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Showing posts from December, 2010

The Enormous Condescension of Posterity

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Only a handful of professors I know have left their careers without mixed feelings about teaching, their impact on the world and the institutions they served. When I was younger I never understood why this was the case. Teaching was fun, I was figuring things out, and I always had a sense that I was working up to something better. Still, I often noticed colleagues a half a dozen years from retirement starting to withdraw from academic life. They would creep back into their courses, stop attending meetings and avoid getting involved in any university-wide initiatives. Now, at mid-career, I am beginning to understand the seduction of slowly fading to gray. Make no mistake, I am still very much involved (indeed, a little too involved), but I can hear the mermaids singing each to each. I would not say there is any bitterness yet, but I understand how such bitterness can arise. There is a kind relentless rhythm to teaching. You go over the same ground, plant the same seeds. And the student…

Actually Listening and Giving a Damn

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I have a colleague that students adore. They keep in contact with him years after graduation. They update him on their changes in careers, the birth of their children, their life crises and personal successes. I am continually amazed by the things he knows about their lives, and sometimes I'm even a bit envious of his ability to relate to students.

I like to think I can connect with my students, but any rapport I establish exists solely in the classroom. In general, I know nothing about my students' lives; nor do I really want to know. They must intuitively pick up on this, too, because they rarely come to my office to unburden themselves, seek advice or shoot the breeze. In 19 years of teaching I have probably heard from only a handful of former students. And most of those were asking me to write a recommendation, something I really enjoy doing.

It's not that I'm complaining. To be honest, I have a hard time relating to students outside of a classroom. We have little in…

One step at a time

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Any number of times during the course of a semester I run across a teaching problem and think to myself that I really should make a note to fix it next time around. I inevitably fail to make that note and find myself confronting the same problem the following semester. A good example is getting students to better integrate textual support into their written answers. For years this has been a vexing issue.

Students at all levels continually fail to back up their assertions with a careful and creative manipulation of the texts that documents support, or they do it with some feeble high school notion that "quote bombing" a paper equals good support. And it really doesn't matter if it's a first-year course or a senior seminar. Most students can't textually support their work.

On one level, this is understandable. Analyzing a text for relevant information requires some serious engagement with the ideas in the material. It means distilling the central rhetorical purpose,…

Redemptive Endings

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I have blogged before about the start of a class and how it's become one of my favorite times in the semester (Where they are right now ). During the first week nothing has gone wrong yet and you think you might just get it right this time. The students also have a sense of optimism that the course will be the one that that works, that won't disappoint. The first day and even the first week is all about expectations and starting fresh. On the other hand, there's much to be said for the end of a semester. In fact, it can be the best part if you structure it right.

I gave up heavily-weighted finals years ago in favor of reflective papers in which students tell me which ideas most engaged them and how those ideas were applied beyond the classroom. I also ask them to describe those accomplishments that gave them the most satisfaction and pride.

As a result I now get to spend finals week reading about what worked rather than lamenting poor performances on some tedious comprehensi…

When "A's" Don't Matter

At the close of every semester I am besieged by grade-grubbing students who have finally calculated their tally and are now in a mad scramble for extra points. Revisions flood in along with anxious requests for extra credit and extra time. Worse, the quality of these last minute assignments is uniformly substandard. Suddenly it's all about the points, not the material. And almost everything we know tells us that extrinsic rewards like grades or higher pay are lousy ways to motivate people. In fact, a more rigorous grading standard can actually cause performance to worsen. The really good students will work only until they receive the reward they want. Then they park it. The poor ones develop learned helplessness and scud along or give up. And this isn't some woolly-headed education reformist talking; it's mainstream economics and behavioral psychology. Every study says the same thing: extrinsic motivators are fine for purely mechanical tasks, but they become impediments …