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- So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?
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- Philip Zimbardo's "The Secret Powers of Time"
- Thinking about presentation software
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Author Archives: Glenn Petersen
Posts: 5 (archived below)
The following is a portion of a letter to the editor that appeared in the June 15, 2009 NY Times. It addresses purported changes in the ways history is taught, but it is rooted in a larger perspective I have encountered many times and I bring it to our blog as a springboard to raise a few underlying pedagogical questions.
“During the 1980s, I taught United States history to American soldiers stationed in South Korea. In one fairly typical class, not one of the students had heard of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps their high school teachers considered the subject a mere matter of military history. But most of the people who fought and died at Gettysburg were ordinary Americans, and our lives would be very different now if the ones wearing blue had stayed home.”
A number of assumptions here are worth questioning. What first leaps out at me is the notion that if students seem not to recognize a topic, or don’t respond to questions about it, it is ipso facto clear that they don’t know anything about it and that they weren’t taught about the subject. I’m really quite flummoxed by these assumptions.
(with apologies to Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, authors of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young)
Many of us (I suspect most of us) were nerds when we were young students, or we at least shaded well into the fringes of nerdiness. We studied, we memorized, we solved quadratic equations in our heads while waiting for buses, or recited as much Shakespeare as we could recall. We got excited by the sheer arcaneness of things. We were on the road to a life in academia long before we even grew aware of the track beneath our feet. And the folks who were most willing to put up with us were probably nerds as well. That is, most of us spent much of our time in those days in the company of people who were busy imagining their Nobel addresses or memorizing the score of Parsifal. These were students who read for fun, who remembered what they read, and who were eager to talk about it.
Why do I summon up this remote and vaguely uncomfortable history? Because I find myself bemused when I hear colleagues talking about what it was like back when they were students. “Well, when I was in college, we….” Or, “When we were students, we were so much more….” You’ve heard these raps, I’m sure. They’re like all stories of a vanished golden age, when life was so much tougher and as a consequence everyone was imbued with so much more virtue. Today’s students, unlike those of generations past, we’re told, don’t do the reading, don’t want to discuss, aren’t interested in the ideas, etc., ad nauseam.
Elisabeth Gareis recently raised a question regarding student evaluations of our courses, which prompted me to write this. But her post doesn’t have “evaluations” in its title, and so I’m making a new post of this, rather than simply commenting on Elisabeth’s, in order to draw attention to the matter of evaluations.
I take a deep breath and write that I find I have deep and progressively more distressing doubts about the worth and efficacy of teaching evaluations, at least as they exist at Baruch College. There, I’ve said it.
I lay no claim to having systematically studied Baruch’s evaluations as a whole. But I carefully scrutinize every evaluation of every member of my department every term, and as a member of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences’ Personnel and Budget Committee I see the evaluations of every member of the arts and sciences faculty who comes before the committee for personnel actions, including reappointments, tenure and promotion, and sabbaticals. I’m probably as familiar with the college’s teaching evaluation patterns as anyone. And among the things I see are several consistent tendencies that trouble me. Trouble, as in “Why do we put so much emphasis on such imperfect instruments.” Let me quickly note that I wish the college paid a whole lot more attention to the importance of teaching in tenure and promotion processes than it does; what I’m talking about here are the evaluations, not the teaching. And, because this is a blog, I’m not going to go into detail; I’m merely pointing out some of the issues that concern me.
First, it is my considered opinion that our evaluation format serves primarily as a popularity contest. Because I’ve observed all my faculty (except some of the very newest GTFs and adjuncts) in the classroom, I have a sense of the relationship between what I can actually see of their skills and how students rate them. There is some consistency at the lower end, I think; people who are in my opinion less than skilled teachers do tend to get lower ratings, but I’m not sure there’s a strong correlation here. What I do find consistently, though, is that nice guys tend to finish first. I’ve seen accomplished teachers get lower scores because of their personalities. And I’ve seen at least one colleague consistently receive 5.0s while teaching not much differently than anyone else in our department. I have come to the conclusion that students tend to rate their profs by how much they like them, not by how skillful or effective their teaching is.
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.”
When I was a boy I was extremely proud of one of my dad’s apple trees, the one onto which he had grafted three varieties of apples and a pear. By carefully attaching cuttings from these different fruits onto the stem of a single tree he had been able to make it bear a cornucopia. This is probably why I use the grafting metaphor to speak of what I see myself doing in the classroom.
Students come to us with a range of knowledge about many things (although many of us are much more concerned about what they seem not to know). I think it helps enormously to find out what our students do know and then put this information to use as starting points-the places where we can begin grafting on the new concepts we seek to impart to them. If we simply begin tossing out information, without having a sense of what students are able and ready to do with it, we run the risk of having it hurtle right past them, without finding any place to attach. If we take some time to find out what they already know, then we can graft the new material onto a trunk full of sap that will help the new ideas blossom and fruit.
I often come to a full stop before starting a new topic and spend a little time feeling the class out. I pass out blank index cards and ask them to answer a few questions anonymously. Then I read them out to the class, so that we all get some sense of what the group collectively knows and doesn’t know. In the course of this I’m able to begin planting seeds of interest, to provoke some of them into curiosity, and to help them reflect on what it is they’ve already learned somewhere else but thought they’d forgotten (and it also assures them that they do know something). And then I work to graft the new material onto what we’ve found they already know.
(Glenn’s caveat: I’m writing this for new teachers, folks still struggling to find their way in the classroom, and not for seasoned professionals, though the old salts among you are welcome to it.)