Sunday, December 5, 2010

Better Teacher, Part III: What I did

Finally, a third part to my post on what my students actually need from me. I think it will likely feel more unfinished than the previous two posts in the series, but that's because it is unfinished. There is another week in the regular semester as papers are getting finished, and then a week of finals. So making any assertions that I know what they need now, before I've seen the final results, involves a bit of guesswork. But this is likely the last chance I'll have to do an involved post before the grading storm really hits, so I thought I'd try it now.

In my previous post on What I Think They Need vs. What They Need, I said the following: "The answer, no matter what level, seems to be threefold: detailed guidance, a chance to learn from their mistakes, and potential rewards for making the extra effort to do so."

This semester, rather than my usual groaning at all the things that I think my students ought to know by now (or maybe it's better to say, along with my usual groaning), I started from the assumption that the didn't know anything that I hadn't personally taught them,** and that if I wanted them to end the semester at point Z, then it was my personal responsibility to take them there, beginning at point A. This required two major shifts in how I approached my undergraduate courses.

First I reworked my undergraduate assignments so that each one presented a step in the process. Do I want them writing original research papers based on their own interpretations of the primary sources? Great. So, assignment #1 was a sheet of ten analytical questions, progressing in complexity, that they had to answer about two primary sources I assigned them. Assignments 2 & 3 had them writing source-based essays on a question that I came up with, based on sources I provided (and they could rewrite the first of these if they found that they didn't get it the first go-round). Finally, I gave them assignment 4, which had them proposing their own topics, looking for their own sources (with some light guidance from me), designing their own research question, drafting two proposals, and finally writing a paper with their own original argument.

Second, I required two 20-minute individual conferences, one for the original proposal, and one for the revised proposal, where they're about to sit down and write. My job here was to help them see where the problems were, to explain the process of research in the discipline using examples from their own paper, and to nudge them back in the right direction. If they wanted to do a rewrite of their first paper, that, too, involved a conference, where they were to present me with their plan for revision. This week, leading up to the final submission of the major paper, I've been sending out guidelines for daily tasks ("Today's project is to organize your ideas, so here's how you write a good outline…"), showing them how to break down the paper into small, manageable chunks.

There have been two consequences to this plan of action. The first is that I'm in the office almost constantly. I have a lot of students. And yes, a couple of those students made their appointments, then didn't show up, then begged for another appointment, then didn't show up for that one either. And yes, that was even more frustrating this time around, given the work I'd put in. And yes, this has slowed down my research output considerably.

But here's the other consequence: In those conferences, I got to really talk with all of my students -- even the very quiet ones who don't say a peep in class. One student -- a junior -- admitted to me that this was the first time she'd ever talked with a professor outside of class, because she was too scared to. Others told me that they were convinced that everyone else in the class was smarter than they were. They talked with me about their research. They told me about what they were interested in, and I suggested ways they could research it. They came back for their second appointments, and talked a bit about what they'd found, and many of them actually seemed excited about it – and I was able to encourage that excitement. The ones who didn't know how to formulate a good question? Them, I walked through it, explaining the same thing in as many different ways as I could, and then I got to see the light go on as it clicked for them. "Do you think you can answer that question, based on the sources you've read?" "Yes, I think I can."

And then, sometimes, they smiled. And if that smile was mostly relief that they were not completely lost in the woods anymore, even for only ten minutes, then that's okay, too.

As I said, I'm not at the end. I don't know if I'm just deluding myself that this is working, and that all the extra effort is worth it. I'm still a merciless badass with the grading. And I'm kind of exhausted, and cranky that I let my writing slide. But I do think I'm closer to understanding what my students need for the short time that I have them.

**This is a depressing thing if you think about it deeply, so I don’t.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I think they need more punishment and suffering for fuckeing uppe.

marroncito said...

Thank you for doing this. You are making an impact. I was inspired by teachers like you in my early education.

Moreover, my mother is a high school teacher and struggles with many of the same issues. I'm sending this to her to see if she can glean any hope from it for her classes.

I appreciate what you do. Hopefully one day there will be a Stand & Deliver or Dead Poets Society written about you.

What you're doing touches your students deeper than anyone besides their parents are able. Your gift to them will resonate their whole lives.

Connie said...

All I could think about while reading your post is "this is incredible"! Few professors spend this much time with their students and not many go out of their way to teach them what is expected of them. The steps you are taking to teach your students how to write are what is needed for history students from the get-go, usually does not happen (at least not at my school). A little encouragement from the professor goes a long way. They will thank you for this someday!

Belle said...

You take this to new heights! I too came to the decision to take it all apart, piece by piece - and teach them to do what I had always expected them to do.
Good for you. I'm going to print this out and make you my model for my own future classes. Thank you!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Ha! You guys are nuts. Honestly, this is not a heroic gesture (and let's hope there's no movie -- I wouldn't want to be held responsible for that much professorial eye-rolling).

In any case, let's hold off on the too-fulsome praise until I can say whether it's working or not -- I suppose I'll know once I start reading the papers.

In the meantime, I do need to find a compromise position that lets me maintain the benefits while carving out time for my research, and perhaps even a life (yes, Professor Notorious is a serious hottie who hasn't been on a date in two years, and that just ain't right). I keep making noises about "balance", then keep doing things that make it impossible.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

There were two things I was thinking when I read this. 1. You are awesome for doing this and are having a significant impact on your students' writing. 2. How freaking exhausting. The thing is - teaching writing IS exhausting because writing is not something you can learn in 15 weeks. It's not like math, where you can learn a bunch of facts/formulas and have that "always" be true. Writing is much more subtle and fluid. It takes years and years to reach true competency, and after that, even more years to be a "good" writer. But what you are doing is giving them the foundation that they need to be able to continue to hone the craft. Bravo, Girl Scholar.

Oh - third thought. I could never do this as an adjunct. Not only do I not have any office space at all, I also live 20 miles from campus, teach adult night classes, and have students who work full-time and have children. They wouldn't have any extra time to come in, and neither would I, really. The program I teach in sets up impossible tasks for its students, and in the end, they suffer under the system. If I could change it, I would. But I am required to have the students write a certain amount -- 6 essays (8-10 pages a piece) in 15 weeks. It's killer for both me and them. I cannot wait until it's over. Only two more classes. And then? I'm getting drunk. Whew.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And yes, Comrade: some will face punishment, but it will be self-administered. I am aware that some people will take every lifeline you throw and knot it into a noose. This, too, is a thing they can learn from their time with me.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Fie -- you make an excellent point. One of the oft-ignored difference between the position of adjuncts and professors (as if pay disparity and job security and professional vulnerability weren't enough) is the fact that their working conditions (2 courses here, 2 across town, all subject to being changed with only a few days' notice) makes it impossible to put an intensive program into action. If we want good teaching for our students, we have to create the conditions for it, which means time, resources, and a teaching load that makes these things possible. When administrators make the decision to staff courses with contingent faculty rather than permanent positions, they think they're getting a bargain, but if those contingent faculty can't, because of their working conditions, be as effective, then it's a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

(And no, I'm not saying that adjuncts are bad teachers; I'm saying that the adjunct system leads to bad teaching, for the reasons that Fie points out.)

And 50 pages a semester for an undergraduate class? Even in a writing-intensive discipline? That strikes me as (as CPP would say) fuckeing ridiculesse.

Bardiac said...

I'd love to see your ten questions from the early assignment, please. It sounds really good, but my brain isn't quite there. My email is bardiacblogger AT yahoo DOT com if you want to email me, or you could post them for all of us.

Thanks :)

Tigs said...

I too would love to see your assignments if you're willing to share.
I'm requiring a writing portfolio next semester, with the idea of doing some of the same things (though admittedly to a less work-intensive level), and would appreciate seeing how you've framed it.

feministfilesharing at gmail dot com

Susan said...

This is great. Like Bardiac & Tigs, I'd love to see your questions. I've found it's very hard to unpack what I do for my students! In my lower division course I have done some similar things -- really focused first on how to analyze primary sources, and at the end giving them a secondary source to read and write about. My questions have been very focused. But it hasn't been that cumulative, and systematic.

I did also require a meeting with me, so that they could ask questions, get to know me, etc. There are 90 plus students in my class. Not all came, but I scheduled 90 10 minute meetings. October was exhausting!

So my question is, how many students? What level?

moria said...

Thanks so much for this series, Notorious. I'm at a stage in grad school where I'm really posing some very basic questions about what teaching is and how I fit the role, and this series has been incredibly useful.

It really does seem that good results for students correlate directly with lots of facetime. As Fie suggests, we probably need to be having a bigger conversation about how academic labor crises and pedagogical ones intersect – a conversation that's about more than shouting that we need 'smaller class sizes,' because babies, that's only the start of all this mess.

Perpetua said...

COunt me in for loving to see your questions. I think one of the aspects of pedagogy I've struggled with most since grad school is how to frame appropriate questions/ topics for them. I end up coming up with things that are too complicated for them which just defeats and frustrates them. I really LOVE your assignment structure. I used to implement a version of the same, but I think yours is a better version. I feel inspired. It's easy to spend all one's time complaining about the skills students don't have (especially skills they "should" have already), but much harder to figure out how to GIVE them those skills. Of course we are never taught how to do these things in grad school.

I don't know if I'll have time to re-structure my assignment schedule this spring (my spring is going to be ridiculously crammed full of crazy, which is another problem academics face that leads to bad teaching - usually I'm better at not being overloaded so I can focus on my classes) - but next year, for sure.

Information Professional said...

I really like your approach, and I wish more faculty would follow a similar model. One thing you might consider adding: when the student is at the stage of researching for their chosen topic (assignment 4), require them to meet with a librarian or archivist to discuss their search strategies and the available tools to help them be successful (and efficient) at finding what they need.

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