For this Faculty Development Chief, Metaphors Engage Students of the Digital Age

“If your course was a thing what would it be?” Catherine Haras often asks faculty members at California State University, Los Angeles.

As the director of the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning at Cal State LA, Haras wants the university’s educators to be imaginative as they consider how to structure the lesson plans, syllabi, and homework that go into their courses. To help, she recommends they come up with a metaphor.

In one case, a Poetry professor likened his class to four glasses of red wine. They may all look and taste the same on the first day of class, but the more students learn about them, the more they find out about the vastly different kinds of poetry—or grape varietals.

In another case, an Anthropology professor described her course as a journey through a forest at night, and students have just a flashlight and their senses to guide them. “You have to find a way to understand the new and different things that you come upon,” whether they are forest creatures or different cultures, Haras explains.

“Whether it’s images, or it’s just an idea, these are very helpful for students, because [metaphors] are multimodal and they get at new ways of thinking,” Haras says.

Trained as a librarian, Haras loves to think about how people seek and organize information. Advertisements on a billboard, for instance, convey a different message than in a magazine or in a tweet.

The digital age has transformed the way people consume information, and Haras has had a front row seat in witnessing those changes. When she first became a librarian 17 years ago, Google was in its infancy and “smartphones” were not part of the popular lexicon.

Today, faculty members face the Herculean task of engaging students who are spending more and more of their time online and on their phones. Haras says she frets about how it affects students’ ability to immerse themselves in deep and critical learning activities.

“It’s very hard to come into a class and sit still,” Haras says. “And yet, learning is a difficult pleasure. Learning is supposed to be hard.”

As Cal State LA’s instructional leader, Haras says that professors can do more to support students along the way.

“We have so much work to do in terms of getting out of the way and stepping aside for our students’ sake,” Haras says.


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