Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ask the Administrator: My Students Changed! Now What?

An occasional correspondent writes:

Here at Prestig. University, as elsewhere in the northern hemisphere,it's summertime, and that means that my fellow Ph.D. students in thesocial sciences and I are scratching out a living by teaching summercourses. (I used to complain about the fees they gave us, until Ilearned that we were paid more to teach as grad students thanprofessors at nearby,  less prestigious schools.)

This year, my class is relatively small, which is on balance good, butI have zero traditional undergrad students. Normally, I have aleavening of them--folks taking courses while doing internships,transfer students getting caught up, and so forth--which really helpsin imparting the soft skills of being a college student that I'veeither forgotten or never knew (when I began my B.A. more than adecade ago, Blackboard was rare, Google was obscure, and Facebookdidn't exist).

Instead, I have half high-schoolers (mostly 16 or 17) and halfnon-native English speakers. This is good in some respects, but it hassevere consequences for how I teach, since I can no longer assume ashared pool of cultural references or even that the studentsunderstand terms like "in aggregate". The experience hassimultaneously made me pine for the days of being a TA during the academic year, when all the students passed our selective admissionsstandards, and also made me realize that I had been cosseted a bit bylearning how to teach by being selective students' instructors.

All of this is a long preamble to a question that I think dovetailswell with your interests in pedagogy. How much do instructors have toadapt their courses and their styles to the needs of the students? I'mperfectly fine with speaking more slowly, for instance, but I would bemore skeptical of trimming course material from what is already apared-down version of a college course. (Not that I'd refuse to teachthat class--I do need the money--but it would definitely be a case ofneed trumping what I think is best for the material.)

Midcourse corrections are tough, but this is actually a very valuable experience to have in grad school.  

One of the many systemic flaws of graduate education is that it mostly occurs in settings unrepresentative of the vast majority of teaching jobs.  That means that young academics in their formative years can develop some pretty bad teaching habits and get away with it, because their students have been pre-screened to be (mostly) immune to mediocre teaching.  

Then those grad students are loosed on the community colleges and unselective four-year colleges of the world, and have no idea what to do.

The typical community college class might not have quite so many 16 year olds in it, but it may well have a sufficiently diverse group that some of what you might consider common cultural shorthand just won’t fly.  And the levels of academic preparation will vary widely enough that you may find yourself pressed to explain things that it didn’t occur to you you’d have to explain.

You have some choices to make.

If you decide to take this as a challenge, you could make yourself a much better teacher across the board.  (Alternately, you could adopt the crotchety/bitter “students used to be better” pose.)  Your job has changed.  Instead of simply presenting material, you have to figure out how to prioritize it, frame it, and figure out whether/how much the students have absorbed it.  And you can’t necessarily rely on the high schools to have done what you consider groundwork.

Rather than looking at this as “watering down,” which I would find insulting and self-defeating, I’d recommend stepping back and thinking about what you really want the students to learn.  

I had to go through that in my first semesters at Proprietary U.  My graduate institution was selective, so the undergrads on whom I first learned to teach were generally pretty strong (and traditional).  But the students at Prop U were very different.  On the fly, I had to figure out how to reach students of types I had never seen before.

Through some trial and error, I found a couple of things that worked for me.  I hope that my wise and worldly readers who have faced similar situations will chime in with ideas that worked for them, too.

The first change was in how I thought about the point of the course.  Since the students generally had no intention of majoring in my subject, I didn’t see much point in the “I have to cover this and that” approach.  Instead, I focused on getting them to think in ways that my discipline featured.  That required some content, obviously, but it shifted the focus from “here are ten different schools of thought about x” to “let’s try applying this idea to x.”  

The second change was in listening to the students a lot more.  Although their backgrounds and assumptions were different, they weren’t stupid; they just had different frames of reference.  In drawing them out, I was able (sometimes) to find ways to frame ideas that made sense to them.  And I had to let them flounder in public.  In-class exercises -- debates, group exercises, simulations -- helped me find ways to make relative abstractions more concrete, which then gave a point of entry to get back to the abstraction.  

The course became much less about me explaining things, and much more about the students wrestling with things.  My role was to construct the settings in which the students would wrestle with the ideas at hand.

I don’t have a magic way to make that large a switch, successfully, in the middle of a compressed term.  But taking a step back and reflecting on what you really want the students to get out of it -- rather than what you thought you were supposed to cover -- is probably a good start.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Are there other, better ways to shift course mid-semester?  If you suddenly found yourself teaching a different profile of students, how did you adjust?

Good luck!

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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