Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teaching and Learning

(Come on, baby. 2 more!)

Within a pretty short span of time, I have been a college student, a graduate student, and a teacher of college students. Being a teacher makes me see how I could have been a better student, and having recently been a student, I hope, makes me a better teacher. I think constantly about how I could improve my instruction, and how I wish I could have improved my own education. In lieu of obsessively checking whether enough students have enrolled for me to actually have a class next semester (now you know how teachers spend their time off), I’ve decided to post those thoughts.

For students:
  • Review your professor’s syllabus thoroughly before you ask him or her a question.
  • Technology deadens live interaction. Don’t use your cell phone during class — or, in almost all cases, your computer. It disengages you from class discussion. It distracts you; don’t pretend like you never look at the internet during class. Even more importantly, it’s rude. Maybe in your peer group, it’s considered socially acceptable to have your eyes glued to a screen and your thumbs typing away while you’re having a live conversation, but your professors come from an older generation (ha, look at me, talkin about how old I am) in which such behavior is definitely not acceptable. And even if your professors are younger (as I am, for the time being), you’re showing them that as a student, you’re not willing to do one bit of work in your own education. You’re asserting that your showing up should be sufficient contribution from you. Put a moratorium on electronics during class. It’s just healthy.
  • Go to your professor’s office hours. Most of the time, nobody comes, and your professor is just sitting there twiddling his or her thumbs. You don’t have to have something urgent or brilliant to ask — if you have to, you can come up with any old question as a pretext for meeting. Either way, it’s worth getting over your intimidation and laziness. You and your teacher will be able see each other as human beings instead of catatonic listener vs. incessant babbler. And in the course of your conversation, you’ll get a chance to ask about all those things you didn’t understand in class but might have forgotten about until your meeting. At those meetings, it’s your job to show your teacher that you care, which you do just by showing up, and it’s your teacher’s job to help you see that yes, you really can succeed in the class even though it’s challenging. My students who come to meet with me do better on the whole than those who don’t.
  • If you need to ask for an extension on an assignment, follow these rules: 1.) Ask in advance. 2.) Ask in writing. 3.) State when you’ll have the assignment completed. 4.) If you provide an excuse, which usually won’t help your case anyway unless there’s a hospitalization or a funeral, don’t go into detail. Your professor doesn’t need to know about your vaginal issues. (Multiple students have foisted such information on me.) 5.) Write with a tone of humility. You are entitled to nothing.
  • Using more than three of someone else’s words in a row without citing your source is plagiarism. Yup, three’s your max. That’s it. More importantly, your professor looks at the Wikipedia and SparkNotes entries on the subjects of your papers. If you’re following the letter of the plagiarism rule but not the spirit — i.e., you’re changing just the right number of words around — you’re still not going to get a good grade.
  • Be conscious of your professor’s time. Many students like to grab professors after class, and if that time is not the professor’s designated office hours, don’t expect to be able to talk to him or her for minutes on end, especially if many of your peers are also waiting. Visit office hours or make an appointment.
  • Professors remember students who hazard a response to a question no one else wants to answer. Don’t worry if your idea is crazy, or if you have to answer a question with a question. Your classmates will be even more grateful to you than your professor will be.
  • In general, make your interactions with your professor professional. The class is where you work; your professor is your boss. So don’t sign your emails “xoxo” or “love ya.”

For teachers:
  • Never spend more time grading a paper than a student spent writing it. 
  • If you collect papers electronically, check to make sure you can open all attachments within 24 hours of students turning them in.  
  • While of course the focus of your teaching is your students, look at your class as an opportunity for you to learn as well. If you teach the same course multiple times, change a unit or a reading assignment. It’ll keep you on your toes, and you’ll remember what it’s like to learn something.        
  • You’re probably only going to have all your students’ undivided attention a few times during any individual class session. Learn to recognize those times and improvise during them; you can’t afford to waste them, so learn to be flexible regarding when you state or emphasize your most important points. 
  • Admit it when you’ve made a mistake or lost an argument. Your behavior in those difficult moments can sometimes teach your students more than your most incisive insights will. 
  • Fail students when they deserve it.       
  • Establish all your policies, for tardy work, etc., before the semester starts, and sound very stern with them on the first day of school. But don’t be rigid for the sake of being rigid. You and your students are humans, and human things happen. 
  • Before each class session, do what you need to do to get yourself into the teaching zone. Maybe it’s running; maybe it’s meditating. I always have to do a few things – Write out all the points I’m going to make and practice by giving a speed-lecture from those notes; then, during the actual class, I don’t really have to use those notes. Last, I spend a few moments tricking myself into thinking I have confidence. If I don’t take the time to do these things, the class doesn’t go as well as it could. 
  • Don’t blame yourself when your students look bored, distracted, or comatose. You have no idea what their lives are like outside your classroom walls. Your job isn’t to blow everyone’s minds every session; it’s to teach the ones who are willing to meet you halfway. You don’t have to baby anyone. This isn’t high school.

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