Three Things on a Teaching Thursday

This semester provided me with significant food for thought. There was campus budget chaos, new priorities in our department, and likely changes to my family’s income (not to mention developments in our local and national political scene). These things got me thinking about about my experience teaching this year and how certain national and local trends have shaped what I do and what is expected of me in the classroom.

My ideas are a bit chaotic at present, but I think most of them can be summarized around three points.

1. Teaching, Trust, and the Syllabus. I’ve been teaching more or less the same History 101: Western Civilization online class for the past five years or so. The core of the class is a series of podcast lectures and primary source readings. The main assignments are a series of quizzes, discussion board posts, and three, 3 page papers. Instead of making things due weekly, I make everything due at the end of the semester, but urge student to stay on top of their work and get things to me over the course of the class. The result has tended to be that I have more time to work with students who are engaged in the course (and who turn in work over the course of the semester) and students who are just taking the course for the grade and turn in their work at the end receive correspondingly less attention (because of grading deadlines and the onslaught).

This arrangement is based on a few interrelated things. First, students have to read the syllabus. Second, they have to trust that I understand how to make the course work for them. Generally speaking about half to two thirds of the students (so 40-50 of the 60-80 student class) turn in papers over the course of the semester, get feedback, and improve their work. The other half turn in everything at the end. This works for me.

This semester, however, something rather bizarre happened. Students didn’t read the syllabus. Not just the usual small gaggle of harried students, but a bunch of them. At first this meant I received about 25 emails asking about due dates. I posted an announcement clarifying on the class’s page, and continued to receive emails. Students not only didn’t read the syllabus, but didn’t read my announcement. How bizarre.

Things got weirder still. Students write three types of papers: source paper, a diversity paper, and a cumulative paper. For each paper type, they have four or five options associated with particular weeks. As long as they write one paper of each type, I don’t care which paper they write over the course of the semester. (In fact, if they turn in a paper and don’t like their grade on it, they can write another of the same type to try to improve their grade.) What happened, though, was strange, a number of students wrote every paper. So instead of writing 3, 3 page papers, they wrote 16, 3 – page papers. I haven’t changed the syllabus substantially in 5 years and this has never happened before. Suddenly, this year, students stopped reading the syllabus to their own detriment and did orders of magnitude more work for this class than I required.

When this started, I wrote a few announcements reminding the students that they only needed to write three papers (one of each type). This may have stopped some folks from this misunderstanding, but not everyone. A group of students continued to write each paper and these papers were generally poor and showed signs of stress and haste.

What was causing this?

At the risk go getting political, I have a theory. The rhetoric surrounding education (and higher education) in North Dakota and nationally has become a bit toxic. The calls for efficiency, questioning of expertise (and even competence), and the language of disruption, transformation, and crisis has reached from the legislature to the college classroom. I wonder whether this rhetoric has fueled a culture of distrust among students. Instead of looking to faculty to guide them through an educational process, they question whether current practices in higher education make sense. On the one hand, I admire any student’s willingness to pave their own way and take their education into their own hands. (After all, I did the same thing in the 1990s when there was increased pressure to get a practical degree and I decided to become a Latin major!). On the other hand, if this breakdown in trust leads students to ignore the syllabus and make more work for themselves, I wonder whether they’re likely to encounter some unintended consequences of their independent mindedness. I’ll admit to having some sleepless nights even now about my decision to be a Latin major rather than majoring in marketing or something sensible.

2. Practical Learning versus Concepts. One of the most interesting challenges that I have encountered this past year is the growing tension between the classroom as a place for practical learning and the classroom as a place of conceptual and theoretical learning. I understand, of course, that some classes are designed to impart practical skills especially in fields like studio arts and in professional programs. At the same time, I tend to view graduate courses in history as having less of a practical edge and more of a focus on big picture concepts.

This year was the first year where I felt that students really wanted to learn practical skills rather than engage with big ideas. I’m skeptical whether a class can really teach the core skills necessary to be successful as a professional historian. Rigor in argument, skill in writing, and the ability to approach research in a thoughtful and efficient way are skills that practitioners learn through experience rather than following some set of rules or instructions or best practices. Classroom time, however, is about encountering ideas and manipulating them, evaluating and critiquing concepts, and interacting with challenging and often opaque texts. Time outside of class is about skill building and honing one’s craft. 

I suspect that some of the shifting attitudes toward the classroom comes from larger trends in higher education that see the college classroom as a practical training ground for employment rather than a place to engage ideas. The former is exceedingly limited because whatever skill you – at best – introduce will still take a lifetime to develop. The latter, however, is immediately productive and catalytic because it opens new ways of thinking that are really challenging to close. Classes should do more to undermine and destroy expectations and ways of seeing the world, than lay foundations for for some future competence.

3. Learning from Crisis. While there is a good bit of “crisis fatigue” on campus these days, I think most of the comes from faculty and administrators (and staff), rather than students. Some students, few I’d guess, remain blissfully unaware of the feeling of criss on campus, but many do. What has struck me as interesting and valuable is how the budget crisis has prompted a new set of conversations across campus. These conversations involve a wide-ranging critical engagement with the purpose and function of the university and the character of knowledge.

My graduate student waded into these waters with their brief collection of manifesto-y essay that we pushed out on this blog on Monday. Check it out here. It was probably the most intriguing project that I’ve managed in a graduate course in my decade of teaching at the University of North Dakota, and I credit it largely to the sense of crisis across campus. Who knew that teaching during a crisis could be so rewarding?

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