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just teaching

This afternoon, I attended a Q & A session for graduates interested or involved in teaching university courses.  It featured a panel of 5 award-winning professors who taught everything from mechanical engineering to marketing.  Aside from a few questions from the floor which sounded more like lectures than queries (grad students can get long-winded and off topic...who knew?), it was an informative session.  The professors had a lot of common sense to offer as well as valuable experiences and numerous examples.  Near the end, I finally asserted myself and asked a question about special situations that arise with students:  when should one be firm and when is it right to show leniency? You know, the old mercy versus justice issue.

As I get to know my students, I recognize potential and abilities in all of them.  I want them all to do well.  But some of them neglect to hand in assignments, miss important classes, or have excuses for late or shoddy work.  I want to give them another chance.  Or acknowledge their potential in some way, but how can I do that without compromising the standards of the course?  In some ways, I guess I am tempted to take responsibility for their education, and I really can't do that.  I can only take responsibility for providing a great learning environment.  What they do with that is up to them.

The practical advice I got today gave me clarity, especially for a few sticky situations I am facing in my class.  Here is what the teachers on the panel offered to us:

1.  Pick your battles.  Select a few key elements that are vital and important to the course.  Inform the students that these MUST be present in order to do well and then stick to it.  Build a learning curve into the course in order to allow students to catch and comprehend these key concepts, but make sure the students know what they have to know in order to pass.  And then be firm! 

2.  You are the Keeper of the Degree!  This means that how you teach should uphold the high value of a university degree, not dilute it.  Grades should not be bumped up out of pity for personal problems or because you see potential or because of a winning personality.  Grades should reflect actual work done in a timely manner, otherwise it is not fair to those who have worked really hard to do well.  Give students resources to get help if they are struggling, offer to look over preliminary work to make sure they are on the right track, even give them a chance to redo an assignment if you feel the circumstances merit it.  But if the work is not being done, let the mark reflect that. Hopefully, it will be a lesson to the student.  On the other hand, if you sense that a student really has it in them to do well, but got lost in the semester for some reason, find some nugget in their work and acknowledge it, even if in a small way. It will hopefully motivate them to do better next time.

3. Have fun in class.  Whatever your personality is, bring it.  Let your students see your passion for the subject and your ability to engage with it in many ways.  If you are having fun and engaging with the material, the class will catch your energy.  Keep it appropriately professional (you are not the students' best friend) and focussed on the material, but don't be afraid to play!

4. Use your mistakes to provide teaching moments.  Letting students see that you are still learning models what  a learner looks like.  Be sure to model anything that you expect them to learn, especially methods specific to your discipline, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

Thanks, fellow teachers, for the good advice and for bringing cranberry chocolate to the session.

the photo:  a row of school desks and typewriters I saw sitting in the desert in California.  Artwork or junkyard?


Lori said…
Sounds a lot like parenting :)
Shelley said…
that's what I thought too. :) and I bet you are great a number 3 Matte.
Anonymous said…
"As I get to know my students, I recognize potential and abilities in all of them.  I want them all to do well.  But some of them neglect to hand in assignments, miss important classes, or have excuses for late or shoddy work.  I want to give them another chance.  Or acknowledge their potential in some way, but how can I do that without compromising the standards of the course?  In some ways, I guess I am tempted to take responsibility for their education, and I really can't do that.  I can only take responsibility for providing a great learning environment.  What they do with that is up to them."

Sounds like the temptation here might be to pastor. What matters most is what you see in the work; what you see in the student should matter much less. As you are teaching at a Canadian university (and not an American "student centered" university) you should be subject centered. You are not paid to produce "good citizens", you are paid to eventually produce good work.

" Be sure to model anything that you expect them to learn, especially methods specific to your discipline, critical thinking, and problem-solving."

The essence of critical thinking is a willingness to admit that one is wrong. From my experience Christianity & critical thought don't go together very well. For most Christians the idea that their reality is possibly wrong (that they do not have personal access to the Creator of the universe) is blasphemy. What one tends to get is the bending of reason to faith and an exercise in apologetics, but not really critical thought. I don't think this problem is unique to Christian ideology, but from my experience, Protestantism in particular is not only less-compatible with critical thinking than secular humanism, but it actually impedes it. I was so worried about resolving the cognitive dissonances presented to Christianity by  "the other" (or 'the world'), that I was less able to understand "it".

Critical evaluation of "spirituality" would involve an honest attempt to evaluate how it is failing us (and it is, quite substantially).    
Matte Downey said…
Thanks for the interesting comments. I would generally agree with the pastor/teacher dynamic that you differentiate. However, producing good work and developing good students are very closely related, at least in my opinion.

I believe it is my responsibility to provide an environment where students and the subject can interact in a dynamic, challenging way. What happens in that meeting place of student/subject is mostly out of my hands, but I try to set an attractive table and prepare a delicious, hearty meal. Not all come hungry, though.

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