Teaching Psychology and Teaching Dance

This past year or so, I’ve gotten a decent amount of experience in teaching, both in the area of social psychology and in dance.  In fact, it’s easy to mix up the two when people ask me, “How is teaching going?” and I have to clarify what they’re asking about.  I’m on my third semester of teaching introduction to social psychology (in various forms) and in my second semester of teaching dance at a beginner level (specifically the beginner class last spring and the intermediate class right now).

It’s really interesting to me, seeing the parallels between an academic course and a dance class.  Certainly many differences (hopefully no one is falling asleep during dance class, but you do see that happen now and again!), but also some common themes and similarities.  For one, attendance drops off after the first class.  The first day of the semester (also known as reading-the-syllabus day) is when you’ll actually see all of your students in one place, at least until exams roll around and suddenly students you don’t recognize at all show up to take the final.  “Hmmm, I’ve never seen you before.  I guess you’re in my class, or taking this exam for fun?” Similarly, the very first day of dance class tends to also be the biggest, as people are trying things out and seeing if this is something they want to do, seeing if they’re in the right level, etc.  After that, class size shrinks noticeably, which can be somewhat discouraging, but at least it means the people who are coming actually want to be there!  Another similarity is the lack of facial feedback you get from people.  So many blank stares.  Give me smiles, confusion, something to work with!

The other major parallel between the two is how when teaching, you have to boil down everything you know to the core ideas and essentials.  If I were to throw every nuance I know at people new to some concept, it would just go way over their heads and confuse them.  It’s tempting to just give a big ol’ information dump because we want people to know a lot right away, but it’s better for everyone to keep things simple.  I have all this knowledge and want to share it with you!  But I have to hold back consciously.  For example, for every dance, we just have to start with the basic steps, described in only basic terms.  We’re just working on getting people to have some semblance of a frame/connection and putting their feet in the approximately correct places.  Adding in nuances of posture, proper body contact/connection, hip action, rotation, swing, sway, and so on, would just be too much for someone just starting out.  Once they get the basic idea, then we can add these technical ideas on top, one layer at a time.

In social psychology, it would be lovely if I could discuss ideas on a higher level with my students, but they clearly do not have the knowledge base and understanding that I do, given that I have about 6 additional years of focused experience.  We instead just have to focus on essential concepts and theories.  We can’t get into advanced technical models with mediation and moderation, which would just make no sense to most students (I didn’t know what mediation was until grad school, and you probably don’t either, and that is fine!  In a nutshell, it means X caused Y through Z.  Like, making a powerful pose with your body leads to increased volume of speaking because it increased confidence. I just made that up, but it sounds plausible, right?)  What are the most important ideas for this topic, and how best can I convey them to my students?  How do I make some topic interesting, easy to digest, and personally relevant to them?  Real-life examples seem to be the best way to illustrate concepts, I’ve found.  Particularly in funny videos.  Students LOVE videos.  Cognitive dissonance is a fun topic, but since it’s been around for a long time, there have been more detailed breakdowns of when it does and doesn’t happen, and apparently some of the “classic” cognitive dissonance study effects aren’t so easy to achieve, as one of my colleagues has found.  But we can’t go into all these details yet.  We just have to communicate the basic theory and how people discovered it, first.

Another thing involved with all types of teaching is learning to be really patient. Really, really, really, really patient. Sometimes, even if you tell people the same things over and over, it will just take them a lot of time to listen, understand, and be able to use what you’ve told them from the beginning.  In the social psychology writing class, I give them what I perceive to be simple instructions about how to include citations.  But to those who are not used to in-text citations and APA (American Psychological Association) format/standards for scientific writing, they forget to cite, or try to cite but do it completely wrongly, and might continue to do so for multiple papers, despite multiple corrections.  Another writing example is passive voice.  We teach students to favor active voice over passive voice (for example, “I did this” rather than “something was done to me”), but it’s another concept that takes a while to sink in and become a habit.  Some students still mix up correlation and causation, even though it’s a basic, super essential idea in science.  Basically, just because one variable correlates with (or predicts) another variable, it does not mean that it causes it!  See here for some good examples.

In dancing, we might repeatedly tell newer dancers to turn their feet in/out, keep their elbows up, not look at their partners/their feet/the floor, stand up straight, straighten their legs (or keep them flexed) and so on and so forth, but everyone develops some bad habit of some kind (or ten, or twenty).  Or they incorporate it once, but then go back to whatever incorrect thing they were doing before.  But I have to keep in mind that dancing is really, really hard (well, at least for most people, superstars aside)!  Learning the basic change step/natural turn/change step/reverse turn pattern in international waltz made no sense to me whatsoever when I first started.  It took a while!  Similarly, the now-basic-seeming fan in international rumba and cha cha was totally confusing at first, but relatively easy now, with years of dance education and experience.  Given all these difficulties, it is all the more rewarding when students have that “Aha!” moment and really get some new move or concept.  Or correct some issue that they’ve been struggling with.  Or within a few months, take dance more seriously, practice a lot, educate themselves, and improve vastly.  That’s such a fantastic thing to witness, whether I had a small or bigger role to play in the improvement.

Probably the best aspect of teaching things I love is being able to share that love with others.  I love social psychology and I love dance, and it’s fantastic to help other people fall in love with them as well (or minimum, develop some level of appreciation for them).  One difficulty in that process for me is communicating that very thing – I am generally a very mellow person and it’s rare for me to convey outward excitement about things, even if I feel that way about them internally. (Exceptions: food when I’m hungry and getting to sleep more. Also shiny pretty things.)  Sometimes it feels forced to show that enthusiasm more on the outside, but it’s something I’d like to work on.

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