Admitting What’s Wrong

Last week I talked about professors who don’t know that something’s wrong with their classes.  They continue doing what they’re doing without any kind of substantive reflection.  As long as their grades and evaluations are at least fair (though sometimes professors simply blame the students for low scores in both areas), they will keep doing whatever they’ve been doing for the rest of their careers.

I mentioned that I struggle with teaching composition, especially, but I also want to talk about a time that I was very much that professor I mention above.  Not surprisingly, it was my first two years of full-time university teaching.  I had taught part-time before, but I rarely had official evaluations, either from students or supervisors.  I didn’t have enough experience to know if the grades were where they should be, either, or, more importantly, whether students were learning what I wanted (at times, I’m not sure I could have talked about what I wanted with any kind of cogency).

The first year, I simply taught first-year writing, which I’ve already talked about.  I wanted to talk about my literature classes, as the major classes should be where I was the strongest.  I taught a U.S. Literature I and a World Literature II that second year, and they both had their struggles.

One day, my then-girlfriend came to visit me, and she sat in on the U.S. Lit. class.  We were talking about Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  I thought we had a good discussion, starting with how I started every class:  “Any questions to start us out?”  We went from there, meandering through a variety of topics.  Discussion went well, as students always react strongly to that piece by Edwards.  When I asked my girlfriend (who had taught high school) afterwards what she thought, she responded, “The classes didn’t really seem to have a point.”

She was right.  None of my classes really had points.  We simply talked about the reading with no clear goal in mind, ending simply when we ran out of time.  I didn’t have any clear objective in mind for that particular class meeting or any way to connect it to a larger narrative of the class as a whole.

World Lit. was worse.  It was a 75-minute class period that met on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.  Since that freed up my Friday afternoons, I would go see a movie every week.  On Mondays, they students would ask about it, and I would then talk about the movie and what I thought of it.  Such a digression would be fine if it lasted five or ten minutes.  We had ample time to talk about the material, and it could have become a pleasant enough way to begin every class.  If I were clever enough, I could have even tied some of the movies to what we were going to discuss that day.

I didn’t, though.  Instead, I would sometimes spend thirty or more minutes talking about the movie.  The reality is that I was teaching material I was unfamiliar with.  Since I didn’t have clear objectives for class meetings or a larger narrative for the class or even enough initiative to do the work needed to prepare for a 75-minute discussion on the work or works we were discussing, I needed something to fill the time, and I used the movies I watched.

Worse yet, I assigned a 15-20 page paper to this class, mainly because I had heard from a student (an English major, no less) that the longest paper he had written in his time at our university was a 10-page autobiography in the Intro. to College course.  I wanted to rectify that problem, so I made sure these students didn’t have that experience.  However, I gave them no real guidance on writing these papers, the longest of their careers.  Not surprisingly, many of them began to fall apart at the 10 or 12 page mark.

One would think that I was savaged in my evaluations, but they were almost all positive.  Essentially, I got by on my youth and personality.  I was only about a decade older than my students, and I still liked what they liked.  They saw me as just a slightly older version of themselves, so they were more forgiving than they should have been.  I also teach at a school that values extroversion.  Though I am not as extroverted as people believe, I certainly give out that perception in the classroom.

What changed was that I left that job to take a librarian position on the other side of the country.  I was rehired the next year (long story), and I came back with a renewed enthusiasm for teaching.  I actually began working on my pedagogy, not just knowledge of my content area (though I definitely worked on that, as well).  Since then, my classes have improved rather dramatically.  I’ll always have a ways to go, as the blessing and curse of teaching is that we never figure it out.  I’m looking forward to more years of trying, though.

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