are you the teacher you would have wanted?

I've been thinking a lot today about my undergrad course, a course I've taught at least 5 or 6 times before at Large Urban. I've made a variety of changes over the years -- in readings, in assignments, in my general approach to the material. I'm still not entirely satisfied with it -- which is probably a good thing, as it keeps me reviewing the materials and asking myself how I can make it better.

As part of my planning process, I took a 2nd look at my student evaluations from the last iteration of the course. They were about what I always get: some people say it's too much work, others say there's not enough (?). Some students love the way I run the class, others complain that they hate discussion. I always teach with a mixture of lecture and discussion -- for all kinds of reasons:
  • after about 20-30 minutes of even the most exciting lecture, most undergrads start to tune out. So if you mix in other types of activities -- discussion, group work, in-class writing -- then you can re-engage their minds and attention.
  • I believe in a student-centered model of pedagogy -- if I don't know what it is that my students understand or don't understand, how can I teach them? I can only learn where they are in the material by hearing them discuss it.
  • Students come to understand the concepts of the course, and begin to learn/practice analytical skills, only by engaging in dialogue (both written and oral) about the texts. Passively receiving a lecture from me about the material doesn't ask them to synthesize or apply any of what they are supposed to be learning.
So, for every 15 or 20 students who say they learn a lot from the way I blend discussion and group work with lectures, there is always 1 or sometimes 2 who write in their evaluations things like: "the professor should lecture more. I don't care what my peers have to say." Sometimes I can guess who these students were, other times I have no idea. Not that it matters. But I'm concerned about them. Not simply because it's too easy to focus on the negative evaluations and ignore the positive ones (after all, what do they tell me to work on?) -- but because I sometimes wonder what my old student self would have thought of my class.

I very rarely participated in class discussion when I was at university -- except for two or three memorable classes that really changed my life. It's in part my experience in those courses that keeps me convinced that getting students to actively engage in the material is crucial. But I spent a lot of my time sitting in the back row, taking notes, and not really entering into the ideas of the course until I was on my own in the library with my book. To be fair, not many of my university professors even attempted to run discussions.

Also, to be fair -- most of my students at Large Urban are nothing like the person I was -- they have very different goals, background, and assumptions about the educational process. And it's those assumptions that drive most of the dissatisfied ones -- a kind of consumerist model of the university -- "I paid tuition for this class, so I just want to hear the professor speak." Every so often I get junk mail advertising Lectures by the Greatest Professors on CDs -- and there's nothing wrong with people who want that sort of thing: bits of cultural capital nicely packaged and expensively priced -- here's your little taste of Harvard. But that's not my idea of the best possible use of classroom time.

So: are you the teacher you would have wanted when you were a student? I hope I am. I suspect my old self would have sat silent in the back row for the first few days -- but gradually figured out what was going on and joined in. But remembering my history of silence is useful in helping me try to figure out ways to reach all of my students. And, in fact, I usually get everyone to participate one way or another. But they don't all like it. And that's OK too. I'm a big girl and I can take it if 2 or 3 out of 35 say I don't lecture enough. But I guess part of what I'm teaching them, beyond the specifics of subject matter and skills, is that growth is an active process -- the more you engage, the more you gain. But that kind of engagement -- in discourse, in dialogue, in the world of ideas -- runs counter to so many other tendencies in our culture that it, in itself, is pretty alien to my students.