Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Course Evaluations

By now, you've all read (and possibly already forgotten) the New York Times editorial by Stanley Fish:

Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed.
Fish extrapolates from the above that student course/teacher evaluations may well be useless. I don't necessarily think that's the case, but he does make a good point about the ways that students sometimes think about their courses. I know that as a learner, I too like to know what the trajectory is, where we're going with something and why. But I'm also used enough to learning that I know that sometimes getting surprised is a good thing. Sometimes the lesson isn't what you thought it would be. (Thanks, yoga!) Fish also makes a point about teaching that can easily be applied to what the reading and discussion of literature is: "various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again." At least, that's what I think it should be, often. I'm appalled by people's assertions that there is one definitive way to read a symbol in a given text. Maybe the green light in Gatsby is money. Or freedom. Or a trap. Or maybe we've got it all wrong. We don't know until we've followed the image to its logical conclusion. And then we write about it, and try to figure out what we think we know.

That's all a long preamble to the main point of this post: I recently read my course evaluations from the spring term. This spring I taught two courses: Greeks (English 2B, required course for sophomores) and Modern American Literature (a junior/senior elective). But the course evaluations were very different, as was the experience of teaching the two courses.

Greeks is a class in which I am an expert: My MA is in Classics, and my specialty as a classicist was Greek literature. So I can easily give impromptu lessons on aspects of Greek life and the context of the tragedies we're reading, and I can bring in my Greek texts to check the translations we're using. Since this is my field of expertise, I'm obviously excited about the material I'm teaching. That enthusiasm translates to positive feedback, in general. There are aspects of the class that I can keep tweaking—I'm still wondering how to give the best possible feedback on writing, for example. But overall, the things that my students say are helpful and good are the things that I'm pretty sure are indeed helpful and good. And the things my students disliked—like my desire to have them read a little too much Greek literature for 12 weeks—I also felt needed work. Overall, however, my teacher-instincts and my students' experiences generally matched up (there were a couple of outliers, but there always are).

On the other hand, the evaluations for Modern American Literature were dismal, at least in comparison to some other upper-level classes I've taught, and even in comparison to the two sections I taught of the same class in the fall. Now, my teacher-senses also tingled about this class. I knew it didn't go well. There was a palpable lack of energy in the room most days, probably due to several factors: senioritis (I had 9 seniors and 2 juniors), long readings, shy personalities, etc. So I wasn't expecting great accolades in my course evaluations. But I also wasn't expecting some of what I did get:

You definitely tried to create some threads, and sometimes we followed them, sometimes not. But I think that giving us some meaning/answers or your ideas about what the books meant would be helpful--sometimes it was hard when it was up to the students and no one had anything to say. So maybe some more lectures? I do like discussions, but a mix of both would be helpful sometimes. sometimes our discussions got us to somewhere big and important, but I didn't feel like they were always super helpful in thinking about what these books mean.

This comment appeared in response to an open-ended question, the last question on my survey: "Any other thoughts or suggestions not covered above?" My initial reaction was shock: English classes at Urban are not, in my experience, lecture-based. Now I know I just said that I would often lecture extemporaneously on Greek stuff, but those weren't really lectures. More like 10-minutes of "oh, let me tell you about this cool thing that's kind of relevant to what we're talking about." And while I don't think of myself as never revealing what I think to students, I do think my job as a teacher is to encourage students to form their own ideas. I'm there to ask questions and direct the conversation. Apparently, doing that is not quite enough:

I did not enjoy this class because I did not learn anything deeper that I could [not] have thought of on my own. I like it when the teacher says something amazing once or twice a class period to redirect our thinking, but that never happened in this class.
This comment came from a different student. The implication that I personally lack innate amazingness is hard to ignore. But I'm willing to experiment next time around: a little more structure for upper-level students, with a little less expecting them to hold their own and generate the topics of conversation and a lot more of my own theses about the texts. Doubtless, I'll then get comments about how I am too focused on my plan and structure and ideas. But every year is a new chance to practice, learn, and refine. And every group of students is different.

I do think that Fish is right to ask us to be aware of students' biases when they're writing evaluations, but I won't stop asking students to evaluate my courses. Under the best of circumstances, I get some good ideas from students about the nature of the class, and how to improve it; under the worst circumstances, I get to ask myself questions about whether I'm as effective as I want to be (not a bad thing at all, really). So things I want to change will change, and aspects of the course that are good-for-you-but-not-fun (like eating liver in anything other than paté) will remain or get tweaked. But, just to be safe, should I build up a reserve of amazing insights to offer forth to my students next year in brief, measured doses?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on 2009-2010

The Urban faculty had its closing meeting a few weeks ago—the last faculty meeting of the year. During the meeting, we reflected on a couple of things. First, in small groups, we shared a professional triumph or challenge. Then, with the full faculty, we shared our thoughts about one student whose growth/development we'd felt identified with in the last year. This process of reflection (along with the self-evaluation I wrote) has me thinking that it would be nice to list a few of the positives about the end of this year.

1. The student who started off the year with a lot of bad habits (late papers, a lack of participation in class, etc.). That student now writes poetry daily and tells me about it. Yay!

2. The book I got from a student accompanied by a heartfelt "thank you so much for....everything."

3. I'm pleased with the way my Advanced Composition class went this fall, and hope to preserve the elements that worked well, yet polish it for next fall.

4. I re-started a poetry class that had been dormant for a year, and got a bunch of students (see #1 above) interested in poetry. I hope next year's iteration of the class is even better.

Coming soon: another post that lay on the back burner over the last couple of weeks. It's not quite so self-congratulatory.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Multitasking Myth

This New York Times article is only the most recent in a number of articles that discuss the implications for our brains of being constantly wired.

Here's a brief excerpt:

Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could barely process two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about them. But [Eyal] Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might be rewiring themselves to handle the load.


In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at a computer were briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a similar image and were asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple task until the addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects were told to ignore them.

The [test subjects identified as] multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the non-multitaskers at recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In other words, they had trouble filtering out the blue ones — the irrelevant information.[emphasis mine]

That's just it: if I'm attempting to multitask by checking email, blogs, etc., while in a meeting, everything on my laptop seems equally important—and less important than the meeting. From the article, again:

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”
The problem with this behavior arises when we're supposed to be doing something other than looking for mental catnip. We're a school with a 1-1 laptop program. The catnip is constantly dangled before our students' noses. I've generally found that by their sophomore year, students are aware of when they're not focusing on the class. There are always a few who take notes on their laptops, though even these sometimes hear the siren call of tumblr or email or thisissand. But the glassy-eyed stare of the student who isn't actually listening to what's going on around her is hard to miss.

Looking for catnip is a problem for adults, too. A 1.5 hour faculty meeting that follows immediately on the heels of a long instructional day with few real breaks might seem to be the perfect moment to catch up on email or see what's new on Facebook. But if I take the implications of this article seriously, the last thing I should do during a meeting is crack open my laptop. I challenge any of you reading this to take these tests. After taking them, I found that I can focus one only one thing at a time—which is good, but means that I cannot successfully multitask, no matter how hard I try. And I don't switch well between tasks (doubtless a result of so many failed attempts at multitasking), so if I'm reading an email, it might take me a few seconds to switch back to listening.

I've been making a habit recently of watching my tendency to distract myself, my urge to seek catnip. Result: I found myself in a meeting the other day (not long after I'd read this article, in fact), totally engrossed in what was happening on my neighbor's laptop screen—and oblivious to the meeting leader's asking me a direct question. I didn't even hear him.

On top of actually being distracted, there is the appearance of distraction. Any teacher who has seen a student spend a class paying attention only to the screen in front of him knows how it feels to see folks apparently not listening. Surely, my colleagues deserve the knowledge that I'm not seeing their presentations during faculty meetings as a time to catch up on other stuff. And my fellow committee-members deserve to be listened to with my whole brain. Even in the last week of school, even when there's so much to be done. There's always something to be done.

So I'm making a public resolution: keep the laptop closed during meetings, unless I'm jotting down a note. And if I do open my laptop to take notes, I'll close it right away once I've written down what I need to remember. Maybe by being more aware of this tendency within myself, I can also be a better model to students.