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If you teach in a forest, and nobody learns

29 May, 2009

If you teach in a forest and nobody learns …

…did you really teach?

When I started this academic gig, I pretty much figured I knew the basics of the job: academics, no matter where we are employed, are engaged in some combination of teaching, service, and scholarship. The priorities and proportions may shift depending on where we are, but it’s pretty much that, right? I also am one of the last people to subscribe to the idea that a college or university is a business, at least in the sense that the student is the customer and the customer is always right. No. Really, no. The student pays to have the chance to learn or not learn, as she chooses. Paying tuition gets a student in the door. What they do after that point is largely up to them. But in another way, institutions of higher education are businesses. It’s not just that people are paying for the opportunity to learn, but they are also paying, especially at SLAC’s like mine, for a particular sort of experience, a certain ratio of faculty to students, and to feel that they are being given the best possible chance at success — and that’s not even counting things like decent dorms, edible food, nice gym facilities, and … oh yeah, quality teaching.

So what is quality teaching? How do you measure it? Can you measure it?

These are not trick questions.

For some of us, we measure our teaching by how much students learn. More or less. Obviously, if students are crap, or unable to do the work, they won’t be learning much, no matter how good we are as teachers. But in general, the only way I can think of to tell if I’m a good teacher is to see whether the students are learning. This means that I need to think about what it is I want them to take away from my teaching, and in some way, measure it. I guess. The traditional way of measuring learning is through exams. And you know, I’m good with that in a general sense. You spend a period teaching a subject, and at the end, you test the students to see if they’ve learnt it. But that’s a pretty broad interpretation. When I was attending Beachy U, and in Grad School, I knew I was responsible for learning all the information delivered to me in lecture and in the readings, and synthesizing it (and to some extent, regurgetating it) on exams. That’s how it was done. If you had asked my profs how they measured learning, it would likely have been expressed more or less as, “the student used historical information from a variety of sources in order to support arguments for a particular historical interpretation.” Or something like that. And I agree that that’s basically what we want students to do. But what does that mean?

There are lots of important factors in learning history. And even those students who received what are considered decent high school educations are often ill-equipped for such exercises. They don’t know what they don’t know, nor are they sure what they are supposed to know. So in order to figure out if they are learning, i.e., if I am teaching effectively, I have to ask myself this: What parts do I most want them to learn? Is it learning the narrative? Is it learning to read and analyze primary and secondary sources? Is it learning to argue a particular view of why something happened? Do I focus on content or skills? Those are all important things. For myself, I’d like some sort of balance between them all, but if I have to choose, I tend to fall towards the ‘learning to be a historian’ side of things, because I think that the sorts of thinking and the presentation of information and creation of narratives that we do are the things that transcend the narrative, and are the tools that allow people to create their own narratives, and to question the ones they are offered. I think this is because, to me, thinking that learning history means learning a narrative, and maybe some varying interpretations, is like thinking a degree in English is about learning all the important works well enough to recite the plots, and compare and contrast them, but not ever learning about how the works have been seen, interpreted, and fit into the contexts of genre, style, period, etc.

Admittedly, there is a disadvantage — well, lots of them! — to this approach. First, it means that I often rely on my students learning a narrative (not the narrative, but a narrative) and the general factual stuff on their own, so we can spend the majority of class time discussing primary source documents. Next, it’s just hard, because it means going in to every class not knowing where the discussion might lead. Students in one class might pick up on one thing, but not the same thing that another class does. I’m not saying it’s chaos, but it means being fairly flexible and sometimes taking what you thought was an obvious discussion of class and changing into a discussion of gender roles, for example. Finally, that flexibility means that you really have to keep in mind, and keep steering towards, the things you want the students to learn, even if it means getting there by a slightly different path.

Honestly, I’m also a bit leery about this approach, because I worry that the students aren’t learning enough content, enough narrative. And I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be just as good to walk in and give topical lectures and ask the sort of questions that help the students tie it all together. But this is all in my Survey courses, and I think I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that there is no way to cover all the content for five continents and anywhere from 500 years to 5000 years, so concentrating on a few themes seems a good way to go. And you know, it’s not too hard to assess whether students have learned — the hard part is making sure I cover the stated outcomes for the Gen Ed the course is supposed to fulfill.

Well. For a minute I was worried I’d got off track, but maybe not.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, whatever I’m doing wrong or right, when I think of teaching, it’s always connected to whether or not the students are learning. If they aren’t learning, I look for other ways to teach so that they do. There are some things I can’t do: the sort of teaching do requires that the students take a lot of responsibility for their own learning, and it really doesn’t work if they don’t prepare for class. But still, in my head, there the point of teaching is that students learn from it: I need to be able to tell if they are learning and, if they aren’t, I need to think about whether how I am teaching is part of the problem. And again, I am a little worried that the what I am teaching seems to be getting short shrift, or maybe I’m expressing it badly? Or maybe it’s because, even apart from the survey, I teach Ancient, two different Medieval courses (this is my one attempt at ‘specialty’ courses — I do Late Antiquity to the end of the Carolingians, and the Central- and HMA as separate courses — still pretty much surveys), Ren/Ref, East Asia, and am supposed to fit Britain, Contemporary Europe, and Historiography/Methods into my two-year course rotation. So honestly, I’m still working on refining preps, and focusing on how I can teach well given that I’ve only taught one of these preps twice seems my best option. Or maybe it’s excuses?

Anyway, I think we’ve established that teaching and learning are absolutely connected in my mind.

But not everybody sees it that way. There is a school of thought that our expertise is what makes us good teachers, that teaching is an art itself, and can be judged separately from whether students learn. And, well … I think that, without students, I couldn’t teach. They’re sort of the point of it for me. A university, no matter the size, exists because of the students. Now don’t get me wrong — I think that the faculty are the heart of the university. Without us, there’s no reason for the university to exist, and I wish more administrators and staff would remember that (SLAC’s top administrators are admirable in the amount of support they give faculty, but some of the others seem intent on creating a culture among their staffs that breeds contempt for faculty and not only treat us as nuisances, but will say out loud that we aren’t to be trusted advising students on career paths, courses to take in our majors, etc.). Without faculty who can do their jobs, no one else would have a job. But without students to justify faculty, none of us would have jobs. Or that’s my understanding of how this stuff works.

To return to that idea of expertise, though, I have to ask: “what is the purpose of expertise?” And how do we judge it? Is it by the fact that our peers in the wider academic world respect us? Is it because we publish? I never really understood until I came to SLAC just how justified some people were in scoffing at the academics safely ensconced in their Ivory Towers. I’d met one or two in my career, but they were generally considered out-of-touch, oddballs. My undergrad days are far behind me, but even today, I can go to a conference in Anglo-Norman stuff, and when people ask me how I, the Carolingian person, can feel comfortable asking questions on Orderic Vitalis, for example (I wrote my senior thesis on his ideas of proper female behavior), I can say, “I did my undergrad work with X,Y, and Z at Beachy U”, and S the scary A/N legal guy was on my PhD committee,” and all is explained. Same when I go to the Late Antiquity panels — what can I say? I studied with good people as an undergrad and grad student. Hell, I studied with people who are very well known in their fields. I have friends who are well known. So do a lot of us, I know. But my point is, none of these people, these well-known scholars, ever have ever given me the idea that there was a separation of teaching and learning, or that their expertise, especially the expertise attached to their rather extensive CVs, was enough to justify their continued employment or get them out of service or teaching or the exercise that is assessment. In fact, I just flashed on the fact that one of the best known of all of these folk was better-known on our campus for his teaching, which contained many of the best show-tunes-based historical filks I’ve ever heard. I’m sorry — a song about Alfred the Great sung to the tune of “Mame”? How could you not remember bits of narrative when presented that way?

And yet, the more time I spend at SLAC, and the more I hear from friends at SLACs, that Ivory Tower phenomenon is not nearly as rare as I thought. Our brilliance is not something quantifiable, our lectures are well-prepared pearls cast largely to an audience of unappreciative swine, and any attempts to articulate our goals and whether or not we meet them is merely killing the program by reducing it to numbers and threatening our academic freedom. I used to think this was more to do with an older generation of faculty who didn’t like all of that newfangled assessment stuff, and who hadn’t been allowed any buy-in when it came to self-evaluation and the setting of assessment standards. After all, that’s the message that we often get from news reports on the possibility of external agencies and the federal government imposing standards from above. But now, I’m wondering if it isn’t something more to do with the culture of the Small (Private) Liberal Arts Colleague. Where there is a tradition of building a particular culture of ‘we are special’, are we more at risk for creating Special Snowflakes?

I leave you with a cautionary tale — Here’s what happens when people have elevated their quest to something that may exist only in legend, or at least when they can’t articulate their quest very well!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 May, 2009 6:59 pm

    Is there a chance you could repost on lj? Unfort I can’t read this without extreme eyestrain, alas, and I really wanted to.

  2. 30 May, 2009 7:42 pm

    Yes. Just, yes. You need students in order to teach. You need, in fact, to like your students to really teach (otherwise, well, what the heck are you doing with your life, really?). And all 3 prongs of our jobs — research, teaching, service/ outreach — are inextricably bound up together. At least for me, revelations in 1 inform all the others. It’s kind of why I like what I do…

  3. 30 May, 2009 8:50 pm

    Sherwood — done!Matt — yep. It’s kind of a triune profession, isn’t it? 🙂

  4. 30 May, 2009 11:19 pm

    What a great post. Like you I struggle with the content/skill stuff, because I think SOME content is really helpful — just to get students to see the world can be different. But deep inside, I know the skills are the things they will be able to carry away.When my colleagues and I had to create learning outcomes for the history major, we had little trouble because we agreed on the skills. And our outcomes are skills not knowledge. Very different from say, sociology or psychology, which define particular theories they want students to know. I’m realizing I have to a lot more handholding on the writing and thinking than I’d done. And my thought for next year is to lecture one day, and work with sources the next. So I give context, frameworks, etc.

  5. 31 May, 2009 2:06 am

    Many thoughts:it means going in to every class not knowing where the discussion might lead.I love that, and I try to use it in my upper division courses, but my colleagues apparently don’t use that method at all. A student recently commented that my method was something they’d “never seen before.” My lower division students hate it, openly.On the broader point, I think you’re mostly right, but we have to be careful about using our experience with learning as the model for anything. We’re the weird ones, who were fascinated by the material, who went further and further with it until we came out the other side of the desk. We have to think — and I’m trying, but I was geeky enough that it might not help much — about the classes we hated, the classes we took because we had to, what we achieved outside of our major and our vocation. I never really articulated it like that before, by the way. Thanks for making me think.

  6. 31 May, 2009 2:51 pm

    Argh — I went and wrote a long comment, and then it went poof!Susan — I think I do manage content, but not so much narrative as I’d like. The primary source discussions are content-heavy. And I keep trying to do that ‘one day lecture, the next discussion’ thing … and will be trying again this year. Although having said that, I want to try to use the tools I’ve just been given in hopes that I will take advantage of them and be all innovative in the classroom and create some podcasts to help tie things together, or at least give some background information for the lead-ins to discussion. This will mean talking to Superdean about focusing on teaching and maybe only doing one paper this coming year.Ahistoricality — yes. And I don’t really use my experience, which was that you just automatically synthesize lots of information from various sources and ask questions when you’re confused. I know my students don’t do that naturally. I assume that most people don’t think historically, and have never been taught to think that way. In fact, one of my biggest fights is to get them to understand that the sort of summarizing they’ve been taught all through their English classes (the only place most of them have ever had to read a lot and then write essays on the reading) is not what I want them to do. But you have given me an idea for another assignment in class, because they don’t always get that we do in class what they are supposed to do in writing on exams and document analyses. I think I need to set aside time at the end and get them to write up summaries of what we discussed in terms of ‘what did we learn from this document?’ and then write at least the opening paragraph and a detailed outline for an essay as group work. They’d turn in something like, “The Laws of Hammurabi offer valuable insight on the legal status of women in Babylonian society. For example …”

  7. 31 May, 2009 10:25 pm

    There is a school of thought that our expertise is what makes us good teachers, that teaching is an art itself, and can be judged separately from whether students learn.And we call that school of thought misguided. Teaching is interactive (which is why I get weirded out when people suggest videotaping my lectures — they are not performances, they are back-and-forth exercises that change substantially from one year to another as we start classes with discussion, break off to elaborate material that I can see they’re not getting or follow tangents they raise through direct questions).I’m frustrated as I plan classes for the fall because, once again, we have no provision for breaking up the Western Civ class into tutorial groups since the registrar’s office can’t allot us any tutorial-sized rooms. I’m going to have to run full-class tutorials which are daunting because of the difficult dynamics of that size of group (even with, say, only sixty or eighty students — I won’t know until September how many to expect, it can be over a hundred sometimes). Sacrificing tutorial activities just isn’t on, though.I do see some other professors who resist assessment language and oversight (particularly oversight). I’m not sure if it’s a case of special snowflake syndrome or just the fear of being rendered a cog in an academic machine (and a replaceable cog at that). Or that they simply don’t want to do the work!

  8. 31 May, 2009 11:55 pm

    I like the replaceable cog theory! Janice, here’s an idea. Can you do the tutorials in a virtual environment? Not on a static discussion board, but in a chat room? I know it’s not ideal, but it might not be that bad. There would be a set meeting time, and people would have to log in then. And you’d have the bonus of being able to capture each discussion for grading. I’m just thinking that I participated in an online con in March, and the panels and author chats done in chat rooms were really fantastic. And if there’s one sort of technology that the students probably are familiar with …

  9. 1 June, 2009 12:17 am

    I want to hear more about the online conference!

  10. 1 June, 2009 12:20 am

    There's an LJ community — flycon_2009. I think you can find some of the stuff there, and possibly even captures of some of the panels.

  11. 1 June, 2009 12:20 am

    I suppose I should mention it was a sf/f con?

  12. 4 June, 2009 3:18 am

    ADM, I might try something like the chatroom tutorials. I've held chatroom office hours (at the same time as my regular office hours) without much success. I suspect I'd need to model the chatroom extensively in-class before I set them loose to log into that on WebCT all on their lonesome.Still, the big problem is to get them in the chatroom at the same time so they can interact. So I'd need to figure out some time that they can all be available if this is to work. Worth thinking about!

  13. 4 June, 2009 2:16 pm

    If you can get the registrar (or whoever) to "schedule" the tutorial and give it a course number, just like a f2f tutorial, it shouldn't be a problem. It might be a new model for the campus, but if you have increasing space issues, you could be one of those early adopter people!

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