Talking/Reading About Teaching

For most professors, summer is a time to catch up on whatever we don’t have time to do during the semester.  For those at more research-driven institutions (and those of us at teaching institutions who like to do it), that often means research or writing or something to move projects along or finish them up.  Other professors spend time working on their upcoming classes, perhaps looking at new textbooks or revamping syllabi.  Of course, there’s a bit of time for vacation in there, as well.

What always surprises me is how little we actually focus on teaching, both in the summer and during the school year.  When we think about improving our classes, we focus only on the content; we work to keep up in our fields, but we don’t worry about pedagogy.  Even when we talk during the semester, we talk about students or our research, not teaching, or at least not very often.  We tend to believe that improving what we know about our fields will automatically improve how we get students to understand that knowledge themselves.

For my first few years of teaching, I didn’t worry about pedagogy, either.  My course evaluations and chair observations were strong, and students enjoyed taking my classes.  I know that sounds like I’m singing my own praises, but every indicator said that I was an above average professor.  And then I had a very brief conversation with a student at graduation.

He found me afterwards, and he introduced me to his mother, which was very nice.  His introduction, though, was odd.  He told me his mother’s name, then told her mine, then paused for a few seconds as he thought about how to describe me:  “He’s my . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . funniest professor.”  Almost immediately, then, he asked me if I had seen another professor, one who definitely wouldn’t be described as “funniest.”

While this student and I definitely didn’t agree on pedagogy, as I later learned, I still didn’t want to be known only as a humorous professor.  I wanted to challenge students to do their best work, so I needed to get to work learning how to do so.  I had to stop coasting on whatever natural ability I had and start doing whatever work it took to move my teaching to the next level.

I started reading books about teaching and trying to put whatever I thought might work in my classes to use.  Not surprisingly, my course evaluations improved, as did the observations by my chair.  More importantly, though, my relationship with students changed.  While they still see me as someone who tries to be funny (that’s part of who I am), they also now see me as someone who will demand their best work, while supporting them as they try to rise to that level.

I was reminded of this when a former student (from our university; I didn’t ever get to teach him) wrote to talk to me about teaching.  We ended up talking about books, and I suggested a few to him.  I’ve looked at a few more this summer, and I have a couple I’m waiting for our library to process.  Thus, I’ll end with a few books that can help any professor improve.

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain.  Bain studied some of the best college teachers (thus the name) and drew conclusions based on those observations.  You’ll hear this book mentioned often and for good reason.

Engaging Ideas by John Bean.  This book slants a bit toward writing, which might not work as well for those disciplines that don’t focus as heavily on that aspect of learning, but it’s still worth your time.

On Course by James Lang.  While this book is aimed at beginning faculty, I found it quite helpful when I read it this summer.  Lang does a good job of laying out everything faculty need to think about when running a class.  Even when I had already made my decisions about the subject he was discussing, seeing the various options again helped remind me why I made the decision I did.  He also writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education, so you can read some of his thoughts there.

The Teaching Professor.  Not a book, but a newsletter that comes every month.  I find a wide variety of teaching ideas here, and the design of the newsletter is toward practicality.  It’s a bit expensive, but many institutions have subscriptions.  It’s also quite short, so it’s easy to read quickly.  You can see some of the ideas that have appeared there before at their blog:  Faculty Focus.

Teaching With Your Mouth Shut by Donald Finkel.  For those professors who want to talk less in their classes and get students to talk more.  No matter how much class discussion I have, I always want more, and this book has lots of ideas on how to do that.

Teaching At Its Best by Linda Nilson.  This book was designed for faculty at Vanderbilt, and it is steeped in research.  The chapters are short, so it’s easy to skim through and focus on whatever subject interests you.

The Course Syllabus by Judith O’Brien.  I read this book nearly a decade ago (when I made the decision to improve my teaching), so I don’t remember the details.  What I do remember, though, is that it changed the way I thought about syllabi.  It’s short, but it does a good job of reminding us what a syllabus is for.

If you’re curious, the two books I’m waiting to read are Discussion in the College Classroom by Jay Howard (James Lang just talked about this book last week, incidentally) and Contemplative Practices in Higher Education by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabi Bush.  If you have other ideas for good reading on pedagogy, send them my way.


4 thoughts on “Talking/Reading About Teaching

    • Certainly What the Best College Teachers Do, as it’s just about good teaching. The same goes for Discussion in the College Classroom, though parts of it won’t work at all, especially the online parts. Engaging Ideas is good for writing ideas, and Teaching With Your Mouth Shut makes sense for anyone teaching English.


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