Questions I’m Asked I Don’t Know Answers To

Now that I’ve been teaching for more than a decade, I get asked questions about pedagogy or the profession on a fairly regular basis.  For most of these questions, I’ve either developed an answer over the years or I can at least talk reasonably intelligently about them (I think).  However, there are a few that I get asked on a regular basis, by either professors or students, that I just can’t answer.  I thought I’d throw a few of those out this week, along with my thoughts on them.  If you have some good answers, let me know.

How do you generate/create class discussion?

I get asked about this by both professors and students who are planning to become teachers.  My classes center around discussion, and it often goes well.  Of course, being who I am, I’m never (well, maybe seldom) satisfied with the amount of discussion in my classes.  I always want more.  Whenever it does goes really well, though (and that’s happened more often in the past couple of semesters), I’m as surprised as anyone.  I honestly cannot think of anything I have done differently on those days.

My honest answer when people ask me this question is, “I don’t know.  I just ask questions, and they seem to talk.”

I can say that one thing that should exist for good class discussion is a trust between students and the professor (trust between the students also helps considerably, but I’m not sure professors have much control over that).  If students think I’m asking them questions to try to trick them or I’m just waiting to show them as stupid or I already know exactly what they should say, they are much less likely to talk.  If, however, I ask questions that will help promote/provoke discussion (even if I know where I’d like us to go), and they believe I honestly want to hear what they have to say, then they’re more likely to talk.

How do we get students to make better claims/arguments in their papers?

Perhaps I asked myself this question over the past couple of weeks, as I was meeting with students about their papers, then grading those papers.  It’s clear, then, that I don’t have any answer to this question.

The only thing I can say is that we need to have students work on their writing at every level in the major.  Too often, we assume that English majors just learn to write by taking English classes, even if we’re not intentionally teaching them how to write better.  Then, when students can’t write as well as we would like when they graduate, we blame the students (the same is true for all majors where there are skills that need to progress, of course).

Instead, we should give students repeated chances to write as they move up in their career in the major.  We should give them model papers and talk about what makes that paper so good (or papers that aren’t strong and talk about why).  Essentially, we should talk about writing with them, so they have chances to improve.  The papers I graded did end up better than when I first saw them, and I’ll see many of those students again before they graduate, so I’ll see if they learned anything along the way.

Why do professors who clearly don’t like students become professors/remain in the profession?

I get some variation of this almost every semester from students who encounter professors who clearly don’t want to deal with them (there’s another version of this question below).  I can’t imagine why someone would want to be a professor if he or she didn’t like students.  It’s probably not for the money, as most people could make more in the private sector.  It’s probably not for any kind of fame or glory, though it is easier to become known in a small corner of the academic world than in the private sector.

I only have two thoughts as to why/how this happens.  First, at some point, that person did like students, but something has happened over the years to change that.  Perhaps he has become burned out, as teaching is definitely a stressful job.  Perhaps she has had a number of negative experiences with students and wants to simply avoid caring about them now.  We don’t know people’s histories and the effects they can have.  Often, people can’t think of anything else they could do, given their skill set, so they remain in the profession, hoping for an early retirement.

The other reason is more cynical, but I’ve heard it too many times not to believe it of some people.  I have heard a number of professors say that they went into the field or stay in it because of the schedule.  When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine (who never finished, by the way) said that he wanted to be a professor, so he could skip out early or go in late whenever he wanted.  When I was first hired as a high school teacher, a colleague (who was quite a good teacher, by the way), asked, “What are the three best things about being a high school teacher?  June, July, and August.”

I enjoy my summers as much as anyone, but that’s not anywhere near the top of my list on why I became a professor.  I give up enough nights and weekends with grading and preparation (not to mention the events that take place on campus during that time) to trade out for my summers.  In fact, I worked as a high school librarian for a couple of years, and I had much more time then, even though I had a month less time off in the summer.

Why don’t professors want to help students?

I hear this question from students (and some professors) on a regular basis.  In fact, I saw it just this past week on a forum on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website (look at the second question).  This one just puzzles me, though it’s related to the question above.

I’ll give my most generous thoughts first.  Some professors believe that students need to learn how to function on their own, so they don’t do things that they say as holding students’ hands.  They argue that students won’t get that kind of help in the real world, so they shouldn’t get it in college.  It’s tough love, I suppose.

Along those lines, some professors judge their success by how difficult their classes are, which often means how low their grades are.  I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for this approach, and I just can’t come up with one I really like, but I’ll try.  This approach sounds like a coach who defines success as a season where her team doesn’t win a single game.  It sounds like an executive whose company loses every contract it goes after.  These situations make no sense, so I don’t understand why a professor defines success as having a class where few students do excellent work (i.e. make As).

Granted, there will always be students who can’t perform at that level.  But my job is to try to help students get to that level.  My job is to encourage students to attain that level, to provide them the opportunities to improve to that level.  The ideal class would be one where every student does earn an A because he or she is doing excellent work.  I have had classes where a large portion of the class made an A.  Those were great classes.  All (or almost all) of the students were doing everything I asked of them–completing all (or almost all) of the reading, writing draft after draft of their papers, contributing to class discussion–and I could see real improvement over the course of the semester.

If students want to improve, and many of them do, I should be there to help them do so.  The forum question comes from a place I don’t understand, as I would look at any student’s paper before they turn it in if it would help him or her write a better paper in the long run.  Again, not doing so sounds like a coach who turns down a basketball player who wants to stay after practice to work on his shot.  We would think that coach should be fired.

Perhaps underlying all these questions is one my wife and I often talk about.  We hear teachers or professors talk about not doing something because it’s hard or doing something because it is easy.  Teaching is hard, when it’s done well.  Most professions are, actually.  I don’t know where it comes from, but we have this idea that work isn’t supposed to be difficult, even when we love it.  We all need to balance our lives and make sure we are not burning out, but we also need to step up and do the work required to be excellent professors.  If we want our students to be excellent, then we need to work towards that goal, as well.

Different Kinds of Student Success

In the past week or so, we’ve gotten several pieces of good news about current and very recent students, all of which relate to graduate school.  We have celebrated this news, of course, congratulating the students via email, in person, and, more importantly, in front of other students (don’t worry; it’s not like we’ve been bringing them in front of the class or anything, but we sometimes received the news from the student in front of her friends).  This is as it should be, as we should congratulate those students and celebrate with them.

However, I’ve also talked to some other recent graduates in the past month or so, and they are all doing interesting things, as well, but most of them do not relate to graduate school.  We typically don’t celebrate those students, or at least not in the same way.  We don’t make lists of what they do to hand out to prospective students or bring them up at department meetings.  I can’t imagine a meeting where we say, for example, “I talked to Jane–you all remember her, right–last week, and she just got a great job at an insurance agency.  That was great to hear.  She’s going to do so well in that line of work.”  And I certainly can’t imagine someone saying, “I heard from Joe the other day, and he’s moving up the management chain at Target.  I’ve never seen him happier.  We should all be so proud of him.”

Those of us who teach in the Humanities tend to have this type of tunnel vision when it comes to what we consider student success.  Essentially, they need to follow our path (if they don’t go into teaching) in order to be successful.  If they take a non-academic path, we tend to view them as settling for something instead of using the gifts and talents we see in them, as if there is only one outlet for those talents.

What’s interesting to me is that, if we think about it, most people we went to college, probably even graduate school, did not choose the path we did. Out of all the English majors I knew when I was an undergraduate, only two went on to pursue graduate school in English.  Out of my Master’s program, only one person besides me ultimately earned the doctorate and is now teaching college (he was one of the two from my undergraduate, by the way).  I don’t know where people from my doctoral program ended up, unfortunately, but I don’t remember any of them talking about getting a teaching job.  In fact, the ones I knew the best never finished, deciding to do other things (most professors wouldn’t consider them successful, of course).

I had friends who went on to become lawyers, to write for a newspaper, to go into administration in Higher Education, to own a pottery shop, to focus on raising children, to switch fields completely, and on and on.  As far as I know, they all seem quite content with their lives.  Whenever I have asked them if they miss English or wish they would have taken the route I did, they assure me that that is not the case.  Just because that was my path doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s path.

What worries me is that we don’t clearly convey this message to students.  Instead, if they show any significant talent, we push them toward graduate school, as if they cannot use that talent in a wide variety of ways.  Because we only know the one path (most of us were good in school and went fairly directly into our careers), we only encourage them on the one path.  I’ve done some research on our alumni (the first article was published by The CEA Forum and isn’t online, but you can find it at my Academia page, while the second is at Teaching College Literature), and I’ve found that few of them go to graduate school.  Those students should be celebrated, as well.

There are many different paths to success or contentment or happiness or whatever we want to call it that can come from a major in the Humanities.  In addition to teaching my students to think in the way that our discipline does, I want my students to enjoy reading and writing so much that they will keep doing it all of their days, no matter where life takes them after they graduate.  That’s a kind of success I can get behind, no matter what jobs they’re pursuing.

Professors Who Need Help, But Don’t Know It

[Note:  The examples below are composites of people I’ve known over the years from across our campus.  Please don’t try to assign an identity to any of them, as they are made up of several people each (and don’t assume any of them are you).  I’m using past tense for all of them, as all of them have at least one aspect from someone who not longer works here.]

One thing I’ve noticed in my thirteen years of being here (and in higher education) is that there are professors who struggle, but who still succeed, because they know how to take help (and they know that they need help).  Unfortunately, in that same time, I’ve seen a number of professors who don’t know they need help and, thus, don’t take it, or who are aware they need some sort of help, and, for whatever reason, choose not to seek it out or take it.  The first situation is probably cause by some sort of innocence (or cluelessness, to be harsher), while the latter seems caused by pride, but could also be a sort of naivety about how the higher education system works.

For some professors, their problems stem from the classroom.  I have seen a professor simply teach badly and have no idea she was doing so.  She would get bad evaluations every semester, and she would simply not understand why.  Of course, she would often blame the students, saying that they weren’t prepared for the rigors of her class or weren’t willing to do the work required, or arguing that they had something personal against her.  She continued talking in such a way even when all of the evidence pointed to a different conclusion, the one she wasn’t willing to come to about herself.

Those same students succeed in other faculty members’ classes, even the most challenging.  In conversations with those students, I heard that they actually did like the professor and wanted her to succeed.  They even tried to put comments on the evaluations to help her improve, but they never seemed to help.  The professor simply didn’t see that she was the one who needed to improve, and I didn’t know how to help her.

I would talk to her fairly regularly and ask how things were going, only to hear the same complaints.  I would (kindly) point out that those students were doing well in other classes, how hard they were working, and how they seemed to like her, given what I could gather.  She seemed not to want to hear it, though, as if not hearing it would make it not true.  I didn’t know what I could do to help beyond what I had already said.  I’m not sure how to make someone see what they don’t want to see.

In another case, a professor was outstanding in the classroom, but she didn’t succeed within the department.  This isn’t a case of someone not understanding the dynamics or politics of a place, but of someone who seemed not to want to engage.  I seldom saw her outside of meetings, as she was around only the bare minimum number of hours we were required to be on campus (not a way to succeed at our university).  When she received feedback about her behavior, instead of honestly seeking help, she went around the department asking us point blank if she was not collegial (the wording she was given).  A number of us tried to help her see the criticism for what it was, but she never did.

In a similar case, a professor did try to make changes, but they were all superficial.  He talked about keeping his door open more often when he was there, but he did nothing to improve his engagement with his peers or his students.  It was clear from his behavior that he never really wanted to be on campus, that he always wanted to be somewhere else.  Keeping the door open more often didn’t change that.  Unfortunately, when he and I would talk about his struggles, I didn’t know how to communicate the deeper change he needed to make.  I still don’t know how to convey that to someone who is struggling.  What I want to say is that they need to care more about their job and their students, but none of us can make someone else do that.

That is the problem I have in all of these cases.  I don’t know what to tell people to help them improve.  In many instances, they simply don’t see that they need to make any changes, pushing the blame away from themselves onto the students, the department, or the administration.  At other times, the only advice I can give them is practical, which doesn’t get to the core of the problem.  I don’t know how to say to colleagues that they need to care more about the work they do and about their students.

There are skills one can learn to be a better teacher, without question.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there’s not something underneath it all that can’t be taught, that we’re simply born with.  I don’t want to believe that, as that implies that none of these people will ever get better, whether they’re still here or elsewhere.  I do believe people can change, so I have to believe people can become better professors in a way that goes beyond the surface.

In fact, I changed in that way.  I always had a certain level of ability when it came to teaching, but I didn’t begin to really improve until I took my job seriously and really began to care about my students.  No one told me I needed to do it; I simply decided if I was going to spend so much of my life doing something, I should do it well.  Perhaps I can find a way to communicate that to those who need help.  Perhaps, like me, no one can tell them, but they can figure it out on their own.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or the opposite, perhaps)

I constantly tinker with my classes.  No matter how they seem to be going, I’m always trying to make them better, or at least different.  I’m not that professor who hands out a syllabus from three or four years ago, and there’s nothing different on it.  Even if I haven’t changed the actual content of the class, I’ve changed one or more of the assignments.  In each semester, I’m always thinking about what I’m teaching six months down the road or what I’ll do differently the next time I teach whatever it is I’m teaching.

Now, I know full well that I’ll never create a perfect class, as that simply doesn’t exist.  However, I keep believing I can make a class better or at least, in some cases, less bad.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s good just to change a class for the sake of changing it.  It’s easy to get in a routine of teaching the same material in the same way, and I cease to be open to new ideas that could come from the material or from the students’ interaction with it.

Freshman composition is probably the class that gets the most attention, as it’s a blank slate.  Beyond a few guidelines over how much the students write and two general requirements on the types of papers they write, we have free rein to do what we want.  I’ve tried so many different approaches to this class in my thirteen years here that I can’t even remember them all.

Currently, I’m trying to do a literature-based approach.  That went really well last semester when I had one of the strongest classes I’ve ever had.  The first time I taught it, last spring, though, it didn’t go as well, and this semester has been close to a train wreck.  I wrote an essay for InsideHigherEd.com about how badly this semester has gone, but the content of the class hasn’t helped.  I just haven’t been able to generate any productive discussion, and the papers haven’t been very good.  Literature-based classes also make it easier for students to plagiarize.

Before that, I tried having students read about people who performed experiments on themselves (think A.J. Jacobs, who has made a bit of a career doing so; if you don’t know him, think of Morgan Spurlock’s SuperSize Me, though we didn’t watch that).  Students would read excerpts from several books and write on those (one semester I had them keep a blog, which didn’t go well; the technological generation is only technological when it comes to phones, it seems).  Then, they would spend four weeks taking something on or giving something up as their project, then write about it (a mixture of research and personal writing).  This worked really well at the beginning, and some of the projects really affected the students’ lives, which is always one of my goals.  However, as the semesters passed, the papers got worse, partly because the students just couldn’t balance the mixture of personal and research writing.  Also, students didn’t want to imitate previous classes’ topics, so they came up with topics that either were riskier (and I was worried about someone getting hurt) or absurd.

Even in classes that are more traditional, such as literature surveys, I’m always looking for ways to change the structure of the class.  While teaching classes chronologically works on one level, it often doesn’t work in other ways.  Students lose connections between works when they’re taught three months apart, even if we try to remind them of what we talked about in January or August.  I’ve tried theme-based survey classes (I still teaching the first semester of U.S. Literature this way, though, not surprisingly, I’m thinking of changing it the next time I teach it).

In my Contemporary Literature class, which I love to teach, I started out by tweaking it after the first two or three times through it.  I would change one or two of the readings, and I kept adding a few new ones.  Given that there’s nothing approaching a fixed canon in contemporary writing and that people keep generating new material, such tweaking made perfect sense.  I found a set of readings that have worked well for the past two or three years now, as I really like the arc of the class.

That means, of course, that I’m completely starting from scratch when I teach it this summer.  I want to see if there are other works out there that might work better (in some way, and I don’t even know what that way is).  I’m trying all new novels and a number of new short stories and creative nonfiction pieces.  I have no idea how it will work, but I feel the need to try, then reasses to see what I want to do for the fall.

I feel like I’m one of those people who lives in the same house for decades, but who constantly rearranges the furniture or has painted a room since people visited three weeks ago.  This all might be because I used to move around quite frequently.  From the time I finished my Master’s degree to the year when I came back to where I am now (a total of 10 years), I lived in 7 different states, had gotten two more degrees, and had held 5 different jobs at 4 different schools.  Part of me still misses that, and changing courses seems to be my way of dealing with that.

Also, though, I think it’s healthy.  It’s too easy to go into a class and say what I’ve always said (or what my professors once said when I was a student).  In fact, I’ve thought about going into a class where I’ve assigned stories or novels I’ve never read, just heard about, and let us all discuss them together for the first time to see what happens.  I love the idea that I and a class can come up with new ideas together.  Maybe I’ll try that the next time around.  Odds are, I’ll be trying something.