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Paper cutout of lyrics to the song, Take On Me

Stump the Professor: A Learning Challenge For You and Your Students

Tue Sep 7, 2021 at 07:30 AM

Let’s face it: when we teach a course for a while, especially a Gen Ed course, a sense of complacency and smugness can set in. We feel we know all about the subject: we can predict many student questions, and we know all the answers. It’s at this point that we need a novel way to interact with students and test our knowledge of our field. I use "Stump the Professor" to engage students -- and myself -- in a stimulating learning activity that keeps all of us on our toes! (I credit Nic Bongers with the title of this activity, which he thought of during Lunch Bytes.) 

“Stump the Professor” is an application of the analytical tools in your field to different, relevant area that you love. In my case, it’s linguistics applied to contemporary dance music. I’m a linguist, but I also like dance music, which I listen to during my workouts. I listen for language-related issues in artists’ lyrics and vocals, and I've found there are many! As a break from the usual class routine, I ask students to suggest dance songs they like, and I tell them about the linguistics of those songs. I've discussed a variety of topics this way in my Gen Ed courses that I otherwise would not have a chance to cover. I tell students they can give me any dance song, and I'll find a linguistics issue in it. I haven’t been stumped yet! 

Other instructors can adapt this activity to their course topics and interests. It would work well for areas of social science or the humanities applied to a wide range of social activities. For example, a sociology instructor who likes video games could ask for video game suggestions, and they could discuss class-related issues in those games.

How It Works

  1. For this activity to work well and be fun for both you and the class, you have to link your academic field to a hobby area you really like and genuinely want your students’ input on. If you do, you will delight in the examples students suggest! One intriguing example I had in class was the song Calabria by Natasja. In it, Danish-Sudanese singer Natasja sings the lyrics using a Jamaican patois style. Her rendition of the song gave me an opportunity to talk about pidgins and creoles, topics that are usually covered in more advanced linguistics courses. 
  2. This activity works best if you prepare your discussion in advance. You may have a difficult time finding the most salient links between your academic field and students’ examples on the fly and explaining them clearly. 
  3. I ask students to send me song suggestions by e-mail, and I discuss one of their suggested songs at the next class, after I’ve prepared my comments.
  4. You will receive more student suggestions than you can cover in class. Tell the class you will pick the ones that will allow you to talk about the widest range of issues in your field. If a student’s suggestion isn’t picked and they want to discuss it with you, suggest talking about it during Chat with Your Professor
  5. I make sure to acknowledge each suggested song by e-mail, including a brief discussion of it if I don’t intend to discuss it in class.
  6. When you discuss a student’s example, preface your comments with a website, image, or video clip that introduces the student’s example. I play a short video clip of the dance song I’m discussing. (I use videos that show song lyrics to focus students’ attention on the language issues I’m explaining.)
  7. I emphasize that I will accept only examples that do not contain explicit content. If a dance song contains content that could make students uncomfortable, I either skip the song entirely, or I focus only on portions of it that do not have that content. Depending on the nature of the examples you request from students, you may need to have a policy about explicit content as well.
  8. Tell students where in the textbook or course resources they can learn more about the topic you’ve introduced. This is a subtle reminder that the issues covered in your course materials do actually relate to real life!

Concluding Thoughts

“Stump the Professor” is an excellent activity to liven up your interactions with your students and inject an element of fun and surprise into your teaching. Your students will be on the lookout for examples to bring to your attention, and you will test your knowledge of your field by challenging yourself to find connections between student examples and frameworks in your field. This activity is a great way to introduce students to a variety of academic issues in a fresh and meaningful way. 

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

About the Author

Helena Riha is a Special Lecturer of Linguistics and International Studies who has taught at OU since 2008. She has taught over 3,300 students in 15 different courses. Helena is the 2016 winner of the OU Excellence in Teaching Award. This is her tenth teaching tip. Outside of the classroom, Helena enjoys learning about the economics of trading Pokémon cards from her fifth grader.

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