Monday, January 29, 2007


I recently received an email from a younger colleague about how much pressure s/he feels to "perform" for students. This concern followed on a set of teaching evaluations that, the same email said, were the "best ever." So it looks like the great teaching evaluations, instead of bolstering confidence, made this young teacher feel as though the bar had been raised. Last semester's "good" could not be good enough this term.....oy.

I'm trying to think about how to respond to this in a constructive way, but it caused me to think of a couple other things about teaching that, when I remember them, I try to pass on to my untenured colleagues.

1. When you are really sick it is ok to miss class. I know a very famous historian who told me, years ago when I was working for her, that she had never canceled a class, ever. This made a huge impression on me, and I too decided that the show must always go on. But as I got older, I found that a sore throat was usually made worse by lecturing or running a discussion; several times I actually lost my voice for three or four days because I insisted on teaching when I shouldn't have. So my advice: have some flex classes in the schedule, and a movie sitting on your desk at all times. If you can't bear to have the departmental secretary put a sign on the door saying class is canceled, know that you can show the movie at the last minute even if you feel you must attend class.

2. Less is more. When I am observing a young teacher I know s/he is in trouble when I see four or five pages of lecture notes. I top out at about a page and a half nowadays -- the bones of the argument, and then I build on it. Having a huge amount of material that you feel you must get through wears the students out, and wears you out trying to deliver it. And assigning less reading to students and knowing they have got it is better than making really fancy, super-hard syllabi that you can turn in for third-year review - along with your teaching evaluations that characterize your classroom as one of Dante's Circles of Hell.

3. Students are not wowed by Powerpoint: they are, in fact, easily bored by it (so are search committees), and by all technology that wasn't invented yesterday. At the most, if you are a historian, use your Powerpoint to organize photographs. DON'T put your lecture up in bulletpoints: the difference between your classroom and an IBM strategy meeting instantly dissolves. Note: as far as I can tell students also hate BlackBoard, discussion boards and chatrooms (at least, chat rooms organized around your class.) Oh, and speaking of technology -- you might want to consider taking down your Friendster page unless you can honestly space it out that your students are cruising you and all your friends.

4. If you know you are performing for your students, you may be on the edge of going too far. Attention getting maneuvers are fine; doing voices (say, Eleanor Roosevelt) is borderline, as are props; and outfits are out of bounds.

5. Don't let students make out in class, even though it is awkward to make them stop. I will allow cuddling, within reason (on the theory that it is below my dignity to notice) but smooching crosses the line. My favorite technique? Throw a pop quiz. After the quizzes are handed in, you say (since the smoochers have had to part briefly to complete the assignment), "Every time I see people making out in class there will be another quiz." I guarantee you it will end that day.


The Combat Philosopher said...

Sagely advice, as usual. However, I have never seen smooching in class! Wow.

The CP

Lesboprof said...

I agree with most everything except the technology-related stuff. I like PowerPoint, as long as (a) it is within reason (not every class, but once in a while, esp for theory presentations), (b) it is used as a complement to lecture (meaning, bullets not paragraphs), and (c) that the instructor actually faces the students and not the screen (read: pet peeve).

I also find that Blackboard discussions can be useful when time is limited in class and there is some structure to it. I also found that the group discussions are useful for information exchange and communication for group work, esp. among working students who have trouble connecting outside of class.

But otherwise, I am with you. And if students kissed in my class, I swear I might bring my gf and see what happened if we made out!

anthony grafton said...

Great post. I think I agree with TR as against Lesboprof on PowerPoint, but with Lesboprof against TR on Blackboard: I find that asking for posts in advance really improves seminar discussions, and that independent arguments of a constructive kind break out from time to time,

On lecture notes: I dunno, I have also liked to have 4 to 5 pages myself, though I never read them and often don't do more than glance once or twice. The main point, as TR rightly says, is to build the oral argument--and we probably all have widely varied ways of achieving that result.

Tony Grafton

Horace said...

I too suffer performance anxiety, but not stage fright--this is important as I am a failed actor (who isn't?) and a performance theorist (ditto). But the stronger my evals get, the more I get gripped about getting them. I think the point is that when something becomes a source of affirmation, the prospect of withdrawn affirmation is daunting.

This is true for me because a) I don't have enough ups and downs in my teaching career to have any perspective at all (even if this is my eighth year in a university classroom). B) I'[m not tenured, and my course evals feel like a big part of that accumulating tenure file, even if, in the end, they aren't, really.

Just to weigh in on the other threds in the comments: PowerPoint, no; Blackboard, when necessary; smooching in the classroom, whenever possible (which has been never, thus far).

Lesboprof said...

okay, just need to clarify that I was joking when I said I would kiss my gf in class. I don't know what I would do if folks made out in class, but I would most likely tell them to get a room or knock it off.

Tenured Radical said...


I would kiss my gf anywhere. In a manner that, of course, underlined my role as the voice of authority. Of course you were joking -- this Radical has a sense of humor.