Friday, January 29

I, pedagogue (spring semester, 2021)

back in the day, I thought I'd never want to teach. and then I realized that in some ways, everything everyone does can involve a layer of teaching somehow. even if it's a very subtle one.

even still, for these past seven years of wading deeper and deeper into teaching college writing classes of various kinds, the real practice of teaching (with all the planning and record-keeping and decision-making and performing and grading and authority-wielding it typically requires) has not often been my favorite part of academia. it's fine. but it's hard. and I never feel very good at it, so it simply can't be as naturally rewarding as all the other corners of academia where I feel far more skilled.

for better or for worse, my two full-time assistant professor jobs so far have been quite teachingcentric. twelve credit hours of teaching every semester, plus a few during summer semesters, until this year. dozens and dozens of students show up in August or January or June for whichever iteration of professional writing I'm teaching this time, working and sharing and hopefully learning, and then they disappear again.

this year, I have one course release for being brand new in town. it gives me a chance to get used to things a bit.

they also gave all the new faculty a copy of the book What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. a few colleagues and I read through it together last fall semester and talked about ways to apply the findings in our own classrooms.

the book and our little faculty discussion group made me think much more intensely about my teaching than I've cared to thus far. it also gave me some concrete hope that maybe I can become better at this thing I don't feel very expert in at all. 

so. what am I trying to do a little better this spring? what have I begun to internalize from Bain's research?

possibly more things than I can articulate very well in a little blogpost. but here are a few:

> talk about your own learning journey with students. model or reenact the kinds of transformation you hope that they will undergo as a result of your class.

> trust students and treat them like whole humans with a million shifting priorities, just like you. this is something I already knew and practice decently, I think. but I took particular comfort in it this past year. my course is a small droplet in the ocean of everything these students are trying to learn and become. if my teaching isn't perfect, they probably won't notice or remember for too long.

> ask students big, meaningful, authentic questions--the kinds of questions that professionals in your field will ask and try to answer. (this is particularly tricky in writing because writing, for most people, in most important contexts, isn't very often about itself. its actual subject is the everything else that we write and communicate about.)

I think I do pretty well being authentic and open and compassionate as a teacher. but I have been guilty in the past of assuming students could never be all that interested in the big questions that I study. we don't have time for that, do we? especially at a fancy aeronautical university where nobody is an English major and everyone mainly wants to design or build or test or fly airplanes and other such contraptions-- how could any of those students care about a communications course?

but if Bain is to be believed, the enthusiasm of a teacher combined with the sparks of a big, meaningful question can draw students in, motivate them a little, even if they didn't think they'd care very much about a communications course. 

and I can be good at questions, surely. 

especially big ones! like: how do you know what anyone means? how do you know what anyone else thinks you mean? how people really ever understand each other enough to make good things happen in the world? and what does it mean to read? to write? or to do those things effectively?

the trick now becomes figuring out how much time to spend getting philosophical about definitions inbetween all the more "practical" work of practicing reading and writing and revising and all that. I still think students learn most from doing things, more than they can from reading about things or discussing them or whatnot.

but anyway, I added this little linguistics video to my list of assigned readings. I opened the first day of class reading from Celeste Headlee's book We Need to Talk, which recounts the tragedy of an ineffective conversation in an airplane cockpit. in technical writing we spent the first day exploring informal crowdsourced technical descriptions on Reddit.

and when I listened to this recent episode of So Many Damn Books with George Saunders I felt more affinity for Saunders's love of teaching writing than perhaps I might once have felt. his advice is to remember that you're never just teaching 20-somethings who barely know what to do with their adulthood when you meet them-- you're also teaching the 40-something-year-olds that they'll become. I like that. (not all college students are 20-somethings, but the concept holds. we are all humans-in-progress.)

maybe I'll go back and give the Pedagogue podcast another chance, too, now that I feel more hopeful and less grumbly about this whole teaching business.

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