Approximately six years ago, I did something I thought I would never do. I agreed to write a textbook in Criminology. Still pre-tenure and struggling in the life of a junior faculty member at a small liberal arts college, I knew such a project would be a huge investment of time that may or may not payoff in terms of professional success. However, the project proposed to me was not your average textbook. It was innovative and unique, offering a new type of textbook and, by extension, a new approach to teaching.

The project, to become Revealing Criminology, is an interactive, multi-media, CD-ROM based textbook. I need to clarify here: I am not a techie. My twelve year old has to show me how to use my iPhone. It was not the technological aspect of the project that appealed to me. If anything, it was that aspect about which I had the greatest reservations. What appealed to me was how it could transform the way in which my students are first exposed to the central concepts in criminology. They don’t simply read it—they are engaged with it in ways that both maintain interest and promote greater understanding. This, I thought, could transform my classroom dynamic.

In terms of coverage, RC does not differ much from standard Criminology texts. Structurally, it is also similar to other texts: twelve chapters (modules), each with several sections and subsections on the topics of definition, measurement, trends, theories, and types of crime. What sets it apart is that it encourages and in fact, requires, active engagement with the material. The entire text has an available ‘narration’ function so that students can hear as well as read it.  Images embedded on each screen (about 1 image per paragraph) provide both visual interest and additional information within the caption. Each section includes interactive exercises that synthesize and review the material in different ways and provide unique feedback to each right and wrong answer. Most importantly, students in most sections must answer an essay question by typing the answer directly into the screen. These answers are then sent to me, the instructor, through an interactive grade book. This provides an accurate, real-time tool for me to gauge my students’ understanding, which allows me to adjust class coverage and time toward concepts and issues with which the students need help or greater depth. Because this ‘grade book’ also tracks students’ reading progress (which I can then make part of the course requirements), my classroom time no longer must be spent lecturing in detail on the material covered in the book.

This is not meant to be an advertisement for RC, but a reflection regarding how changing our orientations or approach can truly transform what can be accomplished in the classroom.  I can honestly say that I would have been unlikely to investigate ‘electronic’ text options under any other circumstances. Doing so, however, has transformed my teaching and my classroom. There are, no doubt, several other ways in which stepping outside our comfort zones in the classroom and ‘shaking things up’ can benefit our pedagogical lives. It forces us to think about what makes the material come to life, and what leads to greater understanding, critical thinking, and reasoned arguments.  In this age of technology and constant electronic stimulation, the passive experience of reading and/or listening to lectures is likely to be of only limited value if our goals are deep understanding, critical analysis, and inspiration.

If we are to be fully committed as social scientists and educators to inspiring our students to see the value and importance of studying and understanding the world around us, we need to do so by all means necessary and available. It may require us to venture beyond what we know and what we’ve learned about pedagogy and the limits of classroom experience. Several of our colleagues are utilizing different pedagogical techniques involving group work, community projects or service, filmmaking, and blogging in an effort to bring material to life and engage with it on new levels. I would say that all of these efforts are worth considering.

Changing our approach to a topic or a course can breathe new life into it, making it more exciting and engaging for students and professors alike.  It is easy (and common) to get used to teaching a certain course a certain way. It is also easier to teach a course the same way each time, reducing preparation for each semester. Not surprisingly, however, this can also make the material stale in the mind of the instructor and the students—all going through the motions. Imagine instead an approach that truly alters the approach or thinking of the students—not in a way that changes opinions necessarily, but in a way that actually makes students see or understand something they hadn’t before. This is transformative teaching.

Like with anything, starting with one’s goals is critical. What do you want students to get from the course, other than a grade…we all know most students see that as the ultimate outcome of any given course. The grade is rarely our goal as instructors, although most of us design syllabi and courses that primarily or exclusively achieve that purpose. Imagine if our loftier goals—such as those of deep understanding or critical thinking or altering world views—took center stage at the point of development. Different choices would then be made, not only with regard to reading material, but to the very structure of the course.

This has been my experience with RC. I will admit that the first time I used the software (in a not-quite ready state), it was a disaster. Why? Because I did not approach the course differently—I approached it simply as I would having any new textbook. I learned quickly that the use of an interactive courseware required a different approach—including some orienting at the beginning of the semester, some management throughout, and mostly structuring the course in a way that involved applying and engaging with the material, rather than simply reviewing it. Ironically, this factor that had attracted me to the project did result in a fundamental change in my approach to the classroom—one that I hadn’t fully prepared for. Using a second and third time now, I have continued to adjust my approach to the classroom and have received much more positive feedback.

When we approach our scholarly endeavors, we are typically looking to examine that which has not been fully explored by previous work. It is, in fact, quite difficult to get approval for funding or publication without convincingly making the argument that the work examines a problem in a new way or with a better strategy. I have come to believe that a similar approach can improve our teaching—not just the quality of it, but our (and our students’) enjoyment of the experience of teaching itself. I found a start with a new form of textbook, but that experience has inspired me to re-evaluate all of my courses in an effort to find those approaches, activities, or projects that transform the classroom into a more active and engaged space for shared learning.  We can all benefit from asking ourselves: What will we do differently next time in order to improve learning or sharpen the interest and skills of our students?    

By: Maureen Outlaw, Ph.D.

Providence College