Still Learning about Teaching

Still Learning about Teaching

Now that I am back in the classroom, after many years in the wilds of administration, I have been able to concentrate on teaching.  And despite having started this gig teaching college students in 1981, I am still learning, and now learning from my younger colleagues. 

Just this last week I was reminded that some of what I have learned is paying off. It’s just past midterms. Students are concerned about their grades and where they will end up. I’m prodding them in each class session to take action. They are meeting with me to think through what they can do to finish strong.

At the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, a year and a half ago, one of our newer Biblical Studies professors, Dr. Melanie Howard, gave a brief presentation on working with first generation students.  She gave several suggestions, one of which I began to try out, and am still using. I now hold traditional office hours in the coffee shop each week. After my early class I head over to the coffee shop, Charlotte’s Corner (in Alumni Hall) get a drink and hang out, do some work, read, review for classes, whatever is pressing. Students can drop by without an appointment to chat about anything they have on their minds. Sometimes I buy them a cup of coffee.

In the past when I waited in my actual office for students to show up, I met with a handful over the course of the semester.  Now I average 2-3 a week. If I saw six students over the semester in my office, I now see 30+. They stop by to clarify something said in class, check on the topic of an assignment or reading, get help on a paper, ask what they can do to improve their grades, or sometimes just to talk for a few minutes.

Melanie explained that going to a professor’s office can be intimidating.  And it’s out of the way, takes special effort to get over too it.  The coffee shop is easy, on the main footpath, and a safer environment. I still meet with students in my office, especially if they want to go over grades or talk about a personal situation with greater privacy. But those more casual conversations in the coffee shop, even if just for a few minutes, seem to be appreciated and to work for students.

Many years ago, probably about 20, one of our then younger professors, Dr. Tim Neufeld, professor of Christian ministry, gave me a piece of advice that I continue to rely on. He may not even remember it.  I asked him what was important about advising and mentoring for the traditional college age student—the 18 to 23-year-old. His reply was something like this. They want to be able to drop in when they need something—advice, information, or just to make contact with someone. They want to be free to leave, be on their own, and make their own decisions, but they also need someone available. He was more eloquent, and probably had more to say, but this is the gist of what I remember. And so, I don’t press too hard, and I let students set the tone and depth of what they want to discuss. If the chat is 3 minutes or 30 minutes, that is ok. I have been following Tim’s guidance ever since.  

Many tell us that in college advising and mentoring, we need to make sure that students—young adults—make their own decisions. Tim’s advice fits that goal. Be available, offer counsel, encourage, then let them go, knowing they have support but will also be responsible for the decisions they make.

One other new practice has developed, sort of on its own over the last couple of years. One day in class, with a paper due in a few days, I announced that I would read and make suggestions on papers if students sent them to me at least a day before they were due. To my surprise several students took me up on it. 

I’ve developed a simple pattern of making suggestions for things they might consider in the final revision of a paper.  I do not grade them, tell them what their grades might be, revise for them, or proof read.  I simply make suggestions. They range from “you might want to proofread very carefully and make sure your work is grammatical,” to “look at the actual assignment, you do not seem to be addressing it directly.”  Or it might be about the topic: “look at the reading again; have you covered all of the most important points?” I might suggest that they test their logic, that they make sure they include a topic or thesis statement, that their conclusion flows from the body of the paper. I might offer some guidance on the meaning of a term or remind them of the historical context they are working within. I read through their paper and offer a few lines to prod them to deeper thinking, clearer writing (the two go together), and more thoughtful analysis. In a class of 50 students, 5-10% of the students might take me up on it, depending on the pressures of that particular time of the semester.

There is one additional benefit. I remind them often that good academic work is not about dashing off their first thoughts. Good papers and learning are the result of considered thinking and writing, developed and reconsidered over time. This means that they must write a paper, set it aside, go back to it, revise it to make sure it addresses questions and presents thoughts well and deeply, flows logically and reads grammatically. Reading follows the same pattern. We don’t get everything the first time we read it. We have to read, let it simmer in our minds, go back to it and stir again. If a few students plan their work so that they get a draft done a day earlier than they might have otherwise, and then take the time to revise it carefully, that is an added benefit. It takes me an hour or two for each assignment, but it has become one of my standard practices—I set aside time for it. It also makes grading enjoyable. I can see the progress some of the students have made. They seem to be proud of that progress.

So, if you thought that professors mostly just hang out in coffee shops, talk with students, and avoid real work, well, you were at least partially correct! Thanks to Tim and Melanie, and my other colleagues who continue to teach me how to teach. (I’ve revised this piece several times…)

Educated State

Steve Varvis