Faculty Find Ways to Stimulate, Encourage Students

Feb 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 21-3: Tribal College Faculty, Spring 2010, Editor's Essay
By Kurt Umbhau

What are the qualities of a successful faculty member? The answer, of course, depends on the student. Dr. Marianna Birnbaum, a Germanic Languages professor at UCLA, was my all-time favorite teacher for her unique viewpoint and endless encouragement. During class, Birnbaum shared stimulating personal accounts from her role as a student leader during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I took every course she offered, and she still encourages me to this day.

After becoming a college English instructor myself, I intended to provide students with a writer’s basic toolset: logic, research, analysis, persuasion, structure, and style. My goal was for students to proficiently write quality college essays as well as accomplished résumés and application letters. Over time, I also wanted more for my students and for myself. The modernist critic Ezra Pound’s motto to “make it new” echoed within, and I wanted to replace some of the typical lessons and topics. Soon, classes were supplemented with videos and photographs, and we covered subjects like trophy hunting, racial profiling, extreme sports, cults, obesity, atheism, and welfare abuse. With more interesting topics, attendance increased as did the percentage of completed assignments.

While there was no escape from covering the more tedious rules of grammar and punctuation, there were many opportunities to make classes interesting. Along the way, students in the Four Corners and the Pacific Northwest learned unlikely lessons.

I used historical events as input into the class – like the day Captain James Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay. I taught research techniques by using various accounts from the ship’s logs and letters from the crew. I showed students pictures from my visits to the site where the man once thought a godly manifestation was left in a heap, all too human.

Besides history, I also used the wisdom of my elders for classes. My grandmother, who was on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, spoke with my class last fall. At 90 years of age, she captured students’ attention with vivid descriptions of stealthy Japanese Zeroes flying just above the palm trees towards Honolulu. Minutes later, Pearl Harbor exploded. Answering a student’s question, she confirmed the ugly truth that long-time U.S. citizens and Hawaii residents were widely considered sympathetic with the enemy simply because of their Japanese ancestry.

That same night, my 73-year-old father spoke to the class about World War II from the Japanese perspective and explained that his home near Tokyo was destroyed by Allied bombers. During his childhood, piercing air raid sirens startled the family awake, and they responded by darting outside into a homemade bomb shelter. Students winced with his recollection of wartime dentistry: a German Navy doctor who simply pulled teeth with pliers as the remedy for every ailment.

Ask and You Might Receive

Any time a learning opportunity for my class availed itself, I tried to use it. I invited professors, authors, international artists, retired senators, and local reporters to speak with my students. An extreme ski adventure writer, Bill Kerig, was my first guest lecturer.

Another lecturer was Barry Cooper (Comanche), a former drug enforcement officer. Cooper, currently running for Texas Attorney General, waived his usual speaking fee and presented his case to legalize marijuana, reform drug sentencing laws, and expose corrupt police officers. He organized the lecture around the laws of persuasion and demonstrated how to successfully communicate an argument. Cooper charitably fielded student questions, and he closed with Aristotle’s precepts on persuasion. Students were energized by the open debate and discussed the Cooper lecture for weeks.

A Daniel Glass drum solo became a staple to teach sensory writing. Daniel, an old bandmate of mine from 25 years ago, continues to earn his living as a performer and drum historian. Every student who participated in this exercise loved the challenge of describing his three-minute drum solo using all five senses.

Innovating Traditions

As many tribal college and university (TCU) faculty realize, being innovative and using the resources that you find can be a wonderful and inexpensive way to keep classrooms full of fresh ideas that inspire students and encourage them to examine their ideals and stereotypes.

Our elders are our best resource for perspective and knowledge of the past – they can almost always make it new. At campuses everywhere, knowledge gathered from elder wisdom and transported by youthful hands benefits both student and teacher. Little Big Horn College’s Joe Medicine Crow made it new when he became the first Crow ever to earn a master’s degree. The country’s only indigenous senator, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, makes it new as he pushes to reclaim Hawaiian culture, language, and rights.

At the tribal colleges, young innovative instructors also make it new. J. Carlos Peinado, a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, now makes it new by inspiring Institute of American Indian Arts students in media and film classes, fortified with world-class equipment.

According to an American Indian Higher Education Consortium faculty study, hundreds of teachers are drawn to TCUs to “make a difference in the lives of others” and to “teach American Indian students.” Perhaps this desire to teach the Native American population is what differentiates TCU faculty from their mainstream counterparts.

This edition profiles just a few of the many TCU faculty success stories. Not included are people like Ilisagvik College’s adjunct faculty member, Laura Thomas, an arctic archeologist, who works as field and laboratory director for the Nuvuk Archaeology Project. Thomas’ project identifies and protects ancient Inupiaq villages’ burial sites from rapid erosion by the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. She serves the college both by teaching as well as actively publishing her research on climate change, burial practices, and arctic animals.

Also in the TCU faculty family, but not profiled here, are energetic instructors like Erin Thomas. Thomas, who started at the College of Menomonee Nation (CMN) as a mathematics tutor in 2006, now teaches college algebra, fundamentals of mathematics, statistics, physics and discrete mathematics, and the mathematics of rockets. She has been advising the Five Clans Rocket Team. While competing against mainstream Wisconsin colleges and universities, CMN rocketeers recently received an award for a creative solution to an engineering challenge, a $1,000 prize, and an invitation to the national competition.

There are many successful TCU faculty members like Laura Thomas and Erin Thomas, and this edition is a tribute to them all.

Kurt Umbhau is editor of the Tribal College Journal. For stimulating presentations about teaching, he likes ted.com. In particular, he recommends “Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight,” “Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity,” and “Mike Rowe Celebrates Hard Work.” For the lesson on sensory writing, see danielglass.com/videos.html and select the extended drum solo.

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