Reputation

I hear a number of professors talk about the idea of reputation and how it affects various parts of their jobs.  Some argue that it affects their class sizes (either their reputation or someone else’s, usually when that other person’s class is more popular), evaluations (see what I said about that last week, if you’re curious), or even simply how students perceive them.  Thus, I’ve been thinking about our reputations, why they might matter, why they might not, and what we can do about that, if we care. Continue reading

Evaluations

It’s the end of the semester (or a week or two after the end of the semester for many of us), so it’s the time of year when people talk about student course evaluations, whether that’s colleagues or The Chronicle (see this article, for example, and see the comments to see just how energized this discussion gets people).  Almost all of that discussion is about how awful student evaluations are, how they are not useful at all, and what is wrong with the entire process (I would like to note that almost none of the conversation is about our personal evaluations, as we almost never share those with our peers).

I’d like to take a different tack on the issue.  I actually think student course evaluations are a great way to evaluate our teaching, and they have much to say to help us become better teachers, provided they’re designed reasonably well (if I only expect reasonably well from professors’ assignments, I won’t expect more here) and delivered properly.  Also, I’d like to point out problems with the main solution people tend to offer as a replacement for student evaluations:  peer evaluations. Continue reading

Endings and Beginnings

At the end of every semester/year, I think through what worked well in the past year and what will need changing.  Given that I taught a class we made significant changes to just this past semester and that my first-year composition class clearly hasn’t worked the way I would like it to, I know I’ll need to change a few things about next year’s classes.

The Western Literature class is making a transition to a World Literature class.  This semester, I added a number of writers from around the world, many of whom I was not familiar with.  I’m happy with the change, and I like a lot of the literature I’ve been able to add.  I’ll get more familiar with those works in the coming semesters.  However, I had a clear arc for the class the way it was, and I’ve lost that overarching narrative to hold it together, so I’ve been looking for a way to hold it all together.  I think I’m going to use the traditional question of the Humanities: What does it mean to be human?  I’m teaching the class this summer, and, so far, that seems to be working reasonably well.  It at least provides a common question the literature is responding to, as all literature is addressing that question at some level.

Also, I used to begin that class with a quiz and the biography of the author (or authors) we were talking about that day.  However, the biography added another 5-10 minutes, which I could use to talk about the work of literature itself.  I’ve changed the syllabus, so the students are now reading that bio on their own.  I did that in Contemporary Literature, as well.  So far, though, I get the impression that students aren’t reading them, so I’ll have to do something about that for the fall.

For the composition course, I changed it a few semesters ago, centering it around short stories, with a couple of novels.  When I had a strong class, this approach worked quite well.  However, when I had weaker classes (which happened two of the three semesters), they really struggled with the material.  Given that the goal of the class is to teach them how to write, having them struggle with the reading doesn’t help matters.  If this were a literature class, then I would approach things differently, but, since it’s writing, I need to make a change.

Luckily, a colleague of mine was donating some books to a book drive we had, and I saw a small anthology of readings on identity.  Students who take my classes routinely joke that all of my classes come back to identity (which is largely true).  Thus, I’m just going to embrace that idea and explore it more fully throughout the semester.  This theme should work well for incoming students, as they should start thinking about who they want to be as they enter college.  I’m looking forward to that change.

One last change is more basic.  I’ve been trying to cut down the amount of paper I use in classes, and I want students to focus on what’s truly important in a class; thus, I’m getting rid of my long syllabus.  Well, I’m at least getting rid of handing it out and going over it.  Instead, I’m putting it online for the students to look at, if they want, but I’m only handing out a one-page top 10 list of things they need to know about the course.  I’m hoping that will make the first day more streamlined (and we can get to more important matters then), save paper, and show the students what’s really important.

I’m sure some of these ideas will fail miserably, but that’s the nature of teaching.  We keep trying new ideas, some of which work and some of which don’t.  I know I’ll never find the perfect idea for any class, but I can at least continue to make the classes better.

Making the Hard Call

I just turned in grades last week, so I’ve had to struggle, yet again, with what to do with students on the edge of a certain grade, especially those on the edge of passing.  Many students have no idea how much we agonize over this decision.  They might believe we take great glee in giving them an F or not rounding them up from a B- to a B.  The truth, is, though, we do spend a good deal of time (maybe too much time, at times) struggling with this decision.

As almost always happens, I had a student who was just a few tenths of a percent from passing.  The question I always ask myself when I have a student in that situation is, “Will it help this student to take the class again?”  There are times where I think it won’t help them at all.  They’ve learned as much as they’re ever going to learn, and going back through will just give them the chance to add one or two points and pass the class.  There won’t be any difference in their knowledge or skills.

There are other times, though, where I think the student does need to go through the class a second time.  This is often the case in composition classes.  First-year students could simply use more writing experience to help them improve, so a second run through a writing course could be exactly what they need.  I have seen students go through that second time and come out much stronger students in the long run.  Of course, I’ve seen others struggle to pass two or three times or pass on the second try, but not really have improved.  That’s what causes the dilemma.

There is also the question of how we make these decisions when they’re not about failing.  I often tell students I look at attendance and engagement in the class, essentially saying that I’m measuring effort.  Of course, there’s no real way I can know which students put forth significant effort and which didn’t.  Just because one student was present more class days or spoke more than another student doesn’t mean he or she is putting forth more effort, but that’s how we perceive it.

I have had students who miss one assignment, not even one of the major assignments, causing them to drop a half letter grade.  Sometimes, they tell me what’s going on in their lives, so I’m more willing to round a grade up, if they are having a real crisis.  Of course, the student who’s not comfortable telling me about a crisis in his or her life would not receive the same benefit.

One could argue that the only fair thing to do is either round no one or bump everyone up the same amount.  I used to do that, but then I decided that I could at least reward some people, even though others didn’t receive the same benefit.  It is a judgment call, but much of teaching is.  There’s little difference between a 75 and 79 essay, but, over the course of the semester, giving one student the lower grade would result in his or her getting a lower grade than the one receiving a 79 consistently.

I’ve simply embraced the messiness of the system, knowing that I might be making mistakes as I go along.  I’d rather make them and reward a few students than claim some sort of fairness and reward none.  There are drawbacks to that approach, but there are drawbacks to them all.  I’ve chosen the one I can live with.

The Anxiety of Influence

Some of you might be familiar with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence from 1973.  Essentially, Bloom argues that poets begin their writing by imitating poets that have come before them, yet they are trying not to imitate, of course.  They want to create original work, so this influence creates a good deal of anxiety.  Ultimately, the poet must break away from that influence to become great.

I’ve been thinking about this idea in relation to professors and students’ writing (and thinking) lately, mainly because of a couple of students I taught this semester.  They both have a good deal of ability and are some of the best thinkers in their respective classes.  However, their writing (and thinking) is limited because of the influence of one particular professor.

In one case, the student had a professor who had a few clear rules about writing, and she imposed those rules mercilessly.  First, she told the students that, if they used a quote, they had to talk about it for at least two pages.  Not surprisingly, when I assigned this student various papers, she was hesitant to use quotes.  If she used even a handful of them, her paper would quickly approach the double digits.  I was trying to get the student to see that she needed more evidence to support her argument, but she resisted almost all of my suggestions because of this one rule.

Her professor also insisted that they avoid the intentional fallacy (this is where critics try to impose what they believe the author’s intentions are onto their reading–for example, I might argue that Kurt Vonnegut wanted readers to see how awful the Dresden bombing was).  In this case, the student essentially refused to say the author’s name, always writing that the text illustrates an idea.  While I can agree with such an approach, the student’s blind devotion to this idea kept her from seeing anything else.  When we were talking about grammar one day, and I had given them a short paragraph to edit, she couldn’t see the grammatical mistakes, as she kept wanting to comment on the intentional fallacies she saw everywhere.  As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail.

[Quick side note:  I find it interesting that her professor (she was at another university, by the way) is an odd combination of New Criticism (intentional fallacy) and maybe Reader Response (lack of quotes).]

Another student was also clearly influenced by a professor, this time regarding ideas.  No matter what she wrote about, she essentially gave a reading of the work based on what this professor had said about it in the past.  If her professor had not discussed whatever we were talking about that day, she would still draw on that professor’s ideas or works that they had discussed in that professor’s class.  I had to push her, in fact, not to use that professor’s reading of a text as a structuring device for her paper.

In this student’s case, she can clearly think well about literature, but she can only read it through the theoretical lenses she’s been given by this professor.  In fact, I wanted to take away any theoretical approach to what we were reading and have her talk about the works completely on her own.  I think she would be able to do it just fine, given her abilities, but she always put the same lens between her and the texts.

Professors are always going to influence students, and that’s a good thing, by and large.  I had a professor who was clearly influential in my development as a writer and thinker.  However, he also pushed me to go beyond what he said and thought to develop ideas of my own.  It took me several years to get to that point, but his pushing helped me.

So, what should a professor do to help students break free from this influence?  First, they should bring in multiple voices to their classes.  There are a variety of ways to do this.  One way I do it is to have students read a variety of critical articles along with some of the longer works we read.  That way, the students aren’t limited to hearing about my particular way of reading a text.  If I give them articles that come from different backgrounds, they’ll hear a few more ways of reading that work.  Second, I do a lot of class discussion, as I want them to hear how their peers read the text, as well, and I especially want them to see where they read it differently than me or them.

Last, in the students’ work, we have to push them to go beyond our reading of a work.  If a student comes to us with a paper where they essentially read the text as we would, we have to push them past that.  It’s too easy to let ego get in the way here and see their reading the text through our eyes as evidence that they are truly learning, but it’s simply a different version of parroting.  We don’t want students to just use one critics’ view of the work, nor should we let them use our way of reading.

Most students will ultimately break free of the influence on their own, especially if they choose to go to graduate school.  We can better prepare them for life, though, if we encourage them to see a wide variety of readings before they even graduate.  They’ll have enough anxiety then, unfortunately.