End of Semester Reflections

This past semester was one of the weakest I’ve had, in terms of how well students did (which I could tell as the semester progressed).  Part of that was out of my control, as I can’t make students come to class and turn work in beyond my trying to make class interesting and engaging, in addition to the basic grading structure.  There are a few things I can do, though, to try to make classes better moving forward.  Here are a few thoughts.

Composition:  The spring composition classes always struggle more than those in the fall.  This is mainly due to the fact that the students who enroll in it have had to work their way through the composition sequence, unlike the fall, where students test straight into that class.  That’s a variable I can’t control.  However, one problem with the class is that I end with their longest paper (out of three), which is worth 30% of their grade.  They can revise their first two papers after I return them, but not their third, as it’s due the final day of class.  They can meet with me ahead of time, but few students do (in the spring), either due to the busyness of the approach of finals or lack of interest.  What tends to happen, then, is that students who are close to passing end up doing poorly on the final paper and failing.  While I agree that I’m giving them ample opportunities to do well, I still want to make a change to this structure.

Right now, they write a short, more reflective paper (worth 10%) early in the semester, then two more substantial papers (worth 20% each), and then the final paper (30%).  I’m going to change those assignments to three papers that they can revise for a higher grade, then have the final paper be an extension of their longer paper.  Students at this level have a difficult time writing an 8-page paper (which is what we’re required to assign), so scaffolding the paper might help them do better work.  Also, it will lower the stakes a bit, which should give them a better idea of how they’re doing earlier in the semester.

Also, I’m going to move to some sort of contract grading (here‘s one professor’s description and reflection on the practice).  Mine, though, will have more guidance as to the quality of work, not just the quantity.  I’ll have a brief rubric (of sorts) that focus on the four main areas of writing (thesis, structure, evidence, grammar and citations) we discuss in the class, showing them what they need to do for each level of writing (Advanced, Basic, Competent, and Failing).  The contract will show them how many papers at each level they need to earn a certain grade (three papers at Advanced, one at Basic, and a certain grade on quizzes/daily work to earn an A, for example; I’m still working this approach out, but this is the basic outline).  My main goal in moving to this approach is to help me give them more positive feedback.  Rather than simply trying to justify their grade, I’m hoping to make comments on these areas rather quickly, then make positive comments that will help them revise their papers and make them stronger, something I’m not particularly good at it.

World Literature:  This class is challenging, given that I like discussion in my classes, but there are normally 30 students in this class.  It’s an easy place for students to hide, and many of them want to treat it like any other Humanities elective, where they can come in and take notes off a PowerPoint slide, then give them back on an exam (I don’t use PowerPoint, for the record).  I need to change the culture of this classroom to make it clear they won’t do that in my course.

I don’t know if I’m going to get rid of exams in the class yet, but I’m moving that direction.  I want to make it much more active than it currently is, so I’m thinking of alternative forms of evaluation.  For example, after a couple of weeks discussing poems and stories having to do with love or death, I might have them write a poem or story of their own.  Along with that creative work, they would turn in a short paper showing how they used ideas/techniques from what we’ve studied in their work.  I’m hoping such an assignment will get them to think about the literature in a more creative way, while also making sure they understand it.

I’m also going to make the class more thematic.  I’ve become less enamored with chronological approaches lately, and this class seems a good place to see if a different approach will work, as it’s a general core class.  Most of the students aren’t English majors and won’t go on to take other English classes.  No one can make the argument that I must cover certain material in a certain way, as they often do.  The thematic approach should help with revising the assessment, as well.  If such an approach works, I might be able to apply it to major surveys, as well.

Upper-Division English Courses:  I’m not sure what I’ll be teaching in the spring, and I know I’m not making major changes to the Contemporary Literature course I’m teaching in the fall, as it’s working rather well right now.  I’ll have fewer students, so I’m going to focus on giving them good writing feedback throughout the course.  One minor change I might make, if I can think through it is to put them in writing groups of 3 or 4 for the entire semester.  Then, they’ll get feedback from each other on their shorter writings before the major paper nearer the end.  I’m still thinking through that.

If I have another 400-level course in the spring, which is a distinct possibility, I’m thinking about lessening the reading load and including more reading of theory to help them work on different approaches to reading the same work.  If the class is American Novel, I’m thinking of making it more along the lines of Race and Gender in the American Novel.  Then, we would read a novel every other week or so, along with works from critical race and gender theories to see a variety of ways to read the works.  I’ll think more about that once I find out what I’m teaching.

Despite last semester’s not going as well as I would have liked, I’m excited for the fall.  I think these changes should make the classes stronger and help students better understand what I think is truly important.  I’ve decided that my ultimate goal for writing classes is to make students competent writers on a college level, while, for literature classes, I want students to want to keep reading after they’ve graduated.  There are other competency-based goals for majors, of course, but many of our majors don’t go to graduate school or become teachers.  Thus, I want literature or writing to continue playing a role in their lives, so that should drive how I structure and teach my classes.

I’m sure I’ll write about these changes in the fall and talk about how they’re going.

Knowing Who You Are

As we’re coming to the end of the semester and year (we had graduation Saturday, for example), I’ve been reflecting on what makes an average professor good or a good professor great.  At our university, we give out a few faculty awards around this time, which always leads me to think about how and why some people not only succeed, but thrive, and why others merely exist and sometimes seem to prevent learning from taking place.

One characteristic we don’t talk much about is self-knowledge or simply knowing one’s self (to go back to the ancient Greeks).  It’s one of those things that we can’t measure, so it doesn’t get any real focus in our time of assessment worship.  However, it’s at least one marker of a difference between those who succeed and those who don’t.

Let me quickly say, though, that self-knowledge doesn’t prevent professors from taking feedback or continuing to grow or learn as a teacher.  In fact, the opposite is true.  If professors know who they are, they are more comfortable accepting constructive feedback (whether from peers or students) because they can see where those suggestions do or don’t fit with who they are.

For example, my classes are centered around discussion; one of my main strengths in the classroom is in creating an environment where people feel comfortable teaching.  When I lead a semester study abroad program for the university a few years ago, I wasn’t able to really build those relationships, a fact several students commented on.  On the one hand, some of those students had an idea of what our relationship would be that isn’t me; they wanted me to be their friend, not their professor.  Because I’m comfortable in my role, I knew that approach wouldn’t work for me.  However, what I did learn is that I do much better building relationships with students in class first, then moving to know them better outside of the classroom.  Their criticisms were partly valid, but I had to know who I am in order to hear what I could improve upon.

Professors who don’t really know who they are, though, suffer from two problems, sometimes simultaneously.  First, they take ideas from a wide variety of people and places, even though those ideas will clearly not work for who they are.  Because they see those people as successful, they will then try to force them into their classes (or even onto their personalities).  I remember an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter (yes, I know how old that reference is, but it stuck with me, so perhaps there’s some truth in it) where Mr. Kotter has a student teacher, and she is not doing well.  She comes in one day and tries to be just like Mr. Kotter, complete with his type of humor.  Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  It’s only when she starts developing her own approach to teaching that she becomes successful.

Quick side note: when we start out teaching, almost all of us are little more than an amalgamation of our favorite teachers and professors.  We steal from any and all of them to try to put together our first few classes because we don’t know who we are yet as teachers.  The good/great professors work through those various masks (essentially) to ultimately find who they are (think Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence here).  There’s nothing wrong with imitation in the early days; staying there is the problem.

The second problem for professors who don’t know who they are is a refusal to take feedback or ideas from anyone or anywhere.  These professors say there is nothing they can learn from student course evaluations, yet they also don’t seem to welcome peer or administrative observations.  They stick to their teaching approach without deviation for years and years, often not only not changing their pedagogy, but not changing their classes in any way.

What’s really odd is when one sees a professor veer between these two extremes, sometime in the same week.  They complain about how their classes are going, so they run from one person to another asking for ideas on how to improve their pedagogy and classes.  Then, they end up not making any of those changes and continue to teach as they always have.

Professors often tell their students that the point of education is not career preparation; rather, it is the search for self-knowledge.  That’s definitely true for students, but it’s also true for professors.  We need to spend time exploring who we want to be in the classroom and work toward becoming those people, in the same way we want our students to do so.  If we know who we are, we can better help students find out who they want to become, as well.