Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Teaching, and making mistakes, and learning from them

What I'm learning about teaching this quarter is how to work with a non-ideal situation, or rather, that engagement is something that you can't necessarily teach. It's really challenging; in fact, it feels, a lot of the time, like I'm failing. Not all of my five students come to class for each meeting. Two are in the habit of coming late. I've had classes where two have shown up, and where only one student has shown up. It's tricky to know how to adapt, on the day you'd planned to teach counterarguments and the use of textual evidence, when the four students who need the most help (based on their drafts) aren't there. I tend to teach using a library of handouts, which I upload to a course website after the class is done, but I've been a little reluctant to upload them the same way, lately, feeling that to do so just makes it easier for students to skip class.

This morning was a class group conference -- our first. I'd done a round of individual conferences with students previously, to give them a good framework. One student was absent because of a medical emergency; the other was simply absent, and had not bothered to upload a paper draft, to contact me, or respond to an email from his/her peer reviewer.

The conference went well anyway, but at the end, one of the students asked whether the others were still enrolled. I turned this, clumsily, I think, into a reminder about how writing is adaptive, and something we do in a group -- we work with the people we have -- but it was a hard question to answer.

I think that one of the benefits of this class is that it is demonstrating to the current students the importance of their participation: that the class really is a combination of their efforts and mine. It's demonstrating that the hard way, mind you, because there have been times where the energy is pretty flat. One student asked whether we could work on the papers for the linked lecture course. "We can," I replied, "but if we're going to do that, then we need to have more regular and timely attendance." To their credit, they all looked embarrassed.

I'm still worried that I'm going to get slaughtered in evals. The most challenging part of this has been handling preparation: the 3 students who attend most regularly are reticent to contribute, and see the readings as largely irrelevant. Ideally, I'd like to teach a very adaptive tutorial course, but it's tricky to do so with very quiet class members. The alternative is preparing material according to what I think they ought to know, and need to work on. This is what I do -- and then I adapt as they ask questions -- but it still ends up a bit flat. I feel like I'm moving between responding to their questions, teaching them things that they need to know, and talking with them about the material in an attempt to help them find a way into it (while acknowledging to them that part of being a student, and a reader, is committing to find a way to make something interesting, even if it doesn't seem that way.

What am I learning? I am learning that I have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking that because there are fewer students, I should be able to teach them more effectively. That's not true: having fewer students makes the differences between their experience levels all the more stark.

I'm learning that I need to make sure I keep my explanations and examples of practices brief, and become more sensitive about when to stay the course with a difficult example, and when to change tactics.*

I am learning that I need to foreground working together, and that I don't have a pedagogy that effectively does this. I'm not totally flatfooted: I provide detailed instructions for peer review, examples of what to do and what not to do; I emphasize the importance of being specific, rather than general. What I don't have is an effective pedagogy (or any formal method at all) of teaching reading and engagement as vitally collaborative skills. My syllabi include language about how writing and academic discourse are both collaborative activities -- but crikey, it's hard to turn that into activities within the classroom: to find a rich and compelling set of reasons for why it matters to think about what you are contributing to a classroom, and how you're engaging with the other people in it.

I am learning that I have to set my own standards for success, and that these standards are somewhere between "I can tell I'm teaching successfully because I'm seeing improvements from students in these specific areas" and "I believe I'm being successful because I know that this is an important aspect of writing and reading, whether or not I manage to convince the students of this." This is the hardest part, in some ways, because it's so easy to think "they're not getting it! I must need to teach it differently!" and to feel despondent. I'll be honest: I'm feeling this plenty, because teaching such a small group feels very different: if I teach informally, it feels like I risk leaving out important stuff; if I teach formally, it feels like I'm teaching too impersonally, and failing to take advantage of the intimacy of the small group.

The classroom is a collaborative environment. I've always believed that, but I haven't understood it as I'm coming to understand it this quarter. I feel like I've made mistakes, but then, so have my students. We have 4.5 weeks left, in which they'll write 3 papers (two for their linked lecture course, one more for me). From that perspective (3 papers, instead of 4.5 weeks), we have a chance to do really productive work. I'm nervous, but I hope that articulating where I am now will help me use my classtime effectively; and perhaps even more importantly, will help me remain focused and thoughtful about my teaching, even when I'm working with students who are not as actively engaged as I would like.

* To some degree, I think this is my inner perfectionist telling me "be better, be smarter, be more perfect!" -- but I think that it's good for me to think about the value of brevity.

1 comment:

  1. Teaching very small classes is HARD. I am assuming that this class is small for some inexplicable reason? That is, the students didn't sign up expecting to have a small class? The times in my career this has happened have been when I was introducing a new course, and the dept let it run b/c they were trying to build the course, and people on the roster wouldn't show up so that the actual in-class enrollment was smaller than the official roster showed. Very small classes make huge demands on students and when you--and they--did not expect that kind of setting, it's hard to adapt.

    Sounds like you have a great analysis of what is going on here--and I'm reminded of something Mark Sample wrote recently (on twitter?) about teaching philosophies and how valuable it is to think through things that didn't work.

    But still, sorry it's hard.