Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Radical Leads the Lambs Out Of The Wilderness: Six Pieces of Random Advice For The Novice Teacher

In this post at Center of Gravitas Gayprof tells a story about having been diagnosed as color blind by a school nurse when he was but a wee Gayprof. Since the nurse explained nothing, and told him to go home and tell his parents, Gayprof -- assuming that this was merely a stage on the way to complete blindness and wishing to shield the parental units from this tragedy -- kept it to himself and merely suffered in silence until Nurse Ratched had the wit to call his home. Isn't school great?

This caused me to think, in turn, about the most peculiar thing I ever got wrong as a child. On the first day of nursery school, perhaps as a way of staving off tears from the most delicate of us, the teachers would say every once in a while: "Your carpools will be coming soon!" Now, I knew what a car was -- I had arrived in my mother's big yellow Mercury. And I knew what a pool was: I swam poorly and was terrrified of water, for reasons that only became apparent many years later. So using all the deductive reasoning that I had access to at age four, I realized that a car, which had a small, manageable pool in it -- would be arriving at the end of the day, and I might finally learn to swim in that enclosed setting as I returned to my house. And yet a carpool did not arrive. My mother drove up at noon, loaded me and a couple other children in the back, and drove us all home. It didn't come the next day, or the day after that. My carpool never came. Gradually I forgot about it much like I forgot about a career in medicine, when I encountered a lot of young men in Biology 101 at Oligarch University who were clearly going to eat my lunch if I didn't choose another major.

The moral of the story is: there are all kinds of assumptions and knowledge we never share with people because we think it is obvious, and often we don't know what we are ignorant of ourselves because...we are ignorant of it. Capice? And I think that may be a condition of school more generally, where appearing to know what you are doing can be almost as good as knowing what you are doing. Think of all those students you have who use the word "discourse" repeatedly in a paper -- wrong -- but they don't know it is wrong because they have heard it in class so many times that they have forgotten that they were faking it and never knew what it meant.

This is why -- instead of diving right in and finishing my article on the sexual revolution this morning -- I am going to compile the Six Pieces of Random Advice for the Novice Teacher (drum roll, please. Crash of cymbals!) Has anyone ever told you that you should:

1. Ask your students who they are and what they want out of the course on the first day. If it isn't a required course for their major, ask them why they are interested and why they registered for it in the first place. If it is a small course, go around the table; in a larger course, have them write for a few minutes, then go home and read what they have written. It's hard to teach well if you don't know your audience. This also gives you a chance to make personal connections in the first few weeks. Scenario: you are lecturing in your twentieth century survey. You have writtten into your lecture notes: "Charles took a course on the New Deal last semester and wants to know more about the rise of the state." You pause, look up, and say "Now, the segregation of federal buildings during World War I is a critical statemaking moment -- Charles, where are you?" Charles raises his hand. "Charles," you say,"I'm going to need some help from you. What do I mean when I say 'the state?'" You dig what I am doing here? You give Charles some authority right off the bat and you demonstrate to the class more generally that you are aware that they have valuable knowledge and you want them to share it.

2. Never keep it entirely to yourself when a course is not going well. If you are in trouble in your class, tell a trusted senior colleague and get help immediately. Not getting help with your teaching when something is going wrong is a form of denial similar to looking up the rash you have on the internet and treating it with medicinal herbs instead of going to a professional to get it diagnosed. The rash might clear up, or you might have lupus. Same with teaching. Struggling in silence is a loser's game, even though you will be worried that you are exposing yourself unnecessarily. Not only can the problem be solved by putting fresh eyes on it, but far better for some colleague, during your next review, to be able to say in response to a couple skeezy teaching evals, "Yes, she came to talk to me about it, and this is the strategy we worked out."

3. Never give a writing assignment orally. Always write it down, and then post it on your course website or Black Board.

4. Always have a course website or Black Board if your university makes it available. I wrote a post about this ages ago, but students expect that course materials will be available on the internet to such an extent that they tend not to save paper consistently anymore. It is a fact, and it is not worth getting on your high horse and forcing them to save your course materials as if they were the Magna f***ing Charta.

5. Never take excess students, no matter how hard they plead and beg. New faculty should be teaching at the course cap or under, not laboring to serve extra students. And the larger a class gets, the more difficult it is to learn names, help students individually, or have a discussion that includes more than the five most confident people.

6. Keep your promises. When you make a commitment to your class, keep it, and apologize when you can't, because this injects a kind of reciprocity into the relationship that will make them more likely to keep their commitments to you. Keep your office hours, and when you can't, put a note on the door for when they will be rescheduled. When you get a set of papers, give them a date when the papers will be returned that is not too far away. Two weeks, max, I would say, otherwise you find yourself running into the next assignment. And if you don't meet the deadline, it is really fine to say you need an extra day or two: that said, don't be so stringent about giving a student an extra day or two either. One of the things students should be learning in college is how to deal with authority in reciprocal ways. In my view it pushes this process along to find ways to exhibit your human-ness that are not inappropriate, and you also need to recognize their human qualities so that they can be honest with you and not make dumb excuses for not getting their work done. And by the way -- if they like and respect you, there is a far better chance that they will learn from you, I guarantee.

Want advice on your teaching? Want to share a piece of advice or a frustration with others? Ask the Radical: tenured.radical(AT)


Bardiac said...

Great advice there!

I think the point about giving assignments in writing (and on a web-based system if available) echoes some of the best advice I ever got.

When I worked with tutors in a writing center, we consistently had a horrible time with one prof's students because she gave verbal assignments and the students were generally confused by what she wanted from the assignment.

moria said...

From the perspective of a very recent undergrad: do not underestimate the importance of (6). And I'll add: never, ever, make your students submit a new major written assignment before the previous one has been returned. In fact, make sure to hand back assignments with at least a week to go before the next one's due. I was amazed at how few people recognized the importance of this basic rule, and lost a lot of respect for some otherwise perfectly decent people, because they seemed unable to recognize that part of good pedagogy is giving your students the tools they need to improve.

Another: teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had. If you're teaching a seminar on medieval historiography and your students don't know what the Magna f***ing Carta is, that might annoy you, but you are responsible for making sure they understand that this is an idea for which they are responsible. If your students consistently "fail" to learn from you, or to perform to your standards, it might not be their fault.

Oh, and for the non-novices: tenure does not give you carte blanche to cancel classes whenever you feel like it, cut them short if you get frustrated or bored, or give students dull glares when they show up to office hours desperate for you to teach them something you haven't yet taught because you haven't been holding classes. For serious, okay?

GayProf said...

In addition, I would also suggest that when a class is not going well, that you talk to the class about it. All of us have a class or two every few years that never quite gels. Maybe its the room -- Maybe its the time of day -- Maybe it is the particular hum of the florescent bulbs in that room. Whatever the case, I have found that it helps a lot to simply acknowledge that the class seems off track and ask for the students suggestions about how to fix it.

Also, try to avoid telling them that they are going blind.

Edward Carson said...

Make plenty of marks on written assignments: essays, term papers, and response papers. I like to think that I teach between the lines when grading papers.

The Angry Swan said...

Some comments from another recent graduate: I'm always a little leery of how instructors decide to negotiate #1, at least when it comes to putting students on the spot in front of their peers. I know that professors sometimes need ways of drawing students out and/or find the approach pedagogically effective, but as a very shy student, I always hated, HATED being called on without warning, which would usually be such a stress that my mind would instantly go blank.

I also agree with Edward Carson--thorough written feedback is always great (though best if handwriting is legible, natch!). But for me, rather than comments throughout and a sentence of summary at the end, a solid, thorough paragraph that addresses the work holistically is preferable. I'm not sure if that takes up more or less time for professors rather than making remarks throughout--I only recently discovered how well it worked for me when I got the most helpful feedback of my college career from a prof using this format, and he was a tenured, big-name guy at Oligarch U, no less.

anthony grafton said...

Great advice and responses, as usual here.

Could I add one more suggestion? I think that reading drafts on screen and using Track Changes to record legible comments in living color has made my feedback much more effective than ever before. I'm sure I miss things that I would pick up on paper--but I'm also sure that my students can actually read everything that I write, now, and the speed and ease encourage detailed intervention when it's needed.

Clio Bluestocking said...

To add to Neophytes's comment on teaching the students you have: Sometimes you may find that your students don't have a real concept of what being in college means. College might be something entirely foreign to their experience and to their family's experience, and they honestly don't know about things that we highly educated people take for granted.

If they need it, don't be above teaching them study skills. You can actually change their world by doing something so simple as showing them that, yes, reading the book before class or doing a little bit of studying through the whole semester can improve their grade and even their appreciation of the class. It's fabulous to watch!

Dean Dad said...

With ya on 2 through 6, but 1 probably varies from place to place. At Proprietary U, whenever I asked why students were in my class, I always -- always -- got one of two answers:

1. It fulfills a requirement
2. It fits my schedule

After a few semesters of that, I got so depressed by it that I just stopped asking. The sample student answer you gave is literally inconceivable there.

DFOT on the rest, though.

Zach said...

One thing that I always really appreciated about Professor Isaac's classes were the response papers that he would actually read before class. We would hand them in that morning and somehow he read them by the afternoon class. If you wrote a reponse paper for that class (and you only had to write four during the course of the semester), you knew that you would be called to speak that day. That way shy students had some warning and everybody was more prepared. It also made sure that everybody in the class spoke at least a few times during the semester.
Dean Dad, one phrase I've seen professors use to get around the "why did you take this class?" and getting schedule-related or major-related answers would be "what interests you about this topic?" I would think--I would hope--that most students would be too embarassed to say "nothing," and would be forced to think a little harder about what they wanted to learn/why they were there.

Michael E. said...

For what it is worth, I usually handle #1 by handing out an index card and asking students to write out some information about themselves (major, year of study, etc), including why they took the course. I also tell them to write a random fact about themselves (a favorite movie or song or something they did in the summer, whatever). I use these index cards to learn names, and as a point of reference in bigger classes.

AcadeMama said...

These are all great tips, and they've revealed to me just what fantastic training I received in my previous grad programs as a comp/rhet/lit instructor! I'd add just a few things:

- Not only should assignments, handouts, etc. be given in writing AND online, but you should absolutely expect to repeat yourself - several times - it just comes with the territory. I'm not advising holding their hands, but remind, remind, remind them about important things.

- When at all possible, give anonymous examples of what you're looking for. I always use sample papers from previous classes (with the previous students' permission), and I white out their name(s). Then, I spend some class time briefly going through the paper with the class, highlighting the ways the sample *does* what the assignment asks for and/or *falls short* of what the assignment was asking for.

- Don't wait until the end of the semester to find out what they think of the class! Most colleges have end of course evaluations. That's fine and dandy if you want advice when the damage is already done, and you're moving on to a new group of students with a new dynamic, etc. I developed a Mid-Semester Evaluation form for students to fill out, which still works anonymously, as I have a colleague hand them out while I'm out of the room. The same colleague returns to collect them when students are finished, and later tallies the results and reads back to me the narrative comments. Granted, students have to understand that this is something *I* do, not something the department or college requires, so it works a bit on the honor system. But, the benefits are great! They realize that I'm trying to address problems they're having *now* while there's still time in the class, and it lets me know what their needs are without putting anyone in particular on the spot at a time when a final grade is days away.

**Sorry to take up so much space :)**

KW said...

In response to Dean Dad's and Zach's remarks about the "why are you here?" question--I really liked Tenured Radical's formulation in the post: "What do you want to get out of this class?" Students can of course, answer "another credit towards graduation" or the like, but the question doesn't direct them towards that answer the way "why are you taking this course?" does. It also offers the promise of some reciprocity: tell me what you want to gain from this course and I'll try to help you do it. That possibility might encourage some students to articulate how they understand the purpose of the class/requirement/discipline.

Oso Raro said...

Good points, altho I consistently find teaching a mystery, sort of like driving. After you get comfortable at it, you do it without thinking, wondering how you got from work to home without noticing things. Until of course, something goes wrong.

Finally, I'm so out of it, and Dean Dad is too cool for skool. What is DFOT?

Anonymous said...

All wonderful suggestions, but in the interests of self-preservation, the inexperienced or untenured prof needs to find the happy medium between too little and too much commenting. (how much time can you afford to spend per paper, in a 10, 20, 30 paper stack that needs to be turned around w/in a week or two?)

Ask students afterwards whether they used the commments for revisions or subsequent papers. If students are losing the information in your comments because you're blanketing the page with red ink, then pull back and start summarizing at the end.


Anonymous said...

Having just completed my freshman year, thank you so much for the final comment about returning papers! Out of the eight classes I took last year only one class had a professor who returned papers before the next one was due. It was the single most frustrating part about assignments for class: I wanted to learn and improve, but professors were not giving me the tools. It felt like they were setting me up for failure, which is the worst feeling to have when you're trying to create a trusting and effective learning environment.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Saw your blog entry in The Long Eighteenth's blog. Thanks for the teaching tips. I've been teaching for about 13 years now, and still feel I can improve my craft.


BTW, can I link this to my blog? Thanks again. :-)

Anonymous said...

Neophyte said teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had, and I really wish one of my professors my freshman year of college had done that. I can't remember if she was the department head of a small dept or not, but she was pretty high up at the very least. And she was very, very bitter about having to teach a 1000 level course. She made no secret of it and it ended up with the class trying to be more positive about the semester than she ever did. No one really learned anything, because she wasn't really bothering to teach us. She just wanted the hour to end so she could get to her next, more interesting class. I had been planning to minor in that subject, but I ended up switiching so that I would never have to take a class from her again, even if it was one of her beloved upper lever classes. I later spoke to my advisor about her, and leared that most of the students she had in recent years were having the same issues in her class.

Anonymous said...

As for giving advice/feedback on student papers, I use a rubric system - a graded table of comments that range from F-A, with sentences like "No transitions" (F) to "Skillful and effective transitions" (A) or "Organization that interferes with comprehension" to "Organization that enhances comprehension". After I read a paper the first time, I go through my table with a highlighter, highlighting where appropriate...the majority of streaks in a given grade range will give me a general sense of a student's grade, and the specifics (B- or B+?) will come from the second read where I mark for grammar. I always have a paragraph of personalized commentary too ("I enjoyed the flow between paragraphs 4-6...your ideas were presented clearly and your defense of Isabella was astute. I'm interested to hear what you will think of The Duchess of Malfi...") Between the rubric and a standard code for denoting errors ("CS" in the margins means "comma splice", "awk" etc.), I can mark pretty quickly once I'm in the zone.

I give the marking rubrics out along with the essay topics so that students can see what sort of elements go into an A paper. I find this cuts down on the remarking I have to do too - students are able to compartmentalize some of the elements of writing they have trouble with and take that specific information to the writing center.

Sarah said...

so to start, amen anthony grafton and giving typed feedback. I did this when I started teaching as a big I told you saw to my past handwriting inept teachers and it is the number one positive comment I get from my students.

As a new teacher I am good at getting information in the beginning from my students. I teach art appreciation so we do some visual exercises and I get to know a lot about them, but I have a lot of trouble using that information. The example you gave was great but I couldn't help but think 5 classes of 36 students, that a lot of notes????

Sisyphus said...

Great post --- I just used your #1 in my summer course! I also asked (they wrote responses for me) what did they think I should know about them, going into the course, and I was surprised by the number of transfer students and first-generation college students I have this time. I'm trying to "teach the students I have" and get into their heads, but not having those experiences, I'm still thinking about what those students would need.

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