Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The joke's on me

Because the courses I am currently teaching are usually convened by my supervisor, I inherited a whole heap of notes, lecture material and assessment examples, which I could theoretically reuse to save myself a bunch of work. I am trying to avoid doing this, as much as possible, partly because I think it will be good for my own teaching development if I get to do all the work involved in convening a course, including course design, assessment design, and day-to-day planning.

The other reason I am avoiding reusing much of what I inherited is that my supervisor and I have quite different teaching styles. I try to make everything as interactive as possible, to encourage "problem-based" learning, and to overprepare everything. Even my lectures tend to take the form of me presenting some interesting data that can't be explained with the tools the students have learned so far in the course, and then kind of Socratically guiding them to (a) see why the data is interesting and why it presents a problem, and (b) come up with the necessary extensions of what they have learned that do allow them to account for it. When my supervisor lectures, on the other hand, she lectures. Her questions are purely rhetorical. I wouldn't say her teaching style is worse—she is an engaging and entertaining lecturer, and explains things very clearly—but I can't pull it off. I don't feel I have the sort of authority to stand up as "expert" and give a traditional lecture. And I am not confident enough to do without the constant reassurance that students are "getting it" that classroom interaction provides.

So I am trying to build this course up from scratch. Apart from the readings. I replaced a couple of them with more recent papers, but generally I kept them the same as in past years. Every week the tutorial groups have to read one of these book chapters or articles, and I provide them with four or five questions to answer and bring to class. My supervisor has done the same in past years, but from looking at her question sheets for the first few readings, I got the impression that she was using the questions purely to make sure the students were really reading the material ("What two results does the author mention on page three?" "What is his definition of term X?"), while I wanted to use them to make the students think more deeply about what they read and to apply it to material beyond what was presented in the text ("How do you think the author would use his theory to account for X?" "Why do you think the author included the material in section 3.2? How does it relate to the rest of the discussion?").

So for the most recent reading, I didn't even look at the question sheet I had inherited, but instead spent close to six hours thinking about and preparing questions of my own. It was a really long, difficult reading, and I wanted the questions to be usable as a sort of guide to help illuminate the structure and purposes of what they were reading, as well as forcing them to think about it critically. When I had finished writing up my list of questions, just for shits and giggles, I went back and looked at the questions my supervisor had used.

Five out of the seven were identical to my own.

Moral of the story? Either of the following, I think.

(1) Stop doing more work than you need to, you freak.
(2) Don't be so quick to judge other people's teaching styles. (You freak.)


TeachingClio said...

I am so completely the same way. When I taught the U.S. history survey for the first time, I planned on using other people's lecture outlines and assignments. But of course, when the time came to actually teach, I threw all that stuff out the window and recreated everything myself. I think you are right about one thing though: it is a really useful exercise to write lectures yourself. But, when it comes to in-class work and assignments, maybe that is the place where you should duplicate the materials you have been given. It's all about finding a balance, I think.

wwwmama said...

Oh God this is familiar. Today I spent 5 hours reworking handouts that I inherited for a summer class I'm teaching. In a way I thought I was making it easier for myself in the long run by adjusting the material to my own style and content, but in the end I have to wonder if it's about my own control issues. OR maybe it's about me just needing to rehash it all in order to prepare myself for the teaching.