Two Articles

I ran across two articles over the past few weeks that interested me, so I thought I’d talk about both of them in one post.  They’re not really related, save for the fact that they both strike me as rather positive (the first much more than the second).

The first, “The Small but Cool Moments of Faculty Life,” is exactly what the title promises.  Jennifer Burek Pierce goes through a variety of positive experiences those of us who teach get to have, whether that’s seeing their minds at work in their writing or helping a student find a library book.  For those Harry Potter fans, she even quotes Dumbledore:  “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

I like her approach here, as it is easy to be overwhelmed by the demands of full-time teaching (and I say that after I spent most of the Friday of Easter break grading papers).  We go from one stack of papers to a committee meeting to writing letters of recommendation, and it often feels like teaching or having meaningful interactions with students is our last priority.  As we move toward the busy time that is April, this essay is a good reminder of why we do what we do and the joys that can be found along the way.

The second, “It’s Not About Hard or Easy Courses,” hits a theme that is near to my heart.  Maryellen Weimer talks about how we often think that a class needs to be difficult to be challenging or meaningful.  She talks about what makes classes difficult is often not the content, but poor instruction (she’s taking apart an argument that says better teaching causes students to learn less, as it makes the course easier).  She also comes back to the core of the matter, which is that we want students to perceive our classes as hard because we’re worried about our reputations.

This essay touches on something I had to learn early in my career (and still have to remind myself of), as most of us do.  If we care about teaching, then we want students and colleagues to see our classes as challenging and meaningful.  However, we often make those two words mean “difficult” or simply “hard,” and they’re not the same at all.  A quiz can be difficult because it’s poorly designed or it covers material the instructor didn’t cover (or cover well); an assignment can be hard because it’s unclear or the requirements keep changing or the students aren’t prepared for it.  While such situations might help students learn to learn on their own, that’s not the kind of learning we’re aiming for.

A class should be challenging because the professor has high standards and refuses to let students slide by with sub-par work.  However, the professor should also make sure that he or she clearly communicates those standards (and that they are clear).  Those standards should be realistic, given the level of the class and of the students.  Most importantly, though, the professor should be working to make sure those students have the preparation to reach those standards.  That doesn’t mean that the professor has simply talked through what they are or given a detailed handout.  Instead, the professor should design the entire class to give students practice with clear instructor feedback.  Good instruction should make the class more challenging, but only because it gives students the support they need to reach a level they didn’t know was possible when they started taking the course.

In my mind, Weimer’s essay is positive because it reminds us that good teaching matters.  Most of us have had those moments where we did push students beyond what they thought possible because we created a challenging, yet supportive, environment.  That’s yet another cool moment, as Pierce would say.  I hope you have many of those to come in the remainder of this academic year.

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