Strange pedagogy

This fall I’ll embark on the first step of my career — I’ll be teaching my first class, an English 101 at a small community college.

The prospect has me somewhat nervous. Lives will be in my hands! All eyes will be on me! Papers will have to be graded!

Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Books, articles, interviews with other professors — basically anything and everything that has to do with teaching at the college level. In addition to that, though, I’ve also been doing a lot of listening.

You see, I’m currently going to TCNJ, or The College of New Jersey. TCNJ is known regionally as a teaching school — while there are plenty of strong programs at the college, it is primarily known for producing teachers. Likewise, all of the graduate programs offered are essentially filled with either current or future teachers.

This means that pedagogy is brought into almost every classroom. Now, while that isn’t entirely strange for a graduate program (most programs will advertise that they are in the business of creating academics or educators), it’s worth mentioning that the pedagogy here is based around K-12 — not 12-to-infinity.

Needless to say, it’s been an experience.

While I have no aims to ever teach a single K-12 class, I still try to be as perceptive as possible. After all, there’s probably something useful I can take away from all this, right?

Well…

I would love to say yes. I would love to say that all this pedagogical discussion has been useful, that it has been productive. But — and like you didn’t see this coming — I can’t.

What I’ve actually come to realize is that the educational process in my state is in shambles. While it probably isn’t as bad as, say, Alabama or Mississippi, it’s still pretty awful. I feel like in every class I attend I hear another teacher talking about another new pedagogical theory that the state is trying to impose on them. I hear about yet another test practice, another new lesson, another new plan that is being rolled out on all the children.

I see the handouts — the articles published in journals about new methods that are productive. Of course, there are also videos — videos of children excitedly learning, using the “new” methods, so happy to be the test mules in yet another experiment.

Just yesterday a teacher told the class about a system that they have to go through in order to assign a book to their students. Apparently it isn’t good enough to just get the permission of their superiors, or the school board. No — they have to input the ISBN into a database which will then spit out if the book is “ok” to read for whatever level the students are supposed to be at.

One book — universally praised by the class as excellently written and full of culturally relevant discussion fodder — was apparently denied because it was “below” the reading level of the students.

Apparently there weren’t enough words per page. So it couldn’t be used.

So all the lessons, all the (supposedly) good writing — it was all trash because an arbitrary number set in an arbitrary system.

This was followed up by the professor noting that the Socratic method is apparently out of fashion in pedagogical circles. It was seen as bad. Apparently it’s too old and too dusty to be considered relevant.

My head was exploding.

All of this has a goal, of course. It’s apparently benevolent: to make the students learn, to help them perform better. To move the averages.

I guess that’s where my problem with all of this stems from — the idea of the “average student.” In all the journal articles I’ve read, there’s always this ideal — this metric — that determines if an idea is good or not. If the average moves, it’s good. Or rather — if the “average” student benefits, then it’s considered a success.

But what is the average student?

How can the average student be determined? Is the average in my district the same as, say, a rural one? What about one in the middle of the city? What are the averages? What about the differences between classrooms?

I’m reminded of a TED talk I watched once that noted one of the largest problems in American society is the focus on “the average.” Data is constantly plotted, averages determined from it, and strategies created from that. The problem is that averages are often just the middle ground between extremes, and if our school systems are nothing else they’re certainly a diverse group of populations separated by extremes.

Yet I feel like all of this pedagogical theory is trying to be (for lack of a better term) a theory of everything (or everyone?) — it’s trying to apply the lessons learned in small spheres to the largest ones, and I feel like that’s absolutely the wrong way to teach.

Most of the articles I’ve read seem like they want to say (if they don’t outright say it) that the method within is destined to be used with all future students — that the theory (or discussion) is meant to be broadly painted across everyone.

Methods that paint everyone as identical are doomed to fail.

I personally think I’m a great example of that — in high school I was stuck in a lot of “average” English classrooms despite writing (and reading) at a much higher level. I never understood why, and when I asked my guidance counselor about it I was told that I was where I was supposed to be. I later found out that because I chose not to be in a foreign language class, my “metric” figured I didn’t have the capacity (what) to be in those higher AP/honors English classes (once again, what). This was the method at the time: look at past classes to determine future ones. Don’t ask questions of the student — just place them and give them strange looks when the question it.

I don’t really know what has compelled me to write all of this. I know it’s a bit of rambling and not much else… but I just feel that there’s something wrong here, that we’re looking at “teaching” in the entirely wrong way.

Moreover, I think I just feel that most pedagogical discussion is, well, bullshit.

And past that I don’t have a whole lot to add, I guess. It’s just worrying, but at least I now understand why all my old professors were leery about handing me any “teaching guides.”

5 thoughts on “Strange pedagogy

  1. “It’s benevolent: to make the students learn, to help them perform better.”

    See, I’d argue that those are two different things. Whether a student learns is much different than if she performs better. The reason these curricula keep changing? Not for improved learning, but for improved test performance. That’s what keeps your school open. That’s what gets you much-needed funding. That’s what keeps your teachers on the payroll.

  2. Here’s the biggest secret new teachers need to know:

    Your students won’t know you’re new unless you tell them, and I wouldn’t do that unless you’re absolutely cornered about it.

    Seriously, when I was new? I straight up lied about it, at least to my students. (Not on my resume, thank you very much, I intended to get a full-time gig and tenure one day.) During my first semester I tossed out references like “the last time I taught this class” and “in previous semesters my students have done X”. Why? Well, to suppress my own anxiety for one, no question. Pretending I’d done it before was easier than acknowledging that I was a total newbie, in no small part because it gave my students a sense of security too – I wasn’t some new guy they had to worry about stumbling through his lessons. I remember having those professors now and then, usually adjuncts of course, and the feeling of “oh lord, here we go” when they’d talk about how new they were, or ask people to take it easy on them because they had never something before.

    Granted, college is a lot different than the K-12 environment, not in the least because your students are far less likely to try to take advantage of you because you’re new, in terms of discipline problems and homework shenanigans and the like. (Oh, the things we did to newbie high school teachers, my goodness what jerks we were.) You’re pretty much entirely safe on that front, so don’t worry about it. What you do lose with a college class, though, is a bit of a sense of engagement. Because if they know you’re new, a lot of them will assume you have less to reach them with, and that’s no good either. So don’t tell them. Remember, unless you say otherwise, they will assume this is English 101 class #473 for you, a total routine, so they can just sit back and learn and not wonder whether or not you know your stuff or not.

    As always, Prop Joe is wise, and sums the situation up nicely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2torhbHGRh8

  3. On a more practical note, and one that involves less deception than the previous post, here are my A-1 best pointers for new adjuncts:

    1) Prepare An Assignment Schedule
    Know what you’re going to be doing in every class, and give it to your students if possible. “Winging it” will happen from time to time, nature of the beast, but it’s a lousy starting position. Most schools have a basic syllabus for adjuncts to follow, so start with that and build as needed. I cannot tell you how many times during those nervous early days I would fall back on my assignment schedule to keep me centered and remind me what I had to cover that day. Note: It is always better to have more work scheduled than less. If you have more work than you can cover, you can always give your class a pass now and then, which makes you seem benevolent. If you have too little, though, you wind up assigning more than what’s on the schedule, which makes you seem capricious and ill-prepared.

    2) Make Sure Your Syllabus Covers Your Ground Rules
    If you want students to do something – or never ever attempt it – then put it in your syllabus. Don’t want them on phones and laptops? Put it in there. Not willing to accept late work? Make sure you cover that. Planning on giving anyone who plagiarizes a zero and not letting them make up the assignment? Definitely cover that. BCC is a good school for having your back when it comes to disputes, but it’s always easier when you can point to your syllabus and say, “They’ve known this was a rule since day 1.” And yes, I’d be happy to send over my syllabus, and I don’t care one bit if you take pieces of it or even adopt it whole hog. Heck, if BCC is still using Patterns for A Purpose as one of its English 101 textbooks, you can even adapt my assignment schedule. I asked for and then freely adapted one of my favorite professor’s syllabi, no reason you can’t do the same.

    3) Start Strict
    As teacher rules go, it’s an oldie but a goodie – if you start off strict, you can always relax later, but the reverse is almost impossible. In college this rule has less to do with classroom behavior or discipline problems and more to do with academic standards like accepting late work or forgiving latenesses/absences, but it still very much applies. For instance, you’re about to learn exactly why your whole life teachers have hated accepting late work; students think “what’s the big deal, I had it two days later, it’s not like essays go bad or something” while professors know that this means they have to spend yet more time at home grading papers. It may not seem insanely frustrating to have a single paper to grade after the rest of the class turned in their work on time (and got graded together), but that one paper means you have to get into grading mode, take time to read it carefully, mark it appropriately, and otherwise enter professor space. Trust me on this. Start off strict.

    4) Be Thou Familiar, But By No Means Vulgar
    This is another mistake rookie professors make – they try to make their students their friends. To that end, they do all sorts of casual stuff like let students refer to them by their first name, use a lot of slang or profanity to show how they’re a “cool” professor and not some stuffed shirt, offer to hang out with students after class at a bar or some other off-campus locale, and generally act as though they’re just a student that happens to face the rest of the class. Don’t get me wrong, none of those things are automatically bad – so long as you maintain a fundamental level of professional distance. I like to think I’m a pretty friendly guy while I’m teaching, and I’ve become friends with some of my students over the years – hey there! – but never while they were still in my classes. It’s cool to have one or two such habits, but always make sure they’re contrasted by a level of professionalism such that no one doubts you’re there to teach.

    5) Be Consistent, Don’t Waffle
    In “Starship Troopers”, right after Rico gets command of his first squad, his own CO gives him some stellar advice on the appearance of command, which I’m now paraphrasing for your benefit: Giving an order, even a bad one, and sticking to it is a hundred times better than giving one order and then contradicting yourself, and a thousand times better than giving no orders at all. Sometimes you will realize, mid-lecture, that you could have done something better, or that you probably could have framed an assignment differently, or any of a hundred other things that may tempt you to change your mind and go back on something you said just moments earlier. However, unless you are factually wrong, or it is a vital mistake that absolutely needs to be corrected immediately, it’s often better to wait and correct it next class, if it needs correcting at all. The reason is consistency. If you’re constantly changing your mind, revising assignments, updating the syllabus and otherwise monkeying with your class, they lose faith in following directions because they assume it will just be changed soon anyway. I messed this one up a lot early on in my career – I’d constantly tweak assignment guidelines, and didn’t realize the harm it did until one student finally confronted me after class and demanded with some irritation to know if I was ever just going to let them do the work, because my changes had forced them to re-write one assignment three times. I learned my lesson after that.

    • My wife prompted me to add an important follow-up:

      Admit When You’re Wrong
      It’s OK. It happens. When it does, admit it freely, apologize as needed, make the necessary correction and move on. Don’t feel the need to grovel or throw your students extra credit, but make sure you acknowledge the mistake. A lot of professors get caught up in an infallibility complex, where they think admitting the slightest mistake will render their authority worthless, but students lose far more respect watching them obviously try to cover up or backpedal.

    • Over the last three years I’ve actually started taking notes on every professor I’ve liked/disliked. Likewise, I’ve been keeping tabs on assignments I liked, or syllabus inclusions that I liked. Things like that.

      Number 5 is the thing that is repeated the most, though. I can’t tell you how many professors I’ve had in my life that roll out a syllabus and then continue to change it every week — mostly moving assignments around. And okay, yeah, I get it, that has to happen sometimes. Things change. Plans get ruffled. But I’ve been in a class where the same assignment was moved around five weeks in a row. Five weeks! It wasn’t just being pushed back, either. It was being moved forward and back and sideways and then back to the original position.

      I’ve also had a professor who handed out a set of guidelines for a research paper… and then proceeded to switch them around constantly. This was in grad school, too. It was also right around the last three weeks of the class — so many of us had to dump all of our research and start over just because the assignment had changed. That’s frustration, right there.

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