Friday, 16 May 2014

My teaching failures ...

I am, in no particular order, “inexperienced”, “not clear”, “confusing”, “a very bad teacher”, “acts like he is way too important and cool”, “can never ask him questions”, “monotone”, “not helpful”, etc., etc. Well, that is according to the first two students who’ve ever rated me on Rate My Professor. I could offer rebuttals, but there’s not much point really so won’t be doing that here – see here and here for some comments about teaching evaluations more generally. Maybe I’ll ‘get better’ in the future – whether that’s at teaching or simply ratings, I’m not sure.

It’s always depressing, to say the least, to get poor feedback on your performance, especially when it’s supposed to be a core part of your daily work activities. Personally, I’ve never seen myself as being a particularly good teacher (it’s not why I went into academia), but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it (even if it doesn’t excite as much as it excites some academics). I’ve tried to learn, gain experience, experiment where possible, and generally pick the brains of my colleagues about all things teacher-y. I’ve actually found Rate My Professor helpful as well, mainly because I moved from one university system (UK) to another (Canada). What I’ve learned from it is not always useful, obviously, but it does provide an insight into the North American student mind. I learned that students like access to PPT slides (or equivalent), don’t like condescending comments (who does?), like responsive professors, don’t like boring lectures (who does?), etc., etc.

Now, there are obviously better ways to frame your pedagogy than Rate My Professor, and there are many people who provide useful suggestions and insights into university teaching. Just two I want to mention are Rebecca Schuman and especially Sarah Waurechen who make some really useful (and sometimes controversial) suggestions about teaching. Although this is changing, it’s not really part of an academic’s training to learn about teaching specifically, so it is really helpful to read other people’s experiences and ideas when trying to construct your own courses, actually teaching them and then learning what you need to change.

Now, what I wanted to do here today was detail some of my teaching ‘failures’ or errors over the years. So here goes …

 (a)    My earliest teaching experience was as a tutor in first year Sociology at Edinburgh University; the only real mess I made of things was making one student cry as a result of my marking. 
(b)    My second teaching gig was at Oxford Brookes where I ran a few Masters seminars in the Planning Department. I don’t remember doing anything too egregious.
(c)    I then did a couple of Masters ‘workshops’ at Glasgow University; one was on how I screwed up during my PhD – see here for details – and the other was on secondary data. I think the secondary data workshop was so dull that the students blanked out a quarter of the way in. For me, this seems to be my biggest fear (and failure); how do I get the information across that I want to while making it interesting. I’m not sure I’ve solved that issue yet, and I think that my attitude to education is probably quite stone age (i.e. it’s about telling students stuff I want them to know and getting them to do stuff I want them to do).
(d)    I got a permanent lecturing job at Strathclyde University in 2009 which meant more direct teaching than I’d ever had before, which meant more potential pitfalls across a broader range of teaching scenarios.
a.      I made a few mistakes, as might be expected I guess, during my time at Strathclyde:
                                                    i.     In one tutorial I didn’t stamp down on talking in class which meant it continued for the whole term, and became quite annoying. It’s often hard to know what authority you have, and it’s difficult to negotiate this sort of thing – increasingly so with the greater use of smartphones etc.
                                                   ii.     In one lecture module I ran, students really had no idea what I was talking about because I basically presented a series of concepts / theories to them rather than going through each one in its own lecture using copious examples to bang home the point.
                                                  iii.     My worst lecture ever was trying to teach statistics in a methods class (I’m no expert, by the way); I lost my way, couldn’t understand what I had written down or why, trailed off repeatedly, and eventually gave up by telling the students to read the hand-out online instead. I won’t be doing that again, ever!
                                                  iv.     I took over another lecture module from a retiring colleague and tried to reorient it around my own interests; turned out that the students were bored to death AND didn’t understand any of the material into the bargain. The double whammy as it were. I’m not sure why, apart from accusations of being “boring” again.
                                                   v.     I think I did better in higher level courses and with undergraduate dissertation supervision, but maybe not...
b.      What I conclude from my Strathclyde experiences was that I generally find the notion that I’m supposed to entertain (or enthuse) students during lectures to be slightly problematic. It requires charisma and the enjoyment of being the centre of attention, neither of which are necessarily my strong points. Pedagogically it also doesn’t make much difference if you are entertaining – see here – in that students don’t necessary learn more if you’re entertaining or enthusiastic. Colleagues actually explicitly told me that adding jokes to your lectures will lead to students giving you better evaluations. That being said, I appreciate the benefits of getting students interested in a topic, I wish it was somewhat easier to do than turning on the charm.
(e)    In 2011 I moved to York University, Canada, and started afresh (as it were):
a.      When I got here, I found this video quite useful for framing what I wanted to do in my courses. As a result, I made the deliberate decision that what was important was what I got the students to do and not what I did. However, I didn’t always implement it very well.
b.      Again I’ve made mistakes and here are just a few:
                                                    i.     My first year was generally fine, although I was only teaching upper level classes. I also think my accent helps over here. What I would have done differently is being much more explicit about my assignment expectations (especially when it came to presentations). It seems increasingly evident that students don’t have the same initiative – maybe that’s the wrong word – as students of my generation. We were told to write an essay on a topic / question and we then went away and did it. Students nowadays seem to need a detailed outline of what essay writing involves and what should be in it. 
                                                   ii.     In my second year I took over my program’s introductory course – which I needed to do for tenure purposes (i.e. show diversity of teaching). It was a large lecture course (circa 500 students) with multiple tutorials run by about 20 teaching assistants. As a general education course as well, it had a number of students with no real investment in the course. I learned the following from this year:
1.      Assign readings each week and don’t leave reading decisions to TAs.
2.      Have an exam of some sort or students won’t come to lectures.
3.      It’s hard to ensure consistency across a course this size because TAs often go off and do random things (e.g. set new readings, contradict your lectures, reset deadlines, come up with totally different assignment titles, etc.).
4.      Managing a course this size is like managing a small business, although with no power to sack your employees. 
                                                  iii.     In the year just gone, I ran the same courses as my second year – hopefully I did better. Since I’m going through the tenure process right now, I had several colleagues sit in on classes so I will find out what they thought as well – which will be helpful.

Not wishing to be too dismissive of student evaluations, I do agree with others – like Rebecca Schuman – who have pointed out how illogical they are. In what other area of life do we ask people who know nothing about the area to make judgements about what they need or what they should get from it? The whole point of education, especially higher education, is that you don’t know what you need to learn and, more to the point, you really only gain some semblance of learning when you realize that you don’t know anything (and most likely never will know something completely).

1 comment:

  1. My worst teaching "fails" have involved lack of sleep and not enough caffeine. I was actually so tired once that I had to apologize to the class, and much like your discussion of getting them to read a handout, I reverted to essentially reading my notes verbatim. Mercifully, it was far enough along into term that they were all very understanding, but if it had happened during the first few weeks, I would have been done for!

    As for teaching evals, you know how I feel about that and you can find more details on my blog. I do feel like a lot of it is problematic, particularly the part where social prejudice tends to work against certain groups, which is even more alarming than the desire students have to be "entertained." But I have also received some amazing suggestions over the years. Most recently, I found reminders that students sometimes need silence, and requests to revisit the same question several times in a discussion forum as the lecture progresses particularly insightful.

    Teaching is a weird thing. And we aren't trained to do it in higher ed. But I maintain that demonstrable effort/sincerity and a few interesting ideas will go a long way to cover any other sins.