Reflections of a private tutor
Posted by Ryan 0 Comment(s) Add a Comment
02/11/2012 06:50 PM
My Six Cardinal Rules of Teaching:
As a result of the feedback from supervisors, colleagues, and students during five years of teaching and fifteen courses at Ohio State (three as a teaching assistant and twelve as the instructor), I have developed six cardinal rules that I strive to follow in each of my classes. Each rule is a result of my failures or successes, my implementation of others' advice, and my attention to student responses and evaluations.
Rule #1: "Have something interesting to say."
One of the first pieces of advice I received on teaching came from Professor Nan Johnson (English) during the First-Year Writing workshop in Fall 2006. If one wants to spark a lively discussion, she advised, then one had better have something interesting to say. Over the years, I have often returned to this seemingly simple adage. When a discussion in English 220 fell flat, I asked myself what I had done wrong, and I realized that I had picked far too obvious a point on which to center the discussion. The next day, I started the discussion with a much more contentious issue, and the students avidly tore into it. This rule does not advise that one be purely entertaining or contentious for their own sakes, but instead reflect on the issues in the text that students would find the most relevant, and then use those concepts to situate less obvious but in the end equally interesting ideas.
Rule #2: "Show them why they should care."
This point is closely related to the first rule. I found out in one of my sections of English 110 that just because I found a discussion of Plato's Allegory of the Cave fascinating and relevant, my students did not necessarily feel the same way. In their evaluations, many mentioned that it was the one text they would pull from the syllabus. I had not done a good enough job of explaining why they should care about the text or how it related to the other materials we were examining. More broadly, students do best when they are told clearly why what they are working on is important, what the stakes and outcomes are, and how it relates to their classwork and daily lives. Done effectively, these connections can make, for example, the depiction of the relationship between Adam and Eve in Milton's Paradise Lost relevant to the partnership of Todd and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, which in turn may comment on how students themselves engage with their partners.
Rule #3: "Less is more."
When I was trained in English 903, a "Teaching College English" practicum that asked me to be a teaching assistant for English 201 and to teach two classes, I discovered both the value and the danger of the lecture. The course is a curious one that asks a professor to survey one thousand years of literature (800-1800) in ten weeks. So, the professor of the course saw it as her job to impart as much information as possible to the students, and she delivered a series of brilliant and informative lectures and taught me how to create similar ones. Yet, this technique requires little personal thought from the student: the plot is described, the major themes are laid out, the influence of the sociocultural context is clearly delineated. The students certainly overviewed a great deal of information, but only passively. In my own teaching, I strive to balance the informative, but brief, lecture with student response papers and vivid class discussions. I hate to sacrifice a breadth of coverage for a depth of personal engagement, but I have to come to see any course as an introduction to a topic, one that teaches the habits of mind and lays the groundwork for further exploration. So, in my teaching, "less is more," and I encourage students to take the introduction I have given them and follow it up on their own.
Rule #4: "It's about the students."
When I first began teaching, I was anxious, as I think most new teachers are, about whether I were qualified to be up in front of a classroom. As a result, I felt that I had to prove myself, and so I came up with intricate readings of literature, complex assignments, and lectures on deconstructive principles. I had made the class about me and about my own anxieties, and the students were mystified. One of my supervisors told me to relax, that I did not need to try so hard. “You're teaching them, so they already think you should be up there,” she said. In my more recent classes, I have done my best to put my ego and any anxieties aside, and just go over the material appropriate for the section. If students wish to talk about the more complex issues, I am happy to oblige, but in most cases, they just need a firm grounding in the basics. Teaching is about giving them what they need, in the most conducive manner – “It's about the students.”
Rule #5: "Don't confuse 'rigorous' with 'mysterious.'"
In some of my first courses, students remarked in their evaluations that they were occasionally unsure what I wanted from them for their essays or other work. Reflecting on those assignments, I had thought that I was being challenging and open-ended by asking the students to develop their own points and arguments. How they structured their responses would tell me how they thought and their development would show how much work they had put into the assignment. I was not entirely wrong in wanting to challenge the students and to refrain from being overly directive, but I had fallen into a teaching error: I was not just being challenging; I was being mysterious. After looking at how my supervisors in two of the classes I assisted with framed their essay assignments, I came to realize that I could be clearer and rigorous without being mysterious. Ever since, I have provided my students with a grading rubric for every essay assignment and example theses to model.
Rule #6: "Be humane."
This rule speaks for itself. It is often easy to quantify students as so and so many essays to grade or such and such a score on an assignment, but one does oneself and one's students a great injustice in quantifying them in such a fashion. Teaching is irrevocably human, and that is one of its greatest rewards and one of its greatest responsibilities. Being too much of a rule-hound or ignoring that students have lives outside the classroom impairs one's pedagogy. So, as long as students do the work and think through the issues, and the class is not disrupted, I am perfectly willing to give students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to excuses and life's emergencies, even if they sometimes cannot “prove” them.