Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Own Private Teaching Method

In response to CGB's query, I've decided to dedicate my first post on this shiny new blog to teaching method. Hopefully, T/S, CGB, and others will write posts about their own methods and we can turn this into one of those highly-esteemed "roundtables." That term always reminds me of dashing knights and damsels in distress (not this, though), but I guess that's another story.

When I think about my teaching method, I immediately wonder what the term means. What is "teaching method"? Does it simply mean what I do in the classroom? Or, does it signify something more discreet: innovative strategies that I deploy (or don't) in the classroom, a sort of asymmetrical warfare of education? For public school teachers in the U.S., this is a much simpler question. Part of their training involves a number of courses on method; a prospective teacher has to be prepared for a detailed discussion of method, with reference to the most recent scholarship, as part of the interview process. I, on the other hand, as an academic trained to serve at the university level, am not even sure of what the term means. Most (though, notably, not all) of my mentors at Large Private University, Northeast (LPUN) viewed teaching as a burden. Their "teaching method" consisted of descending from the rarified air they usually occupied to deliver the good news to the initiates, er, students. Well, since I've just inadvertently defined teaching method as "how one goes about teaching in a classroom setting," I should discuss my own method, such as it is.

I have taught, broadly speaking, in three different kinds of classrooms. First, I've taught (or, rather, preached) in a lecture hall filled with 150 or so students. This experience felt (and feels, as it is currently ongoing) far removed from any "teaching method" or from a "classroom." In fact, it is much more like giving a one-person performance. My gestures, voice, actions, and emotions are all on a much larger scale than anything I do in other settings. I raise my voice to a shout and lower it to a whisper, I get visibly angry and sad, I use props, I bang my fist on the table, I point with abandon. It can be quite intoxicating, in fact, especially if one (like this one) enjoys performing. Preaching in the lecture hall is many things, then, but it never seems much like teaching.

The second kind of environment is the 30-40 student "lecture" course. I identify this type as a lecture course, because these are the courses where it's always seemed necessary to do some manner of lecturing. By lecturing, I mean giving a pre-planned and structured talk that conveys information and makes an argument. Another distinguishing feature of this type of course is that it takes place in an actual classroom. There is a blackboard, there are desks in which students sit, and there is some kind of desk with drawers at the front of the room. Well, this semester, it's a lab table and I have a sink, which I've, unfortunately, yet to have occasion to deploy. In these courses, I've always had a reading to which between 40 and 60 minutes of class time is devoted on a weekly basis. During this time, I use discussion strategies that I'll discuss below (I don't want to give anything away, so I'll move on). I suppose I would identify the rest of the time I spend in the classroom as lecture, but I certainly don't just talk. In fact, it depends. Yesterday, I gave my British history class a lecture called "Free Trade and Famine." Most of this lecture consisted of me delivering a pre-planned talk. Even then, though, we spent about 10 minutes in the middle of class (a 75-minute class) discussing several images, which I displayed in a PowerPoint presentation and we had two or three other brief (say, 3-4 minute) discussions about issues raised in lecture. On the other extreme, I gave a lecture about the Great Exhibition of 1851 a few weeks ago in which I provided only a short (probably 10 minute) introductory talk outlining the main features of the Exhibition. Before I began, I gave the students a multi-page handout with newspaper articles, quotes, and figures that we looked at throughout the class and discussed. I also had 7 or 8 images that we talked about. Most of my lecture time falls between these two extremes, and probably tends toward the latter. I usually provide a handout with several extended quotes and/or several short newspaper articles. I try to see the lectures as providing a backdrop against which we can use primary sources to build a narrative. I'm not completely comfortable with this yet, plagued as I am with self-doubt (and the voices of my esteemed mentors in my head, who are shocked--SHOCKED--that I didn't provide the details of the Encumbered Estates Act), and I often end up talking more than I'd intended.

The final environment in which I've taught is a seminar-style course, with 8-15 students. I have the most experience with this kind of classroom, going back to my days as a Teaching Assistant, and am probably most comfortable there. Discussion is, obviously, central to the seminar-style classroom. Often, in this setting, I'll just run this in a pretty standard way: I ask questions and the students answer. There is relatively little conversation between students and everything is largely under my control. This sates the control-obsessive in me, but doesn't always work as a way to maintain student interest or even to relay material to them. I often use group work, and with some success. I've had the best results when students have to build an opinion or a perspective together. Since that's hopelessly vague, I'll elaborate. I've often used this strategy as preparation for a class debate. One of the best discussions I've had was several years ago in a debate about the slave trade. The students had read a collection of sources edited by David Northrup. The book contains a mix of secondary and primary sources. I divided the students into several groups and assigned each group one of the secondary-source readings. They then had to use the primary sources and, with their groupmates, construct a position based on the primary material that supported their assigned secondary source and that they could then defend in debate. I've also been lucky to have great TAs these past few years and they are often better in the seminar-style classroom than I am. When we discussed Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart earlier in the semester, for example, one of my TAs wrote four categories on the board and had each student go to the board and write a quote that they found interesting under one of the categories. It was actually quite effective as a way to get students moving around and thinking about the reading. And, since it's in this paragraph, it almost seems like I can take credit for it. Almost.

The broad point in all of this seems to be, then, that, like most of those in my profession, I don't really know what I'm doing, I'm fumbling around in the dark. Until universities start to take the training of graduate students as teachers seriously, it cannot be otherwise. Faculty at R1 institutions (outside the Ivies and the other top-tier schools) must realize that the vast majority of the PhDs they produce will not get jobs at R1 institutions and therefore will have to take teaching much more seriously than many R1 faculty members do (though, of course there are a great many outstanding and dedicated teachers at R1 institutions around the country, including LPUN). There are structural factors at R1 institutions that help to make this so, but that's a story for another day.


Teacher Scholar said...

I imagine that if DL looks like Keanu Reeves or River Phoenix and has their performance chops, he has no problem capturing the attention of his classes.

You seem to raise two broad issues here, both of which deserve further discussion in posts. First you point to the legitimate gripe most PhDs have about not receiving instruction in pedagogy. Any gamblers willing to bet how long it will take for R1 institutions to transform their programs to include teaching methodology? Despite the supposed 'liberal' bent of academia, in some respects it remains very conservative.

Second you present classroom strategies. Here, I think DL needs to be congradulated for moving beyond strict lecture to include more interactive elements to his teaching style. While lecturing has its benefits, it cannot be the only approached used in a classroom. Students broadly tend to reject it and it does not serve to get students interacting with history, which is where they develop key skill sets.

In my mind I tend to differentiate between lower and higher division (undergraduate) courses. For lower division (100/200 level), I lecture occasionally to tie together big theme issues, abstract ideas like "the market revolution," or "the Great Awakening," and go far beyond the textbook in terms of linking it to other issues covered in that cumbersome reading. I have students spend far more time engaging primary sources, working on writing assignments where they practice skills such as thesis construction, defense of that thesis and use of sources.

Although I could expand on these methods I will not do so here. Instead I will end by noting that these in-class projects have resulted in far greater student participation (they are not surfing the web, IM'ing or nodding off) and somewhat improved retention rates, not to mention improved essay midterms and finals.

The Daft Laird said...

Though you don't make it T/S, there seems to be an argument in your comment for using a textbook in survey courses. It's trendy these days (at least 'round these parts) to turn up one's nose at a textbook--because it promotes the idea that the whole objective truth of history can be found in the book and because it's much harder to see a textbook's "argument," especially for survey students.

I don't know if I, at least, could teach in the style that you use if I didn't have a textbook (which I don't). We just don't have the time with them in the classroom to build a narrative from the sources up. At best, it seems to me, we can give students access to one particular bit of a larger narrative. Am I wrong about this? Could you do what you do without the students also reading a textbook?

Teacher Scholar said...

I think it would be hard to teach my course (the way I have it currently designed) without the textbook.

I find it useful to divide (one set of) goals for the class into two categories: content knowledge and skill sets. The textbook is primarily used to provide students with a narrative of American history. The knowledge they gain is measured on multiple choice exams. They also use sections of the textbook as a part of their in-class primary source projects.

But I have to admit that I increasingly see the textbook readings as futile and not effective because students almost immediately forget the information after the MC exam. So I am considering going one of two directions. One is to eliminate the textbook and constuct a survey built on major problems (not a reference to the readers) in greater depth. Students might not explore the Articles of Confederation in this rubric (or they might if I chose that to be a 'problem'), but they would have a better historical understanding of, let's say, the legacies of race and slavery, or what ever other problems I chose to include.

The other path is to have students read two textbooks at the same time, Zinn's "A People's History . . ." and perhaps Brinkley's "Unfinished Nation" or a more conservative approach. In this model I would abandon a bunch of the primary source project in favor of critical reading projects.

The Daft Laird said...

I think you've identified part of the reason I hesitate to give up lecturing entirely, at least in survey course--I'd really hate to leave content knowledge entirely to a textbook. A large part of what I enjoy about being in the classroom is providing students my informed interpretation of history. One of the real joys (and most difficult challenges) is taking complex historical arguments and presenting them in a way that students, who haven't been trained as I have, can understand and appreciate. Is this, at the end of the day, about authority? Maybe. But I suppose any method involves some control of the story; it's just that some are modes of control are more subtle than others.

I guess I just wouldn't enjoy my job as much if it was primarily about teaching students how to interpret primary sources.

I do realize that this whole comment has been focused entirely on me and what I like and want rather than my students. I do think that we teach students skills even when we're lecturing, even when we're delivering content knowledge. Part of what I try to do in lectures is challenge students to think about the world in different ways. I will always argue that this is a valuable skill.

The Daft Laird said...

My long-winded initial post and comments seem to have scared everyone away. Apologies everyone, but brevity is not one of my strengths.