Teaching Tuesday: A New Semester and Some New Teaching Goals

At the start of a new semester and a new year, I always try to organize my teaching goals into a little list. This is probably because I always try to organize everything into little lists (for better or for worse).

I’m also looking ahead to a possible sabbatical next year, so I thought this might be a good time to start to take stock of my teaching so I can think actively about what I do well and what needs work when I have time to actually work on things. It seems to me that changing fundamental things about what one is teaching is often difficult to accomplish on the fly, but it seems more possible to change how one teaches things.

1. Be Myself (and compartmentalize less). I have a tendency to compartmentalize my teaching and to see it as something quite separate from my research and, to some extent, my service interests on campus. I tend not to teach in any of my active research fields and don’t often bring my research into the classroom. I usually teach introductory level or methods classes that force me to expand my perspectives from my specialized academic interests into something larger.

This semester for the first time in years, I’m teaching in an area adjacent to my research specialties. (Let’s say I’m a Late Antiquitist or something.) I’m teaching a Byzantine history course and pledging to bring some of my actual research into the class to demonstrate to students that my main skill is not just being able to read the textbook faster than them.

2. Push Students (encourage students to take risks). If I have felt compelled by boundaries stipulated by our contract to keep separate my teaching and research, my students have used the the contractual interpretations of the syllabus to set artificial limits on their engagement with the material. Students do what the syllabus tells them to do and rarely any more (although possibly less). In other words, completing the syllabus earns an A and an A is all the knowledge one can reasonably hope to gain for a class.

Over the past few years, I have increasingly considered the issue of student motivation as one of trust. I need to convince students that the syllabus is just the start of the educational process and everything that they do beyond its requirement (and indeed, beyond the requirement for an A) isn’t just wasted energy better deployed in other classes or earning money off campus, but actually making their education more valuable.

3. Teaching Journal (document the successes and failures). Last semester, I was fairly disciplined in keeping a weekly record of the successes and failures of my class in the innovative Scale-Up classroom. In the past, I’ve kept a weekly teaching log which captures my immediate reactions to my teaching week. A critical reading of this text has helped me to identify weaknesses in both my content and teaching method. Unfortunately, taking the time to slow down and make notes while in the heat of the semester is difficult and it involves a conscious commitment not just to survive but to reflect on survival.

4. Mine My Teaching Data More. One thing that I’ve rarely done is revisit my teaching data at any level of sophistication to understand for example the relationship between grades on the midterm and the final or short papers and major papers. Of course, overall grades in the class do tell me something about how students perform and the deviation between grades gives me a hint at where an assignment is out of step with the others. Beyond these rather basic approaches to the grades, I haven’t done much to understand how students perform over the course of the semester other than through intuition. This might have been accepted decades ago where even basic statistics involved manual number crunching, now it’s too easy to use Excel to parse my grades however I want and to experiment with analyzing my grades more carefully to make informed decisions on how I approach certain assignments. 

5. Teach Content and Method. One of the biggest challenges of this semester is that I’ll be teaching content rather than just method. I can hear the banshees of the active-learning tribe wailing as I write these words. After all, content and method are inseparable.

For the last five years, however, I haven’t had to worry about content at all, really. My normal teaching load involves Western Civilization and “The Historian’s Craft” and both classes have such broad chronological and subject matter that it is possible to select almost any evidence to suit a particular exercise. Content exists, but it is infinitely malleable to fit whatever exercise in method that I am trying to communicate.

But this is a slippery slope. As many of my peers have noted, transforming the discipline of history into an exercise in method or worse an extension of the larger “critical thinking” project runs the risk of robbing history (or any discipline) of its disciplinary identity and justifies the collapsing of the humanities into one indistinct melting pot. In an era where efficiency often trumps subtle intellectual distinctions and specialization, it seems like a return to content and content driven method is at hand. I need to work harder at this.

I have playfully evoked Malcolm Gladwell’s scientistic argument that expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. I average about 750 hours of classroom teaching a year and have taught 8 years at the University of North Dakota. By my reckoning, I’m about half way to being an expert teacher. I have a ways to go.

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