thoughts on teaching

I taught my first undergraduate class on causation & explanation in history last week, having never done so before in my life. It wasn’t as harrowing as I was dreading, and though I noticed a marked difference between my first-years and third-years — namely a sort of hardened shell of disinterest in the latter and a wide-eyed eagerness in the former — I found both really quite satisfying. I like eliciting those epiphany moments in the students, when something I’ve said made sense or clicked somehow. I especially like when they elicit them out of each other.

Things I should think about, though, for future teaching experiences: how to ask the right sorts of questions that make it easy for a student to elaborate a thought they’re in the process of having (and relatedly, I suppose, how to lipton); how to encourage students to speak to one another; how to gently guide a wayward conversation back on track; how to tie threads of discussion into each other. How to speak in a way that helps students take notes; how to lace my opening comments with well-delineated points that can act as handles for the rest of the discussion that our thoughts can keep coming back to. How to give good ‘take-home’ messages: to think specifically about what I want the student to take away from the class. How not to talk too much.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a teacher, still less a particularly good one — and I still don’t. But still, it seems to be a skill that’s inextricably part of the historian’s arsenal and craft. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, speaking on the institution of the university today, said something about teaching that I like and which I think is almost rudimentarily true: that the best teachers are learners who are never quite ‘done’ with their subject, learning even and also from their own students; that the act of conveying information is complementary to the process of acquiring it; that we teach what we know & love, and in doing so, come to know it, and perhaps love it, more.


6 responses to “thoughts on teaching

  • mercuriuspoliticus

    “the best teachers are learners who are never quite ‘done’ with their subject”

    This is so true – if I look back at my most influential teachers at school and university, it’s those who were still wide-eyed with surprise or joy at discovering something new about their subject that really inspired me. They were the same ones who also took pleasure in their students discovering new things or challenging them.

  • Tim

    How to speak in a way that helps students take notes; how to lace my opening comments with well-delineated points that can act as handles for the rest of the discussion that our thoughts can keep coming back to. How to give good ‘take-home’ messages: to think specifically about what I want the student to take away from the class.

    Use the board. Or, if you have one and are more comfortable using it, a screen.

    1) You can script your opening/overarching comments and write them up high or on one section of the board. You can also do this before class begins. Having them available for the entire time focuses them (and you) on those ideas, and they’re easy to return to. Also add: assignments, important dates, organizational announcements, etc.

    2) Likewise, you can mark important emerging ideas, or ideas that you want to roll out later in the class, on the board. When you take notes, they take notes. It is an absolute correlation, even, dare I say, the great causal factor in history class.

    3) Ditto for points you want to drive home. Returning to the board at the end is a great way to wrap things up.

    What to watch for:

    1) Keep your board organized. Subdivide it, either mentally or by making lines before you begin. Give yourself a one foot margin from the bottom of the board.

    2) Keep chalk off of your hands and clothes as much as possible. Never erase with your hands. In fact, never erase until you’ve asked to erase the material. (Likewise switching screens if you’re using a projector.) Don’t tap your chalk on your pantlegs. (Likewise marker if you’ve got a dry-erase board.)

    3) No need to write in full sentences.
    are enough. Remember, the writing is really a cue for them to write, not to all write the same thing. Then they have to listen to what you say.

  • Rachel

    thanks for the excellent advice, Tim. What exactly is a screen, and how is that different from a board? (perhaps we are all intractable luddites here in England, with our fusty old chalkboards and whiteboards; perhaps across the Atlantic pond you are delivering your lectures on floor-to-ceiling LCD graphic tablets with laser pens and touch-sensitive erasers or something).

  • Tim

    I actually prefer chalkboards, but I’ve also used overhead transparencies (especially in my math-teaching days) and computer-connected projectors. I teach literature and film in the Ivy League, so I get rooms with some pretty sweet tech, alas. But no multitouch tablets, alas.

    The basic principle is the same — speech begets speech, and writing begets writing.

  • Sam

    I really have to agree with Tim on utilizing the board. Students are often looking ahead to exams and you can use this to your advantage. Undergraduates will not remember every detail of what you tell them, but if you can provide “take home” points, they will write them down and make an effort to recall them on the exams. Be clear in explaining that this is what you are doing with the board, writing down and summarizing the most important points.

    A word on starting discussion. I would encourage you to accept the fact that not every student in your class will be willing to speak in front of the whole group. This is fine – some people are fearful of voicing ideas in front of larger groups. This is where small group work can help you. Its been proven time and time again that students learn as well from each other as from their instructors – so why not take advantage of this?

    At first, I try breaking students up into groups of four to assess a primary source or try to answer some sort of question. Show a picture or hand out a brief reading – give them a common experience IN THE CLASSROOM that they can break down. Don’t assume that they’ve all done the assigned reading. Then tell them to select a “note taker” for the group and a speaker, who will read from the notes and explain what was discussed. Next time, prune the groups down to three, and then two.

    This idea has worked for me, but it isn’t like I’ve come up with this on my own. Check out The Joy of Teaching by Peter Filene and Teaching Tips by McKeachie. The first book is more inspirational and introductory and the second book is more like a manual for confronting specific problems in the classroom.

    Best of luck. The best thing about teaching is that you’re never perfect and everyone can work to improve through thoughtful reflection!

  • Belle

    All good advice above, so I’ll just focus on the fun part: those light-bulb moments when students get the point, or discover the joy of a mind at work. I teach for those moments; they re-energize me in profound ways. This means that I run my classes so that I maximize those kinds of learning experiences for students. I do lots of pair-individual-group (PIG) work in class. I have the students transfer their notes from this onto the board, I get them up on their feet as often as possible. And I make my own joy in the process apparent to them; this seems to encourage them to risk it themselves.

    Isn’t teaching fun?

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