Minding Our Mannerisms

We all have a variety of tics when we teach, some thing(s) students use when imitating us, as we know they do (we did the same thing when we were students).  These are different than schtick, as these are unconscious (or at least they began that way).  As we end this calendar year, then, I thought it would be fun to look back over my career and take a look at the way my tics have changed and even the way I have tics in what I emphasize in my teaching.

First, though, I need to say one thing about tics that I always try to convey to my students when we’re talking about public speaking.  We all have tics, and we’re always going to have them unless we become like my friend from my first year of full-time teaching.  She was so worried about any kind of mannerisms that she stood in front of the class with her hands at her sides the entire time, not making any gestures at all.  Of course, this became a mannerism of its own, but at least it was conscious.  There’s nothing wrong with tics as long as they don’t become so distracting that students (or we) can’t function, which almost never happens (and I say that having had some professors with so many (and so obvious of) tics that they seemed a parody of Rainman).

Before I had my first full-time job, I had taught as a graduate assistant and adjunct professor.  If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I didn’t have any tics.  In fact, sometime during the fall semester of my first job, I made such a comment in class, and the students just laughed.  I challenged them to name even one, and they listed more than ten without having to think about it (these were high school students, by the way, who are much more observant than college students when it comes to such things).

From then on, I’ve been much more aware of my behavior in the front of the classroom, though I still don’t try to prevent them from happening.  Still, I miss them.  When I was teaching in my second high school, the students noticed that I used the word “essentially” quite often.  They asked me about it one day, and I admitted I was not aware of using it.  I tried to think of why I did so, and I started my answer, “Well, essentially, . . . ”  Everyone laughed at my response, as I sounded like the characters who surround Bartleby in Melville’s short story, as they all begin to use “prefer” because of his influence.

Oddly enough, though, my mannerisms change almost annually.  If you were to ask my current students about my tapping on the desk before starting class, they would have no idea what you were talking about.  However, just a few years ago, students commented on this behavior quite regularly.  I would take the roll or get what I needed from my folder for that class, then rap on the desk or lectern a couple of times, just loud enough for me to hear, then start class.  I never purposefully stopped doing this; I just know that I don’t do it any longer.

What I find even more interesting, though, is how my focus in class changes along with those mannerisms.  Part of that change is clearly caused by the fact that students change from one class to another, even if none of the material changes.  Thus, they push the class in one direction or another (I use a good deal of discussion, so they have the ability to change the conversation).

I see this in Contemporary Literature more than anywhere else, as I teach it every year.  One year, students became fascinated with the idea of subverting a dominant narrative (the same year as the desk tapping, actually), so everything seemed to center around that idea.  A year or two later, I purposefully talked a good deal about the power of story.  The following year, I had some students who were reading everything quite critically (in the negative sense of that word), so I talked about reading through a lens of faith, essentially giving the writer the benefit of the doubt until she or he proved otherwise, as well as loving one’s neighbor (the characters) as oneself.

Oddly enough, the one theme I’ve become most known for in my upper division courses is one I never purposefully chose.  It found me, one might say.  Students have joked and still joke that we’re going to talk about identity at some point in the course.  It comes up when I haven’t planned, and we end up talking about it regularly throughout the semester.  We all have mannerisms when it comes to themes and interests, it seems.

I have found it is better to embrace these tics rather than to push against them, as my friend so memorably did.  These make us who we are, and students need to see that side of us.  If we deny those behaviors, we become nothing more than automatons, conveying information.  We can use them, though, to help students see us as people who are just as imperfect as they are.


It’s that time of year when student course evaluations come out, now that we’ve turned in grades.  A few weeks ago, during the couple of weeks when our university administers ours, several colleagues and I were talking about evaluations.  Not surprisingly, the conversation turned a bit cynical, given that many professors don’t think much of those evaluations.  The critique is usually that students have no training in pedagogy, so they are not equipped to truly evaluate our teaching.  While I understand that thinking, I’m going to disagree.

That said, let me acknowledge the cynical viewpoint for a few minutes.  During our conversation, one colleague mentioned an article he had heard about and which he later forwarded along to us.  Paul Trout’s “How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluation Scores Without Improving Your Teaching!” (note the exclamation point) sums up what many professors think about the superficiality of the process.  He gives advice, such as “Be Personable and Charismatic!” and “Give Lots of High Grades!” The most humorous part is when he talks about a couple of proven methods to raise scores.  There’s the Oprah approach, which is where the professor shows him or herself to be a victim, earning sympathy from the students, or the Rosie O’Donnell tack, where the professor shows the students with praise (it’s easy to see that this essay was written in the 1990s).

I have to admit that I have seen the latter approach work quite well.  I have worked with a colleague who took that approach to the limit, and they (note gender non-specific pronoun) were one of the most revered professors in the college.  They received accolades from majors and non-majors and earned awards for their teaching.  I saw them teach a few times, and the class was fine, but certainly nothing special.  When I asked some people who knew them, they talked about the interactions with students outside of class, how this professor would praise students who were good, but certainly not great, and make them believe they were the center of the universe.

One approach Trout doesn’t mention that I’ve also seen work quite well is what I’ll call (in keeping with the 1990s theme) the Andrew Dice Clay approach.  This professor shocks students, saying outrageous things in class and doing things that are forbidden, but certainly not illegal.  For example, I attended a faith-based college when I was an undergraduate.  We walked into a humanities lecture once, and the art professor began his lecture on Da Vinci by playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”  On most campuses, that would go unnoticed, but at a school where many students only listened to Christian music or bland, top 40 pop, people talked about it for days.  Professors who curse in their classrooms fall into this category, convincing students they don’t care about the rules; they just want to be real with their students.

I have to admit that I have been good-naturedly accused of manipulating evaluations myself.  When I was early in my career, students would never really criticize anything about my classes.  When they came to the question about how I could improve, they would comment on two things: my jokes and my wardrobe (which is, let’s just say, rather consistent).  My mentor referred to this as my straw man approach.  Since the students focused on these superficial aspects of my teaching, it appeared that I had no real pedagogical flaws.  If I would have done that on purpose, it would have been brilliant.

Honestly, though, I’ve found course evaluations rather helpful in my career, though it does depend on what kinds of questions are asked.  When I was a graduate assistant, one statement that students were supposed to agree/disagree (on the typical five-point scale) with was “Some days I was not very interested in this class.”  Most professors could say that there are some days they’re not very interested in class.  It’s an awful question, and it doesn’t get to anything of importance.

In that same semester, though, I gave my own evaluations and asked students how I could improve the class.  One of the students suggested that I start giving reading quizzes.  Since I was brand new to the profession, I believed students were like me, that they would read whatever was assigned just because they wanted to.  Needless to say, class discussion was lacking.  I started giving quizzes, and discussion picked up.

I have had students suggest that I have an attendance policy for a lower-level writing course where students were placed, partly due to struggles in writing, but also due to problems adapting to college.  A few years ago, students in an upper-level literature class suggested I give more time to work on their final draft and less on their rough draft, as that’s when the time was most needed.  This semester, a student in that same class suggested adjusting that time frame closer back to where I had it.  I’ll take a look at it and see if a bit of adjustment might help them.

In that same class last year, a student pointed out that I had the student do online posts before the class met.  However, I assigned them two stories, but I only required them to post on one.  The student admitted that he or she only read one of the stories.  The requirements for those posts changed this year when I taught the class again.  This year, students commented on how well the posting worked, especially as I worked harder at integrating it into the class.

These students don’t have any pedagogical training (or not much, at least, as some of them are education majors), but they’ve given me comments that help me make my classes better.  Students know their side of the podium much better than we do, so, if we can ask questions that get them to talk about their experiences with the class as students, they can provide us with improvements to our pedagogy.  There are always ways to manipulate systems, and evaluations will never be perfect, but there are ways to make them better.  We should focus on those ways.

Making Time for Teaching

A few weeks ago, I was reading Rachel Toor’s article on habits of highly effective writers.  I ran across this quote, an idea I’ve certainly seen before, but which struck me differently this time:  “Perhaps it’s confidence, perhaps it’s Quixote-like delusion, but to be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. If you second-guess at every step, you’ll soon be going backward. A writer I know likes to say that over the years he has ‘trained’ his family not to expect him to show up for certain things, because they know his work comes first. You have to be willing to risk seeming narcissistic and arrogant, even if you don’t like to think of yourself that way. The work takes priority.  And they might hate themselves a little if they slack off. Along with the necessary arrogance and narcissism, a dollop of self-hatred goes a long way toward getting stuff done. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.”

This led me to think about making time for teaching.  I wonder if we would ever (or could ever) think about teaching in the same way.  Now, some would say that we already do, that teaching dominates their lives in a way they find unhealthy.  Their challenge is to balance the demands of teaching with the rest of their lives.  But, note, even in the way that thought is voiced, teaching is not the priority; instead, it is something else in their lives, whatever it is that people want to balance teaching with.

When we talk about writing in the way Toor is, we say that it is such a priority that we will offend those in other areas of our life in order to make room for it.  We will train our families and anyone else in our life to see that writing is the priority, nothing else.  When we talk about teaching, we talk about it as the inevitable in life, and we then try to carve out time for what our real priorities are around that.  Teaching is, in some sense, what we are trying to avoid in order to have time to do the other things in life we really want to do.

I used to talk like this when I was first hired.  I often complained that I didn’t have enough time to write or read for pleasure or watch movies because teaching (really grading and preparing to teach, of course) took up much more of my time than I wanted.  I was constantly unhappy because my real priorities were pushed to the side because of teaching.  When I came back to where I currently teach, I decided to try to switch those and make my focus the classroom.

While I certainly don’t watch as many movies as I once did or read as much for pleasure, I am much more content now.  First, my teaching improved dramatically once it became the focus, as would be expected.  But, most interestingly, my writing production also improved dramatically.  Once I stopped complaining about not having time to write, I simply started using the time I did have (early mornings, usually) to do the writing I wanted to do.  Because I am prepared for class and have finished the grading I need to get done, I have more time for that writing.  Focusing on teaching made me a better (and more productive) writer.

I wonder, though, if it would be arrogant and narcissistic to train our families not to expect us to show up for certain things because we need that time to prepare for a class, read a scholarly article (or three), or simply to think about teaching, as we do with writing.   Or perhaps we already do this.  Anyone who teaches well knows that doing so requires us to say no to certain things and pulls us away from events (and people) we would otherwise like to make time for.

But the difference is in our rhetoric.  We talk about teaching as if it is whatever interferes with our real lives, not as if teaching is our real life.  If we view teaching as an integral part of that real life, we can change our attitudes toward how we spend our time.  That might actually give us more time to do those other things we want to do.

Peer Editing, Group Conferences, and Other Possible Failures

Teaching, at least as I envision it, consists of trying one thing after another, watching most of them work for at least some period of time, then ultimately failing, leading to some other idea that follows this same pattern.  This cycle doesn’t discourage me.  On the contrary, it’s what makes teaching exciting.  If I could simply continue doing the same things every year, teaching would be rather boring, even for someone like me who really likes routine.

One of the best examples of this has to do with providing feedback on rough drafts, as I’ve tried, and continue to try, a variety of approaches to help students write better final drafts.  Having just graded final papers in all of my classes over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s a bit of history, though, from my approaches.  When I first started teaching, I would assign a paper, take it up, then grade it.  I think I had tried peer editing at some point, but it never really worked.  I then read an article in The Teaching Professor (a great resource, by the way) that laid out a defense of peer editing.  The article said that, if nothing else, peer editing made students have a draft, which should lead to better final drafts just by that one step.  I started using peer editing, and I found the article was right.

I was never fully satisfied with it, though.  Students didn’t seem to be very good at it, even though we did a couple of sample papers as a class, and I gave them a sheet to guide them through the concerns I thought were most important.  Most of the students felt they had no ability to provide feedback, and some of them were right.  When I would look at what they had marked later, they had not only provided weak feedback, some of it encouraged students down a path that was not productive.  Some of the comments were simply wrong.

I still had one-on-one conferences with students, so I could deal with some of those concerns, but that led to the question of why I had the peer editing at all.  The main reason I continued is that I want students to see each others’ writing.  The weaker students can benefit from seeing how the stronger writers handle a variety of issues; the stronger students can give feedback to those students who need more of it.  Unfortunately, students are not always sure who is who, so stronger writers end up listening to weaker ones and making changes that hurt their paper.

In the past few years, based on an article I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I began doing group conferences, effectively combining peer editing and the one-on-one conferences.  This provided two benefits (so I thought): 1) I was there to guide the discussion and counteract bad advice from other students; 2) it provided me with another couple of days of class, as I wasn’t having to use class time for peer editing.

The second point proved to be true, but the first one is only true some of the time.  Students, especially ones in first-year writing classes, don’t know how to weed out the good advice from the bad, even when it comes to me.  They’ll listen to their peers tell them that the paper flows well or that they like the voice, while they ignore my comments about the lack of a thesis sentence or evidence, matters that should concern them much more.

Upper-division students do much better at listening, but even they comment that they would prefer to have a one-on-one conference with me.  Some of them do like feedback from their peers, but some of them say that it is not helpful and that it simply takes away from time they could be talking to me.

So, moving into next semester, the question, as always, is what to do about all of this.  I’m going to try another adjustment to see if it works better.  I still want them reading each others’ drafts, so I’m going to keep peer editing, but I’m planning to move it outside of class.  Students will have to meet in groups before conferences with me, then turn in those peer editing sheets, so I can see what they’re saying to each other.  I’m not sure the feedback will be all that helpful, but it will at least have them engage with what their peers are doing.  Then, I’ll have them meet with me for an individual conference where I can try to make clear what the major concerns are.

Of course, this approach has problems, as well, but every approach in teaching has problems.  What I know more than anything else after my time teaching is that nothing works perfectly or forever.  Every plan is a trade-off, gaining something, but losing something else.  The same is true in life, of course, if we’re honest with ourselves.  Perhaps that’s why I enjoy teaching so much.