Saturday, September 6, 2008

On Teaching: An Open Letter to My Younger Brother

Michael (my brother, for those of you who haven't yet caught on) brought up a question in the comments on the previous post: what do you do, anyway? Kid brother knows that I'm a professor, and that that includes both teaching and research. But the kind of teaching that we do here is different than what he's training to do (4th grade). So even though most of my readers are academics, I thought I'd answer his question in blogular format. Commentariat, feel free to modify this as necessary.


Dear Michael,

For those at the college/university level in general, the "teaching" part of our job (which is generally 40-60% of our workload overall) consists of three main thngs: 1) course development and preparation; 2) delivery; and 3) evaluation.

Course development and preparation is just that. First, you come up with an idea for a course. Some of this may be preset for you: for example, my Western Civ. course was already in the catalog when I was hired. On the other hand, you may propose entirely new courses based on your own interests: gender, or monasticism, or Tudor-Stuart England, or whatever. The balance between these two varies widely from one university to the next. But whether it's an old course or a new one, you need to come up with your own syllabus (that is, the order of lectures, discussions, and assignments), determine which books will be assigned, order them, panic when the bookstore forgets two of your five texts… Oh, and write lectures and plan discussions. In general, we have much more freedom in course development than K-12 teachers.

Delivery: Get up in front of a class and lecture. Don't choke, or at least don't do it during the first two weeks. In my opinion (and some may disagree), lecturing is relatively easy. It's leading discussions that's hard. When I lecture, I have more or less complete control of what's going to happen. When I lead a discussion, there's a chance that many of the students won't have read, or will be too shy to speak up even if they had – there are any number of things that can go wrong that I can't control for. In any case, depending on your institution, you will be teaching anywhere from two to five courses a semester (though some of those may be repeats). I generally teach three courses a semester, all different, but some of which I will have taught in previous semesters. This means that I have the choice to recycle some, all, or none of my lectures from one year to the next. I generally go with the "some" option, to keep myself from getting stale, without overworking myself. (The jokes, however, are all of ancient vintage.)

Evaluation: Grading. And grading. Only in rare cases will a class in the humanities have a multiple-choice test as an assignment. We are heavily writing-based, which means that grading takes a long time. It's my least favorite part of the job. It's also the part that takes the longest, both in the doing, and in the dealing with student angst afterwards. I'm fair, but I'm pretty tough.

But brother dear, shall I tell you my absolute favoritest reason to be teaching at a university, rather than at the K-12 level? It's not the pay: in many places, high school teachers make more money than professors, and without the obligation to spend summers researching and writing. It's simple: FERPA. More precisely, a small codicil in the Buckley Amendment to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that says that, once a student is 18, their educators are forbidden to discuss any matter of the student's schoolwork or grades with anyone else without that student's written permission. FERPA : helicopter parents :: garlic : vampires. You will understand this once you start teaching in your own classroom.

Good luck, kiddo.

11 comments:

Belle said...

Oh. Oh. Oh, yes, all hail FERPA. Can we expect such an open letter re: the other time munchers?

Ortho said...

Thank you for sharing this great post. I always wondered what full-time college professors think they do.

Dr. Virago said...

So, the first time through this post, I thought you'd said your brother was *in* fourth grade. (Hey, it could be possible.) I got about half-way through the post, thinking all along that you must have a fabulously bright fourth-grader of a brother, when I finally said to myself, "Self, I don't think he's in fourth grade -- go back and read that again." And then I realized my mistake -- he's training to *teach* 4th grade, not to *pass* it! Hee!

Dr. S said...

Don't forget about the advising. At least at a school like mine, advising, when we're up to full steam, takes nearly as many hours per week as I spend in the classroom. Which is kind of crazy, when I put it that way.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Ah. Advising. You're right: I neglected to mention that. At my school, it's very difficult to get students to come in, but I remember passing many hours in faculty offices at the SLAC where I was an undergrad. Dr. S., that's a lot of hours, but those informal conversations are one of the things I remember most fondly about my time as an undergrad.

On the other hand, I *definitely* should have mentioned grad advising. Hoo boy. Lotsa extra hours there.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Re: FERPA - it's a godsend, unless you work at an institution (like Former College) where students routinely sign a waiver of their privacy, letting their families have access to, oh, everything. Good times.

Michael said...

Thank you for the clarification Dr. Sister. To all of you profs, I'll do my best to send you either polite and well-educated students or at least silent well-trained drones to keep class sizes up.

Bob McCluskey said...

Just a brief response to New Kid on the Hallway, who said...

"Re: FERPA - it's a godsend, unless you work at an institution (like Former College) where students routinely sign a waiver of their privacy, letting their families have access to, oh, everything."

When students sign such waivers they are permissive, not prescriptive. FERPA does not require a school or any employee of a school to discuss student information with any third party. As well, most parents will not be personally present to discuss their child/student. Rather, they will want to have such discussions by telephone, or e-mail. Most schools prohibit such discussions because it is not possible to ensure that you are talking to the person for whom the waiver was given. Disclosures to any other person(s) is a violation of FERPA!

If a student gives consent for disclosure of his/her education information to a parent, and the parent is willing to come to you and identify him/herself, you are entitled to the same courtesy you would expect from the student; come during office hours or make an appointment. These conditions will minimize the inconveniences of talking to parents.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one at a school where service is a key part of tenure and promotion? I must be on a dozen committees or more, many of which meet every single week. Talk about eating up the time!

M.

hominy said...

I wish my Mom could read English!! Thanks, Notorious Ph.D.!

stu said...

What do you do? What sort of question is that to ask an academic? I dread that question, principally because the answer doesn't sound nearly impressive enough.