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.”

Likewise, when we’re reading in class, going over crucial passages in whatever text has been assigned, I explain to them that they should be highlighting the passages I’m dwelling on. And if I repeat a phrase or passage several times, slowing down and reading it dramatically, I tell them they should be marking it up accordingly, because it’s something that’s bound to be useful when they’re writing about the reading. (I note in passing here that that despite all the problems with the high costs of books, I urge my students to purchase their own used copies so that they can bring them to class and read and mark them along with me.)

One more example. I occasionally stop and exhort my students to be clever enough to figure out just what it is that Prof. Petersen wants from them, and then give it to him—it’s what we used to call “psyching out” the professor. College, I tell them, is real life, not simply an interlude before it begins. “When you get a job,” I explain, “one of your primary tasks is to figure out what your bosses want from you, and then give it to them. The classroom’s no different, really. I’m trying to teach you things I think are important, and I’m doing all I can to get you to pay attention to them. So pay attention to me, figure out—based on these cues, subtle or direct—what it is I think is most important, learn it, and then write essays that demonstrate to me that you’ve learned it. (This doesn’t mean rote memory, just a focus on key ideas.) Voila! You’ve figured out how to get promoted at your first job.” Simplistic, perhaps. But these are all small ways of showing students how to observe what’s going on around them, how to gauge what’s important, and how to find out what they’re being expected to know and do.

(Glenn’s caveat: I’m writing this for new teachers, folks still struggling to find their way in the classroom, not for seasoned professionals, though the old salts among you are welcome to it.)

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4 Responses to Let Them in on What You’re Doing

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    Glenn, if you place a term on the board and if you highlight and keep referring back to it, wouldn’t it seem obvious that the term is important? But you are right, students sometimes neglect to jot it down. When that happens it may be because they are so wrapped up in the discussion they fail to take notes. Or just the opposite, they are so unengaged that they fail to focus.

    Also, I could not understand what you were saying in the last paragraph. You seem to be talking about rote memory, but you explicitly state that that is not what you mean. Yes, I understand you are dealing with comprehending concepts, but isn’t that much more complex than jotting down terms? What exactly is “psyching out the professor?”

  2. glenn petersen says:

    At some point I began to reflect on the fact that no matter how much I emphasize certain concepts, many students fail to understand that these are the key points I want them to discuss in their essays. So I began to explain to them how to figure out which are the central elements I want them to deal with. There are still students who don’t get it, of course. I like to think this is not rote memory because a) they’re doing take-home essays and b) I’m asking them to perform analytical tasks.
    When I was an undergrad in the 1960’s, “psyching out” a prof meant figuring out what his/her biases or predilections were, and emphasizing them as we wrote our tests and papers—i.e., giving them exactly what they wanted. We thought we were being very clever in doing this, but I now realize that that’s what we were supposed to be doing.

  3. Arthur Lewin says:

    So you are saying that when you were an undergrad you were expected to figure out what the professors’ biases were and reflect them in your writing. And you earlier said you want to show your students how to do this. But how could such papers be considered analytical?

  4. Dennis Slavin says:

    I don’t think Glenn meant figuring out the prof’s “biases” in any political sense; I think he meant understanding what the professor thought was important and feeding it back to him/her. For ex., in my classes students had better figure out that telling me what emotions they think a piece of music conveys without telling how the elements of music are used by the composer to convey those emotions will get them zero credit. I make that point over and over — it SHOULD be obvious — but some get it some don’t.

    Glenn: why not use Powerpoint (it’s great for projecting illustrations) AND the whiteboard?

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