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Posts Tagged ‘Teaching’

Before each semester begins I look forward to the gentle transition back to teaching.  When each semester begins I contemplate the reasons that this transition is actually abrupt.  The reasons I’ve considered range from teaching a new prep to heavily revising a previous course.  This semester, I filled my “transition” weeks with student meetings, hoping to prevent some of the problems that appeared in a spring course.  Again, I thought of how nice it will be when I finally encounter the mythical smooth transition.  Of course, this semester is also my first with advising and committee duties, which promise to interfere with these transitions for years to come.  At this point, it may be time to realize that the best transition is not found at the abrupt beginning of the semester but at the equally abrupt end.  Until then, I guess that I will embrace the distinction between break and not break by diving into teaching, research, and service, which reminds me that I still need to find some mythical time for research during the semester…

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Despite the arguments of some that you should “teach naked,” spending class time on discussion and shifting the  presentation of material outside of the classroom, there are going to be times that you want to present information to students in the classroom.  The classroom is like a war zone in that it is best to go in with a plan, even though that plan may be blown to bits.  Toward this end Tenured Radical posted some tips today for how to manage lecture classes.  For example:

Establish the Rules. Every social space has its own etiquette, and similar social spaces do not always have the same etiquette. While there are some things that students know they shouldn’t be doing in class (surfing the web, indulging in side conversations, passing notes) there are other things that vary from classroom to classroom (eating and drinking, leaving the room for reasons of hygiene, coming late or leaving early, cutting class entirely.) Instead of establishing a set of rules and becoming an enforcer (something that is easier to get away with when you are older and your reputation as a cantankerous old fart is well established), consider setting aside a portion of the first class to consult your students about what they think is appropriate classroom behavior.

Be warned, however, that if you ask for student feedback on rules such as these you are likely to find that a vocal minority of students feel that they should be able to come and go as they please, text during class, and use their desks as uncomfortable pillows.

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During my time teaching college students I have tried a number of ideas to encourage students to complete the class reading assignments.  This semester is different only because I wrote a rant about the need for professors to hold students accountable for coming to class prepared.  Toward that end, I have given the students in each of my three courses daily quizzes since the second day of the semester.  These quizzes typically consist of one question about the previous day’s class discussion and two questions about the reading.

So far, the quizzes have been good and bad, with the negatives seeming to outweigh the positives.  The positives include students who have an incentive to do the class reading.  In the case of busy students (and most of them claim to be busy), this sometimes means that they read for my classes first because they know they will be held accountable for the material on the quiz.  The negatives include taking up a lot of time at the beginning of each class (especially during the 50-minute MWF classes), student whining, and the fact that I am constantly reminded that not all students come to class prepared.  In previous semesters there was no way to know how many of the students had skipped the reading.  Now I do.  Finally, as I’ve noted before, student preparation does not necessarily translate into student participation.

Right now I’m not sure what I’ll do to encourage student reading next semester.  I’ve considered allowing students to self-report their level of preparation and also give themselves a daily participation grade.  This approach has worked for others that I’ve observed and I think that it is worth a try.  On a daily basis, the biggest benefit of this idea would be the increased class time.  The most comforting aspect, though, may be my reduced knowledge of the number of students who don’t do the reading.

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Pitse1eh’s post the other day about drowning in teaching as a first-semester assistant professor got me thinking about my own division of labor (or lack thereof).  She wrote:

I’m drowning. I really am. I find myself wondering if I worked all those long years just to get a job that I don’t even like. I constantly tell myself that it will get better, that everyone has a hard first year, that when all of my classes aren’t new prep things will calm down and I’ll be able to return to what I really love — research.

Over a month into my first semester as an assistant professor, I also haven’t had any time for research.  As I commented on her blog:

I’m in my first semester at a liberal arts school, and my experiences have been largely similar to yours. I have a 3-3 teaching load and I currently have two new preps, but I am exempt from service (including advising) this year. I teach at 8 or 9 am every day (and I am terrible at working from home), so I am in my office from 7:30-4:30 five days a week and do whatever else needs to be done at home (usually on Sundays). I’ve been working about 50 hours a week but exam season is in full swing so I anticipate that that will increase.

Next semester I will have one new prep and I will probably continue to have one or two new preps each semester for the next few years until I’ve covered all of the classes that will make up my primary rotation. As I look around at my colleagues, they have a set of prepared classes that they teach and occasionally teach a new course. They obviously still have to spend time grading but they are not doing nearly the amount of work to prepare that I am. I’m looking forward to getting to that point.

The biggest difference between the two of us seems to be that I like research but love teaching. Because of this, the fact that I have spent absolutely no time on research since the semester started doesn’t bother me. I’m looking forward to getting back to research over winter break and continuing next semester when I have a bit more time, but for now I don’t think much about it.

I would imagine that there are a lot of people in Pitse1eh’s position, having accepted jobs that will eventually allow them to spend time on research but finding themselves overwhelmed with teaching.  Although I’m not in this position, I’m still looking forward to next semester when I will have fewer preps and more classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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While the prospect of preparing for 42 class sessions in a semester is daunting, it doesn’t compare to the idea of being thrown in front of a classroom full of college students less than four months after completing your own college degree.  As a new pseudonymous writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education describes:

When I was a graduate student, I participated in academic fraud. I didn’t plagiarize to get an article published or inflate my CV to get a job. I did something worse. I accepted a teaching assistantship as a doctoral student at Elite National University.

By becoming a TA there, I took on a responsibility for which I had no qualifications: teaching first-year composition courses. Even though I had a bachelor’s degree in English, I hadn’t taken an introductory writing course while I was an undergraduate. I’d never taught before or had any course work in education. I didn’t even have a master’s degree. My hometown community college wouldn’t have hired me as an adjunct, but Elite National U. put me in charge of two sections of a required class.

Students attend ENU to be taught by experts, not amateurs. In my defense I can only plead ignorance. Before I set foot on the campus, I didn’t know that teaching assistants actually taught. My undergraduate institution, Flyover College, had no TA’s. The financial-aid offer I received from ENU made no mention of specific duties, so I assumed the phrase “teaching assistant” meant assisting a teacher. Only when I arrived on the campus did I learn that I had to stand alone in front of two sections of grumpy people each semester. I asked around and discovered that other graduate students who had spent their undergraduate years at small liberal-arts colleges were also surprised to be given teaching duties as TA’s.

My sense is that this is more common in English than sociology, but that may make the situation worse.  Despite my love for sociology, if a new graduate student does a poor job of teaching Soc 101 I assume that there are fewer ramifications for the students than those in a poorly taught section of Eng 101.  I suppose that most people don’t feel completely prepared to teach for the first time, but I am glad that I had a few years of grad school behind me before I was given the responsibility of providing college students with useful knowledge.

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In preparing my syllabi for the fall semester I discovered that my three-a-week courses meet 42 times.  The prospect of coming up with forty two interesting lectures/discussions/exercises is daunting.  I suppose that a positive aspect of meeting 42 times for 50 minute sessions is that if any particular lecture/discussion/exercise turns into a disaster the students and I will have to endure it for less than an hour before getting a fresh start in the next meeting.

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It seems that Wicked Anomie, like me, is constantly coming across resources that would be good for use as class examples, supplemental readings, etc.  Unlike me, she decided to come up with a scheme for keeping track of these things.  As discussed here, she decided to use the tagging function of Google Reader to track blog posts.  She has also shared her tags, so you can see the examples she has come across in her feeds.

This will either inspire me to track things in a more formal way than my current “bookmark and/or save as PDF” method or cause me to hope that she teaches the same classes as I do so that I can rely on whatever examples she comes across.

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In teaching, you typically get what you put in.  The pseudonymous Russell Smith (no relation to the pseudonymous John Smith) at the Chronicle of Higher Education has either forgotten this or just doesn’t care.  Based on his recent post, it appears that the latter is more likely.  He writes:

I remain open-minded. What if my students are right? What if the readings are too long or too boring or don’t make sense? What if they know something I don’t, such as the fact that this English class truly isn’t going to help them all that much in life, and that such requirements nowadays are ridiculous and retrograde?

When all the world is abuzz with digital twitterings, it may be that the humanities requirement is a dead and rotting carcass that we tiptoe around, neglecting to bury at our peril.

I am perfectly prepared to accept the proposition that the most effective teachers have studied these questions and arrived at appropriate responses. I suspect that they have attended conferences, refined their techniques, and deployed their forces. They are able to see each student with fresh eyes, and they welcome the challenges of life in the classroom. I admire — no, I envy — them. But it is a rare and distant land in which they live, difficult to reach.

I can’t tell if the author expects readers to find his frankness refreshing or his ennui romantic (he is an English professor, after all, and while he discusses Beckett, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther seems closer to the target).  Maybe he would see me as naively optimistic about my own career in the classroom, but the same qualities that have drawn me to a liberal arts institution appear to be boring him to death.

Incidentally, the ASA’s section on teaching and learning is once again holding a pre-conference the day before the annual meeting.  Entitled “Teachers are Made, Not Born,” it is exactly the sort of thing that Smith gets excited about each August if he tries hard enough.  Hopefully those who attend (an application is available at www2.asanet.org/sectionteach/2009-application.pdf) will maintain their interest in quality teaching past “the first two weeks of the semester.”

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I have attended a number of talks over the years focused on getting a liberal arts job.  Because I did not attend a liberal arts school as an undergraduate, I took every available opportunity to learn about the expectations and intricacies of these jobs, from applications to faculty meetings.  There are several sociological liberal artists who have a tendency to appear at these talks, among them Ed Kain from Southwestern University and Keith Roberts from Hanover College.

Because I have seen him give several such talks there have been several times that I’ve heard Roberts tell an audience of grad students that he does not consider applications from students that include syllabi less than 20 pages in length because he takes this as a sign that the applicant does not care about teaching.  I remember sitting dumbfounded the first time I heard this, wondering alternately what would fill a 20 page syllabus and why I thought I cared about teaching when my longest syllabi were less than ten pages.  Inevitably, Roberts disclosed in the Q&A that his syllabi include all course assignments and that students with shorter syllabi could add an appendix with their assignments and class exercises so as not to end up in the “I will not even look at your application” pile when applying for a position at Hanover.

Unfortunately for me, the sociology department at Hanover was not hiring this year.  If it were, I feel confident that Roberts would have placed my application in the “to be considered further” pile based on the number of times I’ve heard him speak.  For every other job application, however, one cannot be so sure what the hiring committee is looking for in a syllabus.  A good way to avoid this problem is to write good syllabi in the first place and then include assignments and exercises when sending them with your application packets on the job market (just in case!).

With this in mind, Rob Wier has written a brief guide to a good syllabus on Inside Higher Ed.  The most important part is this:

A good syllabus is the organizing structure of a course, an unambiguous statement of expectations, and a professor’s first line of defense in disputes over policy, procedure, and grades. Your syllabus should lay out what you expect students to do, why you want it, when you want it, and what happens if students don’t comply. Assume nothing and spell out everything. The more you put in your syllabus up front, the less you’ll have to negotiate or explain later.

Update: Amelia at the Contexts Blog has posted some resources from the University of Buffalo.

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