Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
James M. Lang, an assistant professor at Assumption College in Worcester, MA., has written a great story of his first year as a college teacher that provides keen insights that will help graduate students and new faculty - and maybe even not-so-new faculty - learn to survive and flourish as good teachers. The posting below is a set of two excerpts from the March chapter, Relating, in which he talks about what he needs to do to make effective connections with his students. It is from his book: Life on the Tenure Track, Lessons from the First Year. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright? 2005 The Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved. Published 2005 [www.press.jhu.edu] Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: Reconceptualizing the Faculty Role: Alternative Models
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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LIFE ON THE TENURE TRACK - RELATING TO STUDENTS
The time away from the classroom, between my illness and spring break, helped me begin to see an important shift I had been making over the course of the year-one that concerned my relationship with my students.
Before coming to Assumption, I saw myself as an explorer leading a band of shipmates on exciting intellectual journeys. I had studied the maps; I knew how to navigate; I had done the research, and my excitement and intellectual curiosity would inspire my crew to follow me into dark and mysterious places. They had signed up for the voyage, and I expected them to follow me willingly, even enthusiastically. After all, once we reached the new land, they would all have an equal share in the intellectual treasure.
But that relationship model didn't work for me and my students at Assumption-and won't work, I expect, for faculty at most colleges in the United States. Not all of the students, first of all, had willingly signed on for the journey. Some were on board because their parents had pushed them there; some were along for the shipboard parties; others saw their college courses as getting them from point A to point B and planned to jump ship at the first port-the promise of a secure job with a good salary. Of course there were exceptions, but many of them hadn't come on board for the sole purpose of accompanying me on journeys of intellectual discovery.
So I had to abandon that model, and the best replacement I could come up with to describe my role in the relationship that was evolving between me and my students was on that at first, I confess, stuck in my craw: I was like the coach of a high school sports team. We were a solid team with all the fundamental skills under our belt. Nothing too flashy-we weren't the state champions, but we weren't the conference doormats, either. My players came out for various reasons. Some were here out of inertia, because they had been playing the sport for a long time; others had been shoved onto the team by their parents; a few truly loved the sport; and one or two were capable of play at the professional level someday.
But this mix of players, with their different motivations and skill levels, meant that I had to focus my energies on four tasks: encouraging everyone into a love of the game, even if it meant jumping around and waving my arms during my halftime speech, or taking everyone out for pizza once in a while; drilling them on the basics, with daily practice; preparing them for the big games and evaluating their performance afterwards; and, finally, making sure they understood how playing the sport would benefit them throughout their lives.
So in March, following spring break, I begin to step more enthusiastically into the role of coach. I am coming to understand that if I want my students to participate in the discussions and exercises I plan, part of my job is to convince them that what we are doing matters-both in their future courses at the college and in their lives beyond college. My classroom practice slowly evolves from encouraging them to discuss interesting things to structuring discussions in which we practice the basic skills of my discipline: looking closely at texts, generating interpretations, and testing those interpretations against the words on the page and against each other. I make frequent mention of the relationship between specific classroom activities and what I will expect from them on their tests and papers, as well as-whenever possible-what employment or citizenship will demand from them beyond college. I start to wonder whether I should have been doing these same things with my s!
tudents at Northwestern.
My three different class preparations (for four courses total) are spread across the major course divisions at the college-a freshman introductory course, an intermediate required course for majors, and an upper-level elective-making my efforts especially challenging. What works for one group of students doesn't always work for the others. So, just like last semester, I am still constantly working on course preparations, trying to find new ways to keep the students interested and to gear the classroom activities towards the development of specific analytic and interpretive skills.
On my second class day back to Introduction to Literature, for example, in mid-March, I begin out discussion of Ursula K. LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"-a philosophical fable in which a town's happiness depends entirely on keeping a small girl locked in a basement-in squalid conditions-with an activity I had once read about called the "concrete image" exercise. After introducing the story, I ask the students to clear their minds and think about the one most prominent concrete image of the story. Once they think of it, I tell them, write it down in as much detail as possible, then try to figure out how it helps you understand the meaning of the story.
(This counts as their weekly writing exercise, the substitute I have come up with for the quizzes that the presidents insisted were such a necessity. Once a week I pose a thought question at the beginning of class, one that require them to write a full paragraph about a specific element of the story, in enough detail to demonstrate that they have read the material. It also requires them, though, to offer an in-depth analysis of that element, something that goes beyond mere description. I always use the question I pose for their weekly writing exercises as the first discussion question for that day.)
Once I have collected this exercise, I ask for volunteers to describe their images for me. Most of them focus on the girl, but they emphasize different elements of her condition, and I list these on the board. Once we have done that, I ask them to help me organize our images into a structure that ill explain what the story means-and in the case of this philosophical fable, what lesson the author wants us to learn.
At the end of class, and it has been a good one, I make my pitch for the utility of what we have just done.
"This exercise," I explain, "models for you one way of analyzing a work of literature, and it's a way that you can and should be using in the papers you have due in a few weeks."
Ears prick up at this. I see some students pick up their pens and poise them over their notebooks.
"When you are reading a work of literature, keep your eye out for concrete images like these" (I gesture at the board), "for extremely details descriptions of objects or people or places, for the details that the author devotes a lot of attention to and that really stand out when you read. Those are the places to focus your attention when you are ready to start thinking about what the work means. Look closely at those details and images in the text, think about what they mean, analyze the specific word choices the author makes, and consider whether they represent more than what might first appear to you. Make a list of images or details that stand out, and do what we have just done here: try to find some principle that connects them, that organizes them.
"If you are reading something for the first time and feel lost, look to the images and details. And in your papers, always make sure that you are doing the sort of close analysis of those images and details that we have done here today."
More and more, as the semester proceeds, my classes being to look like this. We spend time in class honoring particular skills-skills that might seem specific to the art of literary interpretation, I tell them, but that will be required of them throughout their lives: reading closely, analyzing texts and situations, interpreting the written word, organizing their thoughts and words into papers and presentations.
As an undergraduate myself, I wasn't interested in interacting with my professors outside the classroom. I was curious about their lives but would have felt uncomfortable in social situations with them. Perhaps my reluctance or inability to connect with my students more fully outside the classroom stems from my memory of that attitude in myself, and from an assumption that my students feel the same way I did back then.
An indeed, in this second semester I am coming to understand how much my undergraduate attitudes about students and teachers and education have colored-and in many cases warped-my current perspectives.
I don't know whether I am alone in this, but a part of me has always felt that the undergraduate Jim Lang sets a good standard for the values and behavior of the older Jim Langs who have come along since then. I was an idealist in college, and I remain one; I hate it when people snidely dismiss the idealism of their youth. I still believe in the power of ideas to change the world. That belief is part of what keeps me in this business.
But by the middle of my second semester I am becoming more and more aware that the undergraduate Jim Lang, whose idealism I still admire, did not have the knowledge or experience to be a good judge of pedagogical practices or student relations. He didn't understand classroom dynamics; he would never have seen how his own assertive voice might intimidate others; he would have dismissed as silly or timid anyone who feared joining a classroom conversation. He was the product of an all-male high school and a male-oriented culture of sports and Catholicism at Notre Dame. He would have groaned and rolled his eyes at the sort of exercises I regularly conduct to make students comfortable and open to discussion in my classrooms.
He wasn't exactly an idiot, but he had his blinders.
Understanding my relationships with my students more clearly, and learning to manage them more effectively, has meant sloughing off some pieces of that old Jim Lang and coming to realize that his experiences out there in the seats don't always serve me very well up here in front of the blackboard.
I have watched colleagues go through similar realizations and have watched others who never come to see that their experiences in college or graduate schools should not necessarily form the measuring stick for their own teaching practices. Many of us who entered Ph.D. programs did so because we learned best by means of reading and listening to lecturers. But many students out in the seats in liberal arts colleges like mine don't learn best by those means, and they need more interactive and hands-on forms of teaching.
The most complex relationship I find myself having to negotiate in my continued development as teacher, then, is the one between my past and present selves.