Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

A recent Rolling Stone article by Alex Morris focuses on Marlon James, who recently received the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. So far, so good. The third sentence of the article states that James came to the U.S. “with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position,” which didn’t prompt much of a reaction until I read the following five paragraphs later:

By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was “full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself.” When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted.

Okay, so the teaching position was at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and not a high school like the phrase “teaching position” might imply. Teaching is, after all, a big part of the job at liberal arts colleges (even the highly-ranked ones) and there are certainly one-year positions that would involve nothing but teaching. Wait, though, why is James still in Minnesota (Morris makes several references to this fact) if this was a one-year position? Does he still work at Macalester or is he a full-time writer now? Morris doesn’t say, though there is a party with “Macalester faculty and friends.”

And what about his educaton? I know that famous authors sometimes teach at liberal arts colleges (David Foster Wallace taught at Pomona, after all), but Morris doesn’t give the impression that James was a big writing star when he got the position. Wouldn’t he need at least a master’s degree (even David Foster Wallace had an M.F.A.)? Let’s see what Morris says about this: “College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned.” Hmm.

Curious about this, I decided to check out James’s Macalester bioSurprise! James isn’t just a “teacher,” he is an Associate Professor of English. His bio also states that he “graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing.” So it appears that James didn’t so much “write his way out of Jamaica” as “got an advanced degree and a corresponding job,” though I’m sure that the publication of his second book in 2009 helped with the transition to a tenure-track position.

So, to recap, James earned a Master’s degree and got a one-year position at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and then, at some point, not only transitioned to a tenure-track position but received tenure. Readers of Morris’s article, however, could easily presume that James earned a bachelor’s degree and became a “teacher” at a liberal arts college, since anybody can teach at liberal arts colleges and there is nothing else that professors do (if he even is one!). When an entire article can be written about a tenured college professor without even mentioning that he is anything other than a “teacher” it is no wonder that Americans have a poor understanding of what professors do!

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive posts and links via your news feed.



Read Full Post »

Reading the September “ASA News and Notes” e-mail, I noticed that TRAILS, the ASA’s online database of teaching materials, will finally be free to members, as it always should have been. As stated in the e-mail:

At its meeting in August, ASA Council approved a proposal to make full access to the TRAILS online database of teaching resources a new benefit of ASA membership for 2016. Pending the launch of the 2016 application and renewal system on October 15, paid member subscriptions have been discontinued in advance of the transition to free access. However, any member may sign up now for free access through October 15 using a special promotion code. Active your free subscription today!

This will hopefully encourage faculty members who can’t (or don’t want to) pay extra to access teaching resources when preparing syllabi, assignments, and class exercises. Better late than never!

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about teaching via your news feed.

Read Full Post »

Today marks the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the final movie in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien saga (at least until he decides to make nine movies out of The Silmarillion). Its release during final exam time is fitting since Tolkien famously started writing The Hobbit while grading. As reported by Alison Flood in The Guardian:

Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, and would mark School Certificate exams in the summers to add to his salary. In a letter to WH Auden, he wrote: “All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”

In a recently rediscovered letter, Tolkien also noted that:

“All teaching is exhausting, and depressing and one is seldom comforted by knowing when one has had some effect. I wish I could now tell some of mine (of long ago) how I remember them and things they said, though I was (only, as it appeared) looking out of the window or giggling at my neighbour”.

Tolkien dealt with the “everlasting weariness” of grading by creating an entire world that is adored by millions. The rest of us can try to overcome memories of our students looking out the window and giggling with their neighbors by going to the movies.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links in 3D CGI via your news feed.


Read Full Post »

If you want to talk to your students about class consciousness without getting too political (and without having to rely on pictures of Santa Claus), one approach is to talk about something that is not overly politicized: vacations. This article by Claude Fischer from the Boston Review looks at vacation length in the US and Europe through the lens of class consciousness. Additionally, these graphs from Sociological Images can be used to provide students with more data.

Read Full Post »

On the first day of the first course that I taught, I went to the wrong classroom. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely alone. Two male students had also neglected to check the updated list of classrooms and accompanied me on my walk of shame from the business building to the library. On the way across the street I jokingly told these two guys that they would be my favorite students. The thing is, I have no idea who they were. It isn’t that I remember nothing about the students in that course. I remember that I labeled one student “squirrely looking” when I was trying to make notes that would help me remember students’ names. I remember the student who had excellent class participation but mediocre grades and who needed to take an incomplete because of a recurrence of cancer. I remember the student who later joined the military but came to sit in on one of my subsequent courses when he was on leave. I remember these things because I got to know my students over the course of the semester. On the first day of class, however, I was so caught up in my efforts to make a good impression (and the fact that I had likely failed by going to the wrong classroom) to pay much attention to the students who were with me.

Although I was especially flustered on my first day of teaching, this pattern has held over subsequent semesters. Despite, or perhaps because of, my efforts to make a positive first impression on my students, they fail to make a first impression on me. This actually works to the benefit of my students, since I fail to form negative impressions of those who start the semester without the required books or who take a while to grow comfortable participating in class discussions. So students, you have a few weeks to make a positive first impression, regardless of how things begin. Take advantage of it!

Read Full Post »

Two and a half years ago I faced an adjustment from teaching one or two courses per semester as a graduate student to teaching three courses per semester as a new assistant professor. My first semester taught me that I didn’t like preparing for MWF classes and that I didn’t have any time for research. In my second year I started my advising and service duties, adding additional off-campus involvement this year. In that time period I still haven’t had any time for research. Through the first two and a half years there has also been another factor contributing to my lack of research productivity: the fact that I have had at least one new course to prepare each semester.

After teaching seven different courses in the past two and a half years, this semester I’ve finally arrived at a point where none of my courses are new. Although one of my courses will require some changes from the last time I taught it, I will not need to spend my out-of-class time two days a week preparing for it. Hypothetically, this means that I will have some time for the numerous papers that I would like to finish up and send out for review. In order to use it productively, however, the increased time that I will have will likely need to be accompanied by a different approach to time management. In the past, I’ve set aside time for class prep and tried to squeeze in research whenever I could (typically when I was facing some sort of deadline). The problem with this approach was that when I wasn’t facing a deadline I often felt like I was “done” with my work when my class prep, meetings, and committee work were complete. This semester I plan to be much more deliberate about scheduling research time. Hopefully I will be able to make the most of the sorts of schedules my tenured colleagues have been enjoying for the past two and a  half years.

Read Full Post »

As I reach the point in the semester where exams and assignments have started to come in and initial grades have given me a better sense of where my students are I am faced with familiar frustrations.  In each class there seem to be students who take a wait-and-see approach to exams and students who are unable to follow directions.  As a professor I find this incredibly frustrating.  This is partially a result of the fact that I was never that type of student so I have a hard time empathizing with the ways that some of my students approach their educations.  Larger, though, is my frustration with the fact that I have no idea how to motivate some of my students.  I know that I can’t make them care, no matter how much I would like to.  So far, though, I have not felt successful in helping them care, either.

Read Full Post »

The semester has barely started and I already feel like I am treading water.  I have short essays to grade from each of my three classes, committee meetings, and meetings with students.  Beyond this and my recurring Major Procrastination Disorder, I’m also teaching my third entirely new course since starting my job.  In total, I’ve taught seven different courses since starting just over two years ago.  With so much emphasis on course prep (I’ve never had a semester when I didn’t have to prep a new course or substantially revise an old one), once assignments and exams start rolling in there isn’t much time for anything else.  Then, when there is a moment when I finish my teaching-related work I feel like I’m “done.”  This feeling is similar to the lack of motivation I felt as a student after completing a major paper.  In these moments I often think of the research projects I want to work on.  I think about them as I’m drifting off to sleep for a rare mid-afternoon nap.

Read Full Post »

After over six years of teaching, I am fairly comfortable standing in front of a group of students.  This doesn’t mean that I never get nervous, but going to class is not something that I fear.  Given the fact that I stand in front of people roughly nine hours a week, I am always surprised how nervous I am before a 15-minute conference presentation.

For the most part, the skills that result in good teaching seem to be similar to those that result in good presentations.  Organization, visual aids, and humor, for example, are all things that I appreciate both in the classroom and in a hotel conference room.   The biggest difference between the two seems to be the unpredictability of the audience.  After a few class periods, I typically know what to expect from my students, while this predictability never develops with a conference audience.  First and foremost, this unpredictability includes the fact that there may or may not be an audience.  I have presented in small rooms with only a few people and in large rooms with only a few people (there may have also been a large room with lots of people once, but that was an outlier).  Second, there is the fact that the audience members may ask questions implying that your research is terrible or that they weren’t listening to the presentations.  I like to think that the former is due to the latter.  Finally, there is the slim chance that somebody in the audience will play a role in your future as a reviewer or search committee chair.  This means that even if you are in a room with three audience members, answering a stupid question in a stupid way could affect your future.

Despite these differences, I’ve been told a few times that I am a good presenter and I like to think that I’m a good teacher, so maybe the hours I spend standing in front of students each week actually do contribute to speaking in other environments.  I am not going to subject myself to watching a video of myself presenting, so I guess I’ll have to take their word for it.

Read Full Post »

This semester I am teaching a class that relies heavily on student discussion, which has led me to believe that successfully leading discussion-based classes is an art form.  Obviously, I can’t put words into my students’ mouths, so leading discussions is less like painting than conducting an orchestra.  Audience members see somebody standing and waving his or her arms around, but I assume that it involves quite a bit more than that in an effort to get the best out of each orchestra member.  Aside from the need for students to actually come to class prepared, the danger in relying on class discussion is that students, like me at a symphony, might think that the instructor is not actually doing anything.  In practice, I’ve found that there are a number of factors that need to be balanced in leading successful discussions.

First, and most difficult on a daily basis, is controlling time.  A talkative class could spend an entire period covering half of the desired material while a reluctant class could move through an hour’s worth of topics in 25 minutes.  As an instructor you sometimes need to cut off interesting discussions when students have gotten what you want out of them.  On the other hand, you sometimes need to extend conversations by giving reticent students time to free write or brainstorm in small groups.

Second, and just as difficult but over a longer period of time, is allowing students to see the way that their daily discussions lead to something bigger than you could accomplish through lecture alone.  In my current course, this involves small daily discussions that build on each other as the semester progresses.  Along the way I will give plenty of signposts to demonstrate where we were earlier in the semester compared to our current location.

A third concern is related to exams.  When writing exams I tend to rely on information that was clearly presented in class (by me) so that students who were paying attention and taking notes will have the necessary information.  Students may take a variety of interpretations away from a class discussion, though, and each is likely to remember different highlights.  I try to alleviate this by providing summaries during discussions and at the end of class but I still find myself relying more on information from course readings in discussion-based courses.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is different than some of my other exams.

At this early point in my career I have not yet had a student accuse me of avoiding my duties by relying on class discussions.  I hope that my students, like people who actually know something about the symphony, will recognize that I’m doing more than waving my arms around.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »