Reflections on Teaching More than Four Classes

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of my most popular posts over the last 6 months or so was my reflection on teaching a particularly heavy (for me) teaching load this spring.  As the semester staggers toward a conclusion, I thought I would reflect a bit on what I have learned from adding two classes to my busy schedule this semester.

In a general way, my experience was a good one. I definitely reconnected with my love of teaching in some unexpected ways.  Not only did teaching more make more obvious some strange habits encouraged by rather lighter teaching loads, but teaching more also gave me (perhaps paradoxically) a new opportunity to engage the craft of teaching in a thoughtful way.

1. Strategic delegating. I was very fortunate to have two graduate teaching assists this semester.  In the past, I have been a bit reluctant to avail myself to their services in a strategic way. They would help with some grading and course preparation, but usually on a bit of an ad hoc basis. As a rule, I didn’t mind grading too much so I tried to avoid asking them to shoulder too much of the grading load. This semester all that changed. I delegated some significant responsibilities particular in my survey course to my graduate teaching assistant and was amazed. She not only showed remarkable initiative in getting work done on-time and in an efficient way, but also was aware of the potential of grading as a pedagogical tool. While I missed some of the regular interaction with students as I reviewed their weekly writing, I now feel much more confident in the benefits of delegating some of the grading load to my graduate assistants. Not only does this increase student contact, but it improves the character of this contact as well.

2. Giving students room to succeed (or not). Under normal conditions, I can be a “helicopter faculty member“. Perhaps this tendency comes from my deep commitment to process in my own research and writing. In method classes in particular, I would scrutinize students’ processes, micromanage as much as possible, and attribute success to student work that followed processes that I recognized as being similar to my own.  Of course, since I teach an undergraduate historical methods course some emphasis on methods and processes is not a bad thing. On the other hand, my tendency to approach processes in such a rigorous way limited the ways in which I could measure success.

Teaching more made it more difficult for me to micromanage and forced me to step back and let students struggle more and to find their own path.  As a result, I have been rewarded with some genuinely innovative work by students and some examples of approaches to research problems that I would not have anticipated. A student writing a capstone paper for me has produced his best work by far, graduate students have proven more able to revise their own writing (without my endless comments!), and even method students have shown remarkable ingenuity in finding sources and structuring research.  While I am reluctant to image my helicopter advising to have been inconsequential in my students’ development, it will give me pause to consider how my own commitment to process relates to student success.

3. Giving me room to experiment. I never expected more teaching to give me more room to experiment and be creative in my approach to course content and classroom management. When I taught less, I’ll admit to being a bit fussy with my schedule, course design, and how I introduced content and methods. With a hectic semester of service, research, and teaching, something had to give. And, for me, it was my fussiness. I had to allow myself to be more reactive to classroom situations and to make more spur-of-the-moment decisions in response to changes in student reception of material and approaches.

This was particular apparent in my 2nd year language class when I ended up discarding a major text from the course, the introduction of a new text (from the public domain!), and managing the class’s progress through the semester on a week-to-week basis. By doing this, I put more of the onus on the students to communicate with me actively about their own learning and de-emphasized (at times arbitrary) goals that I set at the beginning of the semester.  This process not only created a spirit of camaraderie in the class, but also made the learning (and teaching) process transparently collaborative.  This is not to say that I didn’t occasionally get frustrated at our lack of progress through sections of the text that I regarded to be easy, but, in some areas, it was clear that students remained committed to pushing themselves, constructing rigorous assignments, and setting ambitious goals.

4. Pondering deadlines. I have never been a fan of deadlines. As a student, I rarely struggled to meet them, but I also loathed them as artificial constraints on my (ahem…) creative process.  As I fight through a seemingly-unending stack of student papers at the end of the semester, I have suddenly come to realize the purpose of deadlines. They are to help faculty to manage their workload. What a surprise. So next year (where I am going to teach something like 3-4 or two courses above my normal load), I am definitely going to be more insistent and conscious of deadlines. Who knew?

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