Questions I’m Asked I Don’t Know Answers To

Now that I’ve been teaching for more than a decade, I get asked questions about pedagogy or the profession on a fairly regular basis.  For most of these questions, I’ve either developed an answer over the years or I can at least talk reasonably intelligently about them (I think).  However, there are a few that I get asked on a regular basis, by either professors or students, that I just can’t answer.  I thought I’d throw a few of those out this week, along with my thoughts on them.  If you have some good answers, let me know.

How do you generate/create class discussion?

I get asked about this by both professors and students who are planning to become teachers.  My classes center around discussion, and it often goes well.  Of course, being who I am, I’m never (well, maybe seldom) satisfied with the amount of discussion in my classes.  I always want more.  Whenever it does goes really well, though (and that’s happened more often in the past couple of semesters), I’m as surprised as anyone.  I honestly cannot think of anything I have done differently on those days.

My honest answer when people ask me this question is, “I don’t know.  I just ask questions, and they seem to talk.”

I can say that one thing that should exist for good class discussion is a trust between students and the professor (trust between the students also helps considerably, but I’m not sure professors have much control over that).  If students think I’m asking them questions to try to trick them or I’m just waiting to show them as stupid or I already know exactly what they should say, they are much less likely to talk.  If, however, I ask questions that will help promote/provoke discussion (even if I know where I’d like us to go), and they believe I honestly want to hear what they have to say, then they’re more likely to talk.

How do we get students to make better claims/arguments in their papers?

Perhaps I asked myself this question over the past couple of weeks, as I was meeting with students about their papers, then grading those papers.  It’s clear, then, that I don’t have any answer to this question.

The only thing I can say is that we need to have students work on their writing at every level in the major.  Too often, we assume that English majors just learn to write by taking English classes, even if we’re not intentionally teaching them how to write better.  Then, when students can’t write as well as we would like when they graduate, we blame the students (the same is true for all majors where there are skills that need to progress, of course).

Instead, we should give students repeated chances to write as they move up in their career in the major.  We should give them model papers and talk about what makes that paper so good (or papers that aren’t strong and talk about why).  Essentially, we should talk about writing with them, so they have chances to improve.  The papers I graded did end up better than when I first saw them, and I’ll see many of those students again before they graduate, so I’ll see if they learned anything along the way.

Why do professors who clearly don’t like students become professors/remain in the profession?

I get some variation of this almost every semester from students who encounter professors who clearly don’t want to deal with them (there’s another version of this question below).  I can’t imagine why someone would want to be a professor if he or she didn’t like students.  It’s probably not for the money, as most people could make more in the private sector.  It’s probably not for any kind of fame or glory, though it is easier to become known in a small corner of the academic world than in the private sector.

I only have two thoughts as to why/how this happens.  First, at some point, that person did like students, but something has happened over the years to change that.  Perhaps he has become burned out, as teaching is definitely a stressful job.  Perhaps she has had a number of negative experiences with students and wants to simply avoid caring about them now.  We don’t know people’s histories and the effects they can have.  Often, people can’t think of anything else they could do, given their skill set, so they remain in the profession, hoping for an early retirement.

The other reason is more cynical, but I’ve heard it too many times not to believe it of some people.  I have heard a number of professors say that they went into the field or stay in it because of the schedule.  When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine (who never finished, by the way) said that he wanted to be a professor, so he could skip out early or go in late whenever he wanted.  When I was first hired as a high school teacher, a colleague (who was quite a good teacher, by the way), asked, “What are the three best things about being a high school teacher?  June, July, and August.”

I enjoy my summers as much as anyone, but that’s not anywhere near the top of my list on why I became a professor.  I give up enough nights and weekends with grading and preparation (not to mention the events that take place on campus during that time) to trade out for my summers.  In fact, I worked as a high school librarian for a couple of years, and I had much more time then, even though I had a month less time off in the summer.

Why don’t professors want to help students?

I hear this question from students (and some professors) on a regular basis.  In fact, I saw it just this past week on a forum on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website (look at the second question).  This one just puzzles me, though it’s related to the question above.

I’ll give my most generous thoughts first.  Some professors believe that students need to learn how to function on their own, so they don’t do things that they say as holding students’ hands.  They argue that students won’t get that kind of help in the real world, so they shouldn’t get it in college.  It’s tough love, I suppose.

Along those lines, some professors judge their success by how difficult their classes are, which often means how low their grades are.  I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for this approach, and I just can’t come up with one I really like, but I’ll try.  This approach sounds like a coach who defines success as a season where her team doesn’t win a single game.  It sounds like an executive whose company loses every contract it goes after.  These situations make no sense, so I don’t understand why a professor defines success as having a class where few students do excellent work (i.e. make As).

Granted, there will always be students who can’t perform at that level.  But my job is to try to help students get to that level.  My job is to encourage students to attain that level, to provide them the opportunities to improve to that level.  The ideal class would be one where every student does earn an A because he or she is doing excellent work.  I have had classes where a large portion of the class made an A.  Those were great classes.  All (or almost all) of the students were doing everything I asked of them–completing all (or almost all) of the reading, writing draft after draft of their papers, contributing to class discussion–and I could see real improvement over the course of the semester.

If students want to improve, and many of them do, I should be there to help them do so.  The forum question comes from a place I don’t understand, as I would look at any student’s paper before they turn it in if it would help him or her write a better paper in the long run.  Again, not doing so sounds like a coach who turns down a basketball player who wants to stay after practice to work on his shot.  We would think that coach should be fired.

Perhaps underlying all these questions is one my wife and I often talk about.  We hear teachers or professors talk about not doing something because it’s hard or doing something because it is easy.  Teaching is hard, when it’s done well.  Most professions are, actually.  I don’t know where it comes from, but we have this idea that work isn’t supposed to be difficult, even when we love it.  We all need to balance our lives and make sure we are not burning out, but we also need to step up and do the work required to be excellent professors.  If we want our students to be excellent, then we need to work towards that goal, as well.

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Making Time for Teaching

A few weeks ago, I was reading Rachel Toor’s article on habits of highly effective writers.  I ran across this quote, an idea I’ve certainly seen before, but which struck me differently this time:  “Perhaps it’s confidence, perhaps it’s Quixote-like delusion, but to be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. If you second-guess at every step, you’ll soon be going backward. A writer I know likes to say that over the years he has ‘trained’ his family not to expect him to show up for certain things, because they know his work comes first. You have to be willing to risk seeming narcissistic and arrogant, even if you don’t like to think of yourself that way. The work takes priority.  And they might hate themselves a little if they slack off. Along with the necessary arrogance and narcissism, a dollop of self-hatred goes a long way toward getting stuff done. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.”

This led me to think about making time for teaching.  I wonder if we would ever (or could ever) think about teaching in the same way.  Now, some would say that we already do, that teaching dominates their lives in a way they find unhealthy.  Their challenge is to balance the demands of teaching with the rest of their lives.  But, note, even in the way that thought is voiced, teaching is not the priority; instead, it is something else in their lives, whatever it is that people want to balance teaching with.

When we talk about writing in the way Toor is, we say that it is such a priority that we will offend those in other areas of our life in order to make room for it.  We will train our families and anyone else in our life to see that writing is the priority, nothing else.  When we talk about teaching, we talk about it as the inevitable in life, and we then try to carve out time for what our real priorities are around that.  Teaching is, in some sense, what we are trying to avoid in order to have time to do the other things in life we really want to do.

I used to talk like this when I was first hired.  I often complained that I didn’t have enough time to write or read for pleasure or watch movies because teaching (really grading and preparing to teach, of course) took up much more of my time than I wanted.  I was constantly unhappy because my real priorities were pushed to the side because of teaching.  When I came back to where I currently teach, I decided to try to switch those and make my focus the classroom.

While I certainly don’t watch as many movies as I once did or read as much for pleasure, I am much more content now.  First, my teaching improved dramatically once it became the focus, as would be expected.  But, most interestingly, my writing production also improved dramatically.  Once I stopped complaining about not having time to write, I simply started using the time I did have (early mornings, usually) to do the writing I wanted to do.  Because I am prepared for class and have finished the grading I need to get done, I have more time for that writing.  Focusing on teaching made me a better (and more productive) writer.

I wonder, though, if it would be arrogant and narcissistic to train our families not to expect us to show up for certain things because we need that time to prepare for a class, read a scholarly article (or three), or simply to think about teaching, as we do with writing.   Or perhaps we already do this.  Anyone who teaches well knows that doing so requires us to say no to certain things and pulls us away from events (and people) we would otherwise like to make time for.

But the difference is in our rhetoric.  We talk about teaching as if it is whatever interferes with our real lives, not as if teaching is our real life.  If we view teaching as an integral part of that real life, we can change our attitudes toward how we spend our time.  That might actually give us more time to do those other things we want to do.