Another semester looms…

I’m rewriting my courses for next semester.  I’ve never been one of those people who can teach the same thing, year in and year out. Part of this is because it really is about the journey, from my perspective, and I like to illustrate that as much as I can.  The other part of it is because I’m easily bored.

So here I am, thinking again about what books to read with my students, and convincing myself that if I just think long and hard enough, I will figure out the magic solution to How To Get Them To Do The Reading.

I’ve tried pop quizzes.  I hated them more than the students did.

I’ve tried devoting class time to everything *but* the reading, and holding them responsible for the reading in the papers.  That does a disservice to students who do the reading but could use help thinking about it, and it leaves me in the position of basing classwork on readings that no one does.  In short, most of my students would fail, were I to stick to my guns with this approach.

I’ve tried building classes around one central requirement: very-clearly-based-on-the-reading class participation.  This actually works well, as long as a handful of students are in the game.  If there are only one or two, though, the entire thing falls apart, the semester is a nightmare, and all of us dread coming to class.

What I have not tried…what I hope to never, ever try…is to assign the reading and then come to class and explain the reading.  I suspect I would give up teaching from books before I resorted to that.  (See above line regarding being easily bored.)

But there’s much more to it than avoiding my own ennui.  It’s about the very purpose of the university classroom.  At its best, at what I believe was once the ideal for most professors, it is a place of exchange: a place where one of two different approaches justify the professoriate (and thereby, to some extent, the cost of college) and distinguish us from everyone else in who stands in front of a classroom.

In the first, we think out loud, picking up steam as we do, finding new directions and new inspirations, modeling passion for our disciplines and for critical thinking and demonstrating how to follow an intellectual lead, deconstruct an idea, arrive at a position or insight.

In the second, we deliver the results of our latest, freshest thinking, in the fervent hopes that it will inspire our students, to say or write or think something new and exciting – and sometimes in the more ambitious hope that what they generate will, in turn, hone our own thinking and inspire us anew.

What we – professors – do not do, is stand there and deliver the results of other people’s thinking, without critique or augmentation or challenge from our own minds.

Increasingly, I suspect that many people at the front of college classrooms do exactly that.  I try to remember this when my students don’t read.  I remind myself that they do not expect us to “do” anything interesting with the reading in class.  They do not view reading as holding up their end of a bargain they have struck with me: my thoughts on this work in exchange for  yours.  My thoughts on the work hold very little value for them – and, tragically, theirs hold even less.

Lately, I have resorted to choosing “sexy” books, things that at least some of the students will actually want to read.  This troubles me.  As far as I can tell, however, my options appear to be:

1. Require actual reading of the actual books I want to teach.  This means that students who do not read will fail the course.  This means that most students will fail.

2. Assign books that I think  more students are likely to read.  This means that more students will pass, but I am pandering and lowering my standards and failing to challenge and develop my strongest students.

3. Assign reading and then spend class time telling them what the reading said.  This makes my salary a waste of money, undermines the role of the professor and is deeply uninteresting for me – because I did the reading, and I want to do something interesting with it.

4. Give up on books and use textbooks instead.

Even writing that one breaks my heart.  I know that there are plenty of excellent professors who use textbooks.  (Hey, some of my best friends use textbooks…)  In some fields, I imagine that they are indispensable. I’ve tried them myself, a time or two over the course of my career.  More often than not, though, they are the enemy of critical thinking.  No matter how critical the textbook, no matter how brilliant the author, regardless of how many “active learning” exercises they contain, textbooks exist for one purpose: to make it easier for students to glean “what they need to know.”

That is exactly the opposite of my mission.  I do not help students become better thinkers when I make it easier for them to glean anything.  Education is the process of gleaning.  Everything else is information.   “What they need to know” is precisely what they should be there to discover.  Education is not supposed to be a “greatest hits” album of what people need to know.  It should be a process of exploration and discovery…an adventure of trial-and-error…an archaeological expedition, unearthing thought that came before and deciding what to toss, what to keep, and how to use it.

If our elementary and our secondary educational system didn’t function this way, our college students would not expect this four-year “packet of information.”  If our children grew up viewing learning as play, viewing education as an adventure, with the freedom to decide what to read and what to think about – and what not to think about – then I firmly believe that the students in my classroom would be engaged.  They would be interested.  They would read what I assign, or they would say, “I don’t want to read that.  I would much rather read *this* instead, which is also relevant to the course.”

How I would love it if a student said that to me.  In the meantime, I’m still working on finding that magic solution.

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5 comments on “Another semester looms…

  1. Kim says:

    how many students do you teach at a time? I’m currently studying Midwifery (and have a BSc Nursing) and the way in which some of my classes are conducted might be something to think about!

    In one of the classes I’m taking now, we have weekly readings and then the instructor facilitates a discussion around the topic. Likes / dislikes about the papers, things that struck us, interesting quotes. Participation is a big part of our marks, and critical reflection papers (3 per term, 5% each, a two-page critical reflection on some aspect of the reading(s) from the week we’re handing it in) also ensure we’re reading something. Also, groups of students are required to facilitate the class (the instructor, in those weeks, facilitates one or two of the articles and the student group facilitates the rest).

    Might this be a way in which you could help your students engage with the readings?

    It helps that our faculty is a small one and made up of very devoted students (> 500 applicants, only 30 spots per year) and the coursework is very related to our chosen profession (ie a few weeks on queer-positive midwifery, a few weeks on prenatal screening, a week on the effects of childhood abuse, etc.) but it’s an idea that I think could really work for LOTS of areas of academia!

    Oh, and btw, we’re planning to unschool our three kids … in the midst of me returning to my studies!

  2. […] Read this full awesome post by An Unschooling Professor, here. […]

  3. sarahekd says:

    Ok so I sort of want to post your blog for my students to read and think about (and to justify my style of teaching). Have you ever done that?

    • Hi Sarah,

      I am so full of regret for missing all of these posts! I used a blog in my course for the first time last year, on another topic entirely, and it worked really well. Details to follow at some point, I hope…but if you’re interested in using this blog in your course again, please do give me another shot! 😉

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