Thursday, January 10, 2008

Has RT Become a Political Blog? I Think Not. And So a Post about Teaching.

What with all of the blogging about politics lately, you might be thinking that Dr. Crazy has lost her way. Oh no, sir! It is not true! I shall continue to blog about all things mundane and academic. Never fear!

In this week that has been filled with syllabus and assignment design, I've been thinking a lot about how I've developed as a teacher over my 4+ years at this teaching-intensive institution. As I look at my courses for the upcoming semester, and with the assignments that I've designed for them, I think that maybe being at a teaching-intensive institution has actually enabled me to be, and sometimes forced me to be, an innovative teacher. Maybe that seems like a no-brainer to some of you, but I don't think I'd anticipated that this would be the case when I began here.

I think when I began, I thought my teaching would suffer because of having to teach so much. I think that I believed that because of the wide range of students I'd be teaching (in terms of ability level and preparedness) that I wouldn't really be able to do much that was interesting because it would be too difficult to do "fun" things or inventive things given the number of students and given the... lack of engagement of the lower third of students that I teach. I think I believed that I'd be forced to teach to the lower third, and that this would somehow mean I wouldn't be able to be creative in my teaching. And I thought that it would mean I'd have to lower my standards for student achievement.

But what I see as I look at the courses that I've developed, and the changes I've made in the kinds of assignments that I include and the way that I pace my syllabi, is that I was completely and entirely mistaken. Teaching the range and number of students that I teach has actually meant the reverse - it has meant that relying on "conventional" course design just doesn't make sense. And I think that the creativity that my situation and student population at this institution has engendered in my teaching has ultimately been a good thing for students at all ability levels whom I teach.

Let's take a trip down memory lane to my first year teaching here, and to two of the first courses that I taught in literature. The first was a survey course. I dutifully ordered the Norton Anthology, and I assigned a *boatload* of reading. There was a small grade for participation, two papers (equally weighted) that I gave students no instruction about how to write, a traditional midterm and final. Makes sense, right? I mean, that's what my survey courses looked like in college. And I taught a novels course. Now, I wasn't a fool. I'd gotten the memo that my students would never read a novel a week. BUT. I still tried to assign something like 10 (and some of them LONG) novels (and ended up having to cut one). I assigned some response papers (an assignment stolen from one of my undergraduate professors) and there was a research paper and a final and a small grade for participation. So what we see, looking at the brief description of each of these courses, was that my assignments and expectations were fairly standard ones. Straightforward. That was what the syllabi and assignments that my professors put together looked like, and so that must be how it was done. And if the students didn't perform? Well, that was because they didn't work hard enough.

Um, but no. I wasn't happy, and my students were... well, they weren't that into me either. I mean, some were, but it wasn't like I was some stellar success right out of the gate as a teacher. And so either I could keep doing things that way or I could.... play. That's right: play. I mean, it wasn't like things were going so swimmingly when I wasn't having a good time, so why not play around with it and see whether I could come up with something better. Something that still got the students from point A to point B, but that wouldn't feel like such drudgery for them or for me. And the results of my playing were the following:

  • Incorporating more small group work and discussion into my courses, to give students the chance to test their ideas out on each other before they braved testing them out in front of the whole class and in front of me.
  • More time in class, whether with group assignments or other things, spent on clarifying my expectations about student writing about literature.
  • Research assignments that veered off the traditional 8-12 page research paper path.
  • Smaller assignments (random quizzes, for example, or online discussion, or question/insight cards) that would give students more investment in just getting the work done for each class meeting.
  • Reorganizing my syllabi so that the toughest reading happens near the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester is reserved for "reward" reading to get them through the final weeks of the semester still working.
  • More one-on-one contact with and response to students.
  • Less lecture.
  • Less time spent writing screeds in response to student work (and on grading in general).
I'm not saying I've got it all figured out. I don't. But in the past few years, I've given myself permission to play more in my teaching, to create more, to invent more, and while the grades that my students receive are about the same, and while I still have a reputation of being a tough professor, my students are happier and I am happier. And I'm really looking forward to the start of this coming semester. Sick, isn't it?


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It occurs to me that teaching in places like your school and mine, teaching is more difficult than if all of our students were prepared for college and focused on the material -- but, just because it is a challene, it doesn't have to be less fun :).

Have a good semester....

Belle said...

Good for you for playing! I've always gotten good evals because of my enthusiasm, but the last couple of terms, when I'm really out there playing and experimenting and such? The evals might be down (and are, generally) but learning is up, and so is my attitude. And that's gotta count for something, right?

Shaun Huston said...

Many of your decisions are ones I've also made. I go back-and-forth on how to approach the reading, though. Sometimes I think best to ease them in, but other times I think I should pile on the heavy in the beginning so there's a gradual lifting of the load during the term. I'm not sure which works best; it probably depends on the course.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think it does depend on the course, re: the reading, but I'd say that for the most part I've gone the way of tougher assignments earlier because when I haven't they don't actually do the reading at the end of the course. I suppose I think that in most cases I think that the reading early sets a tone for amount of time a student will need to spend on a course and the level of engagement that will be required. In classes where I don't do this, I've tended to pace the readings so that the arc of the syllabus is neither from most to least difficult nor from least to most - rather, I tend to organize those courses with periods of high intensity and periods of low intensity that are equally spaced, which gives students time either to catch up or to read ahead. (So, for example, in courses where I use film, the films are usually spaced pretty evenly throughout the course of the semester, and students are expected to be reading the material that comes next when we're doing the film stuff in class. I also tend to like to end a course with a film or with an "easy read" if they have a paper due at the end, which is a way of acknowledging that I know they need to spend extra time on the writing assignment.)

Doctor Pion said...

Fascinating. One thing that really works for me is front-loading the course so I can reduce the work load toward the end. The math classes my students are taking are heavily back loaded (they build to the toughest material in many cases), so it balances out nicely.

I also like your observation about "playing" with a course. I do that every year, somewhere, and keep the things that appear to pay off. Oddly enough, my notes on notes on notes regularly remind me of how much the course has changed.

My remaining challenge is to get them to read the damn book (and it is a really good book!) before class. Grumble.