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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


When educational philosophies clash

I think I have pretty clear philosophies of how to teach and educate resultant from my own difficult educational experiences. I was not a good student for the most part - my high school GPA was like 2.5 or something - pretty abysmal. If you look at my transcripts, there is a huge range of grades though - in some classes I had As, and in college, A+s, and on the other end of the scale, I had Ds, and even Fs. There is no correspondence between the difficulty of the class and my grade - I got A+s in some of my most difficult classes, and also failed some of my most difficult classes. And the easiest classes didn't always help me boost my GPA.

Partly because of all of this I dropped out of college. When I returned to finish up my BA, I made some decisions about how I was going to take care of the rest of my requirements - I was going to be very careful to not set myself up for failure. In particular, I had most of my science requirements left to do (that is the one clear pattern - I did abysmally in every single science class), and I wanted to ensure I took classes in which I could feel successful. What I realized in my time off from school is that I am actually really quite interested in science (I was after all president of the science club in high school, and love my chemistry class), but the typical set-up of undergrad science classes at my school (huge huge huge lectures in which grading was solely based on exam grades) was a bad one for me. When a class causes some anxiety in me, I need to be required to be there every day, I need to feel comfortable with my professor, I need to be able to really engage with the material, and I need to be able to form relationships with the professor and what I am studying. This is actually true for me of all of my classes - I need those relationships and connections to not become an invisible and demoralized student.

So, when I returned to school, I arranged to take 2 of my science classes through the honors college. In those classes, they brought in some of the best professors from various departments, had a very small number of students (less than 10), had us sit around one big table, and we got to write papers and had essay exams (I fail miserably at multiple choice exams - even if I am an expert in the topic, I just can't do it). I also took a biology class in the summer which was taught by someone with extremely creative teaching methods (and it helped that I had a huge crush on him too): we went on field trips, and did a lot of hands-on stuff. It was awesome.

So, in my teaching, these are some of the things I try to duplicate: creating relationships with my students, letting them know I know them as individuals - not just as filled chairs, I use writing to gauge learning, and I leave a lot of room for creativity so students can take the material into directions that really interest them, and allow them to apply stuff to their lives to help them learn more.

I also learned something else when I returned to college - actual learning does not occur when one studies (as in crams) for an exam. The typical system of having a midterm and a final encourages cramming and rote memorization, which doesn't do much for long-term learning. This became clear to me in my psycholinguistics class.

It was a really large class, but I love the professor so much. She was young, dynamic, brilliant, and a stupendous lecturer (I felt like I was at story time in kindergarten in every class - when she would describe studies, I would get so fricking excited to hear about how they figured out how to test the phenomena, and what they found - and I think that is an amazing skill in a lecturer). She also, unfortunately, got a lot of challenging and disrespectful behavior from her male students.

But anyway, I clearly remember one night getting ready to study for the final. I got out all of my articles and my notes, and my study guide, and began going through them. As I was doing so, I realized I knew everything already - the need for studying was completely obviated because I had been doing all of the reading, had been very engaged in the class, was constantly engaging with the material by thinking about it and writing about it. I had already learned everything I needed to learn in order to do well on the exam. Thus, I had no need to pull an all-nighter, and I went to bed at a reasonable time, confident that I had learned.

This indicated to me that if I want to learn (and also save myself a ton of stress), and if I want to help others learn, having them engage regularly with the material and helping them to keep engaged is the best way.

Fast forward to actual teaching.

One of the hard things is that many many students don't actually want to learn - they just want their As and their degrees. I can't even tell you how disheartening that is. It is particularly so for me as someone who had a very disengaged educational experience, and who has taken that experience and created a philosophy and method of teaching designed to engage.

Yesterday my students were supposed to send me their topic statements for their final projects. I told them to do research, to use at least three empirical articles to craft their topic statements (not just cite them, but USE them), to give detailed descriptions of their projects, to include a thesis statement or question, and that the more detail they gave me, the more I could help. I also wanted them to create very specific topics, and gave them many ideas.

Cut to my dismay today to find that:
a. maybe half of the students actually did this (it is actually worth points);
b. More than half of those who did didn't follow the directions at all - I have a ton of topic statements that are simply a sentence, and a vague one at that (I want to write my paper on psychology).
c. Of those who actually included citations for articles, only a handful actually used them to create their topic statement.

I think my philosophy of teaching is clashing not only with students' desires, but also pretty clearly with this institution. It appears to be a school that has very high grade inflation, and that just does not require writing or true engagement. At least at the other schools where I have taught, there has been enough variety in the methods professors use to teach that I don't seem so unusual. But here, I feel like I must be the only one who teaches this way.

I will never be someone who crafts extremely detailed assignments with every contingency covered with every single grading criteria detailed so students know exactly how it will be graded. I feel like that causes students to write to the assignment and to the grade instead of teaching them to develop a writing style, writing skills, and an ability to judge for themselves when they have done a good job. I like instead to encourage creative thinking, exploration, learning, and writing. But I almost feel like the way the educational system is going, this is too "old school" to really even be viable. And that deeply saddens me.

on a lighter note: Yesterday I felt a need again for some sugar with which to drown my emotions (okay, that's not so light) and have been having cravings for dreyer's double churned ice cream. Hungry girl (too lazy to link) has been extolling the virtues of the american idol flavor "That takes the cake." It sounded really odd to me as it is supposedly ice cream that is flavored like cake, with no actual cake in it - but with blue frosting and sprinkles. She loves it so much, I decided to try it. Let me tell you - it is too sweet, but it is incredible. It tastes like cake batter in a way that is exceptional. I may have to have some for breakfast.


At 11:34 AM, Blogger BrightStar said...

AMERICAN IDOL ICE CREAM THAT TASTES LIKE CAKE?!?!?! Holy crap. That sounds like it was made for me. I must find some, somewhere.

I do agree with you that the students' experiences in their other classes (previously and this semester) must be affecting their expectations of you and their engagement in your class. It's probably hard to decide how much you want to fight that institutional norm of the level of expectations you have for your students, but I always think your assignments sound interesting and motivating, and I admire your approach to teaching.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Limon de Campo said...

I always hate to generalize about students, but yours sound pretty awful. One of the reasons it's hard to be an adjunct (besides the crap pay and the physical and intellectual isolation) is that students' expectations for a course are largely determined by the cultural norms and expectations of the department, and, of course, the department is created and maintained by the tenure-track faculty. My students tend to be pretty good, but it took me a couple of years to establish ethos. I'm positive that a big part of that ethos is my position in the department: the students see that the institution validates me. They see the opposite with adjuncts. This just points to another problem with the way institutions handle part-time faculty. Your students' reactions may have very little to do with you personally. I feel for you...


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