Three Thoughts on a Teaching Tuesday

Some semesters I think about teaching once or twice a week, when I sit down to write about. Other semesters I think teaching every teaching everyday, but only blog about it rarely. That’s how this semester has played out.

This semester, I’m trying my hand once again at teaching an upper level course. I don’t like it one bit, but I’m being a good team player and picking up some upper level credits for our major as two of my colleagues are on sabbatical. I have three little thoughts on my teaching so far:

1. Tests. One of the simplest rules that I tell my students is that I am capable of making a test that nearly everyone fails, but I want to make a test that everyone has a good chance of passing (or even doing well on)! Today I give tests in my require course for majors and my Byzantine History course and I spent a good bit of time trying to make tests that everyone could do well on. I always give essay tests.

My struggle is in creating a test that’s open-ended enough that students can show what they know and yet narrow enough that I don’t leave the students wondering how to proceed. I’ve attempted to solve this problem by giving students choices for both short and long essay answers, but I’m never quite sure whether the questions all ask the students to engage the course material at a similar level or in a similar way. It also makes it much harder to grade the test fairly.

2. Student Resistance. I typically begin my discussions of texts with some easy questions to get the students into the flow of conversation. Recently, students have been a bit reluctant to engage my questions in my upper level class. At first, I worried that this meant that the students didn’t do the reading. So I gave a quiz with the same question that I had been asking my class with no response. The students – generally – rocked the quiz and got the answers right. 

The reluctance of students to answer very simple question in class (and it’s a small class <20 students) suggests that something other than simple shyness is at play. After all, the students are willing to answer more complex interpretative questions and to even – at times – direct remarks to one another even during relatively Socratic moments in the course. My conclusion is that the students have found an opportunity to resist my pedagogy where the stakes are low, but the impact is relatively visible. Student resistance is almost always tactically clever.

3. Guest Lecturers. I did one of the best thing I’ve ever done in class this past week. I invented two rockstar graduate students – Nathan Leidholm and Jordan Pickett – to Skype into my class to talk about the future of Byzantine History. These two guys were amazing. Nathan was laid back and textual introducing the students to his research into the Byzantine genos or (for lack of a better word) clan. Jordan was energetic and wide ranging in his discussion of the future of Byzantine archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both stimulated student questions and answered them with grace, precision, and charm. It was a brilliant break from my lecture and discussion grind and gave the students a bleeding-edge perspective on the world of Byzantine history and archaeology. 

So, these are my teaching related thoughts at around the midway point of the semester. I’ll come back with more as the semester moves along, and, before too long, I’ll have to start to think about Scale-Up 2.0 next semester. Good times!

2 Comments

  1. On students refusing to answer simple questions: Are they resisting your pedagogy on principle, or are they resisting stating what they perceive to be obvious? Students have told me that they (a) feel stupid,stating the obvious and/or (b) feel it is a waste of class time to answer basic reading comprehension, especially in upper-division classes. They may also prefer not to answer basic questions on the reading, lest they make things too easy for classmates who didn’t do the reading.

    Reply

    1. Cindy,

      Yep. All this is true. It has easy to identify resistance, but hard to decipher the motivation for it at times. I tend to attribute to students a “culture of resistance” where resistance is tactically deployed at opportune times to define relationships in the classroom.

      Bill

      Reply

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