Tag Archives: college teaching

Teaching: It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

In reviewing a performance of the Dorrance Dance Company, a New York Times critic praised Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder and lead choreographer. The critic commented on their excellent collective work as well as the virtuosity of their solo performances. After noting that Michelle was the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer in America, he pointed out that it was easy to tell who she was – – she was the company member who had the fewest solos. Although it seems odd that the head of a company would give herself the fewest solos during a performance, it made a lot of sense to me. Like her father, Anson Dorrance, the winningest women’s soccer coach in the NCAA, Michelle emphasizes creating the conditions that allow each of her troupe to realize their full potential. The performance was not about her, it was about them.

As I reflected on the simplicity of her genius (she won a 2015 MacArthur genius award), I recognized that it exposed all that was wrong with what I’ve been observing on my occasional strolls past a local  classroom during the past semester. The instructor usually left the door ajar, and so was easy to hear his booming voice, echoing down the hall. In the first week or so of the semester I wasn’t surprised to hear only him, but as the weeks turned into months, it became increasingly clear that his was usually the only voice to be heard from that room. I peered in – – there were about 15 students, sitting around a set of tables arranged in a square .The instructor stood at the front, next to the screen on what he was projecting PowerPoint slides, talking. And talking. And talking.

I thought I must just be passing by at inopportune moments. In a humanities seminar, students surely would be offering their own observations on the material. I even shared a running joke with one of my colleagues whose office was near the classroom. She knew the instructor and so occasionally I stopped by her office after observing another monologue and joked that I still hadn’t heard a student’s voice. She said she knew him and thought that he must be a good instructor, but by the middle of the term, I demurred.

 I noted that he was teaching a class organized around his own views of the material, his own interpretations, not theirs. Out of 15 students, surely there must be other views. When will they have an opportunity to test their understanding against others? How would they even know how their classmates interpret the material? He walks into the classroom,puts his voice on play, and then dominates the next 50 minutes. It’s not about them, it’s about him.

In this era of flipped classrooms,active learning, and student-centered instruction, why does such archaic pedagogy persist? When I can figure out a polite way to introduce myself to the instructor, I suspect I will find that he is well-intentioned and probably not conscious of the extent to which he dominates the classroom. (I hesitate to say“classroom discussion” because I never really heard any.) But he has approached the design of this seminar from the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about ways to achieve the learning goals of the seminar by empowering the students,he has designed the class so that he is telling the students what he knows.Students have few opportunities to tell him what they know (or, probably, don’t know). As I pointed out in several of my other posts, talking is not teaching.In seminars, instructors who do most of the talking are like captains who add so much ballast to their ships that they sink of their own weight.

Even if you are the world’s expert on the topic of your seminar, follow Michelle Dorrance’s lead and allow your students to show their stuff. Listen to them more and talk less yourself.

Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.