Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

There’s no app for that.

The hybrid writing course I’ve been teaching ended last week. “Hybrid,” for those not in academia these days, means that half of the class time is face-to-face–in a physical classroom–and half of it is online, using discussion boards and other tools.

I have always resisted online teaching, because I enjoy the classroom experience so much. I am not opposed to online education in general; it brings a lot of opportunities to students who otherwise might not have them. It’s not a great fit for me, personally, though. It’s only after teaching a few hybrid courses that I’ve been able to figure out what’s missing from the online classroom and why I feel so ambivalent about teaching online.

In the classroom–especially in a small class–I can read the students’ faces and the quality of their voices (or their silences). For example, I recently asked a question in the writing course, and one of my students responded with a textbook-perfect answer–exactly the critical idea that would correct a major problem in a sample essay that we were reading. Indeed, he phrased it almost exactly the way I would have phrased it myself, so clearly he understood what I was trying to say about the essay in question.

But he didn’t understand it.

Or, more accurately, he didn’t trust that he understood it. His tone of voice conflicted with the confident phrasing; he sounded like he was waiting for me to stop him and tell him why his answer was wrong. (For the record, I rarely do that; this was his insecurity about his answer speaking, not a fear of contradiction that my classroom had fostered.)

I said, “I absolutely agree. This is the exact problem with the argument. Why do you sound so uncertain about your answer?”

He said, “I don’t know–I guess I was thinking maybe I didn’t get it or I’d just missed something.”

One of the other students said, “I thought the same thing–I didn’t understand why the author wrote that, but I thought it was something I missed.”

I said, “But both of you are right. You’re reading carefully; you’ve both demonstrated that already in this conversation by pulling out specific details to support your overall evaluation of this piece. Be confident in your analysis; if you’ve missed something, after a careful reading, that means that it’s not clear enough.”

The last part of that statement clearly resonated with both of these students: even if you do misunderstand something occasionally, if you’re doing a good job of reading, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It usually means the author of the piece has failed. And being wrong, as I often tell them, is okay. It’s better to be wrong in a thoughtful way–because there’s a piece of information missing, or because you’ve misinterpreted a particular statement–than not to have any significant opinion at all.

This reflects the power of the face-to-face classroom for two reasons.

1) In an online discussion, his answer would look like a confident, assertive answer. I would have no reason to linger over this point at all; I would probably assume–for lack of any indication to the contrary–that this student not only understood the question and the point of the exercise, but also that he was comfortable with the rhetorical concepts that underlie this reading.


2) He wouldn’t have written this answer, because when a student is forced to put something down on the page–or the screen–the bar seems to be higher for the quality of the answer. A student whose in-person answer might be a bit uncertain will often write down an answer that is much safer, but less useful. Instead of giving an analysis, the answer might be a summary, for example.

In a hybrid course, if I get to know the students, I can interpret their written answers more accurately (after the first couple of weeks), because I know what their speaking mannerisms are like and how they usually respond in a conversation. But in an entirely-online course, I don’t know how this is supposed to happen. I realize that some online classrooms use video chat (Skype, whatever), but so far, most of the students report that the technology is so unreliable that they spend a lot of their learning time trying to iron out tech problems.

So, while an online discussion or a written response to a reading can tell me what a student thinks, a physical discussion can tell me how the student thinks.

Face-to-face classes also let me gauge things like whether the group has understood something I’ve just said. I use humor a lot in the classroom; most of that humor falls flat on the screen. It’s also much easier, in person, for me to show–through warmth of voice, through body language that shows that I’m listening to their responses–that I appreciate their contributions to discussion. 

I think most teachers would agree with me that there is a difference, when you’re standing in front of thirty students and asking a question, in the silence that falls over a class when they are contemplating the question (examining it from different angles, preparing evidence for the answers they’re about to present) and the silence that falls over a classroom full of students who do not get it or do not care.

The whole demeanor of the room is different. The posture of the students in their chairs is different. Their willingness to make eye contact is different.

And reading those kinds of cues requires being in the same room. No matter what happens, I can’t imagine technology replacing that experience. There’s no way to duplicate it, because students don’t know they’re telegraphing those things. And they don’t know how much of their learning they’re taking from reading my own tone of voice, posture, or eye contact. It’s more than they think.


first day of school!

Today was the kids’ first day of school. They had a great time and both of them loved their teachers. (Hurray!)

They had to get up early, of course; Wesley didn’t have much trouble with that. Mary, on the other hand, had to be pried out of bed. As usual.

Here’s Wesley, ready to go:

And here’s Mary in her new first-grade uniform:

Wesley got ready and everything, but he didn’t sleep well last night; he was too excited about school. So by the time we got to the parking lot, he was…well, he didn’t know what hit him.

Mary held Wesley’s hand and led him to his classroom. She said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take very good care of him.” (What a good sister.)

On another note, I just realized that this week is my ten-year teaching anniversary. Ten years ago this week, I started teaching my first class. I cannot believe it’s been that long, but it also seems like I’ve been a teacher forever, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising.

Definitely one of the three or four best decisions I ever made.

next semester

So, for those of you interested, here’s what I’m teaching for my “Introduction to Literature by Women” course:

Week 1:
• Sharon Olds: “I Go Back to May 1937,” “35/10,” “The Connoisseuse of Slugs,” and Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish,” “The Waiting Room,” “Crusoe in England,” and “One Art.”
• Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” and Cosmopolitan magazine

Week 2:
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

Week 3:
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth
• Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (maybe; it’s out of print and we’ll see if the publisher comes through for me)
• Selections from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Joy of Cooking, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Week 4:
• Isak Dinesen, “Babette’s Feast.”
• Jeanette Winterson, “The Poetics of Sex”
• Yasmina Reza, Art

Week 5:

Week 6:
• Vera Caspary, Laura
• Laura (film)

Week 7:
• Laura (film)—Monday and Wednesday; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”
• Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive

Week 8:
• Pat Barker, Regeneration

Week 9:
• Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

Week 10:
• Robyn Davidson, Tracks
• Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall”

Week 11:
• Margaret Edson, Wit
• Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Week 12:
• intro to Jane Austen (literary significance, historical context)
Persuasion (Wednesday and Friday)

Week 13:
• Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

exciting teaching

I finally got my teaching assignment for next semester, which is excellent because:
a) I will get paid;
b) I will have health insurance (as will the rest of my family);
c) I love teaching;
d) I’m going to be teaching a women’s literature course, which is a first for me, and which I think will be fun!

So, now to choose my texts. Definite inclusions: Yasmena Reza’s “Art”; Elizabeth Bishop; Pat Barker’s “Regeneration”; a Jeanette Winterson story (not sure which one yet); Rebecca West’s “Return of the Soldier”; and a Jane Austen (possibly “Persuasion”?). Possibles: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good”; Virginia Woolf’s “Between the Acts” or “Mrs Dalloway.”

a few truths about college

1. You have the most free time you will ever have. Seriously. You may be sleep-deprived, exhausted, and wiped out–but if so, it’s from doing things you want to do. Your actual class time and study time is less than a job would be, and a lot of that study time fits in wherever you want it to fit in, which makes it really efficient. You have a ton of flexibility and liberty. Take advantage of it!

2. Your teacher is on your side. It may not seem like it if your professor is handing back papers with poor grades on them, quashing your contributions in class, or being unsympathetic to your excuses for absences or requests for extensions. But really, your teachers are in your corner. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be your teachers.

The reason they hand back bad grades, penalize insufficient or inappropriate work, require attendance, and stick to deadlines is that those are important areas for you to understand. Sure, you can get through life blowing deadlines. But turning in consistently shoddy performance at your job is going to make it hard for you to advance. It might even get you fired. Wouldn’t you rather learn that lesson when the only thing on the line is the grade in one course?

I can assure you, from personal experience, that it is not fun to hand back an essay with an F on it. I hate administering poor grades. But that’s what I do: I administer them. I don’t “give” them–I evaluate the essay and tell you what it earns. I can’t change the requirements for college-level work (even if I wanted to), so my job is to tell you honestly if you’re not meeting those requirements and help you figure out how to improve.

3. You are responsible for this material, and if you miss class, it’s your job to do some work to get it. Don’t e-mail me asking for a total recap of a week you missed for an unexcused absence. Come to my office hours, which at least shows that you are making some kind of effort in the course. If I wanted to teach the whole class through e-mail, I’d be working at an online university.

4. Be polite. To me, to your classmates, and to others–mocking people, even those who are not in the room, leaves your teacher with a bad impression of you, no matter how funny and charming and polite you might be to the people who are present. Save your snark for hanging out with your friends. Think of the classroom as a professional environment.

5. If you’ve done the work, and communicated with your teacher about any concerns, and made the best use of your teacher’s feedback and comments, you will learn. It doesn’t matter very much whether you like the subject matter, whether you like the professor, whether the class is in your major. If you show up every day, and you do your job, you’re going to learn something. And that’s the whole point of college. Try not to think of it as check-marks on the list of things you need to do in order to get your diploma; think of it as a chance to learn about things you will never study again. When are you going to have a good opportunity to learn about art history from an expert? When will you have access to a good photography class or a science course that uses a high-tech lab? All of those things are available, regardless of your major, and you should take advantage.

6. You can’t fix anything during finals week. Really and truly, if you are only dealing with an attendance problem, a series of poor test grades that you never talked over with your teacher, or a basic confusion about one of the core intellectual foundations of the course…yes, it’s too late. I know, I know–everyone tells you “it’s never too late.” Well, that’s a lie. You cannot expect your teacher to help you pull your grade out of the basement at the end of the semester. Instead, if you’re concerned about your grade, deal with it early. As soon as you start to be worried, optimally–when you get the first poor grade or get confused by a lecture. Early in the semester, a teacher will be willing and able to help you with your problem, whatever it may be. And most teachers will bend over backward to help a motivated student. (See truth #2.) But during finals week–or the last few weeks of classes, come to that–your teacher is entitled to say, “Nope. Better luck next time.”

7. Your parents and high school teachers are now irrelevant. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But I do mean that it makes no difference whatsoever that you got A’s in high school. The best thing about college is that it’s a new start in a new place with a blank slate…but that also means you’re leaving your perfect GPA or your social position as the coolest guy in class behind. Don’t bother telling your teacher that your high school teacher LOVED your paragraph style, or that your mom proofread your paper and really liked it. Just do what the professor says. The standards–and the style–are totally different in college.

kids in the classroom!

Here are a couple of pics from Mary and Wesley’s visit to my class last week:

The biggest thing I dislike about teaching…

….is job-hunting every summer.