Cian McMahon is an Irishman who spent his childhood in the Emerald Isle, lived 10 years ambling around Northern Canada planting trees and fighting mosquitoes, performed in a college rock band, and hiked the roadways of North America and Europe. Then, he earned his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University and came to UNLV where he brings a heady combination of innovation, energy and creativity to the teaching of history.
So, it's no surprise that the eclectic Dr. McMahon is one of some 60 faculty members who took part in the UNLV Libraries' Faculty Institutes. The institutes, are designed to help faculty members create new courses and revise existing courses to emphasize critical thinking skills and real world learning. A post-doctoral scholar, Dr. McMahon brought his institute experience to bear on his freshman seminar course COLA-100, a course intended to provide new students with the academic inquiry skills necessary for success in university work.
"Most students come out of high school expecting college history classes to be similar to high school history classes—the memorization of names and dates. In my COLA-100 class, and in my straight forward history courses too, I smash that model to atoms by inviting the students to offer their own interpretation of the past.
"The approach has applicability across disciplines and indeed beyond the university because, as I consistently remind my students, their professional lives are going to be based on their ability to engage a large pile of information, pick out the important parts, organize them, analyze them, and communicate the findings to others.
"So, my students can't say, 'how will this course help me as a psychologist or as a businessman or as an engineer?' because all of those professionals require the ability to engage, organize, analyze, and communicate," Dr. McMahon says. Creating new first year seminars (FYS) designed to engage students with the ability to think critically in a complex information environment is at the core of UNLV’s new general education reform. Five years in the making, the new curriculum includes a required sequence of special courses that integrate intellectual and practical skills needed for lifelong learning. UNLV faculty developed these “university undergraduate learning outcomes” (UULOs), and in 2011 the Faculty Senate approved the development of courses that introduce these skills in the FYS, reinforce them in a “second year seminar” (SYS), apply them to a core course in the major through a milestone experience, and provide a structured experience for students to demonstrate proficiency through a culminating experience. The UULOs include: intellectual breadth and lifelong learning; inquiry and critical thinking; communication; global/multicultural knowledge and awareness; and citizenship and ethics.
Dr. McMahon says Patricia Iannuzzi, dean of the UNLV Libraries, and staff members at the Libraries are particularly well-suited to enabling his students and him to achieve these goals.
"First and foremost are the staff. For example, Priscilla Finley, humanities librarian, helps us historians to introduce the students to the resources available while helping students overcome obstacles and roadblocks they encounter along the way. Second are the resources—both digital and print—which offer grist for the historian's mill. Third are the programs the UNLV Libraries supports such as the Faculty Institute. It brought teachers from all across the university together for three days to wrestle with common issues,” Dr. McMahon says Dean Iannuzzi brought the concept of the faculty institutes on integrated course design to UNLV. She had developed similar institutes at UC Berkeley with funding from the Mellon Foundation, and has been working with national higher education groups on similar faculty development experiences at a national level. She notes that “in 2007, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) outlined a plan for reform in undergraduate education in its report College Learning for the New Global Century. Since then, AAC&U has been helping thousands of colleges and university teams to bring that reform to their campus.”
UNLV is one of the first large research universities to embrace the full model of articulating student learning outcomes, integrating content with skills, and developing a coherent pathway for students through a curriculum that links general education with the majors. “The Libraries has the expertise to create the learning spaces for faculty across the disciplines to come together and explore how they can design their courses to embed these learning outcomes through active experiences for students. To date we have had more than 100 faculty participate in these institutes,” Dean Iannuzzi explains.
Dr. McMahon notes "I found the institute incredibly helpful on three fronts: 1) it introduced me to faculty and library staff that I would never have met otherwise; 2) it introduced me to teaching methods (i.e., in-class wireless "clickers") that I would otherwise have probably not considered; and, 3) it gave me the time and space to plan the course from the ground-up. Usually historians tweak a pre-existing course to their own liking, but this was built from the ground up which really made it much better and enhanced the students' experience."
Dr. McMahon's course in American immigration patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries required that students delve into the libraries' digital records of old newspapers, research public opinion as expressed by political cartoons, make an oral class presentation and defend their opinion. Later they would write essays about their findings.
The culmination was a classic academic tool; a poster presentation and discussion. Students each created a large poster including the original editorial cartoon and a 150-word summary. The posters were mounted and for 90 minutes they stood by their work as reviewers came by to ask questions.
These reviewers, however, brought some academic horsepower to the affair. They included John White, UNLV provost; Chris Heavy, associate dean of Liberal Arts; and David Tanenhaus, chair of the Department of History, as well as Dean Iannuzzi.
"By engaging with the provost of the university about a poster image they had selected from the internet months before, the students got a deep sense of having learned something during the semester—something that I hope will inform their personal and professional lives for a long time to come," says Dr. McMahon.