Remarks by Dr. Amy Berger, 2012-13 Innovative Teaching Award Recipient

I want to thank Heidelberg and its Board of Trustees for the establishment of this new award, and to my nominator and colleagues for their support of what I do. I would be remiss if I didn’t also thank the supporters and participants the inaugural playing of the “University Game,” who gave up three hours on a Monday night with nothing more than the promise of dinner and discussion of the university mission.

To tweak Heraclitus, you can never walk in and teach the same class twice. Like water in a river, changes in student learning styles, family backgrounds, educational preparedness, innate ability, and even breakfast preferences trickle through imperceptibly … until they hit us like a 100-year flood. Educators are not the same people from day to day: my day has included seismic aftershocks of nervous energy about addressing this august group. This morning’s discussion on braided river channel systems definitely was not the same as it was last year. The very activity of education is one of constant innovation—both planned and on the fly—which means in this room there’s a vast array of extremely creative and innovative educators doing amazing things.

One of my graduate advisors told me, “Education is one of the few fields where theft is not only allowed but also encouraged.” I think it highly likely he quoted that from someone else … the point that resonates is teaching has always been open source. It is kindergarten rules on a grand scale where playing, invention, and sharing are not only the most efficient ways to but also the most fun. I had help with these comments … just like I had help with everything that I do in any class for any course in any given semester since I started teaching.

Complex live-action games based in real events are not my invention. I swiped the idea from Dr. Mark Carnes and his “Reacting to the Past” consortium. They’re not even Mark Carnes’ invention, although he won the more well-known Theodore Hesburgh Award for pedagogical innovation, and has been written up in the NYT, Chronicle for Higher Education and Christian Science Monitor. Mark would be the first to tell you that games are a very old idea, even in learning circles.

In playing games, we accept a different version of the world, in which players have conflicting goals and rules of behavior—and anyone who’s ever yelled at a referee knows sometimes the rules are subject to interpretation. Games employ the well-understood framework of “winning” and “losing” as a substitute for “being right” vs. “being wrong”—the basis very real fears that inhibit learning from the 100-level course all the way to institutional-wide decision-making. My development of games for the classroom started as a late night conversation at an SVHE conference, continued into email conversations with colleagues both in and out of geology, and culminated during my 2011 sabbatical in an intentional and deliberate collaboration with the former director of Environment Canterbury, New Zealand and a completely unexpected collaboration with a seismology professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. My point and I do have one, is that at its heart, education is collaborative.

We try new things all the time without thinking about it … it’s a matter of finding right fit between educator, students, and material. It’s the conversations between educators where we crystallize our understanding of that fit. Seasoned educators have vast databases of experiences to draw on about what works and what doesn’t. New educators have an extended spectrum of ideas unlimited by habit or complacency. Education, like games, needs interaction between its practitioners.

Unfortunately, with anywhere from 18-25 weekly contact hours not including the preparation, grading, one-on-one advising, tutoring, committee work, and the odd meal, we all struggle with habituating this type of conversation, even with the best of intentions. This collegial interaction is dependent on the cultural and institutional support of faculty development panel discussions and workshops, faculty forums, faculty mentoring, the return of the soup lunch program, and the new formative observation plan pilot program. It’s important to have a culture where we talk to each other as educators. Because all of us are the innovators.