Monday, January 29, 2007

A Report on Rapport

It’s ironic, I think, that Inside Higher Ed has decided to link to my post about academic time since it’s exactly a lack of time that has prevented me from posting. The semester’s gravity has sucked me in, indeed. Enough whining, on with the post.

I have to admit it, I love to teach. At my (research) institution, the old saw about the lack of investment in teaching just isn’t true, at least not in the English department. The professors as well as the grad students here are incredibly invested in instruction, both at the undergrad and grad level, and are some of the most reflective teachers I’ve met. That said, in this, our third week of classes, many of the grad instructors are encountering resistance from their students. It happens every semester. The grad students are bright, articulate, and know the material. They are, for the most part, enthusiastic. But many of them have the same complaint about their students: “They just won't talk.” I attribute this to the inability of some teachers to effectively build rapport with their students. Of course the writing course most of us teach doesn’t, in and of itself, have students singing from their dorm windows. This is the only course that every undergrad has to take. They typically come in uninspired and somewhat dispirited. In my class though, almost from the first day, everyone is taking, students stay after class to talk to me. Why? I would like to think that it’s because I’m especially charismatic, but it’s not. It’s because I design my course so that this happens. This is how:


Though we all have to teach the “same” course in terms of the structure of the writing assignments and learning objectives, the content is up to us. While a lot of instructors base their courses around their research interests, I don’t. Why? Because I couldn’t face twenty-five freshman everyday and expect them to get excited about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture. Would it help my research if I taught a class like this? Yes. I am incredibly invested in my “work,” but I can’t subject freshmen in a required, non-lit course to only the things that I’m interested in. Since the learning objectives are about arguing and writing, I want them to argue and write about things that they’ll find . . . well, fun. So on my wife’s suggestion, I designed a course around reality TV. And I can still talk about the things I’m interested in on the theoretical level like gender, class, and textual interpretation.

It's All About the Kids

In the classroom, I try the best I can to flatten the power hierarchy. Of course I know that there are always extreme explicit and implicit power differentials at play, but we talk about them openly. I also talk about my role as a grad student, about the work I do, about how even I miss deadlines. They understand that I understand that the end of the semester is busy for everyone, and that we all have other things to attend to besides this class, but we still have to do it. Besides humanizing me—not always an easy task—the other upside is that they cut me a little slack if I’m late getting papers back.

In class, I’m fully invested, not only mentally, but bodily. I flail a bit more than I should, shout for emphasis, and generally run about the room like a maniac when it will make a point. In my class I have no shame and the kids know it. If I can embarrass myself a bit, they might be less afraid of embarrassing themselves.

The most important thing I do is to care about the kids. I know it sounds cloying, or a bit Dead-Poets-Society-y, but it’s true. I always come to class early and talk to the students as they come in. I ask about how their lacrosse games went, how they fared on their calculus exams, and if they’ve managed to mend ties with that estranged dorm mate. I always make time for them. I take them seriously and, in turn, they take me seriously too, despite the flailing.


AcadeMama said...

I agree with (and practice) pretty much all the suggestions you discuss here. In addition, I've always been fortunate enough to work at institutions that work hard to keep intro-level comp and lit classes capped at 22-25, which always helps. I make myself memorize their names in the first 2 weeks, and I get to know them outside of class via conferences. I also have no shame in making class discussion mandatory. I explain to students that because I know their names, I will absolutely call on them by name, even if it's just to see if they enjoyed their reading assignment or understood the assignment sheet. I make fun of myself on plenty of occasions, and if warranted, I poke the occasional joke at them. For example, I had a student who spelled heroine h-e-r-o-i-n. I used this as an example of why spellcheck is no guarantee, and called her out in class, knowing that she had the kind of personality that a)could take a joke and b)appreciate my catching the error.

I've found that students appreciate it much more when I act as their guide rather than an all-knowing expert.

The biggest thing I get complimented on in evaluations is what's come to be known as "Circle Time." Almost every class consists of a large amount of Circle Time. Students put their desks/chairs in a circle, and I join it, so there is literally no "head" of the class, no alpha figure in front of the chalkboard. It starts out a bit silly, but the physical environment/shape encourages them to talk to anyone else in the class, not just the person in front of or behind them. Everyone gets eye contact and is held accountable for doing more than just physically occupying a seat. For me, creating a comfortable environment for my students is the very first step to any kind of effective classroom or pedagogy, and without it, I would be missing much more than would they.

Dr. Crazy said...

One thing I'll say about the content issue is that it can be good in at least a couple of semesters to incorporate (some) material from your own specialization into these courses, particularly if you won't get the opportunity to teach in your field as a grad student. While you're right that it's about the students - and not about you - in theory, in practice I do think that the fact that I tried to use some things from my own job market field in courses that I designed helped me on the market the first time around. (I should also note that I didn't TA in my specialization at all, which meant that if I didn't include things that I might actually teach in an actual job, I'd have had no experience in teaching the texts on which I research heading onto the market).

Other than that, though, yes, I agree with you in much of what you say in the post :)

PhDing said...

AcadeMama, I completely agree. And you are my heroin. The "circle time"idea is great. Nap time would be better.

Dr. C., I know I'll eventually have to create a course around my research area because we rarely teach anything but our version of 101. I may call on you when it's time to design that syllbus since our areas are sort of close.

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