Three Things That I Learned about Teaching

This semester has been hectic. Between some travel on my part (although not as much as in past years), the weather, and some unforeseen events, I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to figure out whether I am coming or going. To make matters worse, I’ve been a bit guilty of looking ahead to sabbatical and organizing my teaching priorities with an eye toward 2015/16 academic year. This has not helped me live in the moment.

At the same time, I have begun to think a bit about what I could have done better this semester in my classes, and have three general things:

1. Repetition versus Reinforcement. 

The first time that I taught History 101 in a Scale-Up classroom, I painstakingly walked groups of students through writing a single textbook chapter on a single, relatively narrow, topic and period. The results were decent, but at about week 10 of a 15 week semester, I began to detect diminishing returns. The students continued to go through the motions and revise their work, but the quality improved only slightly and the class struggled to remain engaged. This spring, I compressed the writing and revision process for a single chapter from 10 to 3 weeks and asked each group of students to write 3 chapters. This definitely kept the students more focused, but I am not sure whether the writing has improved. In other words, despite giving regular feedback and nudging the students toward a more systematic and efficient approach to historical writing, the students continue to make the same mistakes. I need to find a way to ensure repetition reinforces good habits rather than just providing opportunities to make the same mistakes.

2. Technique versus Content.

Finding a way to break through the repetition versus reinforcement quandary is the first step toward understanding how what I teach (content and method) and how I teach (pedagogy and classroom management) intersect. It seems like every field these days is looking for a “signature pedagogy” that links a particular pedagogy to the unique epistemological suppositions of a field or a discipline. In our an academic world characterized by increasing competition for resource between the disciplines, the ability to link disciplinary understandings of knowledge to specific teaching practices is vital to justify continued support.

One of the focal points of my sabbatical will be on making sure my classroom techniques and practices reinforce the disciplinary content and methods that I value as a historian. In my Scale-up class, for example, I have a good understanding what I need to do to keep students focused on task (see my first point), but now I have to use these techniques to communicate the historical method.

In my upper division classes, I have tended toward more traditional practice grounded in lectures and set discussions of primary source texts. Since I only occasionally taught upper level courses, I have not spent much time working on how to teach in this environment. Moreover, I’ve found upper level students to be more or less self-motivated and so I have put less energy into thinking about how to engage them in the learning process. With a year off, I am going to create at least one new class focused on the ancient world and I want to think carefully and critically about how I can make this class a history class in both what I teach and how I teach. 

3. Manufacture Time.

My inability to manufacture time was my greatest frustration this semester. I lost about two weeks of the semester to weather and travel and fell behind in my undergraduate historical methods class. Thinking it unfair to force the students to hurry through the regularly scheduled assignments in a shorter period of time, I cancelled the major paper and spent more time working with the students on the other assignments in the class. 

The problem, of course, is that I usually schedule about a month or five weeks for major assignment and losing two weeks left me with three weeks when the students and myself are more or less at loose ends. While I can reinforce certain basic skills, provide some additional content, and even work on aspects of the class that usually get passed over quickly, this work typically goes to support the final paper. 

What I need to get better at doing is manufacturing time so that I have more flexibility in how I approach the course schedule. This includes using new media to deliver content, adjusting assignments on the fly, and thinking through alternative assignments that can be made ready at a moment’s notice. This approach will not only help me be a more dynamic and flexible teacher when we do not encounter a time crunch, but also force me to think more carefully about the goals of individual assignments and how these goals could be accomplished in different ways. 

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