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Last Quarter, This Quarter

31 March, 2006

Last Quarter, This Quarter

You know, what with all the hunting of jobs and trying to arrange my life after getting a job and panicking about conference papers last quarter (not that I’ve stopped with the panicking), I was pretty sure that I had not been at my teaching best. Got my evals, and the students disagreed. Apparently, they all felt they’d learned a lot. At least, the ones who stuck it out did. My favorite negative comment was that I assigned too much reading, but that I couldn’t improve, because the student just didn’t like to read. Most of the comments were more along the lines of High expectations/hardest/best class they’d taken. Woohoo!

This quarter is very different. I only have two classes (my contract is slightly less than full-time — that way, they don’t have to pay union scale, which would raise my salary about $13k). One of them is too damned early. The students in TDE class are almost all young women, and all of the students seem engaged and interested. Both the classes are hybrids — 20% of the class takes place on the online discussion boards, and we only have 4 hours of actual seat time. The online discussions this week have been fairly lively — not everyone participating, but most. They’ve responded to suggestions I’ve made on the boards, and look like they’ll start responding more to each other … I’m happy so far.

The other class … small — about 10. It’s that class. The Spring term class we all know and dread. We will all have at least one in our teaching lives, but I still don’t know how to deal with this dynamic. Most of the students are there to fulfill a requirement. Clearly, however, they haven’t yet passed their math requirement, because not only is 20% of the grade based on online discussion, but another 20% is class participation, because, well … they are supposed to do the readings before class and be prepared to discuss the primary sources. They’re not supposed to know how to do this from day one. But I have given them questions to answer for each source (same questions, folks — the ones historians start off with about authorship, audience, kind of document, etc.). They are required to bring their answers to class. And … if they can’t answer the questions, or if they don’t get something in the document, they get equal credit for bringing in their questions!.

At this point, class two have mostly each logged into the discussion board once, to introduce themselves. One student has posted answers to the two substantial discussion questions. One. The discussion guidelines I hand out on how discussion is graded are pretty specific in what the minimum requirements are. I went over them in class and did the math with the students — it is almost impossible to fail my class if you actually do the work. A person can turn in every assignment and bomb on it, but if they’ve been maxing out in class and online, they will pass the class. Conversely, if they ace every assignment, but blow off class and online discussion, they will get no higher than a D.

What are they thinking, and does anybody have a suggestion for how to engage them before it’s too late? Yesterday there were far too many 3 minute silences while people refused to answer questions. And they were easy questions — who was the author of “X”? What kind of a document is it? A pamphlet? OK — what does that mean? What was the purpose of such pamphlets? (this is the modern course). And then, after teasing (well, more like dragging, kicking and screaming) the answers out of them, I asked them to help me re-cap what we’d learned. The same questions, mind. No answers.

I have not dismissed a class for wasting my time in a long time. I may be doing it next week. But really, I’d like some constructive suggestions, if you’ve got ’em.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 March, 2006 7:14 pm

    I’m sorry. That’s a tough class.One of my profs used to assign a review to a student each day: “Heather, please review what we learned in class today, and be prepared to begin class on Monday with your review.” That got the students talking FIRST each time. Perhaps TWO students could be assigned this task in a class?The anonymous note card thing seems to work for shy students.Then there’s “share your answers with a neighbor.”And I love making smaller classes sit in circles. (They hate it, of course.) But they do a much better job of participating.

  2. 31 March, 2006 7:33 pm

    I’m definitely going to be rearranging the furniture into one seminar table!

  3. 3 April, 2006 2:50 am

    Similar to the first suggestion, do you think that you could assign a couple of students/week to ‘lead’ discussion (or at least bring in a couple of original discussion questions)?I find that students will talk more when other students lead discussion because they want other people to talk when they have to do it. Another thing that I did in one of the classes that I TAd was that I split the class into 4 or 5 groups, gave them a couple of questions to answer in the group, and then asked them to ‘report back’ to the class as a whole. I did it because I had three students who completely *dominated* discussion — I put them all in the same group to force the other studnets to participate — but I think that it could work for you.Good luck![Oh, and a brief intro — I wandered over here from Cranky Professor and I got there from one of the grad student communities on livejournal. I’m getting my PhD in medieval Islamic history.]

  4. 3 April, 2006 4:02 am

    Welcome, rabs! And thanks. It’s funny — I’ve been teaching classes with a very heavy discussion component for about 6 years now, and this is one of the first classes I’ve had where there’s this level of recalcitrance. Or apathy. With only 10 students, it makes it fairly hard. The only thing that comes close to being worse is my class with an enrollment of 10, 2 of whom I never met, 5 of whom attended a couple of times, but never dropped, and three of whome attended fairly regularly. It was a 2 1/2 hour class, and of those three students, one was a non-native speaker who refused to speak unless called upon.It was complete and utter hell.

  5. 3 April, 2006 9:01 am

    As an undergraduate, I was in a seminar like that. I was the only person who would participate — which can be a really uncomfortable position: you don’t want to not talk because the professor is obviously struggling to make the class participate but, at the same time, you don’t want to talk over people who are more reticent to join in. It got so bad that I dropped the class and ended up finishing the material as an independent reading course with the professor. I pretty much went to her and said “I’m sorry, but the other people in the seminar are killing me.” In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised that she let me drop and I wonder a bit about what happened in the class once I was gone. Perhaps they all became chatterbugs in my absence. 🙂

  6. 4 April, 2006 3:20 am

    My suggestion would be to have them do a short writing assignment at the start of class – or even assign them something in advance that they have to turn in – and if conversation lags, make them read that assignment aloud.

  7. 4 April, 2006 2:26 pm

    the same requirements won’t necessarily work with different classes. it might be too late for this sort of thing, but I’d roll with it…would ya’ll prefer paper written work? Would you prefer to be called on in class at random…? would you prefer class presentations?

  8. 4 April, 2006 5:40 pm

    Anastasia — I suppose I could do that, but first, I’m not willing to do the extra grading, and second, they’re freshmen and I’m the prof. I know why I’m teaching the way I am, and I know it’s good pedagogy. I’m less interested in changing my style than I am in trying to get them to buy in.

  9. 5 April, 2006 1:23 am

    It does happen. One way to break it up is to come up with something that forces them to speak in sequence about an issue on the table–not the kind of sadistic thing where you fix someone with a gimlet eye and call them out, which never really works. Make it into a pedagogical exercise of some kind. One version of this I do in some classes is give everyone a variant short reading on the theme of the week and ask them to summarize its importance for 3-5 minutes. Anything to get people back into the game.But I have to say sometimes you’re just screwed. I co-taught a class once many years ago where we had two discussion sections. One was electric and fun, the other was dead on arrival. It was the same class. We tried everything with the DOA bunch and couldn’t do a thing. I’m half-convinced it was the room–we were in a room with high ceilings that was very dark and vastly larger than the group (you can have 100 people in this room, there were about 15 of us). Whatever it was, there was literally nothing to be done about it. If I hadn’t had the other sections, I would have concluded it was our fault as professors, but after seeing the other group, we knew it was just the bad luck of weird vibes.Tim Burke

  10. 5 April, 2006 5:43 pm

    Thanks! Oddly, just reminding them several times about the need to participate to pass seems to be slowly sinking in. That, and I graded the first week’s online discussion very quickly. Whatever works, is what I say.

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