Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tired. But the Show Must Go On!

The only news I have to report, is that I have no news to report. Nothing happening job-wise, and bashing my head against two chapter-rocks at once is just like bashing my head against one. Looking around the department, all of the advanced (I used to say “old”) grad students are as disillusioned and cranky as usual, and all of the newbies are just as clueless and imprudent as usual (this new crop --- eh. They’re weird. They need to start looking at themselves and start thinking much more strategically. This is the first time I can remember a cohort being really unable to identify themselves as different and separate from the undergrads.) Meanwhile, the grads in the middle of their program arc are all so overworked they’re sick and sniffly and running around crazily. (I must have been bowled over by three today alone.)

I know I’m spoiled by the California weather and all, but it being January, it would be nice if the dept. could shut off the air conditioning in our part of the building.

I’m liking teaching, as usual (though not the impending grading). I’ve hit a new level of … comfort … with my classes. It may seem odd that I’ve taken 10 years in the classroom to get comfortable enough to banter and make pre-class small talk with my students, but that’s always been the hardest, most awkward thing for me to do. For some reason, this quarter I’ve just felt so much more at ease, able to tease my students a bit (like the one I saw today playing solitaire while I was handing out stuff for the prof in lecture) and also able to call on them --- and harass them when they can’t answer --- in a way that comes off as pleasant and non-intrusive and funny. In the past, I’ve been so unsettled and freaked out about singling out students for tasks by name (Stu 1, why don’t you read this paragraph here? Stu 2, can you tell us about ____ in that paragraph?) that I may do it once and then it feels weird and I shy away from it the rest of the class. I gotta admit, doing a rather cruel icebreaker that put students on the spot seemed to somehow set the tone of the course for me. Maybe them too. It helps that this course is in no way related to my interests or research. It also helps that I like studying everything and love to learn new things, so that I’m still interested and energetic regardless of what I’m teaching.

One thing I still need to work on though is shutting up in class. This has always been my Achilles heel --- I took these huge anonymous gen ed lectures as an undergrad and loved watching some charismatic lecturer showboat his (no --- well, yeah, mostly his) way through a course in some highly entertaining and exuberant performance. I loved that. I wanted that. Coming from a girl who did drama in high school and always longed for but was never quite brave enough to venture stand up comedy, it’s not surprising that I wanted the chance to be outrageous and captivating and educational on some stage somewhere and become a professor myself. That quality of large public performance being primarily associated with professordom in my mind. Upper-division classes, those smaller venues, were alright but since they often became a struggle over who would control the floor, myself or the professor, they didn’t quite draw me the way the Big Survey did --- or heck, even my intro bio and astronomy classes, which I remember as quite entertaining and funny. Those lecturers (and yeah, these were not the tt profs giving the 500-person lectures at my undergrad) were very aware of their audience and its level of attention, and were not only willing to push the entertainment factor to keep students awake but clearly took great pleasure in pushing at students who were not paying attention or being respectful --- poking at them in ways that were funny, not mean.

I suppose that by invoking the idea of entertainment that many times I’ve shocked and alienated a lot of people who claim on their blogs to really dislike that passive, consumerist, tv-style model of education. And I’m sure that all the people who have done or read education research that underscores just how horrible the large lecture format is in terms of actual education quality are shaking their heads at me right now. I dunno. I really liked it. But then I love learning things, so I’m sure I’m a bad example of what people get out of the large lecture courses.

As I was saying ---- I love the performance side of teaching; I love the lecturing and telling stories and talking, just trying to get a reaction out of the students. I’m not good at relinquishing control (and I’m very good at remembering and talking about stuff off the top of my head), so I have trouble shutting up and handing over the reins to the class. TAing is, of course, complicated by the fact that I have no control over the reading schedule or how the assignments are set up, so whatever I do want to do in section has to mesh with someone else’s vision of the class. And often, I’m taking notes in lecture with another notebook open on the other knee, trying to figure out how to triage the material for discussion, particularly when the prof is either a) cramming in way too much information, b) assuming the students have background that I don’t think they actually do, or c) throwing massive amounts of complex theory at them without really explaining it. Sometimes I have to navigate all three. So really, often section is all about figuring out what the prof said in lecture and why it is important and what that has to do with the other stuff we read two weeks ago. In those cases I run class like a bunch of rapid-fire questions, interspersed with my explanations, or, when I have time and energy, I work up group projects and parcel out the various confusing bits of lecture. When I have a tight agenda, and when I need to make sure they actually understood what, say, the carnivalesque is, I can’t really let the students dictate where the discussion goes. And secretly, I’m quite all right with that.

I’d make a new year’s resolution to work on fostering discussion rather than being the center of attention in this course, but the prof’s pacing and the topic of the course are working against me. Plus, it takes more time for me to prep group work or actually write out discussion questions or plan an activity, and I have already vowed to not spend any more time on this class than I absolutely have to — I have my diss to finish, and besides, they’re not paying me enough for me to be a wonderful amazing life-changing teacher, just an adequate one.

Ok, don’t want to end on quite that negative of a note, so here are some cat pictures, and I will close with the profound, informative, and exuberant statement: my cats are cute!

(You little putz --- that was my water you just washed in!)


kermitthefrog said...

I am with you all the way on the teaching-as-performance deal. As an undergrad, I felt more comfortable in settings where the instructor had more control -- not necessarily lectures, but certainly tightly guided discussions. Perhaps this had something to do with an inherent mistrust of my fellow students, but I digress. Point is, I constantly have to struggle against the same impulse to perform; it helps to have come to class with more interactive exercises, but as you say, sometimes it's just not worth the effort.

Finally, though, it seems like in your situation, you're doing the best you can with a Q&A format and some group work. Have you gotten any feedback from the students about how it's working for them? They may appreciate the clarification you're giving them.

Earnest English said...

I too used to love the lecture format as a student. It wasn't even that my profs were very entertaining or anything, but that I loved hearing them discuss something that they obviously knew so much about -- and they had their own viewpoints about everything. But maybe I cared less about their viewpoints, because I really aspired to culture and thought my fellow students had nothing to teach me. Now, over ten years since I've graduated undergrad and after a lot of reading on pedagogical theory, I am a totally different teacher than the ones I would've liked. In fact, I've thought often how much I'd hate me if I were a scared freshman being told to figure out my own assignments by some teacher who promotes student ownership of academic work. Doesn't she know that we just do this stuff for the grade? (Well, I guess I wasn't like that. I did it for the culture.) It's this great irony.

Judging by your stand-up blog, I'd love to have you lecture!

Belle said...

See? I do that too. I loved the lectures, but then a dear friend reminded me that I'm a geek... and most people don't learn that way. Then there was the discovery that I - terminally shy and the one who practiced being invisible - loved performing as professor/expert. I love wowing the students with my flexibility, my ability to link apparently unlinkable ideas and events together. Love. It.

So I have had to learn to step back and give up the spotlight. Yeah. I miss it. Greatly.

medieval woman said...

I, too, love to lecture - then I love turning it over to them and seeing how blown their brains get when we change gears quickly. Hee, hee....

I would love to hear you lecture as well!

And you do have cute kittens!

Sisyphus said...

Err, I haven't done any group work yet this term --- when you only allocate the hour or so before class to prep, you go with whatever you can think of, and if you don't have a lucky brainstorm for a group project, it doesn't get done.

But thanks to everyone who thinks I'd be good at lecturing! Maybe I'll quit grad school to have a lucrative inspirational podcasting business on the web. Eh, not.

It's interesting that we all liked the lecture format ... I wonder if that's a selection-into-grad-school thing? Like the ones who mesh well with it do well enough to go, or we're the ones who would have done well no matter which way we were taught, or what? Hmm.

Dr. Crazy said...

(I got bored in lectures and would end up just writing whatever popped into my head, go off on a tangent, and then I'd look up and not know what was going on.)

Easy group work exercise:

Have them do the following with the text:

1. What was it about? (summary)
2. If it's fiction, name the main characters and give a brief description of each and his/her relationship to the other characters. If it's poetry, have them go through line by line and note poetic devices and why they think those devices were used.
3. What things caught your attention as you were reading?
4. What questions do you have?

Takes a good 20 minutes, and you can use it over and over again. Make a point about how the exercise models what the prof is expecting them to do on their own, or if in your own class, about how the exercise models what they should be doing on their own and how it will link to any tests you might give. (I use this one ALL the time in lower-level classes).

If they're reading something critical, I think it can be useful to have them break into groups and to do a reverse outline of the piece (thesis statement, main points).

Dr. Crazy said...

Ooh - and another group work exercise I use pretty regularly when teaching either fiction or drama. Break the class into groups of four or five. Assign each group a character. Have them describe first the physical then the personality characteristics of the character. Then, the group should choose a passage (or lines, whatever) that they think illustrates the character, and explain why they chose it. If you're feeling kicky and fun, you could also ask them to choose an actor/actress whom they'd cast in the role and to explain their choice. (and this is always fun when you come back together to discuss, because you end up with a bizarrely cast movie of the text for the day. Vin Diesel as Iago? Indeed.)