February 27, 2011

What My Professors Really Taught Me

Posted in miscellaneous other matters, teaching revelations at 8:19 pm by profart

Now that I am teaching, I keep in mind what it was like to be a student; and I find I have learned many valuable lessons about teaching simply by being in successful- and unsuccessful- classrooms. When I think about the world of academia as a whole learning process, I remind myself that my students are at the beginning of that process, and I am in the middle. Not at the end. PhD and all.

Most of the important lessons I learned about teaching were from my professors:

If you want real students, give them real challenges. Students rise to challenge. I had a professor who tested on anything and everything covered- if it was in your book, if it was even briefly mentioned in class (whether it was in the books or articles or not), it might appear in that exam. As students, we often bemoaned the hours in the library digging up items that weren’t in our books, but we learned how to do it. How do you start with a photo, and end up with full identification of an object? How do you track things and information down? (And this was before Google!)

If you want students to meet a challenge, make sure give them the tools to do it. That same teacher had a little corner in the library where she had a box. If you paid attention to the syllabus and went to that box, you found photos of every single thing she mentioned in class or was in any book or article you read for her. Every. Single. Thing. So at least you had a place to start to track it down.

Be holistic. When you are teaching students to think, analyze, and communicate, don’t over-emphasize any one of those elements at the expense of another. Don’t ignore one just because a student excels at another. Work to have your students present with a whole package- that’s education. You have to think to analyze. You have to analyze to understand. You have to be able to communicate those thoughts to be taken seriously in the world. All three are skills that can be taught.

Be present. There is nothing more frustrating to a student than actually having a question, and not being able to find the professor. In this day and age, there is no excuse for it. Email is open 24 hours a day.

Share. Why is research considered so important to Universities and to academia? It gives you something new to share with your students, new perspectives for you and for them to explore. Any student can read a book. They’re college students, after all. They are paying your salary to get you in front of them, to have you share your perspective and knowledge and understanding, and train them to do the same.

Even as a hired gun, these ideas are important to teaching, and getting real education to the students in front of you. Teach them to give and meet challenges, look at the world as a whole, be truly present and truly experience the world, and share that experience with others.

We only have one lifetime, and it seems it is never as long as we think it should be. Unless we become educated and alive, we risk missing that lifetime. And what would it really mean, if we don’t bother to pass it on?

February 23, 2011

Natalie Munro: Keeping Blogs Anonymous

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:56 pm by profart

Every once in a while, I Google my real name to see what pops up. Interestingly, my other blogs pop right up, as well as the (pretty ugly) Rate My Professors page, but not this blog. I’m glad. I walk a line here that could cost me my job, if I really was a professor anywhere, and not a llama herder in Indiana.

Blogs form a sort of community. Who reads blogs, but other people interested in the topic of the blog? With teaching blogs, you run the risk of colleagues and students reading your blog- the one where you point out the problems you see in academic life and try to discuss the pressing issues of students, faculty, administration, and teaching. If they figure out it is you, and become offended, your livelihood is permanently on the line. It is dangerous to speak freely. Anonymity is paramount. Privacy is not just for students, but also for your own safety and security.

I have run into my share of the kinds of students Ms. Munro was berating in her blog, and yes, I think the situation is getting worse. Do I complain on my blog? Darn tootin’. Is that the end of it? Hell no. I look over the comments- rare as they are, since I don’t really advertise this blog is out here. I re-read what I have written. I think about improving student engagement, how to deal with the issues I write about. I use my college’s resources to try to improve my teaching and get feedback and ideas, to meet the changing needs and challenges of students as they shift and change.

What is the point of having this blog, anyway? Hopefully, it gets everyone thinking about the issues of teaching. It provides some guidance for being a student to students who come here. And it lets professors know they aren’t alone. That those students they are dealing with? They really exist, it isn’t just in your head, we’re all in this together dealing with these problems. And it is OK to tell a student no, you can’t turn that work in late. No, “I needed cigarettes” is not a valid excuse to be late for class. Yes, you can do better than this, re-write it. And plagiarism is not acceptable, you just failed this class- just as it says in the syllabus.

But I am glad this blog does not seem to be connected to my name. Not only do I want to remain anonymous, but that anonymity is important to protect my students- even when I usually don’t write about them until long after they are gone. Or I would, except I have to go feed the llamas.

February 20, 2011

Watching Wisconsin

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:33 pm by profart

If you have been hiding under a rock lately, you might not know that teachers are among the public sector workers raging against the governor in Wisconsin. I am watching the protests against stripping unions of their ability to bargain collectively, because I live in a Right To Work state, and work as an adjunct. I know what it means not to be able to bargain collectively, to be lost in a sea of isolation with no way of fighting against unfairness, yet not being able to afford to stop working, and not being able to move on despite efforts to do so.

What is that life like?

I don’t get to chose my own schedule. I either accept the classes offered or I turn them down. At the same time, I am limited to how many classes I am permitted to accept. This only serves to limit my income.

I teach more classes per semester than the full-time professor/instructor in my department. Only I don’t get benefits, and make about 2/3 what they are making, and that only because I have a higher degree than they do.

I have no way to appeal for a raise in pay. Fortunately, I am working for a college that worked very hard to not cut pay to adjuncts. Not every adjunct in the system as been as fortunate. I have worked for twelve years, and only had my pay cut once.

If the college decides it doesn’t have enough money, it simply does not offer me any classes. There will be no warning of this, nor any recourse. They can decide to offer my classes to another person at their whim, and I have no warning or recourse.

In a Right-to-work state, you can be fired for no reason at all. No reason is needed. It makes it incredibly difficult to prove cases of discrimination, because they do not need to state any reason for firing you.

Collective bargaining is an important tool for workers to get fair treatment and recompense for their labor and efforts. It allows economies to be stable because everyone knows what is expected and how much preparation is needed if something goes awry. It gives workers channels for appeal against unfair policies, practices, and situations.

A school is only as good as the teacher in front of you. Taking away pay and benefits is not a good way to keep excellent teachers in the classroom. And is your nation’s future something you want going to the lowest bidder?