Wednesday, June 21, 2006

So How Many Calories does Teaching Burn?

First, a note: I may have, being tone deaf, inadvertently suggested that teachers/professors who do not take bull from students are Bad People.
I did not mean to.
I do not think that.
What I meant to say is that I find it useful to not notice bull. I have a complete lack of poker face, combined with a deep resentment for cheaters & Entitled People & other such I Don't Wannas. (This deep resentment is not mitigated by the fact that I sometimes find myself doing the same thing.) However, I also would like to help the students who take a class from me do as well as they like or need. Therefore, I find it useful to not catch on to people who are trying to cut in line; so long as I have strict rules about where the line starts, and how to get there, I don't need to.
That's a very poor metaphor. What I mean is that I don't mind offering help to people who would like to get a break, so long as it's the same help I would offer anyone else.
Because were I to realize at the time that they were trying to get a break, I would, in all likelihood, be less willing to offer the help I offer to everyone else -- and much, much less able to do it politely.
And this is all due to my own particular combination of quirks. And thus may very well have nothing to do with anyone else.
My class is small, about 10-15 people. It takes place in a room, deep & narrow-ish, that can seat 80. I use power-point because I find it helpful: I can put the slides on the web for students to download (so they don't have to copy that part during class), and they help organize my thoughts. However, it creates a funny dynamic for me: I feel less involved in the class if I'm sitting.
A lot of it is the arrangement of the room, the "desks face the teacher" arrangement, rather than a seminar room. It should be this way, for this class; it's not that this material cannot be taught in a seminar, class-discussion fashion, but rather a combination of it can be taught as lecture, and I have no experience leading discussions. But it does mean that when I sit down, there's no focus to the room, no human focus.
It also means that when I sit down, I can't see the students as well.
On the other hand, I feel odd, just standing between a big screen and no more than 17 people, talking, the way one might at a, well, talk.
So I find it useful to have something to write on the board. Examples. Further terms that are important, but there's less damage to the student's understanding of the subject if they don't remember them. The board is tricky, of course; writing neatly enough to be read, big enough to be read, not spending too much time with one's back to one's audience, and not spending too much time writing instead of explaining.
Even when I'm not expounding (ahem) on what I've just written, I also have to remember to stand still. To not sway. To not adjust my shoulders when I realize they're hunched up around my ears. To stand up straight.
It's an interesting test in proprioception. So far, I'm mostly failing.
So I'm learning as well. It's not about the same subject. But it's still just as it should be

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

First Exam

I gave my first exam last Thursday.
I may have mentioned that already.
What I haven't mentioned is that I finally had a chance to grade them. (Since it's the summer, and classes are smaller, I gave some short answer questions as well as the multiple choice; MC take longer to -- *ahem* -- want to grade.) My husband was watching television while I did. I got to a particular student and mentioned that I felt sorry for him; he'd shown up late that day.
My husband said I was a sap.
-What? Why??
-Because that's the way he wants you to feel. He wants you to feel sorry for him and give him a break.
-Well, but if I don't give him that break, am I still a sap?
Honestly, I don't remember his answer. I don't think I am, but he may still disagree with me.
The grades were kind of interesting; the distribution was verging on bi-modal, instead of normal.
Today, I handed them back. I wanted to go over them in class, because I want to keep them; it's possible I may use these questions again.
One student pointed out that I'd given him too high a score. Something I would do.
And then the ones who failed came up to talk to me. One student had actually sent an email early this morning, before the exam came back, but after I posted the grades on-line.
This student had a litany of excuses. No outward attempts to get me to give special consideration, but I'm sure trying to clear the way so that I would.
I felt sorry for the student. I did not offer special consideration, other than to work out what kind of grades were needed on the future assignments in order to get the desired grade.
After the class, after I'd packed up my laptop (you should see the high-grade bag I have for it *cough cough*), after I walked to my car, I realized what my husband had meant about me being a sap.
Because I was one. I believed the student's excuses.
And I had forgotten that this student spends about half the time in class instant messaging & talking with friends made in class.
But I was glad I had been a sap. Because I am a first-time teacher: I cannot win a battle of "This is how you should really behave in class" with a student. An established teacher might; a first-time will not.
And the fact that I had forgotten class behavior meant that I could help the student, instead of writing the student off, instead of pissing the student off because I didn't have the faith and conviction of the parents.
I love teaching because I love explaining. I love to help people understand. I love to help people do well.
I need to be a sap to do it. A sap with principles. But a sap nonetheless.

Friday, June 16, 2006

On Why Teaching Isn't So Bad

I brazenly claimed on Post Doc's blog that she shouldn't be scared of teaching. She called me on it, even suggesting I might be wise.* Since I don't want to hijack her blog, I thought I'd explain why here.

Also, I think that her situation is applicable to others as well. Her story happens to be a well-explained one that is easier for me to respond to.

To me, the most important part about starting to teach is knowing the material. One of the trade-offs of going to a university as an undergraduate is that you become part of the learning process of graduate students; in a way, undergraduates are the subjects of the graduate students' experiments in teaching. But that's part of the undergraduate-at-university experience, and graduate students have to accept that the first few semesters they teach will not be brilliant. A hard thing to accept, of course: part of the reason we're graduate students and post-docs and researchers is because we do well, and it's hard to feel like we're not.

In fact, to me, it's not even necessary to be so comfortable with your material that you can present it without notes. If you do feel that way before your first-ever class, you are a step ahead of most first-ever professors-in-training. And (therefore) that is better; but while it's something that needs to be a goal, it's okay for it to be a goal when you start.

Post Doc has a lovely post (well, all of her posts are lovely, actually; you should go read her if you don't already) on trying to explain why 11*11 is 121, rather than 111, to a group of junior high students. She associates? (that's not quite the right word) this to peeping through a crack in the wall between her and teaching. I suggest this is not tentative peeping through a wall, testing whether she should go over it, but rather trying to climb the mountain of explanation that exists beyond that wall. It is hard to explain why 2+2 is 4, not 5, or 3, or 22. In other words, the challenge she had with the junior high students isn't one she should have been able to conquer. Teaching as a post-doc (or as a pre-doc, or as a researcher, or as a professor) to undergraduates doesn't usually involve deep, fundamental issues such as why 2+2 is 4.

Well, not in the sciences, anyway.

The reason why Post Doc sounds like she could be a good teacher is exactly what her collegue said: feeling confident, but willing to be interrupted. Good teachers are confident in the material and their knowledge of it. Good teachers are willing to be interrupted, because they know they won't lose track of where they are going, and because they know they have a source of knowledge that is likely to provide the necessary response. A willingness to be interrupted also indicates a confidence in yourself to say that you don't know when you don't; you don't have to know everything as a teacher, just all the information you think the students should leave the class with.

So, Post Doc, that's why I think you don't need to avoid teaching. You've already climbed much more of the wall than you think.

Of course, that doesn't mean you'll like teaching. But I do think that liking and being able to are two different things altogether. And you've demonstrated more than ample ability to try it out.

*I'm just teasing.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I had meant, originally, to post every day here. Well, every working day, of course. But it got harder & harder. After all, it's one thing to free-write for oneself; it's another to free-write and hope people will read it.
But lately, what's holding me back is how busy I am.
My last entry mentioned that I'm teaching. I still love it, for some reason. I'm not as inspired, as euphoric, as I was, and I often feel like I could have done better, but there's something so satisfying in reading an introductory text, and pulling out the important information. There's something wonderful about being able to answer people's questions. There's even something to be pleased about when a student asks a question I can't answer: s/he has taken a step off the path that I'm following (but the class thinks I'm forging), and tentitively crept into new territory. My discipline is a "learn facts" discipline, rather than an "understand the text" discipline, so I don't have to worry about creating a conversation among the students. I am pleased with my ability, unexpected, to extemporize on a theme I know fairly well. I love watching the students become friends (although I could do without the talking in class). I love writing on the chalkboard, to further illustrate a point I make in the p0wer p0int.
On a vainer note, I love being called "Professor," especially as it comes with that illicit thrill of knowing that's not quite an accurate title. I also, apparently, love to talk (and if you knew me in real life, you'd know how odd that is.) I love that I got up in front of strangers and had nearly no stage fright. I love that I can look these strangers in the face (I rarely look anyone in the eyes, even the people closest to me.) I love that I have let go of my nervousness of looking dowdy and style-less; while it would be neat to be the cool professor, it's okay with me that I fit the mold instead of break it.
I gave my first exam today. It was the most nervous I've been for the entire "semester." I had no idea if it was too hard, too easy; I have no idea how much students are going to complain about their grades; I was afraid no one would finish it in time, that people would complain about it the instant the exam period was over.
But it wasn't as bad as I feared, standing up there at the chalkboard with the blank exams in my hand. Everyone had their own row, so there was much less opportunity for cheating. Almost everyone finished with time to spare. No one complained to me, or loudly to each other, about how hard the test was. And I enjoyed listening to the students cram before the exam. I even found some pleasure in the conversations I passed on the way out of the room about "Maybe she'll give partial credit for that."
I am no longer one of them. I am the teacher.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A Confession*

profgrrrrl has a post about a terrible grad student she has to advise. No, she doesn't use the word terrible, but I would. And I feel okay doing so, because... well, if my adviser were female, and if I hadn't stuck with the one advisor, and if I hadn't stayed on the same project that I used for my masters... Well, I'm a terrible grad student. Equally problematic -- wasteful of valuable advising time -- as this student of pg's sounds, while not feeling nearly so entitled. (E.g. I don't think I'm brilliant; on the other hand, maybe I come across as thinking so.) I have to get moving. There's only so much time available to graduate students, and I'm getting much too close to the end.

So recently, while procrastinating, I've had a legitimate reason (e.g. not blog-writing): I've been prepping for my first class. I'm a fellowship student, see, and I've never had to teach a class before, not even in the extrodinarily remote sense of running scantrons through the correction machine. Why is this a good thing? Well, because I'm not a big fan of research, it turns out. I thought I was, but it's not my cup of tea; I don't constantly have new thoughts & questions, a la profgrrrrl (whose research plan impresses the hell out of me), or... well, probably, any of you. And now I've been teaching for a couple/few weeks.

Here's my confession.

I love teaching.

I adore it.

*Sigh* I am so being kicked out of academia for this, aren't I.

*I wonder how many blog posts are titled this?