Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Trish from Texarkana Wonders About Teaching Uncertainty.

The longer I teach, the less I know. I never really know what I am doing when I "teach." I always feel there is some magic system that I haven't learned. I don't know if I am a good teacher or not. My best teacher was a great teacher, but I also know he confused the hell out of my classmates, but there was a gentle soul who somehow got to them anyway.

 Not sure how he did it. I guess he just was like the Buddha. He didn't stop you from thinking, and he'd help you, but he didn't demand that you think a certain way. But you did have to think.

The best teachers I had inspired me to rethink my ideas, but I am not a typical student and so I wonder what a teacher does. It is a lonely profession, and one spent talking to and with the crowds without knowing the outcome. Very lonely.

I see my colleagues win awards and I wonder what they are doing? I plug away, try new things, and so on, but I never win an award. My evaluations are good but I always feel I am missing something. Is there a magic system?


  1. I'm so interested in the amount of uncertainty we're seeing in these posts today. I'm not shocked by it, but am surprised that nearly everyone has displayed it.

    I guess that's part of the gig, especially when faculty feel disenfranchised from their colleagues. I understand it in part for new faculty, but I see it as well in mid-career folks. We sometimes just don't feel like we fit in, except for Yuri and Walter maybe.

  2. Bravo to the mods for following through on this day!

    Trish, there's no magic system. In my own experience, the best teachers are never thinking about awards, or wondering if they're getting through. They're doing what they know to be right, working hard, connecting, challenging.

    Forget the awards, forget your colleagues. Do what you believe is right, based on your knowledge of the field and your understanding of what the department requires of that class. Students won't know how great you are until YEARS later. You'll know right now!

  3. @Trish: You sound like you're on the right path.

  4. I am certain the Tokarev is in the holster, and the holster is on my belt.


  5. I've had thoughts along similar lines: to get "philosophical" about it, what does it mean, really, to "teach"? Does it mean anything other than showing young people "look, there's this really interesting thing, and that other thing that moves me, and that third new thing that's really exciting; but if you want to understand them deeply, and make a contribution, there are all these other older, mundane, dry topics you have to master really well; and there are no shortcuts, so get to work."

    Maybe you (Trish) are like me, and most other people who became profs; what we needed from our profs was to show us what we needed to learn, and maybe where to find it; but we understood early on that the actual learning was something we'd have to work at ourselves, with no need of a third party "explaining" thing to us. I find it fairly easy to give an operational definition of "learning", but for "teaching" I'm left with "showing people what they need to learn". And maybe giving them some pacing, and the kind of "tangible incentive" (grades) most people seem to need to do work they don't care for.

    But like you, I have trouble understanding why some people are considered (by students and admins) "good teachers", and others not. As far as I can tell, it has to do with how easily digestible they make difficult material appear to students, which personally I don't think as a quality. So no awards for me, and I'm cool with that.

  6. Hiram is lying. There is totally a magic system, he just won't tell us! But seriously, I understand the award thing- we all know we shouldn't care, but we all would like a teensy tiny bit of recognition/validation for what we do. Our "teaching" award isn't really for teaching and students have NO PART in the decision making. It is really about a) leadership outside the classroom and b) popularity among colleagues/admins since it isn't voted on at large. One of my colleagues won it one year. S/he only teaches one class per term (the rest of us teach 5 or 6) and s/he hasn't taught an intro level class in over ten years. Needless to say, I haven't won, and won't be winning any time soon.

    I also wanted to note what you said about it being a lonely profession- and I agree. It might seem odd to an outsider that being in a classroom with 35 other people might seem lonely, but it can be. I've taught at several different places and my current institutions is by far the loneliest and least collegial. The person I share my office with typically says two sentences to me each day. "Hi, Charlotte Anne." and "Have a good night." I've tried engaging her in professorial banter, (she is a bigger flake than some of the students) and then she started wearing a headset so I took that to mean she didn't want to talk to me!

  7. As Euclid told King Ptolemy I Soter in the 3rd or 4th century B.C., "There is no royal road to geometry." Teaching and learning are hard and tedious. Everyone wants a magic bullet to dodge this, and no shortage of snake oil has come and gone over the years (New Math, teaching machines, programmed instruction, Whole Language, educational television, self-esteem, writing about "feelings," Peer Instruction, also called Active Learning, also called Learner-Centered Teaching, flipped classrooms, JITT, etc.).

    Many of these methods were advocated by John Dewey over 100 years ago, and they didn't work any better then. They often follow a distinctive pattern: the new method is advocated with great enthusiasm. Claims of great improvement are made. The new method is imposed on large numbers of students, rarely with a small-scale pilot study preceding it. The students them sit down to take a test. When they don't do so well on the test, the first thing said is that there is something wrong with the test. I've seen this over, and over, and over, and over.

    There is no magic system. If you want to improve as a teacher, I suggest you cultivate your own expert knowledge and enthusiasm in your field, and patience.

    Also, I hope you realize that the Buddha was a semi-mythological character?

    1. P.S. Intercourse teaching awards. I wear their scorn like a badge of honor!

    2. P. P. S. For an interesting perspective on teaching awards, see here:


  8. It is a lonely profession, because despite being in a department, we are responsible for our own classes and the results of those all rest on the professor. Conversely, this means my definition of good teaching is only constrained by my energy levels and imagination and I can implement whatever I believe is an effective means of teaching students. I like it being lonely in that respect, because it means I am (usually) not constrained by a team that doesn't want to move forward. Of course, there's the usual BS we get from admin about collaborative learning and high-impact learning and [insert latest popular bs], but in general, I can do my thing and know that students are responding.

    Being popular wins awards among the students on my campus. Getting up front and speaking in a deeper, authoritative voice and entertaining the masses while appearing to be sharing wisdom and pretending to love the job, seems to win awards, as well. I have yet to see someone introverted win an award no matter how well he or she lectures or works overtime to help students. It also helps if the people on the committees deciding on awards know the applicants.

    That said, on my campus, we have an annual campus award for Professor of the Year, voted on by students. I ask that my name not be included in that because I don't think that it encourages good teaching; it encourages sycophantic devotion from students (I've seen colleagues go bat-shit-crazy trying to woo students into their offices to tell them how wonderful they are, baking cookies and brownies to hand out in class, etc., all in hopes of getting votes). I do my thing and refuse to participate in that system.

  9. Teaching awards, I think, tend to reward one particular kind of good teaching (and perhaps also some bad teaching, but the people I know who have won teaching awards really are, to the best of my knowledge, very good teachers): a kind which is practiced primarily by, and appeals primarily to, extroverts. There are other, equally good, approaches, but they don't rely on, or generate, quite the same closeness of relationship between proffie and student as the ones that lead to teaching awards do (at least in places where students nominate teachers for teaching awards). I hope I give my students something valuable, but I suspect they may not realize it for a while, and/or they may think they did it all themselves (just as a three-year-old who has been gently guided through the process of dressing hirself, or making cookies, or sweeping the porch, will happily declare that (s)he "did it hirself," even though it was considerably more work for an adult to stand aside and unobtrusively guide the process than to step in and more obviously supervise). That's okay with me, since I'm pretty sure I'm doing something (but not everything) right. I suspect you are, too.