other possible creative ways to give students the opportunity to gain a different perspective on the class. What about students who “refuse” to participate? Unless a student’s refusal is disruptive to the class, we must accept refusal sometimes. However, Deb and Christine described a situation of “refusal” to participate in bringing ritual items to class. A group of students refused to bring something and formed a group of postmodernists who did not want to participate in the ritual emphasis of the activity. Deb expanded the activity by asking this group to explain why they actively chose not to participate in the activity (thereby providing a new opportunity to participate and actively engage).

We also had a very enlightening discussion about how instructor proxemics and student proxemics can meld. What if you gave a lecture or managed a discussion from the “participants’” perspective seated among your students? Several attendees have experimented with this sort of “shake it up” strategy with differing results, but encouraged it.

Generally, Deb encouraged challenges to traditional proxemics in classrooms to shake up the status quo and get students re-oriented to the class. In this way, students who might not engage or be very hesitant to engage, can get a different view on things (quite literally if they are sitting in a different part of the room) and become more active participants.