Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What the Best College Teachers Read?

I wanted to like Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do.

But I got tripped up by the circular logic evident in the first few chapters, and I never quite untripped myself.

To say that there were methodological flaws in the study would be unjust--I didn't really glean enough information about the details of the study from the book.  Bain spoke in generalities, broad brush-strokes throughout.  It seems possible, though, that the selection critera pre-determined the findings of the study.  From the first few chapters, I got the sneaking suspicion that they selected professors that used language about learning that they liked, and then discovered that those professors . . . used language about learning they liked.

That suspicion tainted, somewhat, the rest of my reading.

But somewhere in the middle of it, I stopped thinking of it as a study of college-level pedagogy, and started thinking of it as an apologia for liberal arts education.  In the end, it was a collection of (modestly) inspiring ideas about education as something more than degree-granting and -getting, more than job training and income boosting, more than gate-keeping and hoop-jumping.

It was, in short, a reminder that education is about forming adults, a project that is only partially complete if we content ourselves with transmitting knowledge (even important knowledge).  That's why I got into teaching--to change lives, not to administer entrance and exit exams.

One of the things I found myself doing as I read was jotting down and sorting through pedagogical ideas that I had already come up with but hadn't yet put to paper, or hadn't yet figured out how to build into course design.  There weren't too terribly many good, specific tactics or tools described in the book itself (again, too many generalities and big-picture thinking), but I did feel encouraged in some observations I've made over the last few years.  Often, that encouragement came in spite of what Bain was actually encouraging rather than as a result of it.

For example, in the midst of my annoyance at his encomiums to activities I've always found somewhat trendy or childish ("think-pair-square-share" and "the McEvoy minute") and often unsuccessful, I began to realize that he had put words to a genuine problem I'd been noticing in my classes: passive learning early in a course or a class period becomes habitual.  It has been my practice to try to give students something to discuss, and then ask them to discuss it.  I build this pattern into individual class periods and into course structures as a whole.  My starting point has always been that my students really don't know anything, and most of them don't care that they don't know anything.  And so I have to introduce thoughts for them to think so that they can start learning how to think. 

But they've been conditioned by a lifetime (to them) of passivity and edutainment, and they don't know how to contribute to their own education.  This is not how I approached my theological studies.  I would have four days of brilliant lecture classes, and by Friday, when all the TAs held discussion groups, I was bursting with things to talk about.  This is not how my undergrads experience their own education.  I've been starting to realize that I have to get them talking early, if I ever want them to talk at all.  Early in the course, early in the class period, early in our relationship, early in any office visit--they have to get used to talking so that they can do it.

I'm not sure Bain's book really gave me workable strategies to do that, but he has strengthened my resolve to look for ways that will work for me.

Or with regard to motivation, I found his language about "giving students a choice" and "refusing to exercise control over the students' learning" disingenuous.  He made the observation that grades represent both feedback to the student and "objective" evaluation to society-at-large (those who want to know whether or not the nursing student learned anatomy, for example), but then followed it with the idea that the latter should be all but dropped.  That seems problematic at best, at the college level.  (I wish I could absolutely require such an approach at the elementary school level, and I think secondary schools could certainly move more in that direction.)

Still, I found myself brainstorming ways to build some kind of choice or ownership over the material, particularly in upper-level courses.  Might ethics students choose a "focal" issue to return to over and over during the course of the semester?  Could some of the readings in a Bible class be selected by students?

Finally, his language of "authenticity" profoundly annoyed me.  By this he meant that coursework should look like "real life," that projects should be constructed along "real world" lines wherever possible, and that connections with how the student might use the course's skills and content in "the real world" should be prevalent.  I found myself kicking against all but the last point. 

I kept mentally returning to sports and music metaphors: there's nothing "authentic" about scales and practice drills.  Scales and etudes and fingering drills and breathing drills are not musical.  But musicianship absolutely requires them.  Fartleks and shark-fin drills and suicide drills look nothing like race-day running or swimming or like a basketball game.  But you won't be successful during the match/meet/game unless you've done the artificial drills.  The drills produce transferable skills.

But it's true that students sometimes need help with the transfer process.  So musicians have student recitals before they have performances at the Met.  And the varsity basketball team plays scrimmages against the JV team before their matches, and high school basketball (still, so far) comes before a career in the NBA.

It's been fairly easy for me to make connections between my area of study and "the real world," and I do drop these connections into my everyday contact with students. 
"Hey, some day, the town you're living in is going to pass some idiot regulation, and you're going to want to be able to make a persuasive speech to the town council why it's unjust or imprudent." 
"Hey, some day, some issue that's important to you will hit the newspapers (if we still have such things), and you're going to want your voice to be heard, and you're going to want to be able to write a letter to the editor (or a HuffPo blog post) that gets accepted and that makes people think."
"Hey, some day, one of your friends is going to ask you to drive him to a bank, and he's going to come running out, waving a gun and shouting 'DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE!!!!' and you're going to want to have some practice at saying no, so that's why you should never say yes when your friend asks to copy your homework."

But I haven't done much work at building those connections into my assignments.  I've been all scales and etudes and no recitals.  Instead of telling them that they should master this or that material or technique so that some day they could write a good letter to the editor, why don't I assign a letter to the editor?

So, I was inspired and encouraged by this book, even when I found myself disagreeing with it or annoyed by its trendy, jargony tone.  It fed my own brainstorming about pedagogy, even when its few specific suggestions were unpalatable or inapplicable to me.

I do recommend it, even if I didn't really love it.  Because I do really love teaching, and a conversation with someone who feels the same is always worthwhile.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Tar and Feather with the Same Black Kettle

Whatever mixaphors you want to come up with, it seems worth describing this article as, at the very least, problematic:

Male Humanities Professors Are Only In It For The Adulation

I should admit, I appreciate hearing some of the stories about professors', administrators', or colleagues' misdeeds.  Because, quite frankly, of all the Forewarned-Forearmed scenarios I've contemplated, having a colleague "accidentally" play porn at me just hadn't made the list.

And now I know.

Now I have an exit strategy for just that scenario.

But the rest of the article didn't seem terribly helpful to me.  Aside from the ludicrously attention-seeking over-reach in the article's title (which I'm willing to set aside only for the sake of all my journalist friends who insist that the writer never chooses the title), the conclusions don't seem warranted from the evidence, and the whole thing seems an exercise in scorn.

Overrepresenting the number of assholes in academia really doesn't do anyone any good.

Generalizing the behavior of idiots to all members of a group to which some idiots belong doesn't do anyone any good.

Suspecting the motives of people who have chosen a rather modest career path--one oriented towards helping others--doesn't do anyone any good.

I got into teaching in general, and teaching theology in particular, to do people some good.

I'm willing to believe that men, in general, are biologically programmed to put themselves a bit more on display when potential mates walk in the room.  I'm willing to believe that happily married (or securely celibate) men, in general, are not entirely free of this biological imperative and may quite unconsciously "display" a little more when a pretty girl shows an interest.

But "getting attention from pretty co-eds" really doesn't make the list of reasons to choose academia.  You could be a bartender to do that, and you'd probably make more money.