Teaching Tuesday: Three Things I Need to Change

I feel pretty confident when I admit that I’m not the world’s best teacher. I like to innovate, behave like a reactionary, and follow idiosyncratic personal policies in equal measures. In most cases, the results are the same.

With the semester wrapping up, I’m going to admit to three things that I have to rethink over the next year or so. I think most of these issues stem from the misguided and curmudgeonly belief that students should be in charge of their own learning.

1. I don’t do drafts. I recognize the long-standing pedagogical buzz about drafts and the value of teaching students that patient art of revision. In fact, as readers of this blog know, I am a tireless drafter, redactor, editor, and reviser. The issue with requiring drafts is that they are tremendously boring to read and mark up. Moreover, I’ve never had success convincing students to take a draft seriously. In fact, even in my own writing, I have to cling to the obstinate lie that I might be able to produce a perfect text without revision to push me to write rather than to jot. So, while I’m always happy to read student drafts, I refuse to require drafts students to write drafts as as part of the writing process.

Instead of drafts, I ask students to work on various aspects of their writing over the course of several writing assignments. As the semester goes on, the assignments become more complex and I increasingly expect students to have internalized the various editorial suggestions that I offered on earlier assignments. 

2. I don’t do due dates in my upper level or online course. The more due dates that I assign, the more due dates students miss. At some point in my teaching career, I just go tired of dealing with all the exceptional circumstances that made it impossible for students to consistently turn in work on time. As I moved to online teaching which required far more short assignments like quizzes and discussion board posts, I recognized that monitoring due dates for myriad small assignments would have been a huge time sink and forced me to evaluate the merit of various exceptional circumstances dozens of time each semester. Instead of worrying about that, I just decided to make everything due at the end of the semester.

I use this same approach to due dates in my upper level class. I explain to the students that they are free to turn in their assignments whenever they want. The sooner I get them, the more time I have to make comments on them and the more time they have to digest my comments and learn from them. Better students tend to turn work in consistently over the course of the semester. Other students wait and turn everything in at once. It is vaguely annoying that more students don’t get their work done earlier than the end of the semester. 

The only class for which I do enforce due dates is my midlevel historical methods course. Since we deliberately build on assignments over the course of the semester (see my point 1), I attempt (in a rather lukewarm way) to keep students on task.   

3. I don’t do discussion prompts. This has haunted me this semester. My upper level course generally consists of one lecture and one discussion each week. The discussion usually centers on a rather lengthy (ca. 200 pages?) excerpt from a primary source. I begin every discussion by asking the students: “what did you think about this text?” Depending on the text, the response has ranged from muted to somewhat enthusiastic. 

Many of my colleagues have elaborate prompts circulated in advance that guide the students to engage with the text in particular ways. I have often thought about doing this, but in the end I have shied away from exerting too much influence over what the students get out of the text on first reading. I usually wait until the actual classroom discussion before I nudge the students to probe the text in new ways to encourage them to consider the particular significance or relevance of particular sections of the text.

The result of this approach is predictable. When an unprompted discussion goes well, it often introduces me to new perspectives on a primary source. When it goes poorly, it is involves me wondering whether the students and I have, in fact, read the same document. In my Byzantine History class, where the texts tend to be more challenging and less familiar, the discussions have not always been excellent, but I’m still reluctant to exert too much influence on the students as they engage a text.

These three policies will likely have to change in the next few years. Students rarely give me drafts to read, they use the lack of deadlines to turn everything in at once, and wander aimlessly through texts without preemptive prompts. Maybe students always behaved this way, and my policies appeal to a romanticized past filled with ambitious self-starters who have dedicated their young lives to the earnest pursuit of the past. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder whether the university would be a nicer place for both students and faculty if we just changed our expectations a little.

2 Comments

  1. Bill,

    I do not do drafts either at least not in written form. I encourage students to bring a “draft” of the paper to my office and orally present what they have, anything short of actually reading what they have written, and I comment accordingly. They do not have to stress about format or grammar or all the other things they might not want me to see. I never take the paper from their hands.

    The technique has several advantages. First, students are forced to consider the words they wrote and put them in conversational, simple language. The process helps them internalize their points and exposes glaring omissions like addressing the “so what” question linked to any project. Similarly, as they make a point, I can ask “who do you cite?” to support that and the discussion becomes valuable. Almost always, as they are reading through and explaining (for example the proposition/ thesis) student begin changing the draft and scribbling notes, thus improving the paper without me doing much of anything. Second, I give students immediate interactive feedback. They frequently ask for clarification, so I feel students better comprehend my comments, also setting the stage for more general conversations about writing. Third, it keeps student on task, they are not allowed to drop off/ send a paper and expel the project from their mind. The feedback is immediate and verbal. I encourage them to go somewhere and redraft as soon as possible with our conversation fresh in their mind. Along those lines, they cannot hold dear to a comment that I did not articulate particularly well and claim “I did what you said…” The meeting comes with no guarantees.

    I do this for all classes but particularly emphasize (but do not require) it in my 200-level course. I think I end up meeting with about one-third of the students which is manageable. If all students took me up on my offer, I would likely become overwhelmed with meetings because these sessions usually take on average 45 minutes, often spilling into other discussions about aspects of the course, discipline, career, etc. But as it stands, I would put about that much time into reading drafts when you include the random wanderings of my brain while commenting on a stack of drafts.

    Reply

    1. Paul,

      That’s a good idea. I’ve run “conferences” to use a term from the English department in the past and they have worked some. Our students often struggle as much (more?) with compositional issues and drafts are sometimes seen as a way to help them to become better writers.

      Thanks!
      Bill

      Reply

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