Thursday, October 22, 2009

About What Has Been (So Far) a Very Good Teaching Semester

I've been pretty silent about the subject of teaching lately basically because things in my various classes are running smoothly. I thought it might be worth it to do a post about what I think is working, as so often, when we post about teaching, we tend to focus on the problems and not on the successes. I think it's good that we have a space in which to think through the things that aren't going right in courses that we teach, and to get feedback and support from others, so this isn't about saying, "Oh, we should all be totally positive when we talk about teaching!" Not at all. Rather, it's just that I think it can be good to reflect on the positive when it's there to reflect upon.

So I'm teaching four courses this semester. Two courses are ones that count for general education credit (service courses), one course is for a program outside my discipline, an advanced writing course, which I teach online (basically a service course), and one course is a graduate seminar in my discipline (my first time teaching this course, or in this program, which is new).

So first, what are some common things that are working well that have absolutely nothing to do with me?

1. There is a great vibe in each of these courses. From the first day, the students have interacted very well together, and I have felt very relaxed in managing each of the courses. Ultimately, I really feel like I'm facilitating rather than demanding, which is how I like to feel in the front of the classroom.
2. The students are, for the most part, bright, engaged, and on board with the material - even if they don't love every single assignment.

I have absolutely nothing to do with the above, other than that I haven't done anything to fuck it up. Sometimes, you get lucky and the dynamics of a class just work. Sometimes, like this semester for me, you get really lucky and that is the case across all of your classes. This is a gift from the universe, and it's probably good to pay tribute to the Teaching Gods when this happens.

But what have I done, other than to show up and let the students do their thing, to make this good teaching semester? Because dude, I should be aware of these things so that I can do them some more!

1. In each of the classes, I was able to hit the pacing sweet spot, both in terms of amount of material assigned as well as the rhythm of the assignments (reading and writing). In one class, this involved changing out some texts with which I was bored and reorganizing the ordering of the readings. In the grad seminar, a brand new prep, it involved meticulous syllabus design, which included visions and revisions until I hit on a collection of required and recommended readings that fit together - dare I say it? - perfectly, both in terms of content and form. It occurs to me that part of the success I've achieved here has everything to do with the fact that I'm finally at the point where I really know our student body, and where I really know myself as an instructor. In the past, I've had fleeting and accidental success with this, but now I feel like I can really take credit for it.

2. This has been something that's been brewing for a while, but I've finally gotten to the point where I have confidence in having my students do a lot of small group activities, and I no longer feel like doing so is about slacking on my part. Now, when I do group stuff, I spend a lot of time prepping it, so it's not like it's just a way not to teach or to prep. Rather, it really is about getting students actively engaged. This is huge since two of my four courses meet only once a week for three hours. Keeping students doing lots of different focused things makes all of the difference in the world in keeping their attention for 3 hours. And also, they're learning by doing, which I really think is always more advantageous than me just spewing material at them.

3. I think I've really hit my stride in my abilities in facilitating class discussion. Especially in the gen ed classes, I'd say about 75% of students are actively participating and contributing in full class discussion, without me forcing them to do so. In part I think this relates to #2, but I think it also has to do with me being much better at leading them to the conclusions that I want them to reach, as opposed to me intervening before they get there on their own. I'm much more comfortable with silence, or with letting them take a little bit longer to get to where I'm leading them than I might have been in previous semesters. This has a lot to do with the fact that I'm teaching three of my four classes for the umpteenth time - experience has taught me that they do ultimately get there. I don't need to force them there.

4. Getting tenure has made all of the difference in my attitude. I hadn't expected this benefit, but it's made me much more relaxed in my teaching, in a good way. Not worrying about evaluations or about jumping through certain hoops has made all of the difference in the world and has made me a more engaged and innovative teacher. I guess that's not something that I can replicate (you only get tenure once), but it is something that I think I would be well served by remembering in future semesters.

5. With the exception of my online class, I haven't found myself dreading grading or falling way behind on it. I think this is partly because I've given myself permission to cut down on the number of graded assignments in some classes in some courses, and it's because I've gotten to the point where I'm only assigning stuff that I'm interested in grading. Instead of seeing graded assignments as disconnected from my own interests, I'm viewing them as more organic to me. I still have outcomes that I need to make sure students achieve through those assignments, but I don't just fall back on tried and true assignments that traditionally measure those things. In creating assignments that I find interesting, I'm much less likely to resist grading them. This may seem obvious, but I'd never thought about it that way before - or really internalized what approaching graded assignments that way would mean for me or my students.

Now, let me be clear: I am fully aware that I am leading a charmed life in the classroom this semester. I know that I will have classes that don't work so well in the future, that it's unlikely that I can expect every future semester to go this smoothly even with all of the above in place. But it's nice to know a semester like this can happen, even if only every once in a while.

1 comment:

Lawgirl said...

It's been such a joy to watch you grow as an educator. It's so wonderful to see you take your teaching responsibilities seriously and really develop them. :-)