[Paleopsych] CHE: Please Take My Advice

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Feb 8 22:02:17 UTC 2005

Please Take My Advice
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.11

    5 books for professors who want to improve their teaching


    A perennial complaint about higher education -- repeated at
    conferences, in articles, and in university corridors across the
    country -- is that professors are not taught how to teach. As a
    result, many colleges in the last few years have pushed to prepare
    graduate students for leading a classroom. A number of recent books
    also offer teaching dos and don'ts. Here are five of the most notable:

    Letters to a Teacher
    (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004)

    Sam Pickering, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut
    and a prolific essayist who has written 17 books. He was the
    inspiration for Robin Williams's character in the movie Dead Poets

    Unlike most professors who write books about teaching, Sam Pickering
    doesn't like to give advice. He doesn't like to take advice, either.
    In fact, he is suspicious of the whole business of telling other
    people what to do. "For me to advise you would be arrogant," he writes
    in the introduction.

    So in lieu of exhortations, Mr. Pickering offers a series of warm and
    amusing reflections on the teaching life. Some of the funniest moments
    come when he is describing interactions with his students. He writes
    of how he once told a student that she needed to learn civility. "The
    girl looked puzzled. 'Civility?' she answered. 'What's that? I'm not
    an English major.'"

    Mr. Pickering's opinions on education are often surprising and
    willfully contrarian. "It is not important for everyone to write
    well," writes the English professor who teaches writing. "Writing
    poorly does not exclude a person from the pleasures of the bed -- or
    boardroom." As for core curricula, the professor could not care less.
    "One course does not a historian make," he writes. "If a child
    despises math, why must he take three math courses in college? On the
    other hand, if he loves math why not let him take all math courses?"

    When Mr. Pickering does break down and offer some advice, it is
    usually gentle and cloaked in humor. "Parents will say dreadful things
    to you," he writes. "Do not let them burrow under the skin and get
    into your bloodstream. If you have to respond, go into your office
    alone, shut the door, and quote Tennessee Williams, preferably a
    terse, ripe phrase, something like 'Screw you' or 'Kiss my ass.'
    Afterward open your door, chuckle, step into the hall, and smile like
    the sunrise."

    Mr. Pickering receives letters from professors all the time asking him
    to reveal his teaching secrets, as if there were a formula for
    classroom success that he's been keeping to himself all these years
    (he started teaching at Connecticut in the late 1970s). This book is
    sure to inspire more such letters despite the professor's reservations
    about his reputation as the Great Teacher. "I don't want to be a
    guru," says Mr. Pickering.

    Too late.

    The Art of Teaching
    (Oxford University Press, 2004)

    Jay Parini, a professor of English at Middlebury College. He has
    written five books of poetry, six novels, and three biographies, and
    is a frequent contributor to The Chronicle Review.

    Jay Parini has been teaching for three decades. And yet he still asks
    himself the same basic questions before each class. "Will I make
    sense? Will the students respond in sympathetic ways? Will I look and
    sound like an idiot? Is my face well shaved? Is my fly unzipped? Will
    I make it through 50 or 60 minutes without feeling like a complete

    That's OK, he writes, because such questions indicate that he is
    "still trying to find the right way to present the material." In this
    collection of essays, Mr. Parini writes about finding your teaching
    voice, balancing teaching and personal life, and what to wear in the
    classroom. "As a college teacher, it pays to think of clothing as a
    rhetorical choice, and to dress accordingly," he writes.

    He wrote the book, he says, because he was concerned that there is not
    enough discussion about good teaching in higher education. "What I'm
    really shocked by is that young teachers coming out of graduate school
    have rarely given a second thought to teaching," says Mr. Parini. In
    one essay, he encourages young teachers to state their goals clearly
    at the beginning of a course: "Make sure that on your syllabus you let
    the students know exactly what is required of them: how many papers,
    how long, when they are due, and so forth." He also tells young
    teachers to "make your viewpoint known, to students and your
    colleagues. And don't be afraid to change your mind as needed."

    Mr. Parini thinks of teaching as performance art. He writes about the
    importance of selecting the right "mask" for the classroom. "Most of
    us are left to blunder our way toward a teaching voice that serves us,
    and our students, well," he writes. "Unconsciously, we adopt different
    masks, noticing (or failing to notice) their usefulness." Instead,
    according to the professor, the mask should be a conscious choice, one
    that complements the material being taught. For instance, as a young
    professor, Mr. Parini would pace the classroom "like a caged animal"
    and fling chalk at the blackboard. Eventually, he writes, he came to
    realize that that was not the right mask for him.

    Mr. Parini says he hopes The Art of Teaching will be useful to other
    teachers, but he doesn't have any illusions about having said
    everything there is to say on the subject. "I doubt that any book can
    teach you how to teach," he says. "What it should do is get you
    thinking about the important issues."

    I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University
    (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)

    Patrick Allitt, a professor of history at Emory University. Mr. Allitt
    has written several books on religious history.

    What Patrick Allitt has written is closer to an exposé than an advice
    book. I'm the Teacher, You're the Student is exactly what its subtitle
    suggests: an account of a university semester in the classroom. The
    book begins with Mr. Allitt preparing his course and ends with the
    grading of final exams. In between he worries about nearly everything,
    fretting about what -- if anything -- his students are learning and
    whether the sport coat he wears to class looks silly.

    Mr. Allitt, who leads teaching workshops at Emory, is not shy about
    criticizing his own teaching -- nor does he hesitate to let loose on
    lazy students. He quotes examples of poor student writing at length
    and then skewers them mercilessly. Some students confuse the economist
    John Kenneth Galbraith with the scientist Edward Teller; others can't
    tell the difference between novels and nonfiction books. And they
    write sentences like this: "Many did not survive the harsh journey
    west, but they still trekked on."

    While these examples always amuse, it is hard not to cringe slightly
    for the students whose writing is ridiculed. Mr. Allitt changed the
    names to protect the not-so-innocent but "all the examples are real"
    he wrote in an e-mail message. (When contacted by The Chronicle, Mr.
    Allitt was teaching aboard a cruise ship. A professor's life isn't so
    bad, eh?) "I find most writing on education rather boring, because of
    the high degree of abstraction many authors use," the professor says
    in his e-mail message. He wrote an account of daily academic life "in
    the hope that other teachers would find my experiences comparable to
    some of their own."

    For the nonteacher, the book offers some insight into the frustration
    that can overcome even the best professors. Mr. Allitt detests whining
    students (e.g., those who ask for deadlines to be extended or those
    who shamelessly grade-grub) and after he recounts several such
    episodes, it is easy to see why. Overly emotional students also annoy
    the professor. Throughout the book, tears are shed over seemingly
    trivial incidents. Each time Mr. Allitt follows the same procedure: He
    hands the weepy student a roll of toilet paper and waits quietly for
    the waterworks to subside.

    Despite his frustrations and complaints, it is obvious that Mr. Allitt
    cares about his students. By e-mail, he says he hoped to show that
    being a teacher "is a wonderful job but also a difficult one."

    The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors
    (University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

    Peter Filene, a professor of history at the University of North
    Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mr. Filene has written several books,
    including a novel, Home and Away. He has won six teaching awards.

    How do you write a lecture, create a syllabus, or lead a discussion?

    In this book, Peter Filene covers the basics. He wrote it, he says,
    with freshly minted professors in mind. "I figured that new teachers
    in particular had very little luxury to entertain lots of theoretical
    discussion," he says.

    The book is brief (a little more than 150 pages) but it packs in lots
    of advice. In his chapter called "Constructing a Syllabus," Mr. Filene
    tells teachers not to cram too much into one semester. "In a survey of
    the English novel, for example, you can't imagine leaving out Tom
    Jones,Vanity Fair, and Middlemarch. Then again, can your students
    really read 2,280 pages in three weeks and also write that five-page
    midterm essay?" he writes.

    Mr. Filene suggests making a list of all the topics that need to be
    covered in the course and matching them with the number of classes. If
    there are more topics than days, start winnowing the list. "Engage in
    cold-blooded self reflection," he writes. "Did you emphasize [a
    certain topic] because it's the most important? Or because you wrote
    your dissertation on it and feel underprepared to teach the other
    sections of your subject?"

    In his chapter on encouraging discussion in class, Mr. Filene
    recommends handing out a list of questions in advance. He also
    suggests making sure students feel welcome to contribute to
    discussions. "The sooner you start this process, the less inertia you
    will need to overcome," Mr. Filene writes.

    At times the professor's advice seems pat ("To communicate
    effectively, good teachers present their ideas with clarity") and, in
    one chapter, he cites a 1987 study of teaching methods (couldn't he
    find anything more recent?). Still, he addresses nuts-and-bolts
    questions that more highfalutin books on pedagogy might overlook.

    Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind
    (Yale University Press, 2003)

    Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at
    Chicago. Mr. Graff has written numerous books, including Beyond the
    Culture Wars.

    Professors and students don't know how to talk to each other. They
    might as well be speaking different languages. In fact, that's exactly
    what they're doing according to Gerald Graff; he dubs the two tongues
    "Intellectualspeak" and "Studentspeak."

    To overcome this, professors need to do a better job of explaining
    what the mysterious world of academe is all about. And what it is all
    about is argument -- or so argues Mr. Graff. The problem is that the
    kind of argument that goes on in classrooms seems different from the
    kind that goes on everywhere else. But really it's not, according to
    the professor. He writes that "a more conversational view of
    argumentation can demystify academic writing" and make students feel
    less like outsiders.

    Sometimes that means altering the subject matter. "My maxim is, start
    with where students are," Mr. Graff says. "Students who might be hard
    to get fired up about Plato or Shakespeare turn out to be surprisingly
    smart about popular music or sports."

    What is important, he contends, is teaching students the habits of
    thought that lead to convincing arguments. And those skills "can be
    used to move them back to Plato."

    This semester Mr. Graff and his wife, Cathy Birkenstein-Graff, a
    lecturer in English, are co-teaching a freshman composition course.
    While it may come as a surprise that a well-known professor would be
    teaching a course that most English instructors do their best to
    avoid, Mr. Graff says he finds the class invigorating. "Being forced
    to explain yourself to undergraduates, I would argue, helps your
    research," he says. Mr. Graff and Ms. Birkenstein-Graff are finishing
    a textbook on argumentative writing, which is scheduled to be
    published this year.

    While Mr. Graff's ideas apply to all disciplines, he is particularly
    concerned with the teaching of writing. He writes that professors
    "need to disabuse ourselves of the widespread myth that academia and
    intelligibility don't mix."

More information about the paleopsych mailing list