Friday, January 11, 2008

....I just figured it out.

What I just figured out was how to teach. If asked as an undergrad, I never would have thought that 'on the job training' would be how I would eventually figure out how to do this thing we call teaching.

I have to admit that there is some wisdom to the 'you'll sort it out as you go' point of view. Part of being a professional is doing the job using the judgment developed over the course of your training. Also, part of being a professional is having a sense of perspective and a sense of reflectiveness about your work -- along with the ability to change what you are doing to accomplish your goal as you see fit.

Of course, I'd be less than comfortable being represented by a lawyer who hadn't had courtroom training and I'd never trust a surgeon who'd never been formally taught how to hold a scalpel, so the analogy only extends so far.

I guess one thing that makes me think about this is that I'm not sure I am an effective teacher. I have some indications that what I do in the classroom works. My students seem to recall ideas I present. In logic they manage to pass quizzes and exams I write. My ethics students seem to be able to write, in their limited way, about ethical issues. So, in some ways they are at least able to mimic doing philosophy -- which isn't all that bad or unreasonable for first-year philosophy students in unreasonably large classes.

I also seem to have a following of students who at least think they have learned something from me -- and they tell their friends and families. I've had many parents, children, siblings, spouses and other relatives of students from prior semesters turn up in my classes -- I suppose it is one thing to tell your pal that I'm a decent prof, it is quite another to tell your spouse that I'm ok -- that is a risk --- because you know that if you're wrong, you'll hear all about it.... forever.

In terms of formal evaluations, my dean has always given me high marks -- even when she surprised me by showing up in my worst class ever (dead class, me exhausted, in jeans, the day after a long debate trip!)--- or when we'd do venn diagrams in logic that are backwards from the way mathematics does them... My student evaluations are really good, although the value of student evals in general is more than a bit unclear.

Perhaps it is part of the process of teaching college is that you don't know if you are really being effective -- or, if you are just likable enough that the students don't hate you.

I do know that it would have been helpful for me if my grad department had done more to prepare me for teaching. On the job training is one thing, but going in nearly cold the first time was terrifying.

To be fair, I wasn't exactly cold -- but I was definitely cooler than warmer...

I had examples of how to construct a course. I had syllabi from when I took the courses not all that long before.... In one case, that syllabus was constructed by an adjuncting grad-student from my own department. Did she really know all that much more than I did at the time? Did she get the basics of her syllabus from a grad student where she did her BA? In many ways, my current version of that course doesn't differ all that much from what she did many years ago ---- so she probably did something right... or, not.

The thing is, it would have been very helpful to sit down with someone much more experienced than myself to talk about why the syllabus is the way it is. Why are the topics in the order they are? Where do students often have trouble? Where might I get behind the syllabus and what do I do if I do get behind? More generally, what should and shouldn't be on a syllabus?

It also would have been helpful to have information on writing effective test questions. There are numerous studies that conclude the way a question is worded and the way it is put on the page are directly related to the student's ability to answer the question correctly. Just like we tell students to write clearly, the way our exam questions are worded make a huge difference.

Finally, it would have been helpful to know how to write good paper assignments as well as to know how much reading it is reasonable to assign. It would have been wonderful to have discussions about classroom atmosphere, handling late students, when to tell a student to withdraw etc. Learning to hit these sorts of curve balls took me a long time... and some basic advise would have been helpful.

It seems to me that I was lucky, in a way. I got my on the job training packed into a few years as an adjunct, both in Red State and in BNstate. I did the OJT before I started work on my dissertation and before I had the pressure of a new tenure-track job. Granted, I'm now much further behind on my own dissertation than I'd like (because, I'd like to be done -- doesn't everyone?), but I do know why I'm writing it... because I know what I'm getting into.

If (when -- knock on wood) I end up in a tenure-track job in the same location as hubby (be it Red State or the moon... I really don't care!), I'll be able to count on my teaching abilities and teaching experience to let me focus on writing my own stuff. Right now, I'm using that experience to carve out time for my own writing.... and my goal for the semester is to keep my time really MY time (but, that is another post..).

The thing is, it is hiring season and that means there are a whole group of grad students who are about to be hired into departments at universities across the country. They'll have to figure out both how to teach and how to publish at the same time. That can be really, really stressful. Add to that service expectations, conference travel and the stress of living in a new place, and the fact that anybody survives the first couple of years is pretty remarkable.

I suppose the tragedy in all of this is that it doesn't have to be that way. Grad programs can, and should, help their students be more effective teachers. The way I see it, even if you want your grad students to be highly productive and prolific researchers, if they have to learn to teach on the job, then in their first few years they are using mental energy and time they could spend writing, trying to figure out how to teach. Why not save them the trouble and equip them with some basic skills, it will help everyone in the end.

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