Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Becoming the Teachers We Didn’t Have

Like parents who want to spare their children the worst experiences from their own childhoods, academics often choose pedagogical strategies in the hope of sparing their students from their own worst university experiences. A post from See Jane Compute reminded me of this issue. Jane reports:

The story of how I teach intro courses has to start with my own first experience with a programming class in college. In short, it was a complete disaster. Now, I was not a complete newbie–I had taken a few computer courses in junior high and in high school, although none on the “serious programming content” or AP level, so I at least knew a bit about how computer programs worked. And for the first few weeks, everything was fine. But about halfway through the class, we were introduced to a concept–and I don’t even remember exactly what it was anymore–that I just could not understand. Unfortunately, programming courses build heavily on previous material, and so this pretty much sealed my doom. Also, the class picks up steam and more material is covered in the second half, so I quickly found myself drowning. On top of everything, the professor was one of those brilliant types that have no business teaching undergrads (i.e., couldn’t teach you if you weren’t already a programming genius), the TA spoke little English, and I was intimidated by the fact that all of my classmates either (a) seemed to get things much faster than I did, or (b) cheated their way through the class. By some miracle, I got a B in the class–to this day, I have no idea how I pulled it off. But the damage was done: I now *hated* programming, an activity that had only brought me joy in the past.

She then goes on to say:

This experience, more than any other experience I had as an undergrad, colors the way I approach teaching. My number one goal in teaching intro courses is to make sure that my students’ first experience with programming is overwhelmingly positive (or as positive as possible). I remember the despair I felt, and I keep that in mind as I introduce concepts, make up homeworks, and talk to my students in class and in office hours. I try to make sure that my interactions with students, and what I do in the classroom, encourages them rather than discourages them.

I have a similar undergraduate memory that haunts my teaching practice.

I spent my entire first term, at a university with a particularly intense writing load, in a state of utter despair because I would absolutely slave over essays, only to get them back with a one-phrase comment – the most memorable of which was a solitary “No!” What was I supposed to do with this kind of feedback? Something was obviously wrong – but what was it? Was it stylistic? Was I misreading the source material? Did my argument make no sense? The comments were positively Delphic. I was always amazed that it didn’t occur to anyone that advising a student cryptically to “do better” would predictably lead to an enormous amount of misdirected effort before the student finally hit on the underlying problem – I wondered whether the assumption was that the student really did know what to do, but was deliberately sabotaging their own work…

I eventually did figure out what was required: I needed to slow down the pace of my writing, and cover things in a way that could plausibly be understood by people who weren’t living in my thought-space 24/7 (I suspect that everything I wrote as a first-year undergraduate read like some kind of fever-inspired CliffsNotes version of the assigned topic…). But couldn’t at least one of my instructors have just mentioned this directly and clearly?

As with Jane’s programming horror story above, this experience has heavily shaped my teaching practice – in my case, probably not always for the best. I tend to cover white space on students’ written assignments with suggestions for improvement – a practice that I am convinced can be as terrifying, in its own way, as that solitary “No!” once was to me: I’ve had excellent students approach me, embarrassed and apologetic about their writing, because I’ve obsessively copy-edited every typo, and they’re terrified that the sheer quantity of red ink must mean that I think they’re terrible writers… I’m also sure I spend way too much time in class talking about the strategic and mechanical sides of academic writing… Although I hope at least some of this is helpful, I worry that it’s my personal academic equivalent of fighting the last war…

It’s not only our traumas, of course, that inform our teaching practice. I am deeply grateful to my undergraduate institution for providing excellent training in critical reading and thinking skills, for honing my ability to assess whether evidence is commensurate with claims, for grounding me with a deep knowledge of the major intellectual traditions with which I still work, and for teaching me to apply a kind of empathic agnosticism toward everything I study: these are skills I value highly, and try to pass on. If only all that red ink doesn’t get in the way…

7 responses to “Becoming the Teachers We Didn’t Have

  1. TheBizofKnowledge September 17, 2006 at 9:30 pm

    Excellent post here; it really takes me back to my own school days. You’re absolutely right that teachers approach instruction with the aim of making up for inadequacies that they noticed during their own student days. From what I’ve seen, this is usually a good thing.

    And for what it’s worth, I think students prefer too much feedback over too little. It’s always nice to see teachers take a lot of time to give genuine feedback rather than generic comments like “Try harder” or “Good job.”

  2. N Pepperell September 17, 2006 at 10:50 pm

    That’s what I tell myself πŸ™‚ I always get a bit disturbed, though, in settings where staff are sharing examples of marked work – in comparison, my marked papers always look like I am being paid per word…

  3. A White Bear September 18, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    I am in the same boat, NP. I find myself writing long letters to my students, sometimes longer than their assignment was, explaining some deep-level individualized response. The times I’ve written the most on a student paper were times when I felt that kid was really capable of learning something very difficult within the uniquely shameful situation of having received a poor grade. Isn’t that awful? And I make a rule, which I learned from some genius, that they cannot complain to me about their grade until 24 hours pass with my comments in their hands. It’s far too insulting when they turn past the lovely comment I’ve provided and sneer, “B minus?”

    In teaching my lit classes, I find I’m reacting against my own methods-obsessed education, which left little room for joy. I am very glad, in retrospect, that I spent so much time doing interesting research and writing quasi-theoretical papers as an undergrad, but I don’t remember having much of a chance to live with those texts in harmony before eviscerating them. It may seem silly, but I like to allow for at least five minutes of “What’s worthwhile about this text?” before we go stomping all over it.

  4. N Pepperell September 19, 2006 at 9:06 am

    It’s not a bad idea, the 24-hour “cooling off” period… I don’t suppose you have a good strategy for getting people to read the comments even when they’re satisfied with their mark? πŸ™‚ Given the repetition rate of certain errors, I suspect a good percentage of my students are flipping straight to the grade and, if they decide they can live with it, not bothering with the gemara… ;-P

  5. orange. October 3, 2006 at 8:47 pm

    “(I suspect that everything I wrote as a first-year undergraduate read like some kind of fever-inspired CliffsNotes version of the assigned topic…). But couldn’t at least one of my instructors have just mentioned this directly and clearly?”

    Don’t know about Australia but at my uni instructors that give students a detailed and honest feedback are rare. Much too rare.
    Plus, theres this silly paedagogic paradigm that forbids to articulate any kind of negative feedback in order to not discourage the students which actually makes a number of bad loops. Students don’t learn to cope with honest criticism and in consequence avoid to take classes given by the few lecturers who do point to the weaknesses of student’s text directly and clearly. Concerning the former, I ve gone through classes wherein even grading itself was driven ad absurdum by every student receiving the same grade. Mean, you don’t have to give grades at all this way because they just don’t express anything except the lecturers’ convictions in regards of education practices and politics (which I don’t share). The worst case happened when I in a class received quite positive feedback by the lecturer whom I valued highly for his intellect and later was told by fellow students he had noted that the piece of work he earlier commented on positively actually was inacceptable. I felt betrayed because the A I received was not worth the paper it was written on.
    Another example is a case when I wrote a research proposal that was nothing than ridiculous and non-conductable and the lecturers’ (another than mentioned above ) comment said, we were making “good effort”.
    My last-mohicaine strategy of waiting until certain honest and truely critical professors offer classes in obligatory sections takes time that ordinary students won’t be able to invest in their schooling anymore within our current education reform in Germany–even if they wanted to.

  6. orange. October 3, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    “.. getting people to read the comments even when they’re satisfied with their mark?”

    This–in theory–is easy. Deliver your comment separately first, without the grade you have given.

  7. N Pepperell October 4, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    orange. – Thank you for that delightful idea – I should have thought of this already, as I have actually done this in the past, in programs designed for much younger students. I had obviously somehow categorised that technique in some part of my brain that doesn’t fire when I think of university teaching… ;-P

    There are some potential problems, though, in terms of student anxiety – it seems to make people worry when I comment a lot; the actual mark at the moment calms some of this worry down. But it’s a concept I’ll play around with…

    On your experience of people trying to give everyone the same grade, etc.: I’ve seen things like this, as well. I’ve always wondered whether this approach might have something to do with a sort of fundamental confusion over terms within the psychological literature, where a literature on the problems that can arise when someone fails to develop an adequate “sense of self”, has somehow become confused with the more popular concept of whether someone has developed a positive self-feeling, or self esteem…

    Failure to develop a sense of self – to distinguish between self and others, to form object relations, etc. – would certainly be likely to have terrible psychological consequences. This doesn’t really have anything to do with self-esteem, however: one can have a strong sense of self, and low self-esteem, etc.

    So I suspect the pedagogical strategy may be a response to a misplaced fear – but I’ll admit I’ve never tracked back to make sure. Whatever the historical origins, my understanding is that, empirically, the case for marking everyone equally, etc., is quite weak… And, in any event, I’d think that demonstrating to a student that they can do something quite difficult, even after initial failed attempts, would boost “self esteem” more than a fake mark…

    Apologies if this is confusing – I’ve had to be something of a sleep minimalist this week…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: