Saturday, April 15, 2017

Ten Things I Learned In My First Decade of Teaching

I only just recently realized that I'll be completing my 10th year teaching in higher education at the end of this semester (not counting my time teaching or TA'ing in grad school).


In many ways, it feels like the last decade has flown by. There are days when I look out upon students' faces and wonder who died and put me in a charge of the future? I still haven't quite figured out how to get the me-who-writes-the-syllabus to act with more generosity toward the me-who-executes-the-syllabus. I still have imposter syndrome. And grading a stack of papers hasn't gotten one whit easier (or faster).

On other other hand, there are many days that I'm aware of how much more comfortable I am in the classroom than when I began. I'm more confident about my expertise now. I can anticipate students' questions and problems more readily. I've can give my lectures on all the major figures of Philosophy more or less from memory, without notes. I doubt myself less, question myself less. I've seen former students graduate, go on to grad school, defend their dissertations, and get jobs. (That's really the weirdest thing, I think, watching the transition from "student" to "colleague.") And, most importantly, I've built up a pretty impressive stockpile of my own anecdotes and examples that I know are golden.

It seems like this is as good a time as any for a retrospective look at what I've learned in my first ten years at the helm of this last remaining sacred space in our so-called democracy. So here are my takeaways, in no particular order.

1. Teaching "intro"-level students is the best, hardest job ever.  Of course, I'll be the first to grant that there is something uniquely satisfying about really digging into a text with "advanced" students who can read and think and write and converse in mature, sophisticated, nuanced ways. For a lot of people I know, upper-division or grad courses are the only thing that makes teaching worthwhile... but I'm not one of those people. I absolutely love teaching first- and second-year students, the ones with no prior experience in Philosophy, many of whom are only in my classroom to satisfy a gen-ed requirement. What gets me up in the morning-- and I mean this, seriously-- is the possibility of those aha! moments when, after a long and difficult struggle, a student hacks his or her way into a clearing and grasps an idea for the first time. Or when a student first becomes aware that she can make an argument of her own.  Or when a student follows the breadcrumbs of a thought raised in the classroom and finds him- or herself back to its application or implication in real life.  Teaching intro-level is hard work, but the rewards-- even if few and far between-- are worth it.

2. It takes a looooong time to become the professor you are. I was very fortunate to have a number of really excellent professors in undergraduate and grad school, but they were very different from one another.  Like a lot of young faculty, I tried to emulate their "styles" in my first few years at the head of the classroom and, as a result, ended up being a little bit of a Frankenstein. That strategy works for a short while, but not forever. You've got to find what works for you, and it takes time.

3. The kids are alright. After the first five years or so of teaching, it's too, too easy to become cynical or skeptical about students and their abilities. In fact, in my experience, that cynicism/skepticism is like a virus that senior faculty not only spread amongst one another, but to junior faculty as well. I'll admit that I've done my fair share of complaining about Millennials, but I've also really made an effort to remain mindful of the ways that, even if today's students don't have all the (reading, writing, attention) skills that "we" think are essential, they nevertheless have a number of skills that far exceed ours. They're better at multitasking. They understand images with a depth and nuance that rivals our understandings of texts. (See my Thinking in Images post from 2010.) They have an almost default-facility with media of all sorts, including those that didn't even exist when "we" were coming of age. And for all our moaning and gnashing of teeth about how disconnected, passive, quietist, or apolitical they are, they aren't. My interactions with students today has consistently revealed that they know that they're more or less getting screwed six ways to Sunday, and they aren't willing to confront that cold, hard fact with the same old tired (and, let's admit it, ineffective) strategies that their forbears did. The students sitting in our classrooms right now are the "slack to act" generation. They're behind Black Lives Matter, and Anonymous, and Campaign Zero, and countless other "millennial" campaigns that don't really fit into an easily-digestible, bite-sized "generational" stereotype. For all their faults, and there are many, I see a ripe and ready generation of students sitting down in my classroom every semester, ripe and ready for some exposure to a history of ideas in which they might find a place. Seriously, the kids are alright.

4. Grades are not the most important thing. Many of my closest friends and colleagues disagree with me on this point, but it's something I've come to believe more and more strongly as the years go by. In fact, I do everything in my power to DE-emphasize the importance of grades in my class. It's a long story to explain how I got to this point, but the tl;dr version is this: I think grades actually get in the way of students' learning more than they provide any sort of useful evaluation either for students or for me. To wit, Rule #9 in my classes reads as follows: "The work that you do and the learning that you accomplish in this course are more important than your grade. I am aware that grades are important to you, but if you come speak to me about your performance in the class, expect that our conversation will be about how to improve your work or your understanding of the material, and not about how to improve your grade." Also, not for nothing, I wholly agree with my former colleague, Art Carden, when he said: "I teach for free. They pay me to grade."

5. Errrybody's got baggage. Even as a grad-student TA, one very quickly learns that students bring a whole lifetime's worth of personal, emotional, and psychological baggage to the classroom with them. But the project of managing, mitigating, assuaging, and attenuating students' baggage becomes a horse of a whole different color when you move from "assisting" another professor to teaching yourself. This is perhaps the greatest and (quite often) most unbearable weight I feel when I step into the classroom at the beginning of every semester. There are so many of them-- in my case, 100+ students per semester-- and only one of me. What I try to do is to just keep it there as a possibility (even if not a likelihood) that what I may be inclined to hear as an "excuse" from a student may really be a "reason."  I just so happen to teach at a university where many of my students in any given semester are working full-time jobs (sometimes more than one), or who have families of their own, or who are part-time or commuter students, or who for whatever (fill in x reason here) are not just rolling into their college classes everyday like whatever.  I am probably the least "maternal" professor I know, but as someone who gritted and grinded her way through eight (YES, EIGHT) years as an undergraduate, I also know that some students take the long way around the block for reasons they didn't necessarily choose. Some have a much harder row to hoe than others. It's important to remember that even if this is the 500th time I've heard the same sad story, it's still that student's story right now.

6. Students are NOT children.  I tell my students on the first day of every class that they are not children.  I tell them that they are rational, autonomous adults capable of making decisions of their own volition, while at the same time being deeply-embedded, intersectional, IRL- and digitally-networked adults who make a number of decisions every day of which the reasons for those decisions are not entirely transparent to them. I let them know that I will not treat them like children, and I will not respond kindly to manifestly childlike behaviors, (This is evidenced in many ways, I think, in the list of Dr. J's Rules that I include as a part of each course syllabus. See especially Rule #4 and Rules #8-10.) Nevertheless, my declaration that I will not treat my students as children, all by itself, does absolutely nothing to undo the fact that they have more or less been conditioned to behave like children (or robots) for the last 18 years of their life, Without going into an entire rant about the failures of primary and secondary education in the U.S., let me just say that the most maddening and truly dispiriting (for professors) fact about incoming University/College students today is that so many have been taught not how to think or how to learn, but only how to take tests. What that means, unfortunately, is that most incoming College/University students are totally unprepared for liberal arts study at the postsecondary level, They have been stunted in their capacity to appreciate learning for its own sake, and rather trained to think of learning nothing more than a means to an end, namely, the end of "scoring well on a/the test." After ten years of teaching, this ridiculously de-intellectualizing and infantilizing effect-- a consequence of both private and public education-- is and remains the greatest challenge.  But I will also say that, in my experience, the absolutely unrelenting insistence that students rise to the level of my bar-- i.e., you are adults and I will treat you as such-- has been, without fail, effective.

6. You've GOT to keep up with the times. Staying current with what's going on in pop culture, music, film, technology, as well as recent developments in slang, are not simply efforts at being "hip" or "cool." It's actually pedagogically useful. It's very important to me that students come to see Philosophy as deeply relevant to their day-to-day lives, and I can't do that if I don't adjust my anecdotes and examples every few semesters to keep them fresh. And in order to keep the course material fresh, I've got to keep up.

7. The demographics of the profession of Philosophy won't change until we change what we do in the undergraduate Philosophy classroom. Philosophy remains one of the most dominantly male and white professional disciplines in academia. That will continue to be the case until we start exerting real effort at making it less hostile to underrepresented groups. One relatively easy way to do that is to include women philosophers, queer philosophers, and philosophers of color on the syllabus. Another easy way to do this is to devote time in your courses to articulating how identity categories like class, race, gender, and sexuality are not only legitimate philosophical areas of study, but also deeply effect everything else we study in philosophy. Then there are the harder to things to do, which are all the more important for their being difficult. In my classrooms, that's meant proactively "managing" discussions such that white students and men-identified students don't assume authority, get away with being dismissive of others, or take offense at criticism. It also has meant taking time to seek out underrepresented students, to encourage and affirm them, and making an extra effort to let them know that theirs is an important voice.

8. If it works, share. I take pedagogical innovation very seriously and I've tried out a number of unorthodox methods and assignments over the years in my courses.  When they work for me, I share them. In many cases, friends and colleagues have incorporated my innovations into their own classes and I've learned even more from hearing how it did (or didn't) work for them. Teaching is hard. Be a team player.

9. ALWAYS have a box of tissues in your office. As much as I hate this about myself, I am a total sucker for criers. Here's an all-too-common scene: a student comes into my office hours looking haggard and spent, begins a serious discussion of their performance in my class, and then-- yikes, here it comes!-- their breathing quickens, the lower lip begins to tremble, they squint and squirm and fight back tears, and then  they sigh, stop in the middle of a sentence, and try to pull it together.  Of course, I know the absolutely worse question I can ask at that moment is "are you okay?", but I have a real human heart and I'm concerned. The waterworks begin.  It's a tough moment, but over the years I've developed my own therapeutic practice for moments like this. First, I hand them a tissue from the box that I keep at all times in my office. Second, I say: "I want you to take a deep breath and I want to tell you that nothing of any serious consequence has happened to anyone, in the whole history of humanity, just because they failed a Philosophy class/assignment/test." (This is my way of saying, "let's put this in perspective," but it also usually elicits a chuckle, which helps.) Then, I tell them that if they're in my office crying, it's not because of my class. It's because they're overwhelmed. There's no shame in crying, and no shame in being overwhelmed, but let's talk about what's going on with you that is making you feel this way and we can come back to the issue of my class later, ok? This strategy has worked pretty well for me so far. But you seriously MUST have tissues.

10. Keep your head on the swivel. Maybe the most surprising realization of my first decade of teaching is how much things have changed, and keep changing, over the years. The discipline of Philosophy has changed a little, the institution of higher education has changed a lot, the world has changed, and omg how the students have changed. Things that "worked" in my classroom even two years ago don't work now, and I'm doing a number of things now (see, for example, my Technology and Human Values Project) that would have been literally unimaginable when I began in 2007. All that is just to say that you absolutely MUST keep your head on the swivel. Be prepared to let go of (even great) assignments, lectures, and pedagogical practices when they aren't landing the way they should anymore. Stay open to new technologies, new texts, new thinkers, and the myriad of new concerns that grow organically out of students' experiences and make their way into classroom discussions. Listen. Pay attention. Stay flexible. Riff. Teaching is a skill, but it's also an art.

So, that's my list. I've no doubt learned scores of other things in the last (long) ten years-- just check out any of the 117 pieces related to "Teaching" that I've posted on this blog!-- but I think what's here captures the essence of where I am now. I feel very fortunate to have a job that I also love and believe is important. Not everyone has that luxury, I know. It is an excellent life.

And yet, in the immortal words of Spinoza, "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

For the rest of you who've been teaching for more than a minute, I'd love to hear your own reflections on what you've learned in the comment section below!

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