Saturday, March 25, 2006

The curse of approachability

As I mentioned in this post, ScaryLecturer made it fairly clear that this semester I would have more students coming to see me in (and outside) my office hours than I usually do. But this is getting ridiculous!

This week there were perhaps only three or four times that I would arrive at my office in the morning, after lunch or after being somewhere else, that I would not find a queue of students waiting to talk to me. I have also been inundated with emails. And after the lectures (which I attend, but I usually hide near the back and do marking), the students make a beeline for me to ask stuff, rather than going to talk to ScaryLecturer.

The thing that bothers me most is that there are usually three or four students ten minutes before their tutorial who want to ask questions. I just don't understand why they can't ask them during class. Like, in the bits where I say, "How did you all find this week's lecture material?" or "Does anyone want to ask anything about the assignment?"

I have tried everything I can think of to make tutes a non-confrontational place to talk. I begin each class with a five minute discussion where they brainstorm what they think the new concepts and skills are that have come up in the last few lectures and readings, which occasionally leads to one or two people asking some questions as well. I've tried splitting them into small groups and getting them to talk to each other about what they are finding fun, hard, or incomprehensible, so that they will hopefully see they all have similar problems. I've had them anonymously write down one thing they want us to go over again, or a question they want answered, then I've collected up the papers and answered them in random order, so that they can see they aren't each the only one with questions.

In terms of classroom atmosphere, I think I have done everything the same as last year, and last year I didn't have this problem.

I have tried confronting the students directly about it when they come to me
with a question before a tute. "Before you go," I say, "I'm just curious about why you didn't wait and ask this in the tutorial in five minutes."

The answers I have had fall into three groups:
"I thought it was a really dumb question."
"My English isn't very good and I'm embarrassed to talk in front of native speakers."
"No one else would be interested in the answer to this question."

My response to these has been lots of reassurance (and sometimes pointing out that the three people who were in front of them in the queue outside my office had the exact same question). But this doesn't seem to have stemmed the flow.

I have thought about directly addressing the problem in class, but I am worried that the students who aren't the culprits (e.g. the ones who might just have one or two things they want to see me about all semester) will take this as a brush-off and will be too scared to come and see me the one time when it might be important. Also I did start the semester by telling students they were welcome to come and talk to me anytime I was in my office (stupid, stupid, I know, but last year no one took me up on this, so I thought I was safe). The course evaluations, however, have a whole section on whether the instructor was "available to assist students outside class times". And we all know I don't want negative evaluations.

So what do I do, dear internet?

The main problem I would like to solve is the issue of people asking questions before the class (or afterwards) because they are too shy to ask them in the course. Especially since a lack of people asking questions in class reinforces the idea they each have that everyone else is way smarter than them because no one has any questions.

The other issue I need to address is the few students (I can think of three) who are treating me like their own private tutor on retainer, and who drop by several times a day with questions, requests for clarification, wanting to go over material again one-on-one. There's one in particular who came past six times this week. The last two times were yesterday afternoon, and as she left after the second time (when I had told her to go ask ScaryLecturer about her questions, since "he is the real expert"), she turned at the door and asked, "Are you always here on Friday afternoons?"
"Not always," I said, suspecting where this was going. "I'm in and out a lot."
"But you are around some of the time?"
"Um, yes..."
"Great!" she beamed. "I'll stop by every Friday, then! See you next week."

I'm not so worried about people coming to see me in other circumstances, like the horde of one-off supplicants I had yesterday who had questions they needed to talk about before the weekend so that they could do their assignment. Ideally, this shouldn't be happening either -- they should be coming in my office hours, or seeing ScaryLecturer -- but I really don't mind putting in a bit of extra work when it isn't sabotaging my classroom atmosphere or reinforcing the belief that I have no other responsibilities except to my students.

But any suggestions you have for dealing with the rest of the little sods darlings will be met with undying gratitude.

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grace said...

I think you may need to practice your scowl.

grace said...

I also suggest laughing loudly out-of-context from time to time. Swishing the blackboard pointer menacingly. Muttering gibberish under your breath.

Couldn't hurt to start some rumours about a former existence in the SAS, either. ;-)

StyleyGeek said...

Hi Grace!

Good suggestions along lines that I hadn't been thinking about yet. But now that you mention it, there's definitely potential. The only problem is that I would have to make myself scarier than ScaryLecturer before I really frightened any of them into seeing him instead of me.

shrinkykitten said...

Ack! I'm so sorry! I am horrible at dealing with students outside of office hours -- it interrupts me from what I am doing, and I am then not as open to helping. Thus, over the years I have, out of necessity and self-protection, created firm rules about my availability. I am only available during office hours or by appointment. That's it.

A student emailed me last week (in the class I TA, not teach) asking to meet with me. he emailed me *during* my office hours! He then asked to meet with me anywhere in the city -- at my house, a coffeeshop -- anywhere. Needless to say, I said no (if for no other reason I don't know this guy, and don't feel safe doing that!).

And I *hate* it when students don't ask questions during class. it makes it so much easier on me (plus right before class, I am getting ready to teach so don't have time for clumps of students, and right after, I'm too exhausted). Alternatively, I like it when they email me as I can then email the answer to the whole class.

So, no advice here. I too struggle with the balance between wanting to be open and helpful and available AND having some limits and encouraging them to think for themselves and use their peers for help.

StyleyGeek said...

Emailing you during your office hours? That's just stupid. I am completely sympathetic towards students who _can't_ make it to see me during my office hours (due to other commitments) and will happily meet with them other times. It's just the ones who have questions I would LOVE to discuss DURING CLASS that are slacking me off. Especially the repeat offenders.

I did fend off one student who turned up 10 mins before class last week to ask a question, and told her I was busying preparing some last minute things, and could she please ask her question during class instead. But of course she didn't, and waited to come up to me afterwards instead. And her question was one that would have been completely appropriate to ask during the tutorial.

I think next semester I might use your solution of saying no help without an appointment, Shrinky, but for now, I don't want to go back on what I originally said in case it negatively affects my evaluations too much.

Also I have bad memories of a professor I used to take classes from who wouldn't see students unless you made an appointment two weeks in advance through his secretary, and who wouldn't even give out his email address to students at all. (Most students who did manage to get a meeting with him would leave the appointment in tears for one reason or another, too).

I think the whole of my teaching philosophy is summed up pretty well in the statement that I don't want to be that person.

shrinkykitten said...

No, I agree -- I don't wanna be that person either. And I totally agree about not changing things now. One thing I have learned through teaching, ta'ing, and being a shrink is that it is much much easier to loosen boundaries than to tighten them. Thus, it's better to say in syllabi that you are avail in office hours or by appointment *only* and then take exceptions on a case by case basis. Now note, I don't always take this advice - and late assignments are a good example of this. I am far too flexible in the beginning, and then want to shoot myself in the end when they show up without final papers to the final time. Stupid 8-week-ago-shrinky for not having boundaries!