Friday, November 04, 2005

Teaching in Context, or, All Hail Dr. Crazy

Dr. Crazy has a series of really good entries going on how she has had to adjust her teaching style and expectations to meet the students she actually has, rather than the student she was at their age. I’m thinking of printing them, binding them, and giving them to all our new hires.

Graduate school is terrible preparation for teaching generally, but it’s especially bad for teaching non-elite students. In graduate seminars, as I remember them, teaching pretty much consisted of wild theoretical curlicues, name-dropping, and generous dollops of shame if you couldn’t keep up with either. Grades were beneath discussion; it was pretty much assumed that you got an A if you did the work competently, and an Incomplete if you couldn’t finish it on time. Grades were based on, to the extent they were based on anything, a single assignment (or, at most, two).

After years of that, teaching non-majors at some very non-elite places required major adjustments. For one, guilt simply didn’t work as a motivator. The students simply didn’t care if they didn’t know historical events, or big names, or anything at all in my subject area. They had been inured to teacherly imputations of guilt, having experienced so many of them in the K-12 years. Most never read books for pleasure, and didn’t see anything odd about that. Their reading comprehension was dreadful, when they bothered to read at all. And they weren’t at all shy about asking me, self-righteously, why they had to take this class.

I don’t remember the exact moment of the epiphany, but at some point I realized that the culprit was my grad-school-style syllabus. It was based on the two-major-assignments school of grading. Since the students couldn’t see the immediate numerical payoff of, say, doing the reading for a given day, they didn’t. Naturally, the class discussions lagged, and the papers (when they weren’t simply copy-and-pasted from the web) were just embarrassing. Desperate, I rejiggered the syllabus to break 100 points into about 20 chunks: weekly quizzes (3 points each), several exams (10-15 points each), papers with rewrites, oral presentations (these did wonders to combat plagiarism), etc. Every assignment had some point value, even if it was tiny. And I abandoned makeup exams, instead giving three exams over the course of the semester and counting the best two. (When I told them I would do that, I outlined the logical consequence: if you haul ass on the first two, you get to skip the final. They liked that a lot.) It cut down on the whining, and gave a student who tanked the first exam a reason not to give up hope.

The turnaround was dramatic. Given a tangible reason to read, more of them did. The connection between the reading and success in the overall course, which I had always assumed implicitly, became legible to them.

As a student, I would have been insulted by this approach. But they aren’t me. Kudos to Dr. Crazy for figuring that out too, for having the courage to reject what she had been taught when she found that it didn’t work. She isn’t being elitist or condescensing; she’s willing to accept the possibility that the students in front of her aren’t just younger versions of her. This kind of openness to reality is what separates the good veteran professors from the tired old professors; disappointed, closed-minded idealism (or narcissism) has a way of becoming orneriness over the years. Dr. Crazy has the insight and the internal confidence to change tactics when she saw what wasn’t working. Professors were (usually) very good students, and we sometimes forget that most students aren’t. Many of us started out with (however acquired) a sense of how the academic game is played, and that sense is so ingrained that it seems natural and obvious. We forget that non-elite students often don’t have that, and their previous experience of academia has been mostly negative. Making the rules legible, which may seem condescending to us, is actually making the game fairer. Well done, Dr. C.