Tuesday, August 05, 2008


5 August 2008

Went into classroom yesterday and tried to create a presence. It wasn’t immediately successful because I still seemed to struggle to contain the errant chatting. I did draw their attention to it however, suggesting that it made the goal of everyone participating in discussion a bit more difficult.

On a related issue I found out that I have a range of levels in the class, everything from first year to third year. I suggested that when we do group work that people stick to people in their year levels, so that the first years have the chance to discuss their ideas without feeling intimidated by the advanced level of the third years, and similarly so the third years don’t get bored. Most were amenable to this reasoning, although one of the third year boys still tried to get in a group with some first year girls because they were closer to where he was sitting. He asked if it was a ‘rule’ that he couldn’t be in a group with first years. (Well, no. But think about someone other than yourself. Moving an extra three feet won’t kill you, especially if those girls’ confidence in expressing their ideas is affected by your somewhat bolshy presence. I only thought this).

Part of asserting my presence was done by outlining the plan for the tutorial, which was to address the questions for the first two weeks, to make sure they were answering them so they could get the marks they want. While I mentioned the various levels of learning again, I don’t think I was especially clear that they’ll need to provide more than information to get more than a pass. I asked them if they had managed to include quotes from the book to support their answers. They hadn’t, but hopefully the brighter ones will pick up on that and include them in their future answers.

I ran out of time again. We managed to answer the Tarzan questions, mostly, but didn’t get to go over the first week’s questions in any substantial way. I’ll make it a goal to have discussions about ‘popular’ and ‘culture’ next week when we discuss the topic of popular fiction more generally. I gave them a couple of news articles, where Howard had criticised the curriculum for teaching popular texts and a Web Diary blogger had dissected his assumptions, so that should feed into the discussion as well.

I made sure I fulfilled my request from last week to get them to write about an effective learning experience they’d had—even if most of them didn’t remember that I was going to ask. A couple of students didn’t write anything, which is their prerogative, but made me realise that some students just aren’t interested in this kind of meta-reflection. I can understand their impatience; they might see it as taking time away from their engagement with the content of the course, simply to help me with my teaching, when they might be thinking that’s my business to figure that out for myself. I don’t know. I’m following the advice in a couple of books on teaching in higher education that I’m reading, which cite the benefits of making the process of teaching a transparent process.

Anyway, I read through the comments of those students who did respond. They mentioned things like having an approachable teacher. Some were happy with the benefits they got from having class discussions. While some liked to have a clear exercise in class where they were able to consolidate their knowledge and understanding of a topic, by having a writing exercise or something similar.

On the one hand I figure I’m fairly approachable, especially if that’s the opposite of being authoritative in a punitive sense. It’s the open discussion vs structured activities that confuse me. In the past I’ve had evidence that students have interpreted open discussions as a sign that I haven’t planned anything, even when it’s been quite clear in my mind that there is a structure, and that I’ve worked hard on asking pertinent questions to keep the discussion moving in a relevant direction. On the matter of having set exercises, well, I guess I’ve been intimidated in the past by students who seem quite resistant to writing things down. They’re convinced it’s a waste of time and they’re not shy about saying that. Even when I know that writing things down forces everyone to think really hard and articulate something clearly that they mightn’t have arrived at simply through discussion.

I wish I wasn’t so easily intimidated, and I guess that’s why my major teaching goal this semester is about asserting a credible presence in the class room. I’ll keep on with my reading about teaching in higher ed and incorporate some of the strategies that the students themselves nominated as effective for their learning.


dogpossum said...

Not sure this is helpful, but...

Last year in a week on community media I asked them to plan a 'program' based on one of the subject's weekly topics. They were to think about things like budget, time frames, available skill and knowledge, audience, etc. They could make it their ideal content delivery type program, or something for a specific audience.

On the one hand it was a useful exercise for getting them to think about how people go about 'doing' community media, and on the other it was a sneaky way for me to get feedback about their responses to my teaching/lecturing.

When I say 'program', I mean that they could use any media form they liked - an audio podcast, a film on youtube, a discussion board, a blog, a conventional radio program, a book, etc etc etc.

Their results were really interesting - I learnt a lot. They had to work in groups, and spent far more time discussing what they were going to do than actually doing any planning. Let alone media production (they weren't actually going to do any real production).
It also helped us get to the idea of audiences as producers or _users_ and to issues of media ownership and the media as a public sphere/discourse.
It also made them a bit more empathetic to their teachers. :)

lucy tartan said...

Kirsty, how does it come to be that you have three different year levels in the one group? That sounds very difficult to manage.

I think it's brave of you to put yourself out there as a teacher in this way (en blog, I mean.) hard to do. That teaching theory stuff is sometimes useful and other times, irrelevant imo.

Kirsty said...

I don't know why re: the different year levels. I went to a tutor training day yesterday and I can now speculate it's something to do with the kids liking the flexibility to take subjects in any order. I don't agree with this at all but I have no influence over such things.

I'm only taking one tutorial this semester so I've decided to experiment on them with the teaching theory. We'll see what happens. It could all end in tears.

tseen said...

I haven't taught for so long now that I have no confidence in me. Someone was trying to convince me to apply for a T&R level C job recently and the thought of teaching full-time made me shy away at record speed from even considering it. But the fellowships will run out at some point (everyone keeps telling me so, so it must be true). Then what'll an over-qualified, inherently brain-lazy person like me do? Suggestions welcome...

Kirsty said...

Gah! I don't know Tseen. Start entering the lotto? I keep telling myself I should do that.

I think much of the trouble is that there's little support for teaching beyond the rhetoric of Carrick Awards. At the training day on the weekend the uni involved congratulated itself on having a full day conference for sessional academics as part of an all too rare acknowledgement by universities in general of their reliance on casual teaching staff.

I don't want to take that away from them, because they are right; it is a good initiative. But beyond that day, there really is very little real support for sessionals from any university I've taught at (3).

When I first started teaching, I spent way too much time preparing for class in relation to what I was paid for. I was happy to do that because I was inexperienced and figured I was in it for the experience. (Just how much free sessional academic labour do universities get through that kind of reasoning?)

Then I had a couple of insanely busy semesters and I was brutal: 'No, I'm not being paid to spend one more second to prepare this lecture/tutorial/seminar, besides I just spent weeks of unpaid labour rejigging the course outline and writing coherent assessment criteria'. Perhaps there was some burnout involved in this decision. Anyway I was teaching particularly challenging students with very low entrance scores, so their literacy was way below what I was used to in university students, to say nothing of the fact that they weren't disciplined in the Foucaultian sense in the ways of studying in a traditional university education.

We're encountering more and more students with what those in teaching and learning support might like to call a range of learning abilities. And while the universities as institutions are beginning to recognise the need to offer specific support services, I suppose many sessional academics have been trying to deal with these learning difficulties in tutorials for some time without being properly equipped with strategies, and importantly, not being paid enough in terms of allocated preparation time to self-educate on these issues.

Often the end result has been that the students don't have a good learning experience, and in my case, I haven't had such a great time teaching. It's been difficult to muster enthusiasm for facing a sea of expressionless or at best, surly, faces.

Anyway, now I've come full circle and am back to spending more time on teaching than I'm paid for, but with the goal in mind of creating a good learning and teaching experience for students and myself. I feel able to do this because I only have one tutorial, and one lecture to deliver all semester, but I'm very cognisant that not many do have the time, never mind the energy, to take away from other committments. Again the university benefits from the sense of vocation that many academics have.

I know that part of my renewed conviction is due to the support of someone whom I have come to think of as a mentor, who has been incredibly generous towards me on every level. He says he thinks I have the qualities it takes to be an excellent teacher and he has taken the time to tell me why, helped me make sense out of wildly contradictory feedback from students, and offered me useful advice as to how I might approach my teaching.

I do know that this incredible generosity is more rare than any of us might like to think, simply because it isn't a given that full time academics have the time or energy to help nurture sessional academics in addition to the pressures of their own jobs.

Anyway, I'll keep at it. This teaching journal is helping me teach in a conscious way, and I do have a really lovely group of students in the tutorial.

Hmmm. I haven't really given you any suggestions have I, Tseen. I guess: if you don't have a natural talent or enthusiasm for teaching expect it to be really difficult and you won't be disappointed : P

I think this comment is longer than my original post. Ooops.