Things I Don’t Know

I often talk about the importance of admitting what I don’t know.  Most of the time, that relates to the classroom environment.  I talk about how students can tell when we are faking knowledge, though it sometimes takes them some time to do so, and how that undercuts their faith in us.  Over time, if we are unwilling to admit our ignorance, we will develop a reputation as someone who is more concerned about how they appear to students than actually teaching well.

We are often ignorant of things outside of class, as well, and we need to be equally willing to admit it in those situations, as not owning our not knowing can also cause trouble there.  For example, this past week, I received an email from a student in an introductory course, and she wanted to get an incomplete for the course.  She was also withdrawing from the university.  I had never heard of such a situation (even after thirteen years here), and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Part of me wanted to go ahead and respond to the student, as it was clear she needed an answer quickly, given the date for withdrawing from the university was just a few days away.  Instead, though, I forwarded the email on to my department chair and asked for her input.  She told me that the situation didn’t make sense, and she told me who to call the next morning.  I did, and we cleared everything up, and now the student has all the information she needs to make the best decision for her.

Admitting our ignorance helps even more when it comes to advising.  Even though I have been advising students here for the past thirteen years and have won our award for excellence in advising (sorry for the horn tooting, but this fact will just further show my point, I hope), I call or email someone for help with a question about once every two to three weeks during our advising time.  Sometimes, it’s a question about where a certain class can count or not; sometimes, it’s where they go to change something or to get something corrected; sometimes, it’s a problem I’ve never hit and couldn’t even imagine.

This willingness to call or email people to clear up problems comes from the fact that I have seen mistakes made that truly affected students or I have made those mistakes myself.  The one that I will always remember came about eight years ago when a professor advised a student incorrectly, and it affected one of my classes.  The student needed to take a writing practicum to earn a minor, and the professor told her that our literary magazine would count.  When the student discovered that it wouldn’t, she had to find something else during her final semester.

I was teaching an American Novel course for the first time that semester, and she had planned on taking it.  It was a small class, and it was one of the strongest I had ever taught.  She was one of the strongest students in her group (and, still, one of the strongest I’ve ever taught), so I was looking forward to having her in the class.  Because of the incorrect advising she received, though, she was unable to take it.

Granted, this didn’t keep her from graduating, but it could have, and the problem could have been cleared up if the advisor asked one simple question instead of guessing.  Such questions come up every semester for most of us as advisors, and the solution is simple.  Asking these questions would make everyone–students, those in charge of academic advising, our chairs–much happier, as it is easier to take care of a problem on the front end, then to try to fix it after it has happened.  So, pick up the phone or send an email.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and it can help so many people.

Dinner With a Former Student

My wife and I had dinner with a former student a few weeks ago, and it was an encouraging dinner.  I like keeping in touch with former students to begin with, mainly because I generally like students when they’re enrolled.  Thus, I enjoy getting to see them mature and seeing where they end up in life.  Of course, I’m interested in what kind of jobs they get and whether or not they have families, but I’m much more interested in what kinds of people they become, both as that relates to the discipline and otherwise.

That’s why this dinner was so encouraging.  When we had finished dinner and were driving out of the restaurant parking lot, my wife commented on the student, “He’s like you.  On crack.”  And he is.  We both enjoy reading contemporary fiction, though for slightly different reasons.  I enjoy it as much, if not more, as a reader than I do as a way to improve my own writing, though I definitely learn from the writers I read.  He is much more interested in his writing, as that’s where his passion is, so he talks about them from that angle.  Thus, I can learn from him, and, I hope, he can still learn from me.

He simply attacks the reading with a passion very few students I have ever taught have.  He will read and re-read books he thinks are great, then he will try to learn as much as he can about the author and how he or she wrote the book.  He’ll watch every interview or conversation with the author he can find, in addition to reading reviews and interviews online.  He does so not because he wants to become smarter in some abstract sense, but because he truly loves what he reads.

On top of that, he talks passionately about his writing, but he also sees it clearly.  He is one of the few former students who has continued writing on a regular basis after graduation.  He is not focused on publishing, as most (including me, at times) are.  Instead, he simply wants to improve.  He writes long drafts, then spends weeks revising to try to get down to what the heart of the story is, then goes back and writes more, exactly what we ask of our student writers.  He asked if he could send me a draft when he gets something that he thinks is worth looking at.  He hasn’t sent me anything yet, and I’m sure it will be weeks still before I see anything, as he will want to make the story better before I see it.

What I’m trying to convey, of course, is that he has passion and enthusiasm for what he reads and what he writes.  He loves what he does, in this regard, and he simply wants to improve.  He talks about wanting to spend his life writing fiction, and I hope he has the opportunity to do so.  As long as he is able to keep this kind of passion, nothing will keep him from doing so.

Outside of the Classroom

Whenever most people think about professors’ work outside of the classroom, they think either of research or committee work.  At the school where I teach, both of those are part of our jobs, but they’re not what I tend to focus on.  Instead, I try to find areas where I can work with students outside the classroom, which is much more enjoyable (for me) and more meaningful.  This week, for example, I’ll be traveling with 11 students and an additional faculty member, as we attend the Sigma Tau Delta (the English honor society, and, yes, our initials are STD) convention in New Mexico.  I’m looking forward to the convention, but I’m looking forward to spending time with the students and getting to know them better.

Perhaps my interest comes from the few years I worked in private high schools.  In my first job, when I taught at a boarding school, we had a variety of extracurricular expectations.  I had to help with an evening study hall in the library once every two weeks or so, and I even had to stay in the dorms (though not overnight) a couple of nights a year.  We were also expected to help with a major extracurricular activity (drama, sports, the yearbook) in some way.  One woman led the study hall for the hockey team, for example.  I was the assistant coach on the varsity girls’ basketball team.  I’ve also been an assistant coach to high school boys and girls tennis (at two different schools) and middle school boys and girls cross country.  I have loved these experiences.

The main thing that I love about these opportunities is that I get to know students in a different way, and they get to know me as more of a person, as well.  At the first basketball practice many years ago, a student who was in my English class asked me how they were to refer to me, if they should call me Dr. Brown.  I replied that I should be addressed the same as other coaches, as I didn’t (and don’t) have a Ph.D. in basketball.

During various trips with these teams, they got to see how I approached sports, certainly, but we also talked about music and movies, went out to eat various places, and talked about almost anything but English.  Once, coming back from the head coach’s house, we performed what my generation called a Chinese fire drill (sorry for the racist connotations there, but I don’t know what these are called now–essentially, when stopped at a red light, everyone gets out of the car and runs around it, usually ending up in a different seat, though I clearly ended up back in the driver’s seat).

At previous Sigma Tau Delta conventions, we developed inside jokes based on speakers we heard or things that have gone wrong.  A few years ago, I tried to take a van into a parking garage that clearly communicated the height requirements, which I equally clearly ignored.  The woman working there stared me down and shook her heard while all the students just laughed.  Another year, a group of students put a ransom note under my door, threatening the health of Moby-Dick, a book they know I love.

Some might argue that this is not a valuable use of professors’ time, that it would be better spent attending conferences of our own or doing important committee work (not meaningless committee work, which we all know happens all too often) or performing research or even simply preparing for classes.  But these extracurriculars do impact my teaching in a positive way.

I am a much better teacher of these students when I get to know them better and vice versa.  They are more willing to engage in class and even work harder because they know me as a person and not just someone who stands in front of them three days a week.  I learn more about their strengths and weaknesses as students, which I can then draw from during the semesters they are in my class.

I have also had more meaningful discussions about their academic careers and lives on these trips than in my office.  We talk about the profession, graduate school, their struggles as they go through serious intellectual and emotional changes on van rides or while waiting in airports.  Essentially, we learn to trust each other more, which can only help the teacher-student relationship.  Not surprisingly, the students I’ve worked with outside class are the ones who keep in touch with me after graduation.  They are the ones I tend to become friends with, and that makes all the extra time and effort worth it.

What Makes a Great Student

Last week, I wrote about what makes a great teacher.  This week, prompted largely by a couple of essays by Ann Patchett (in her great book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), I want to think about what makes a great student.  The one aspect of students’ lives I am sure I will not talk about it is grades, as that has no bearing on whether or not a student is great.  I had a great student who was a regular C and D student, as she exemplified what I’m going to talk about.  Not surprisingly, many of them do make As, but that’s not their goal or motivation.

First, they are active learners.  I don’t mean that term in the way that education folks use it today, as some sort of catch phrase for something we professors do in class.  Instead, I mean that they are actively engaged in their educational process.  In class, that means that are fully involved in whatever is going on, whether that’s a PowerPoint lecture being read to them or a class discussion.  Outside of class, they’re looking for more information or different viewpoints on the subject to broaden their view of whatever the subject is.  Here’s what Patchett writes in “Fact vs. Fiction”:

“There are two kinds of educational experience you can have in college. One is passive and one is active. In the first, you are a little bird in the nest with your beak stretched open wide, and the professor gathers up all the information you need and drops it down your gullet. You may feel good about this—after all, you are passionately waiting for this information—but your only role is to accept what you are given. To memorize facts and later repeat the for a test might get you a good grade, but it’s not the same thing as having intellectual curiosity. In the second kind, you are taught to learn how to find the information, and how to think about it, for yourself. You learn how to find the information, and how to think about it, for yourself. You learn how to question and to engage. You realize that one answer is not enough and that you have to look at as many sources as are available to you so that you can piece together a larger picture.”

That leads me to my second point; great students are intellectually curious.  This is related to being an active learner, but it goes beyond it in that it might have nothing to do with class.  These students are always reading or exploring something that has nothing to do with their classes.  Perhaps they’re biology majors who also love reading poetry or poetry students who practice tae kwan do or art majors who read philosophy.  Whenever I teach creative writing classes, I point out how often the writers have some separate interest like this and show students how it informs their writing.  I want them to see that they need to go beyond class if they want to grow as people, which is how one grows as a writer.

Next, they need and want to contribute to the conversation of the discipline or subject.  This sounds, again, like active learning, but it is quite different.  When students make comments in class or write their papers, they often simply want to show how much they know.  Those students are definitely engaged in class, and they are actively participating  However, great students want to enter into a conversation, not dominate it.  They ask questions because they are curious, not because they want to show off what they know (professors often do the same thing at conferences, by the way).  They make comments that further discussion, not shut it down.  These students know that they are learning from others around them, and they hope to provide ideas to further everyone’s learning.

Last, undergirding all of these ideas is humility.  I have seen students learn without being humble, but it is much more difficult.  More often, I have seen arrogance prevent students from any real learning.  Great students know how and when to admit that they’re wrong, that they’re view of the subject or world is flawed.  They can then adjust and hear someone else’s viewpoint, take it and change it in whatever way they need to, then make it their own.  They know that the subject matter and the world are wide and they are just one person trying to understand; they know that thousands of people have come before them and will come after them in the conversation of whatever subject they are interested in.

So, why does all of this matter for professors?  We not only need to find ways to teach students to be this way, we need to model it.  We need to come to our subjects with curiosity and passion, even after we’ve dealt with the same ideas for two and three decades.  We need to enter into a conversation with students, listening for what they have to say about the subject.  We need to be humble and remember that, while we know a great deal about our subject, we don’t know everything, not by a long shot.

Students need to see us living out these ideas, which is how they’ll begin to see and believe that such an approach is the right one for their discipline.  It will also make classes much more enjoyable, I would bet, and that’s never a bad thing.

What Makes a Great Teacher

I have to relate a brief conversation that happened this past week, and I must admit I’m rather sheepish about using it as an introduction here.  However, it truly is what got me started thinking about this subject.  I was walking out of a meeting with a couple of faculty members, one of whom I don’t know well at all.  He commented that he sees me in their building often, and I admitted that I teach there two days a week and that I like those classrooms better than ours.  He then said, “I try to sneak by and listen to your classes.  I’ve heard you’re a great teacher.”  Now, I don’t really think he eavesdrops on my classes, but it was nice of him to say that he’s heard good things about me.

Of course, his comment caused me to start thinking about what makes a great teacher.  I remembered a breakout group I was a part of more than a decade ago.  We were having a similar conversation when one of my colleagues from the education department confidently proclaimed, “We know what makes a great teacher.  We have a rubric.  I’ll go down to my office and get one.”  Thankfully, we stopped him or her (I don’t remember which, honestly) from doing so.  I brought up the point even then that, for every idea about great teaching someone could bring up, I could mention a teacher I had had who broke that rule quite clearly, which is what makes the conversation so difficult.

There’s another complicating factor in this discussion.  I’ve often wondered how much of being a great teacher is innate and how much can be taught.  I read an article this past week from someone who used to teach in an MFA program, and he argued that writing talent is largely innate.  He said that someone can have a bit of talent and work hard and be wildly successful, just as someone can squander talent and not be successful, but he firmly believed there were people he called the Real Deal, and there weren’t many of them.

I’m not sure if that’s true in teaching or not, but I think it might be true.  I’ve seen people work and work to try to become better teachers, and they just don’t really improve very much.  In some ways, it appears that it doesn’t come naturally to them.  They take ideas from people whom they have seen be quite successful or they read essays and articles full of good idea to improve their teaching, but it just never takes.  There seems to be something about great teachers that people can see one of the first times they step in front of a classroom.  They still have to improve, but there is something there that other people don’t have.

With all of that said, let me try to throw out a few ideas of what I think makes a great teacher, saying quite clearly that all of this (and I do mean all of it) is up for debate, even in my mind.  Still, here’s what I’m thinking right now, at least.

Great teachers are passionate.  I was meeting with a couple of colleagues this past week to discuss papers from graduating seniors (we have portfolios in our department, and we were talking about some of those).  When we were discussing one essay that wasn’t as strong as it could have been, one of the professors admitted that they (vague gender in pronoun on purpose) had taught the student, and they should never have let them (again) write on the subject.  It was too broad, and they should have helped the student narrow it down.  As they were talking, they were slapping papers on their knees and becoming quite animated.  They were frustrated still, even a couple of years after the class, that they had not helped that student see the problems with the topic.  They wanted the student to write the best paper possible, and they still felt frustrated that hadn’t happened.  That’s passion.  I could also talk about enthusiasm for the subject, but that tends to sound like we’re cheerleaders in class, and many of us are not.  However, in some way, students have to know we love our material; otherwise, they won’t care.

Great teachers love students.  This is one I’m not sure I really agree with.  I had a professor in graduate school who admitted to me after he was retired that he didn’t miss teaching at all.  He said he could still work out the arguments in his head, just as he did when he used to plan classes, so there was nothing to miss.  It’s clear he was leaving the students out of the equation.  However, I’ve seen too many bad teachers who clearly have no interest in the students that make me think this idea is true much more than it is false.  I’ve never understood why people become teachers if they don’t like students.  Granted, I don’t want to spend every weekend hanging out with students–their lives are quite different than mine, thankfully–but I do want to spend some time with them and get to know them as people.  And I look forward to hearing what they have to say in class.  I genuinely like them as people, which leads me to want to help them learn as best they can.

Great teachers are continually learning.  This is not an argument that all professors need to do research, just that all of us need to keep learning.  Given that I teach contemporary fiction, that means that I’m keeping up with who the new writers are, so I can share them with my students and possibly incorporate them into my classes.  I had a colleague who taught the same material over and over, never changing his approach or the works he taught (in a class like mine on contemporary literature, which seems to always be changing).  He taught well enough and students liked him, but his classes lacked an excitement that great teachers’ classes have.  Even someone teaching Shakespeare can keep up with the research and bring new ideas into the classroom.

Great teachers are always trying to be better teachers.  Out of all the colleagues I have whom I would think of as great teachers, none of them has settled in and said that they have nothing more to learn about teaching.  They are consistently learning about teaching and, more importantly, talking with their colleagues about teaching.  We must keep learning from each other, taking what works for us, to improve our pedagogy.  Such an approach can help all of us improve, no matter if there is something innate that makes great teachers or if we can all become so if we just keep working to improve.
I’m sure I’ve left out something (or many things), so feel free to chime in.