Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Teaching: that was then; this is now

A friend recently wrote that because of various schedule conflicts she was going to drop the last book on her syllabus. She added something like this: "I would have agonized over that choice when I first started teaching, but not now."

Along those lines, I discovered that I had left an entire week off my otherwise detailed and carefully planned syllabus for this semester. When I first started teaching, explaining this to the class would have made me worry: would they think I didn't know what I was doing? Would they complain because now I assigned additional readings? This week, however, I went in with a new syllabus for the rest of the term, explained it briefly, and joked that although I obviously could read literature, I clearly couldn't read a calendar.

I'm thinking of other things, too, that once took a lot of time (and sometimes distress) on my part that I don't think about now:
  • Fielding the "when will you give our papers back?" question.
    Then: I tried to calculate when I could get them done and went short on sleep to be sure that I got them done.
    Now: "When I get them done." Smile.
  • Confronting a plagiarist.
    Then: Talk to other teachers about an appropriate penalty (rewrite? report it?), get worried, and brace myself for the discussion.
    Now: Know what the penalties are. Tell the student I need to see him or her. Apply the penalties.
  • Having a student talk in class or acting up in some way.
    Then: Get angry, but don't show it. Get flustered.
    Now: Give the Steely-Eyed Glare (tm). Ask the student to speak to you after class.
  • Having a student ask you a question that you don't know the answer to, or challenge you about an answer you've given.
    Then: Backpedal desperately, maybe. Worry that you don't know as much as the students.
    Now: Say "I don't know. Can you tell me more about it?" or "That's amazing; I didn't know that. Can you explain that further?"

  • Linked to this is the knowledge that about some subjects, students will have a deep well of knowledge from some special interest they have. For example, instead of launching into an explanation of some historical or cultural event now--the Battle of the Marne, maybe, or Gettysburg, or the meaning of "elegy," or the history of the light bulb--I ask if anyone knows something about it. Often, they do, and once they've given their explanation, I can expand on it and bring it back to the class discussion.

    What about you? What do you do differently now that you've taught for a while?

    9 comments:

    Lesboprof said...

    I don't dress up specially for class. My first semester of teaching (a a doc student in August in the South), I dressed up for my morning class in a suit, and then I changed into shorts for the rest of my work day. Shortly after, I ran into a bunch of my students. One student noted my change in clothes and said, "Are you stylin' just for us? You don't need to do that." I remember blushing and stammering, acknowledging that I had dressed up just to teach. And it was then I decided that I didn't need to dress up--that my students were telling me that they saw me as the teacher, with or without dressup clothes.

    Janice Ankenman said...

    The teachers where I teach dress business casual. The male teachers have to wear a tie or polo shirt. On every other friday, if you haven't been absent you get to wear jeans. Wear jeans usually means wearing the school polo shirt.

    Alison said...

    I've only been teaching full-time for 8 weeks. (And teaching Year 6 in Australia). Something I do, that I didn't do when I started - aaaaaaaall the way back in January - is sleep in.
    It changed on our Labour Day weekend. Usually, on the weekend, it would roll around to about 7:30am and I'd realise my eyes were open and I was thinking about how to break down place value.
    I think I hit mental capacity. But I'm lucky in that I've started teaching in my late 20s so I take a lot less crap than I would've have in my early 20s and already have the steely stare, and the willingness to know less than others, and the willingness to give incomplete answers like "When it happens".
    Mind you I still lament a little about what I don't fit in, esp if I planned for it. That's happening less and less though. And I still think about the kids themselves a lot. I think I'll miss them over our Easter break.

    cero said...

    Dress: no changes. I've always dressed up except on certain test days, a few Fridays, and other days when there is some overriding reason not to (like taking a job candidate on a swamp tour). I started to dress up when I started teaching English in graduate school - I was younger than the students and it gave me authority. Teaching foreign languages was automatic authority, but English meant interpretation, and we had to grade on this really tough scale, so they would hate you unless they thought you looked like someone who deserved to do that to them. Then I got here and at that time people *really* dressed up. I couldn't afford the clothes they had then and did not want to look so conservative anyway, but I did the best I could. Now everyone else has "sunk" to about my level (except of course for our most famous scholar, who wears workman clothes unless he has a really, really good reason to wear a suit).

    Freshman, senior, and graduate courses: no changes.

    Sophomore and junior courses: all is changed, changed utterly. I took these courses from famous entities who would lecture wisely. I knew how to read the books and/or if not, I would ask a reference librarian. When I morphed into a professor I knew I was not famous and did not believe I was really qualified to teach these courses (more advanced ones, yes, because they were right in field). Frenzied, I would substitute my lack of deep wisdom with very great numbers of facts. Now I teach representative texts and trends, don't try to cover everything, and base the courses as much as possible on student projects.

    The other change: I am my own T.A. coordinator. I was so used, after 9 years of graduate school, to the idea that there was someone who would back me up on following department policy, that I was shocked as an assistant professor working in departments that did not have particular policies. "But in Professor X's class we didn't have to do Y," students would wail. And Professor X would be observing in an opinionated way, and I learned not to trust myself. Then I invented the trick of becoming my own T.A. coordinator.

    (Actually, saying this, I realize that I could have had a Higher Power, after all, when I did Al-Anon and rebelled because I did not believe in such things. It would have been that big T.A. coordinator in the sky. ;-) )

    adjunct whore said...

    this is great....my own evolution is basically the same, but for the plagiarism, which i still don't know how to handle, still dred, still would almost rather let them cheat than deal with it.

    oh i hate it so.

    Cero said...

    I add that I get more flustered and secretly angry about complaints, etc., now than I did when I was 20 and first a T.A., because I have not worked at a well managed university since then. People have very strange ideas about their rights and entitlements (they think they have many of these, most of them inappropriate, but refuse to believe they have the ones they do have). Then on the other hand they have a lot of irrational (or perhaps rational) fears (they fear abuse). It makes it hard to explain things to them, hard to calm them down, hard to negotiate. All of this is why I have REALLY had to become my own T.A. coordinator.

    undine said...

    I still dress up, lesboprof, but I don't think I would if I were teaching in the South in August. As cero did, I got into the habit of dressing up for that sense of authority (one of my mentors told me to do it), and even though I probably don't have to, it's a habit now.

    janice, is it teachers or students who get to wear jeans, or both?

    cero, after reading what you wrote, I'm not sure there *is* a higher power than a T.A. coordinator :-). It sounds as though the students fear abuse and strike first, yes? Or maybe they think the best defense is a good offense?

    I still don't like dealing with plagiarism, adjunct whore, but it doesn't tear me up as badly as it used to. I used to worry that I would cave when a student started crying. Most of the time, though, if I am matter-of-fact about it, students will be, too, which makes it easier. I mostly want to wait a day or two to calm down, though, because it does make me really angry.

    vague said...

    Oh, good topic! I definitely still dress up a little -- I think there is nothing like the authoritative clack of heels on the classroom floor.

    The major change for me is one you already mentioned: not stressing out about knowing the answer to whatever obscure question they may ask. That used to make me crazy when I taught German. I was always thinking "People, I am not a walking dictionary!" These days I'm teaching lit, which is a bit less stressful in itself, and I have learned not to worry about it that much. Our authority in the classroom doesn't stem from being human encyclopedias anyway, right?

    Cero said...

    Actually, I guess T.A. coordinators are the highest authority in a way - it's why their jobs are so contentious. Never make an untenured person T.A. coordinator, because they will necessarily be controversial and not make tenure.

    Walking dictionary, that's funny! One of my tics is to give a bunch of references all the time, especially if asked a serious question. My professors did it, so I do. I found out that behind my back I was called "the walking library" - !