(This entry is brought to you by the fact that Tim O’Brien is going to read my short story and I’m freaking out and not writing and not writing and procrastinating and not writing and this is one of the products.)
The fall semester just concluded its fifth week of classes, meaning we are ~1/3 the way through already. It’s kind of hard to believe; I’ve kept myself more busy than usual and time is flying. Teaching feels a lot different this year, a lot easier, and so I’d like to take a moment to jot down some of my guesses as to why (although I am not entirely sure).
Repetition. First of all, most obvious, repeating some of the things I taught last year means less work for me, because I don’t have to replan those lessons that went well. Second, I’ve been given a chance to remove the lessons that didn’t go well. Third, the stuff that I’ve kept from last year I’m able to anticipate a little better what is going to bring the most discussion, what is going to cause the most tripping. As an example, last year we went to the library for a class on the basics of research, and it didn’t go very well because most of the class didn’t even know what their topics were yet. This time, we spent a whole class on picking out a topic the day before the library, and I assigned them having a topic as homework, and that made our visit to the library much more focused. Not perfect, but better.
Confidence. I don’t just mean being in front of a room full of people – I think I got used to that fairly quickly. I don’t mean confidence in being a voice of authority, or confidence in the material, which, again I felt I had last year. Instead, I have a confidence in where we’re going as a class. I can tell the students what I think they’re going to get out of the writing, I can tell them where I think they’ll have difficulties, and I can tell them what they’re going to wish they had taken notes on.
Building on confidence, I’m able to be a little bit more candid, a little bit more honest. If your first year of teaching is all about faking it as you make it, then the second year, in my experience, is about dialing that back until you find a comfort zone. This is stupid little things like “I don’t like teaching this part, but you’re going to be glad I did when you go to turn in a paper for x. Let’s work through it together.” I think a lot of people confuse being candid with being the students’ friend, which is a dangerous territory. I can be up front with the process of teaching the class without losing my role as guide.
Not taking it personally. Definitely my biggest problem last year (and something I’ve written about here before) was thinking that I did something wrong every time a student didn’t do their reading or missed class. It took a while for me to remember that when I was 18, I missed a lot of classes and I didn’t do a lot of homework, and it rarely had anything to do with the professor. You forget the varying levels of commitment that people come into a classroom with once it’s your job, I think. Actually, being in graduate school and sitting next to people who are paying more attention to their phone than the seminar helped ground me.
Giving up some battles. I’m definitely less stressed this year because I’m not worrying about cell phones and I’m not sending out as many reminder emails and I’m not picking up as many in-class assignments. The person who did our training has a great mantra – “You should be doing less work than the students.” That wasn’t true for me last year, but I’m working on it.
Part of my better feeling is just residuals from last year, e.g. seeing a student randomly in the wild who was excited to see me and tell me about his second year of college.
I get my first real batch of essays on Tuesday. Let’s see how I feel after those are digested.
Every fall, the graduate students who have taught first-year composition help out with a little workshop for training the next wave of instructors. The volunteer trainers give little mini-lessons to help ease past the deer-in-the-headlights stage. Today, I think I decided what I want my topic to be, when my time comes to be a trainer. I want to give a run down of the two biggest decisions I think you have to make as a teacher: How do you get your students to read? and What do you do about cellphones?
As an instructor, you have to make a decision about how you are going to get students to do the reading. Last semester I started it telling myself that if I was engaged enough in the lessons that the students would WANT to read.
There are a few students who might do this, some of the time, but overall this just isn’t going to be the case–if there’s no grade associated with an activity, they generally won’t do it. So, both semesters, I’ve given a little speech where I explain to the students why them not doing the assigned reading is disrespectful. Namely, that I plan lessons around the assumption that they’re doing the reading, and if they don’t then they’ve wasted my time planning and screwed up me attempting to do my job. Last semester, when frustration set in, I started giving quizzes about every other reading to keep them honest, on top of the already assigned reading responses (maybe 1/4-1/3 of the readings had a reading response assigned). I hated giving quizzes. I didn’t think they were productive in teaching the students how to write, I didn’t like using class time on them, and it made me feel like an asshole.
My solution for this semester, which I like so far, is that I have half the class writing a reading response every single reading, AND I have 1-3 students giving a brief presentation to launch our discussions for readings. The presentations break the ice and offer possible avenues to begin further conversation. The reading responses means at least 1/3 of the class has really done the reading, every single time, and they can pull the weight for the lesson I have planned. This is in opposition to last semester where there were days where NO ONE had done the reading. So far, I like it better, but I’m going to bet my evaluations will suffer because of it.
Of course, the lesson for new teachers is to tell them to be realistic from the get go and realize that you need to incentivize reading or it just won’t happen. That means they need to make hard decisions about how much reading they assign, how tied in to the lesson plans it’s going to be, and what they hope to accomplish by assigning it.
Both semesters my syllabi have included a tag line that I don’t allow technology in the classroom. There’s a good reason for it and one that I explained to both classes, and that’s that I’m easily distracted. When I see a student on a cell phone, I start to wonder what I’m doing wrong to bore them or I start wondering how that student is doing in my class etc. etc. and I easily lose my train of thought. However, both semesters I’ve eventually had my classroom inundated by cellphone usage (although I made it further this semester) and next semester I will not have a technology-free rule. The reason is simple: I am not willing to kick a student out or severely punish them some other way because of cellphone usage, so I’m not going to be able to stop it.
Here’s what happens. The first couple of weeks, a few students will sneak out their cellphone. I’ll catch them, and ask them politely to put it away. Then we get to the first group activity, and a group finishes early. The phones come out, and again I ask them to consider the assignment in a different light and try to get them refocused. Eventually, though I don’t say something because either I feel like I don’t have the right to ask them to be bored, or I don’t want to interrupt myself to ask them to put it away. It’s all downhill from there, because I start doubting myself about whether I can say something the next time and still be consistent, etc., etc.
So, I’m giving up, and I’m not sure how much it will hurt. This week, in one of my graduate seminars, one which has a similar no cellphone policy in the syllabus similar to my own, I sat next to an intelligent fellow student who was on their phone the entire class. She is younger than me–maybe it’s a difference in how the brain works–but she was also able to participate in discussion, despite the fact that she was constantly shuffling her phone from inside her boot to the side of her leg to behind her book. So this, combined with the fact that she was willing to ignore the instructor’s request of no cell phones in a graduate level class, pushed me into thinking that I’m wasting energy trying to fight it in my own class.
We’re also in an era when people fear boredom and free time. I’m reminded of two podcasts: 1) “Technological Evolution” from The New Yorker Out Loud wherein the authors and editor discuss our relationship with technology as something that takes out annoying parts of our lives but might be replacing meaningful things along with those annoying parts and 2) The “American Football” episode from Radiolab which included a number of youth football coaches who blamed video games on the decline of young people interested in playing football, not because of time issues but because in video games you don’t lose, you just start over, and so no one is interested in losing in football.
In short, pulling out their phones is the easy thing. It would take a significant punitive measure for me to change that.
I know this is stuff that’s already been hashed out and beat to death but I think as new teachers we have an instinct to try to do something different, to try to account for perceived failings in our teachers. The truth is that there are some things that are the way they are for a good reason, and that we shouldn’t ever underestimate how much of the class is in the hands of the students.
I’m in love with podcasts lately, if you couldn’t tell already, and the Valentine’s Day episode of Death, Sex, and Money was pretty fantastic.
Finally, a question to the audience. I have my presentation about narrative choice in video game stories coming up in the near future, but I’m already looking ahead to my next topic. I’ve been kicking around doing something with performative art as a plot point in video games, thinking primarily of Final Fantasty VI (or III)‘s opera scene and the play from the Kentucky Route Zero extra content. What examples can you think of?