Friday, July 31, 2009

Things I learned from teaching

In grad school I was a TA (Teaching Assistant) for more years than I care to count. And last year, I taught three undergraduate classes of my own. Over the years, I have learned a few things about teaching (for what it's worth, the subject is history):

1. The "absent minded professor" routine doesn't work unless you are truly absent minded.

2. It is usually--almost always--inappropriate to introduce your own political views in the classroom. As teacher, you have a "bully pulpit" that none of the other students--even the bravest and most vocal--can enjoy. Even if students are not intimidated by the fact that you have the power to determine their grades, you still have the power to open and shut off debate. Use it wisely and only for subject-related, course-related goals.

3. When teaching a controversial issue or any issue that admits of more than one interpretation, present as many legitimate sides of the issue as possible.

4. Just because you were an excellent student does not, by itself, mean you will be a good teacher.

5. Good teaching to a large extent is an art, and that makes being a good teacher very hard. However, certain of the "professional" requirements of being a good teacher are very easy and should be lived up to, even if you are otherwise not a good teacher. These include showing up to class on time, honoring your office hours, meeting with students when you say you will, responding to emails within a reasonable length of time, and grading papers promptly.

These are just a few. I'll add more if and when I think of any.


Jon said...

I agree with all of this, and with the attitude behind it. It struck me, though, that one of the standards of professionalism is responding to email within a reasonable period of time. That's a pretty new requirement. When I was an undergraduate student, I can't imagine having emailed a professor except perhaps to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school. But otherwise it felt like an intrusion into their lives. I know that nowadays students have different expectations about it. I teach a course with 200 students, and I have to admit that I don't encourage email communication - although I'm thrilled when students come up to ask me questions after a lecture (and happy to see them during office hours).

Pierre Corneille said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for commenting!

I think I agree that it's a good thing to discourage email communication for most things other than for housekeeping questions, yes-or-no questions, or to set up appointments. Almost anything else is better answered in person or by phone.

I don't teach at the moment any more, but when I did, a good number of my students were either non-traditional and they had other obligations that may have prevented them from coming to office hours or set up appointment. In those cases, I can understand the use of email, but I would prefer to talk to them over the phone.

When I first encountered email, it was when I enrolled as an MA student in 1997. Then, I actually had no qualms about emailing professors. It *seemed* to me (and I imagine it so seems to many students nowadays) less intrusive than face-to-face encounters. Of course, as you point out, it can be an intrusion, especially because a thoughtful answer often requires much more work than a conversation.

Jon said...

Yes, you're exactly right. For me it's much easier to have a conversation on phone or in person. I think, also, I spend so much of my day typing into my damned computer that email just means more typing. :)

OK, today when I get an email I don't feel like answering, I'm going to try this reply:
"Call me".