Thursday, March 6, 2008

Class Observations and Teaching Styles

I haven’t had so much heart for posting lately; depressing stuff is happening and usually I need to work through it in some way before talking about it or writing about it. Often that means I’m already over whatever I’m going through by the time I write it out, or the act of writing a silly post helps me get some distance on whatever’s going on. But this week seems to be a swirling cloud of little things that bother me but in a way I can’t really put my finger on. Thus I seem to be in a sort of general malaise.

I have a lot of things I could mention, but as just one example, I got observed in my class (a phenomenon that supposedly happens to all TAs every quarter but I think has actually happened for me about three times total. Not that I mind getting out of being observed, just like I don’t mind the fact that the instructional development people who filmed me for one department's class evaluation lost the tape).

Now my class, for the most part, went pretty well, and the meeting afterwards went pretty well, and yet I take constructive criticism about as well as anybody, which is to say not well at all. On one level I know that a balanced and evenhanded report looking at my strengths and weaknesses will make me a better teacher, but on another level I know I want the result to be a pure affirmation --- You are so wonderful! You are perfect in every way and we love you! Yay! Don’t ever change! Everything you did in section was brilliant and infallible! --- and just like I can pick at a few balanced or critical evals, I can feel down and pick at an observation meeting that went exactly like it should. What do you mean I have areas where I could grow and improve as a teacher? Who would want to hear that?

So I feel a bit --- bruised. Even though, I admit, I really have no reason to.

None of these areas of improvement were news to me, however, which is a good thing, unless of course you recognize that I have known about and been working on these things for quite a while. But one statement really struck me and I have been meditating on it for a while now. “I think you did a great job of always coming back to the themes of the text and working them through how the lecture had brought this critical article to bear on the text, but I think you could make them work harder to make those connections themselves. Draw them out more.” (Ok, so that’s a paraphrase --- a not very accurate one.)

On the one hand, I think the prof is absolutely right. I have trouble leaving students to twist in their own silence to force them to expand on what I say, or they say. And I have huge troubles with letting go of control of the conversation or with stepping back and not allowing myself to dominate it. The phrase, you could push them, make them work harder, really resonated with me and it’s helping me think through how I could do that through re-structuring section.

On the other hand, I had already made the decision while prepping that I was going to do the bulk of the carrying in that section of my agenda. I could tell they had been totally lost in lecture and just were not thinking at that level in the previous weeks of section. I wanted to make sure those connections got drawn so that they didn’t think the past three weeks of lecture had been a completely unimportant digression when they hit, for example, the final. In short, I didn’t think they could do it.

Now this is interesting to me, how what the prof expects and what I expect are so different. Am I shortchanging the students and underestimating their ability? Is the prof, who only teaches at the senior level when s/he actually has to read and grade papers, out of touch with the thinking quality of most of my students, pretty much all of whom are first- and second-year non majors? Is the prof (like many of the profs who lecture here) assuming that our “R1” level students are at a level of preparedness and smartness that in reality they are lacking? (like the time a prof in another department mentioned “hegemony” “the habitus” and Homi Babha’s theory of dissemination in one lecture and was astounded to hear I spent an entire section on what is the term hegemony, why is it important, and how does it have any relevance to our course? “I am shocked ---- are they not getting a grounding in political theory before they get to college? Have they not read any Weber?” That’s only a slightly exaggerated version of her response.)

Or, are the students “working me” rather than me forcing them to work? I can tell you from the past 7 or 8 weeks that it has been a constant battle, like pulling teeth, to get the students to consistently speak up in class even at the level of plot and theme, just like it usually is at this school; they are just now willing to pipe up and sometimes even answer each other. How much am I training them to speak up and how much are they training me to only push them to answer on the plot-level questions? If I were doing something differently like the various suggestions the prof made, would I be getting them to engage with the texts at this level?

It’s kind of like how I thought I had trained my cats regarding food, and then when my friends came over they saw instead how thoroughly the cats had trained me. And yes, I am comparing my students to my cats. This comparison, I’m sure, could be expanded further.

To be honest, I usually believe scenario 1 ---- that the profs here are a bit out of touch and assume their students are getting much more in lecture than they actually do ---- but the example of the cats and my own blind spots causes me to rethink my position. I have seen many examples of kids outwitting parents back when I worked as a tutor ---- you just wait them out or pretend you don’t get it and parents and teachers often yank it out of your hands and just do it for you out of frustration, leaving you with a very cushy position if you can just use a little patience. To be fair, I think this rarely happens at a conscious, planned level for either party ---- but then again, operant conditioning rarely does.

This all also ties into different approaches to students ---- do you aim above their heads and encourage them to stretch up to reach this higher bar? Or do you get down below them, as it were, and push them up from behind? I’ve consistently done the second, partly because of my structural role as a TA, which I see as a go-between for the student and the professor, and also partly because I agree with the pedagogical approaches that try to build student confidence by starting out with questions they feel they can answer, praising them for answering those low-stakes questions, and then hoping that this increased confidence will encourage them to stretch out and risk answering these more difficult types of thematic or theoretical questions. (This is starting to sound like a statement of teaching philosophy. Fuck.)

The hitch in my system comes with that later push out towards more difficult questions; as I mentioned they still tend to clam up when I encourage them to move beyond brief statements or more thematic answers. And maybe, if my way doesn’t work any particularly better than the other way, I should be teaching from above their heads and beckoning them to reach; it is college, after all, and I have gotten some stinging comments about my teaching method being “too high school” (a long story for another day) that indicate perhaps I do need to rethink my approach. I spent a long time as a tutor for k-12 students for one of those for-profit tutoring centers and probably got more pedagogical training and theory there than in my rather shittily-run comp pedagogy seminar, so there is the possibility that I am applying teaching styles for remedial k-12 kids to smart adult college students and it is not working. Eh ---- I’m hoping that this wasn’t part of my lack of success on the job market.

Hmm. So, in conclusion, I am meditating on these ideas and revisiting my assumptions about teaching and about students. Fuck! I hate learning things when that involves interrogating my weaknesses and growing as a person! And with that, my friends, we can see an important commonality with my students, if not my cats. Or maybe with them too.


Mike Shapiro said...

Sisyphus, I have been exactly where you are in so many ways -- being asked to let students develop their own connections by professors who have a too-generous estimate of the sorts of work intro to lit students feel comfortable doing; receiving limited pedagogical support from the department, even though one of the best Schools of Education in the country is two blocks away; wondering whether classroom discussion would be worse or better if I brought in a pair of of those sinister pincers 19th-century dentists used to extract teeth and laid it gently on my desk...

You're obviously an amazingly committed and thoughtful teacher: think how many TAs at R1 schools blow off pedagogical criticism as irrelevant to their "real" work. As for getting 100-level students to make those connections, it's kind of like the Northwest Passage, I think: everyone is sure there has got to be a way to teach 18- and 19-year-old students to engage substantively and analytically with texts because, duh, we were all brilliant critical readers at that age. Personally, I'm not convinced, though I keep trying to find the way. If you ever come across it, will you let us know?

adjunct whore said...

thanks for sharing this post on pedagogical angst and/or feline crises. i suspect you know that there is no right answer (at least i don't think there is); in part, it is a matter of finding your niche as a teacher, or again, has been for me.

nothing makes you question and reflect more than an observation which, as awful and bruising as it is, is good, really good, for precisely the kinds of questions you are forced to ask yourself, ala this post.

my own "teaching philosophy" if i have such a thing goes for the high-bar method--in part, because i really believe students are more capable than we give them credit for. in fact, i think they are so often given a pass when it comes to real thinking and work that college becomes tedious beyond belief. what i mean is i think they want to be turned on, and how this happens seems to me to be some combination of dazzling them with what you know that they don't and giving them the chance to show you that they are intellectually curious and capable. what this looks like obviously varies. a sense of humor in the classroom, i find, is imperative to achieve anything at all.

but to return to my first thought, teaching (like parenting) is SO humbling: just when you think you've found a system, you're proven wrong, the exception takes a bite out of your ass, or you're observed, which amounts to all of the above.

one thing i can say is that confidence makes such a huge difference and seemed to be instantly bestowed on me after defending--like a miracle--that fast. watch, it will happen to you too, and SO soon!!!

sorry for monopolizing your comments...

Fretful Porpentine said...

Well, if it's any comfort, I've gotten exactly the opposite criticism (how dare you expose your freshman comp students to ideas that might be over their heads!) from a classroom observer who used to be a high school teacher. Whatever you do in the classroom, somebody somewhere will find something to criticize.

Dr. Crazy said...

What FP says about somebody finding something to criticize no matter what you do in the classroom is dead on. Actually, I hate in-class observations because having an outsider in there can tend to shut the students up even more than usual. And then you're evaluated on that. Ugh.

But some practical advice, if what you want is to get them going more. First, I've adopted the technique of commanding them "Say more!" in a sort of joky/excited way. It seems dumb, but it actually does work!

Also, some of the best advice I got in my first year at this job was from a senior colleague who noted that many of our students tend not to want to speak unless they've had time to think and then decide that it is "worth saying" or that what they have to say actually responds to the question or isn't stupid. (This was SO not the case at Grad Institution - those students never considered that anything they might say would be off-topic or uninteresting or just babble - so I had a big learning curve with this.) Sometimes just letting them sit in silence works, but I tend not to take that approach until later in the semester, after I've already acculturated them to how much I like them to speak. So how to get them to respond? Well, I do a *lot* more of this sort of activity now:

1) Warm-up writing from a directed question for 3-5 minutes. In other words, the warm-up writing gives them the chance to think through things and to respond in a no-stakes way before I start the discussion.
2) Some sort of small-group discussion (approx. 15 minutes) that builds on what they did in the warm-up writing. I find that if I get them talking to each other first, they're more comfortable, and also they have one more step during which to process the material. Often, this activity will end with having the group come up with a passage that they want to discuss and why they think it's worthy of discussion and/or coming up with questions about the material (esp. if it's really hard stuff).

(This is in 1 hr 15 min classes, by the by... I'd go shorter if I only had 50 mins. That said, it's not that much time, and it also allows me time to write some things on the board, etc., so I think it's a break-even sort of situation time-wise when I do this vs. when I run the show for the whole class period. And I do much less rambling that's not really useful to them. It does, however, require more prep time on the front end until you get the hang of it.)

Only after steps 1 and 2 do I then convene the class as a whole and start class discussion. Now, some students hate this model. They want me to be the sage on the stage and they resent that I don't just tell them everything, so this is not without its pitfalls (ahem, evaluations can take a hit because of this). BUT how things go in whole-class discussion is MUCH less of me talking at them and much more of them contributing their own ideas. I really get a sense of what they are getting and what they're not getting, in a way that I didn't before, when I didn't give them class time to consider what they wanted to say first. I'm not sure if this will work for you, but maybe giving it a shot sometime would be a worthy experiment?

Oh, and another thing: I find that classes as a whole participate more enthusiastically if there is some sort of presentation assignment that each of them must do individually at some point during the semester. It gets me away from the front of the classroom, and it changes the dynamic considerably because it does so.

But some classes just aren't chatty, too, so don't discount dynamic in thinking about this stuff. Sometimes, it's not you - it's them :)

Finally (and I know I've been babbling on and on), you're totally right that the role of a TA leading a discussion section is a bizarre one, and you are more like a liaison than an The Instructor with Authority in that role. It's a sucky position in which to teach, and it's really nice when that time is over :)

Feminist Avatar said...

Yeah, I like the small groups for fifteen minutes. I usually give them a different question/ topic or whatever from each other to discuss (but which all form part of the overall topic). They then have to report back to the big group about their thoughts on their issue, and other groups are offered the opportunity to make any points or comments they felt were missed. I usually go around and listen in, sometime feeding them ideas if they are really stuck.

It is useful for getting them talking and for me to figure out what they know and what reading they have been doing. This can then help me figure out what we need to focus on during the rest of the class, and what level I need to situate the discussion at.

Sanford said...

If you want to be a better teacher, if you want your students to be better, read "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" (

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

One of the things I always dislike about observation of a section by the person who only teaches the full class is that they often miss the nuances of the group. Your approach sounds good to me because you're looking at the class in a different way than the professor. And it is the nature of criticism to look for something to point at.

But I also struggle with the balance of student engagement and lecturing. My students swerve between silence and utter chaos on a fairly regular basis. There are days where I aim high, and there are days when I'm having to push. I tend to aim the highest with their assignments and push the most with lectures.

In any case, welcome back - I'd wondered why you'd been so quiet of late. Sorry to hear there's stress lurking in the wings of the blog. Hopefully all's clearing up.

Earnest English said...

Sis, I love your honesty! Nobody likes these teaching observations, dammit! And we all want to be told that we're perfect -- whether we are or not, someone will tell us that we're not. The only thing I have to add is that teaching observations really should not be so evaluative. I mean of course they are, but the observed teacher really should have the opportunity to form some questions that the observer can then look at. This, I think, has the potential (only potential) to be much more useful than just the standard observation. The last time I had someone in to my class, I was able to give him some background about the class, my goals for the day, blah, blah, blah. It was more useful -- and probably showed him that I was a thoughtful inquiry-driven teacher. By the way, if I were one of your observers, I'd love to see this post, which shows that you ARE a thoughtful teacher whose ideas and practices are well thought out.

(Word verification today is lmpdog. Limpdog? What the hell?)

SEK said...

Do you aim above their heads and encourage them to stretch up to reach this higher bar? Or do you get down below them, as it were, and push them up from behind?

I don't think these two moves exclude each other. I like to spin my students -- ask them a question they can't answer, let them stew; then ask them a slightly less difficult one, let them stumble; then ask one they can answer, watch them walk, make connections to the other two questions, and eventually get to where I wanted them to be in the first place. While teaching comp, I could do this on the fly -- but as I found, and painfully, when I taught literature, was that I really needed to think through these questions, gauge the relative degrees of difficulty, and come in with a specific battle plan.

One thing I loved about this method: eventually the students caught on, and when I'd ask the first question, I could see the little squirrels inside their heads turn around and run in the direction of the easier questions they knew were coming. By the end of the quarter, many were to the point where they could anticipate the easier questions and were able to answer the more difficult ones unprompted.

Charlotte said...

Hi Sisyphus,

You've gotten a lot of really good advice. In my experience, yes, there are some classes that are confident in their ability to respond and have no problem vocalizing the connections they've made. And yes, then there are the classes where you have to vocalize certain connections because otherwise they might not get said at all.

And I've been there--a carefully constructed few weeks of reading and discussion, only to have students look at you blankly like there's been no purpose at all. It's better to say it than not, so the students do know that there was a point to all of it...

Ha. I can't believe you've been observed. I've been observed one time, and I've been adjuncting for the the past two years at three different institutions.

medieval woman said...

Everyone's already said the great stuff about your wonderfully honest post!

I'm just sorry you're going through a crappy time right now.


Sisyphus said...

You're obviously an amazingly committed and thoughtful teacher

Well Mike, welcome to the blog! this is the kinda praise I was looking for rather than a balanced and constructive assessment of my strengths and weaknesses!

And I want to reiterate that this was not a bad eval encounter; it was the standard "here are three good things you do and three things you could work on" and even used the technique of "sandwiching" that we are taught to do in our student conferences. I just, you know, want adoration rather than constructive critique.

AW and Porpentine make good points about whatever the situation, it can go wrong in strange and unexpected ways --- there's so much about teaching that resists planning and quantification. The ability to improvise is highly important.

And Dr Crazy, thanks for all the suggestions! I'm going to belie the "thoughtful and committedness" of this post and admit here that I'm not actually getting paid enough as a TA put in the effort to resolve these kinds of problems or rework my systems, particularly in a course that is of no use to me topic or research-wise, so I'm holding off trying any new or time-consuming pedagogy until some later time. But then I feel guilty over that and "meditate thoughtfully" on it all.

My students swerve between silence and utter chaos on a fairly regular basis.

Ooh, those are my sections! They just did the utter chaos thing the week before, not while the prof was watching.

And I have gotten them to jump in and answer my rapid-fire quizzing about people and plots, but not to engage with each other or make extended statements themselves instead of one-word answers. But I think I'll change up my style if/when I get to teach my own stuff and run my own show.

And Charlotte, this was observation #4 in 8 years (3 quarters a year) of teaching in grad school. It's totally a hoop, and only the most conscientious of our profs even bother to jump through this hoop. He sat there and took a paragraph of notes and I got a 5-minute meeting w/ him during passing period. That said, I like this prof and find him very sweet and old school. And I would be pissed if we had to do lots of meetings and writeups and bureaucracy.

Wow, this was a long comment! Ooops. Feel free to add more to the discussion...

Dr. Crazy said...

Makes perfect sense re: not being paid enough to experiment now. Actually, I figured you'd put my suggestions in the file for when you're not enslaved to the TA system :)