Monthly Archives: November 2008

Understanding “the Pause”

One of my saxophone mentors told me that “a great jazz solo is the buildup and release of tension.” For nearly a decade, I’ve been wondering if good teaching is the same. There are all sorts of ways we build and release this tension in the classroom and many of us do it.

I was recently reminded of a simple way to create tension and intrigue—something the orators of this nation have been doing for centuries. It’s called “the pause.” One of the masters was Samuel Clemens, aka, Mark Twain. Consider this quote from the Ken Burns documentary (Mark Twain, PBS, 2000) about Twain’s days on the California lecture circuit:

“He was an unintentional genius of the stage. He had this shambling gait and he had this bewildering drawl—his mother called it ‘Sammy’s long talk.’ Some people thought he was drunk when he wandered out on stage and kind of mumbled about like this. But as the act went on—as the lecture went on—they began to see that the pauses were the great formulations; the pauses were the great preludes to the cascade of humor. So the silence on stage led to something else and as he started to understand that himself, he developed it into a great art form. He understood the pause. And one night he decided to take it as far as it would go. He walked out on stage and looked at the audience [pause] and looked at the audience [pause] and looked at the audience [pause]. The silence went on; the tension built until someone in the crowd snickered. And when that happened, the cascades of laughter came and he knew that the audience was his.” —Ron Powers, writer

Is the “audience” yours?

And we now know that the real value of the pause is the opportunity it gives students to think, digest and reflect.

Posted in Classroom Management | 4 Comments

The Devil is in the Details

Several decades ago, when my dissertation advisor told me to “spice up” my writing, I realized that the better my prose became, the more I moved away from the facts–what I saw as “the truth.” Whereas I knew for a fact that “in March 1347, the papal treasury paid five silver pounds for fur hats for the pope’s eight singers*,” I didn’t really know if this was a “benevolent gesture by the supreme Pontiff.” But since I needed to please three readers, something that was always in the back of my mind, I suppose it ultimately didn’t hurt to insert gratuitous phrases periodically into what otherwise amounted to a 500-page spreadsheet.

As I’ve moved along in my teaching, I ask myself, “What is it that these students should know? What do they care about? What can bring them closer to the music and to the historical period?” At this point, I can honestly say that some of the information I now convey to my students is . . . uh . . . less than factual. At best, I suppose, it can pass as historical speculation. I’ve moved far away from factual detail in my lectures to a gray area of broad generalization and rhapsodic rambling.

Is it important that Mozart wrote a certain number of operas, or is it better that students know that he and his Italian librettist (Lorenzo da Ponte) were Masonic proto-revolutionaries? Should we call Mozart a “lofty genius” or rather think of him more as a musical Rainman with a touch of dyslexia perhaps and a smidgen of ADHD, as a contemporary scientific account alludes? When covering the 19th century, I want my students to think of Robert Schumann struggling with bi-polar disorder (and/or was it with his symptoms of late-stage syphilis?). I offer the class Schubert’s hypothetical pedophilia as explanation of a 17-year-old’s sensitive setting of “Erlking.”

There is certainly some evidence for these notions, but what do we really know? We really know dates for events and numbers of compositions, however, this is not the substance of a lecture; these facts are not worthy of study at anything but the graduate level. This is not history. All the trashy little tidbits that I spew paint a broader picture of Enlightenment and Romantic ideals. I want my students to identify with these historical figures as real people perhaps with lives similar to their own. Or so what if I have to sketch out characters as olde timey pop stars whose every move would today be covered by ET (Entertainment Tonight)? So, over time, I’ve moved away from a fastidious accuracy that marked my youthful scholarship. The broad sweep, the hyperbolic–that’s what works for me in the classroom. The factual details have become for me the dust of history.

*I just made this up, btw. This is becoming very easy to do.
Posted in Learning Goals and Objectives, Students' Thinking, Teaching Large Classes, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Inter-disciplinary Teaching: A Novel Approach

Last week I attended an inspirational presentation by two members of our faculty. Christina Christoforatou specializes in Medieval manuscripts, Karen Freedman in abstract design. Together, they are rocking the worlds of their Learning Communities students – teaching abstract thinking and expression through English, Graphic Design, and “tours” to modern art installations.

Christoforatou and Freedman have achieved an inter-disciplinary collaboration that eludes most of us – even those of us charged to collaborate by the mission of the Learning Communities program. Most of us try, but cross-disciplinary course coordination is tough. It’s difficult to pick up a new discipline over the summer. But Christoforatou and Freedman have discovered another way to coordinate their courses, and neither had to train in the other’s specialty. In fact, their approach embraced the differences among their disciplines even as it reinforced particular ways of thinking and doing. So, how did they do it?


Posted in Students' Skills and Abilities, Teaching Large Classes, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Let Them in on What You’re Doing

Most of you are probably familiar with the old saw: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I once heard a coda: Those who can’t teach, teach pedagogy. I used to find the notion funny, but as I’ve observed new faculty beginning their careers over the years I’ve come increasingly to appreciate just how much craft goes into teaching. Good teachers may make it seem effortless, but it’s not. This perhaps explains why many folks think that teaching doesn’t call for as much a skill as other occupations. One antidote to this tendency to overlook the techniques we’re employing in the classroom is to devote a bit of time to pointing out to our students just what it is we’re doing. This can serve both to make them aware of the cues and signals we’re sending them, and to get them to understand how they can put this awareness to work in the rest of life. Here are a couple of the very simple things I point out to my students.

One is the way I use the whiteboards. I’ve never adopted PowerPoint because for me it seems to constrict spontaneity, creative flow, and opportunities to let students’ questions and arguments shape the direction of the class. I can write something on the whiteboard and then come back to it as often as I find myself needing to in the course of a lecture or discussion. Sometimes I return again and again to a key concept. At some point early in the term, I stop and point out to students that if they pay attention to what I’ve been doing, they will see that a particular term or phrase or illustration on the board has gradually acquired a halo of surrounding emphases, underlining, circling, stars, etc. “If you see a concept on the board that’s been well marked-up,” I tell them, “you should be sure to mark it up in your notes. Highlight it, draw big arrows pointing to it. I can assure you that when you’re writing your essays it’s a concept you’re going to want to include, to explain, and to emphasize.”


Posted in Grading, Student Participation, Students' Skills and Abilities, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Usefulness of Tests

When the idea for a general teaching blog was first formed, David Birdsell, Dean of the School of Public Affairs here at Baruch College, made a great suggestion – writing posts on the face-to-face faculty development events such as our Master Teacher Series. Last week, Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and founder of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), conducted a session for the Master Teacher Series entitled, “Motivation for Teaching and Learning at the College Level:Facilitating Autonomous Motivation.”

While Edward Deci’s presentation was geared towards college teaching, he stated how motivation is very broadly relevant, for example, in parenting, sports, etc. He talked about the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competency, and relatedness) and their importance in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For this post, I will focus a only a small portion of his thought-provoking presentation – the usefulness of tests.

I liked what he said about the usefulness of tests. He explained that tests can be useful when we focus on the “primary function… to assess whether students have learned and can perform.” Therefore, “tests can provide meaningful feedback to students, teachers, and administrators.” One key point was to “minimize rigidity” in testing, for example, having students grade their own quizzes for feedback on how well they are learning the course material. He emphasized the importance of being respectful and responsive to students and to provide a choice whenever possible.

I have discussed with students how well the class is doing as a group on the tests and even changed the format of the final exam based upon those discussions. For example, in one class, I noticed that my students performed best on short essay questions in my assessing their knowledge and understanding of the course material. We came to an agreement that the final exam would be all short essay questions – students had to choose 20 out of 30 short essay questions to answer. I felt the outcome from this change was a better measure of what students had learned.

This leads me to ask:

Are you open to renegotiating the learning contract (the syllabus if we’re focusing on the explicit part) with your students?

What other adjustments have you made in your courses based upon students’ input in order to enhance learning and assessment?

Posted in Assessing Learning, Grading, Syllabi | 3 Comments