Why I Teach

I’ve been thinking about curriculum a good deal lately, partly because our department has been doing a program review, but also just because I read about and hear about what other colleges and universities are doing.  The university where I teach has a rather regimented curriculum both in terms of the general education requirements and within our major.  We don’t give our students all that much flexibility.

I looked back at one of our catalogs from the mid-1990s, and I see that the curriculum really hasn’t changed all that much.  In fact, what we seem to have done in most cases is simply add more requirements on.  The classes are largely the same, though there have been some minor name changes along the way (Intro. to Chaucer became simply Chaucer, for example).

There are two things that worry me about this march through required classes that students have to do. Continue reading

My Students Are Better Than Me

We have a tendency (and I mean every professor I know when I saw we) to sit around and complain about students, talking, especially, about the ways they don’t measure up to how we were when we were students.  We’ve obviously romanticized our past selves, but, even when we’re more honest about how we were, we still believe our students just can’t measure up.  Perhaps because I wasn’t that great of a student, I spend more time thinking about the ways students are better than I was, not only as a student, but as a citizen and general person.

They’re smarter.  More and more of my students come to college already having taken AP or dual enrollment classes, already having read so much more than I had when I went to college.  I hear people bemoan the high school curriculum, but it’s more a shift from a traditional canon of high school readings to a wider variety; they don’t read less than we once did, but differently.  These are students who are doing advanced math and engineering and writing and art that I and my peers just couldn’t imagine.  That doesn’t stop once they get to college, as we have students present original work at national conferences (and that work is good: I once saw one of our alumni present a paper he wrote in his Master’s program, and it was on a subject I wrote on in my doctoral program; I told him, honestly, that his work was better than mine, and he was at a lower level).

They’re more involved.  We often bemoan their lack of political knowledge, trying to catch them out by asking them who the Speaker of the House is, showing how much smarter than we are/were when they don’t know (for the record, I would never have known the Speaker of the House’s name when I was in college; it’s Paul Ryan right now, if you’ve forgotten, as I honestly had when writing this post).  However, these students, probably through the advent of social media, know so much more about what is going on in the world than I ever did at their age.  They talk about wars and unrest across the world, and they work to try to end the -isms that oppress people here in our country.

Not only are they political engaged in a way my peers and I weren’t, they also are more involved in their communities.  I hear my students talk about their weekends where they were delivering food to the elderly or working with a program like Big Pal Little Pal or finding new needs and trying to meet them.  Granted, I work at a faith-based university, so that inclination would be higher here, but I also attended a similar college, and I spent my weekends (when I wasn’t working) sleeping late, hanging out with friends, and doing whatever work for school I needed to do for the coming week.

They’re more globally conscious.  Again, a change in technology might be responsible for part of this improvement, as they simply know much more about what’s going on around the world, but they’re also more curious about peoples different than they are.  They’re more willing to take risks and travel to places where they know no one.  They want to meet people different than they are and learn as much as they can about others and the places those people come from.  They know their view of the world is limited, and they want to change that through direct experience, not just reading or watching shows/movies.

Our students have their faults, as well, and I can certainly complain about students spending too much time on their phones or other devices, watching Netflix when they should be reading or talking to each other, but I also know that they are so much better than I was at so many aspects of life.  We need to acknowledge those parts of their lives, too, not just the ones that annoy us.

Getting By On Flash Cards, or Why I Stopped Giving Exams

I met with a student over the summer, as she was having trouble making the grade she needed on her Praxis exam.  She had taken it several times already and missed by just a few points each time.  When we were talking about the test, she started talking about all of the preparation she had been doing.  Another professor had loaned her an anthology for a class she didn’t take, and she had gone through the table of contents and biographical/background information and made flash cards.  She had looked at a sample test and made flash cards of any terms/ideas she wasn’t familiar with.  She had even ordered some pre-made flash cards from ETS to see if that would help.

She was clearly working hard, but there’s a trend running through her preparation.  After she laid out all of her preparation (which also included a very well-organized notebook that laid out the different sections of the test), she said, “I’ve always gotten through school with flash cards, and they’re not working now.”  I realized then that we had failed her. Continue reading

My Real Student Learning Outcomes

Pretty much anyone involved with higher education knows about Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).  If you teach in the public middle or high school system, you know about state standards.  In both cases, these are essentially descriptions of what students will either know or be able to do once they have finished a particular class.  They can range from something related to content knowledge (Students will be able to recite Pi to 83 places) to a particular skill (Students will be able to add two pages of meaningless writing to a ten page paper without anyone being able to tell).

It’s not difficult to make fun of SLOs, as they’re often terribly specific and, despite the assertions to the contrary, almost impossible to truly measure.  Even when we can measure them, we don’t check in with students a year after the class to see if they can still recall the content knowledge they supposedly learned.  And I’ve read enough papers from students I taught in a first-year writing class to see that, two years later, they’ve completely forgotten to use an actual thesis sentence, despite their having done so for every paper for my class (note that our SLOs don’t measure students’ ability to transfer knowledge/skills to different situations).

Thus, when I’m honest with myself and my students, I admit that I really only have two goals for my students, maybe three, depending on the class I’m teaching. Continue reading