Monday, November 1, 2010

Better Teacher, Part I: Body on Sabbatical, Brain in the Classroom

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't been posting much in the past few weeks. That's because I have been buried in a neverending stream of grading and student conferences. And it's all because I decided to become a better teacher. So in lieu of anything going on in my actual life, here's part one of a three-part post on that topic.

I like to think that I'm naturally pretty good in the classroom. Of course, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a university professor who doesn't think that they're pretty good in the classroom (or lab or studio or whatever), even though they may assign more or less priority to it, depending on their relative emphasis on research and service. There may be someone out there who says, "You know, I'm really a crap teacher, and who cares?" but I have yet to meet them. From the award-winning SLAC professor (I'm looking at you, Dr. S) to the to the harried freeway flier, I'd wager that we all think we're doing pretty well at what we do, given our various circumstances.

But being good in the classroom isn't necessarily the same as being a good teacher. For the purposes of this post, I'm using the former to mean, "Am I doing well?" and the latter to mean, "Are they doing well?" And I recently started thinking more about the latter than the former.

I started having these thoughts on my one-semester sabbatical, by the way, and if anyone in your general vicinity ever starts blathering about how sabbaticals are evidence that we don't give a shit about teaching, you can tell them this: Most of us who spend time in the classroom are so busy that we don't get a chance to be anything but reactive teachers. We may think about totally gutting our syllabi and building them from the ground up, but chances are that we just don't have time to do anything more intensive than maybe rewrite a few lectures, experiment with a new assignment, or assign a new book or two. If you're anything like me, you will probably do three to four of the following five things when your semester break rolls around: (1) Immediately fall incredibly ill as your adrenaline-boosted immune system collapses once you stop rushing around like a meth-addled chipmunk; (2) cross-country visit your family who don't understand why you don't come more often (bonus points for shopping for all your Christmas presents in four days!); (3) poke at your research (in a desultory fashion if it's winter break, more intensively if it's summer – perhaps even a trip to the archives); (4) finally clean your living space, your laundry, and yourself; (5) recharge your battered brain by spending entire days – often several on end – overloading on sleep/fluffy fiction reading/TV. Whichever of these options you choose, I can pretty much guarantee that it ends the same way: panic because you realize that the semester is starting in a week and you haven't even thought about the syllabus yet.

Like I said: reactive teaching. Even if you're good at it, it's not conducive to much of anything.

But when you're on sabbatical, you switch from reactive to reflective. You wonder what you've been doing in the classroom, and how you might do it better. You dream up new assignments and think more deeply about overall learning goals. You replay student reactions (the reasonable ones) and think about why something did or didn't work.

And in between digging through various archives in Exotic Research City, that's precisely what I did. More on the result in part II.


reassignedtime said...

"Most of us who spend time in the classroom are so busy that we don't get a chance to be anything but reactive teachers."


Ok, I have to go back and read the rest of your post, because after that sentence I had to stop and write this comment - that's how important I think that one sentence is.

Dr. S said...

You rocked the house on this one, Notorious. I think I do four of the five recovery tricks you named; the one I usually don't get to anymore is even desultorily poking at my research. Also, I often end up Amazoning my Christmas presents to my parents' house so that they arrive right about the time I do. I'm already yearning for being away from town for a couple of years (even though one of them will be a teaching year, it will be that in a different venue and with different mechanisms). For one thing, no meetings!

Dr. S said...

(Because meetings, I have found, are one of the biggest things standing between me and the ability to be a more reflective teacher.)

Tree of Knowledge said...

I do all of those!

Damnit, I need a sabbatical because I feel like a crap teacher this semester and just don't have time to gut and rebuild. You are so right about the reactive teaching.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

all I can say is, ME TOOOOOO!!!