Thursday, August 31, 2006


George Williams (link thanks to Mel)asks some interesting questions about teaching. I've been thinking about how my teaching practices have and haven't changed over time.

One thing I learned (and have written about on this blog) is that the either/or of the "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side" model has its limitations. Although I'm convinced that students learn most when they're coming up with the ideas, they don't always value their insights unless you're there writing ideas on the board as the students articulate them, nodding, actively listening to what they're saying. The best classes aren't taught; they're built from the insights of the students. It's invisible teaching and the hardest kind to do.
And sometimes a short lecture works really well. Admit it: don't you like to listen to a well-told story, one with some point and drama to it, especially if it's clear that the person telling the story is passionate about the subject? I do. Good lecturing is a higher level of good storytelling; it conveys ideas vividly and sets the stage for the discussion to follow. Like a good storyteller, a lecturer ought to know when to shut up. I heard a moderator say this one time at the beginning of an all-faculty meeting: "Remember, if you're the speaker, no one in the audience is having as good a time listening as you are talking."

I've also learned that it's important to realize that you may not see yourself as a performer, but the students do. As Slaves of Academe says in a post about teaching,"Put down by critics on the left and the right, academics are some of the hardest working entertainers in the Biz." It's a tightrope performance, and it can leave you breathless, figuratively speaking, especially in those moments when the students' ideas converge and there's an "aha!" moment.

I also learned early that the no-fault, full-disclosure syllabus is your friend. What I mean by that is that if you build in some "get out of jail free" cards (drop a low quiz grade, set a fair attendance policy), you won't have to play Queen for a Day (remember Alice Walker's mention of this in "Everyday Use"?) as students vie to come up with the most pathetic excuses. They're adults; we ought to treat them that way.

That brings me to a difficult issue: how do we ensure that they're doing the reading? I've tried a lot of possibilities (weblogs, questions, reading journals, short writings, listservs, Blackboard/WebCT discussion boards, etc.) and still use some of them; in fact, I'm especially pleased with the blog assignment I've devised for this semester.

But I also use (avert your eyes) the much-despised quiz on occasion. Although I agree with Dr. Crazy that these can be "infantilizing" to students, I don't think they have to be.

Here's why: quizzes helped me to learn to read literature. As an undergrad, I had a professor in a Victorian novels course who'd give us daily quizzes, which at first the class hated. Some of the questions were logical, and some, we thought, were insanely specific: "What kind of flower did X send to Y?" "What was the title of the book that A gave to B?" "What brand of perfume did Z buy before the party?"

Now, anyone can cruise through a Sparknotes site and get the general idea of The Scarlet Letter or Vanity Fair, but questions like this are too idiosyncratic and detailed for the Sparknotes crowd. When writing an in-class short essay, Sparknotes students can gas on for quite a while about plot and character, even themes, and if they're good writers, as teachers we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But the quizzes in that Victorian lit class separated the sheep from the goats when it came to the reading. They made us learn to mark up our books and write notes in the margins. They kept us honest.

More than that, we (okay, I) got to like them. It became like a Jeopardy game to see how many I could get right. And better still, it taught me to look, really look, at the details and ask why. What did that choice mean? What did it say about the character and the work? Why would a character choose a rose and not a violet, for example? That led to discussions about the language of flowers, courtship rituals, and the rest, discussions that wouldn't have been possible unless we'd read the book closely. Like a lot of students, I could be led but not pushed, and those quizzes led me by piquing my curiosity and, let's face it, by stimulating my sense of competition. Haven't you ever gone over a quiz in class and heard students saying "Yes!" as they get the answers right? It was a test, but not a high-stakes one, so there wasn't any pressure. But it was a test, so a natural competitive drive makes you want to get it right.

So although it's not at all fashionable, and although I use a lot of other methods as well, I still think that the lowly quiz has a place in the classroom: five to ten questions, short answer, know it or don't. And I still remember some of the questions--and answers--from that Victorian novels class.

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Professor Zero said...

I give quizzes. Perhaps I should give more.

Anonymous said...

Which Victorian novels do your students enjoy the most?

undine said...

I've taught _Hard Times_ and others, but the one they related to most was _Tess of the d'Urbervilles_. It's been a while since I taught this course.