[Paleopsych] CHE: Please Take My Advice
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Please Take My Advice
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.2.11
5 books for professors who want to improve their teaching
By THOMAS BARTLETT
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
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.
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
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."
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