Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Some Thoughts about Teaching

Last night, I read this post, and it got me thinking. Manorama writes about her teaching experience and the choices that she makes for evaluating students. This is a follow-up post to some that she'd written at the end of last semester about the time it takes her to evaluate students for participation. Now, I responded to those posts, as did some others, but I think that she felt like those who responding weren't acknowledging her authority to make decisions about pedagogy in her classes, even though I'll at least say for my part that I didn't think I was doing that at all but rather that I thought I was giving advice that might be of use and trying to be supportive.

Anyway, in her most recent post, Manorama writes about why she chooses to invest as much in evaluating participation as she does. It's an interesting post, and worth checking out. That said, it's kind of long, and so my post here is really only responding to one line of argument that has been on my mind since I read the post last night.

Manorama writes,
"Coming up with a way to run a class where so many concerns are addressed is difficult, and it takes a special amount of effort to teach in a way that is consistent with my values as a scholar. That is, I will not sacrifice careful attention to history and literary criticism. I will not sacrifice the student leadership over the class because the critical thinking process I want them to practice requires them to be active leaders and discussants, not passive minds who aren't thinking, talking, listening, and writing in response to the text and to others. [. . .] If this is the kind of class I design, you can imagine why I would find it dishonest and unfair to pretend that I remember who "participated" and who didn't."
In this passage (if you want to see the entire paragraph please head on over to her post), the argument seems to be an ethical one, i.e., that those who do not take an approach to participation that details each and every student contribution sacrifice rigor in their courses and that they fail to give students ownership over the class - they fail to be "learner-centered" to use the jargon of the day. Moreover, those who do not demonstrate value through this kind of approach to grading may be accused of dishonesty and lack of fairness in their courses. One's choices become evidence of one's values, and, it is implied, that those who make different choices do not share Manorama's scholarly values.

This argument doesn't really work for me. First, I'm not sure that every single composition or literature course needs to or benefits from emphasizing history and literary criticism, even if one values those things. At least in my experience, with the kind of students whom I teach, I have found that all classes can't necessarily do that work in a way that is effective. Moreover, I think that there is something of value in emphasizing in my lower level courses students' own reading practices and translating those into solid writing. Now, I do not teach at a research university, and many of my students come into my courses having very limited backgrounds with academic analysis, reading, and writing. I usually have at least one student a semester who claims never to have read an entire book. What that means is that I need to lay a kind of foundation for my students in lower level courses that I did not have to lay at my grad institution. This does not mean that I don't value literary critical and historical context, but it does mean that I know that I get multiple bites at the apple. If a student has me in one class, it's not terribly unlikely that I'll never see that student again. In fact, it is often quite likely that I will have a student whom I've had for freshmen writing at least once if not twice or three times more before they graduate. Thus, I think that what I value as a scholar in that regard does have a link to what goes on in my classes, but I think that I think about it in a way that is incremental, and this means that it does not evidence itself in obvious ways in every one of my classes. Does that mean I don't "really" value those things? How do we judge that sort of thing? (I'll come back to this later in the post, as I'm not just asking for rhetorical effect.)

I also have difficulty with the argument that evaluating all aspects of what students do in a class in a very detailed way teaches students to approach their education as active rather than passive. To me, if they're only actively discussing for a grade, that is passive. It's not self-motivated, no matter how much they talk or how much work they do on their own. At the same time, I know that if one doesn't demonstrate as an instructor that one values active discussion, etc., that it won't necessarily happen in the classroom. I think that my approach to this is somewhat different from Manorama's because I work very hard to disrupt the active learning stuff from grades because of what I see as a contradiction between one and the other. If I am grading and reacting everything, I'm asserting my authority over every single thing that they do. I'm not saying that this is how it works in every person's classroom, mind you, but it is how it works in mine. The minute that I get out the red (or green, or purple, or whatever) pen, I'm judging, and if I attach a letter grade to something, students begin aiming for the grade instead of engaging with the material on its own. That has as much to do with my style as anything, and so I suppose that this is the point for me: there isn't a one-size-fits-all model to this stuff. The compromise that I make is that yes, students receive various kinds of grades for participation at the end of the course, but much of that grade comes from adequate completion of discrete tasks. Example: my students in upper level courses have to post on a discussion board once a week. If you do the required number of posts, you get an A. Now, I participate in the discussion and lead it, but I don't give a grade for the quality of the posts. This means that students can make of this discussion what they will, and I think this is valuable. You might say, "but it's not giving credit to those who do very well on this task in the class," but what they do on the task without fail translates into how they do on more conventionally graded assignments, so to me, this does teach them to actively engage and it does value active engagement while at the same time it gives them the responsibilty for using the assignment in such a way that it is meaningful. I police them only to the extent that I pay attention to who is posting and who isn't, and otherwise my role is pretty hands off - I just discuss along with them. Now, my authority is not entirely dispersed - they know I'm reading these posts - but it also is not absolute in the way that it would be were I grading them for quality on such an assignment. This is just one example, but I tend to like to incorporate similar kinds of assignments into all of my classes in some fashion or another because I think it gives students confidence to play with ideas without fear of negative consequences, which I think goes a long way toward inspiring active engagement.

Manorama later in her post continues:
"This is because if we really believe that writing is a process, that classroom interactions and involvement in an "academic community" is important, that "participation" means something other than giving us something to do each day so we can get paid, and that collegiality and professionalism are key resources for anyone doing literary study, then showing students that we value those processes and are assessing them is very, very important. Showing them that what they think and what they say is valuable, not just in the "finished product" but throughout the process, is important.
[. . .]
In the end, it just might come down to what we value, and how we show that we value it. Most of us, I assume, value our students' contributions and intellectual work throughout their intellectual journey in the class. How do we show that we value it?"
Now, this is a lot to which to respond, especially since I was one of the people who commented originally that I tend to be much looser in my approach to evaluating participation in my courses. But I think the reason that Manorama's post has been on my mind is that it goes back to some of the things that I've been thinking about how to measure "value" related to blogging and to service. I'm not sure if I agree that the way to demonstrate what we value is (only) through grading, just as I'm not sure that the only things that I do that have value are those that get listed on the cv or that count toward tenure. To me, the value in a liberal arts education is precisely that these objective measures don't capture all of what we value, and I think there is utility in challenging those objective measures even as we work within systems that require them. I guess what I'm playing with - both in relation to my work as a professor generally and in the classroom - is trying to break from equating value with things that "count" in traditional ways. I'm not sure if this is sensible (or if it's even possible) but that is something that's really interesting to me, and I think that it's something that's useful to consider.


Manorama said...

Thanks for this response to my post. First I want to say that I did take your comments to my previous posts as constructive, and you weren't one of the people who irked me at all. With regard to literary criticism and historical context, I should emphasize that with the kind of material I teach, it's especially significant that I include those things since not doing so results in papers which can reproduce really racist and orientalist ways of thinking. I teach things that most folks aren't familiar with (for instance, right now I'm teaching late nineteenth-century Bengali fiction) and this requires strong historical context and literary criticism for people to even comprehend what is going on. For *me* these things are important. From the abundant discussion and debate among literary studies folks about what should be foregrounded and what should not, clearly instructors will differ on this question (and it's good to make that transparent to students, as well).

I should also emphasize that the participation assessment I use isn't just to "get a grade" (and by the end there are so many daily assignment scores, under which the note card scores fall, that the pressure to perform just for a grade becomes somewhat marginal and comments propelled by genuine interest become more important). I emphasize the note cards not only as a way to assess their participation, but I stress that it is useful for them to be able to go back later and have available a record of what comments they made, and to see how their thinking process changed from one day to another. Since we spend at least a few days per text, the cards allow them to really map their thinking and interesting questions that occurred to them. The note cards are emphasized as a way to track a larger process of critical thinking and creativity, rather than simply bureaucratic tracking. Now, I will admit that I had some doubts about this myself when I started it. I worried about the cards becoming more of a burden (for both the students *and* for me) than something positive. Thus far, however, it's not been that way. If it does become more burdensome, I am open to changing and finding other ways for students to track their own participation (and for me to show them I value it).

I think that your insights into the potential pitfalls of scoring participation with emphasis on grading are right on--this can be dangerous. And yes, it can foster a very authoritarian, "I'm policing you" sort of environment. I have been able to avoid this (largely through the fact that the discussions are student-centered, student-led, and my assessment of their contributions is one method of "feedback" to what they get a lot of ownership over). They don't simply get their note cards back with a score, but with comments, as well, where I briefly respond to their ideas.

Finally, I think the method of assessing participation that I wrote about involves emphasizing that writing is a process and that every step counts, and thus actually highlights the significance of the "solid writing" or "finished product" in the end--this is, after all, what we've all been working toward in all the discussions. I can't even list all the times I've been having a writing conference with a student and they mention something that was said in class (by them or by someone else) that becomes central to their argument. It's worked very well--but again, changing contexts might require different approaches to honoring my particular teaching values. My main point is that showing that we value all parts of the process in terms of students achieving the learning goals in our classes is very important--how we get there might be really different from case to case, as I think it should be.

undine said...

Both your post and Manorama's response are interesting. I was especially struck by this: "If I am grading and reacting everything, I'm asserting my authority over every single thing that they do."

Anonymous said...

I found this to be a fascinating post and discussion, especially reading the two posts back to back. To me, this shows how people can do very different things in response to similar values and beliefs about teaching. As I read Marorama's post about the immediate assessment of participation, I found myself thinking how valuable it could be for students to pay attention to their engagement and contribution on a regular basis, though I confess that I probably wouldn't want to grade that. And then reading Dr. Crazy's response to that also made sense to me. The one thing that I would want to say to both of you is that sometimes a person's contribution to the class is very keen listening and silent engagement. I know this isn't exactly what our culture values, with its privileging of speaking over listening. But really careful and attentive (even critical) listening is rare in some sectors of American life (the political sphere for example) and is, I think, worth valuing in the classroom. For example, in a course I was TAing with another professor (where we happened to be looking at Cheryl Glenn's work on silence as a rhetorical strategy and Krista Ratcliffe's work on listening), we noticed that when certain very quiet students were absent, the classroom dynamic changed. I would hope that if we had asked students to mark their contribution to the class that they would include that.