May 27, 2009
What am I doing?
Believe it or not, when I design a class, I am actually thinking about the students, and what skills they need to move on to the next level. This changes depending on whether I am teaching an intro, mid-level, or upper-level class, and whether I am teaching at my community college or one of the four-year colleges. I also pay attention to what skill set kids actually arrive with, and make in-the-action adjustments.
Teaching at the community college is a wonderful opportunity, partly because of the wide variety of skill sets you get, partly because you have a real chance to help students move along in their intellectual development generally, preparing them for more advanced work and thought.
Who are my students? I teach a lot of intro courses. I think a lot of colleges make a huge mistake allowing these classes to be poorly taught, poorly organized, and poorly delivered, because these are the classes that form a real basis for your field and for the development of students. If you can lead the horse to the water now, you give them a great opportunity to know how to drink and what to do when they arrive at the next level classes. ONe of the reasons these classes can be so bad is that the people teaching them either lose sight of who these students are, never find out who these students are, just simply don’t care who these students are. They use these entry-level classes for weeding instead of teaching.
By definition, students in an intro class are at the start of their intellectual development in your field. Even seniors taking an intro class revert to a need for a framework, an authoritative starting point to begin their exploration. It is much easier to explore the world if you have roots somewhere, a point of reference to orient yourself. However, my students tend to be first- or second-year students, or a growing number of homeschoolers. With a community college, they are often a variety of ages and have a variety of goals, and thus have a diverse set of ultimate needs.
With intro classes, that need of a basic framework is the skeleton around which to develop a class. Intro classes tend to be information-laden, packed with all sorts of important basics. You need to pack in basic milestones of your field, while giving your students a sampler of what might be ahead for them and catch their interest to explore more. For art history, I need to pack in a basic outline of works of art that are reasonably firm in the timeline of art, provide vocabulary and methodology used for art, and teach students to actually look at objects in an objective manner.
At the same time, I need to pull students to the next level of intellectual development. At the start of their exploration, they need that authoritative framework; but the next step is to consider the wide variety of interpretations and opinions. After all, without controversy, I’m kind of out of a job. Students need to be able to start considering different ideas and think critically about them- how are they supported? Does the student agree with this support? What counter-arguments are out there? And the best students can even go to the next level- creating their own theories and interpretations of material (a step more usual to take in mid- and upper-level classes).
How to move students along in their intellectual development? That is the question before me as I design assignments, select reading, and evaluate work. If you push students too fast, you lose them. Students seem to feel they are doing “all the work and all the teaching” with actually learning anything. If you push them too slow, the class is boring and they don’t learn anything (nor do they move on in their development).
A lot of the “new-fangled” ideas for teaching do great in upper-level classes, but I’m worried about using blogs and too much independent study with students who have to facts to build on. It is more worrisome with the newer students I am seeing, who do not have the same skill set students had when I started ten years ago. These students have been raised in a world of heavy standardized testing and empty writing shells. They are trained to spit back whatever you have spoonfed them. You would think this would be a great skill set for basic intro classes, but it is a whole step back from ten years ago. These students have no skills for actually thinking about material, for generalizing material. If I teach that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1505, and Michelangelo carved the David in 1501, they cannot grasp the fact that Leonardo and Michelangelo are contemporaries on their own; I have to make a point of saying so. They have no passion for topics, which makes it difficult to make anything relevant for them. Pulling them to the next level takes extra time and practice, because they haven’t had any in any field.
I have to take this remedial role of my classes into consideration when designing them. I have to regauge how and when to push, so that I end up at the same endpoint of my classes ten years ago. What is more, i have to navigate this new challenge with students who feel entitled to high grades, despite their mediocre work. For these spoonfed, standardized world, “minimum requirement” means an A, not a C. My class becomes a very rude shock if I don’t design it to help them move along in their development, and move along quick.
The fact is, I used to get students read for college-level work, and now I get an increasing majority of student who are not. At the community college level, I have a real chance to give these students the opportunity to be ready. At the four-year level, where this cis also an increasing problem, I have a chance to pull those kids who need remediation to the level they need to be to move on to those mid-and upper-level classes.
After all, as an intro teacher, that is my job. Start with what you get, and get them prepared to really explore the world around them.