Saturday, January 16, 2010

Same shtick, different day

I got my course evaluations last week, and they're good--not my best ever, but close to it. This is starting to feel like a pattern: over the three and a half years that I've been at RU, my scores have been trending upward (even as the range of grades I've given has remained relatively constant).

So yay, right? Except that I really was not bringing it to my classes this past semester. I was relying much too much on old lesson plans, doing my reading at the very last minute, and feeling continually on the verge of having my ill-preparation and inattention come crashing down on my head.

Now okay: I understand that students don't always see this lack of preparation, and I actively enjoyed two of my three classes--but, mysteriously, it's the third class, a class that pissed me off on a near-daily basis, that gave me my best scores. It was an upper-division Renaissance class that I'd designed from scratch to teach in the fall of 2008--and that incarnation of the class was amazing. But I decided to re-teach the class this past fall, and this time around it was. . . not so good. Really not so good. The students weren't participatory or seemingly engaged by the material; their written work was mediocre; and I struggled continually not to lose my temper with them. And yet my scores were phenomenal: fully as good and in some categories better than those for the (in every way superior) class that I taught last year.

So what accounts for these increasingly positive scores? I don't have a good explanation, but here are a few theories:
1. I've been at RU long enough that I now have a reputation for toughness--which means students are less surprised by the grades they receive (and/or, since I don't think I really am that tough, they're excessively gratified when they do well).

2. I've genuinely become a better teacher--which includes getting better at addressing (and anticipating the interests and possible problems of) RU's student population.

3. I've figured out a shtick that goes over well.

I suspect it's a combination of all three, and maybe some other factors I'm not aware of. But I worry that it's too much #3.

Some of my classes--certainly not the majority, but some of them--turn into crazy high-energy love-fests. Often, this is my Shakespeare class (and I gotta say: I teach a fucking great Shakespeare class). Everyone who's taught has had classes like this, where the students are in love with you and you with them, and everyone's riffing off everyone else, but doing serious work at the same time--and where almost nothing you do seems to flop, because the room is so decisively on your side.

As I say, this isn't the norm for me, but a milder or occasional version of it probably is: even with classes that gel less well together, or that have some obviously weak links, or that frustrate me routinely, I've learned to coax and cajole and turn up various dials on my teaching persona to get my students to haul themselves through a decent passage or character analysis or map out bigger patterns or whatever.

And it's not that I'm not proud of that. I do think that personality goes a long way, and that manifesting the kind of enthusiasm and nerdy, intense engagement with the material that students can connect with is its own kind of pedagogical skill (and for me at least partly a learned skill). But I worry about coasting along on whatever marginal classroom charisma I've constructed for myself, and becoming little more than a shtick--or not being able to adapt, creatively, to a different classroom dynamic or a different student population.

I guess the only solution is to get my ass in gear and DO SOME REAL CLASS PREP this semester--but I thought I'd check in with you-all first. What's been your experience with classroom theatre or charisma--or with the relationship between them and your level of preparation, or your evals?


New Kid on the Hallway said...

don't know if this will make sense, but: I think that because teaching is *so* time-intensive when we're learning how to do it, and when we're learning the material for a new course, that we learn to associate teaching with working terribly, terribly hard. Thus, when it's not so incredibly terribly time-consuming, we feel like we're phoning it in. But it's not that we're phoning it in. It's that we actually know what we're doing, so we don't HAVE to do the same amount of prep we did originally.

So I would theorize that what felt like ill-preparation and inattention was probably more like an appropriate level!

(I'm also drawing on Boice's research that beginning profs overprepare like mad. Problem is, you come to think that's what you have to do to be a good teacher. And you don't.)

TTProf said...

Fair warning: this may sound cynical, but it is not meant to be so.

It sounds like you have totally nailed the teaching portion of your faculty duties. It is OK to reap the rewards of your earlier hard work in order to use time now to do other things, namely research.

dhawhee said...

yeah, ain't broke... but seriously. i have noticed that some of the classes that go over well are the ones in which I am constantly frustrated with student performance and express that frustration, either in wry comments, or some other behavior that shows I don't give a crap what they think of me. and these classes tend to be the ones where the subject matter is second-nature to me. so, it's expertise layered with an attitude, maybe. who knows?

Fretful Porpentine said...

I have a pet theory that what student evaluation scores actually measure is neither teaching ability, nor charisma, nor preparation, but simply how many students you've managed to piss off. Students who are not annoyed at the professor generally mark "Agree" or "Strongly Agree" for almost every item; students who are annoyed mark "Strongly Disagree" -- and since the average scores are so high, a small variation in the number of students in the second category can create a fairly large swing in the numbers.

I'm also going to go out on a limb and speculate that classes that seem to go really well from the instructor's perspective sometimes create a larger disgruntled minority than classes that feel rather flat. After all, there's always a handful of students who don't participate even in the liveliest classes, and I suspect that the more engaged and involved the other class members seem to be, the more these students feel like they're being left out or shown up.

(At least, this is the only sense I can make of the results from my two sections of Brit Lit last semester, which otherwise felt utterly counterintuitive. YMMV.)

Lucky Jane said...

Totally agree with those who say you're just reaping what your past preparation and experience have sown. It seems to me that the teachers to whom students gravitate teach with a sprezzatura, a term I'm probably misusing. But they make their jobs look easy, sauntering into the classroom with no notes and an easy rapport, yet when you get them in conversation, they care deeply about teaching and understand our students thoroughly. These teachers tend to be older guys.

I also love Fretful's theory and haven't mastered the art of not pissing anyone off. With one exception, my worst classes have been lively and fun, and their students have repeatedly taken subsequent classes with me and asked me to direct their theses. The disgruntled student(s = never more than two) wield a disproportionate influence on the numbers.

Anyway, my point was: don't change a thing, imho; spend the time and energy finishing your excellent book.

Bavardess said...

I agree, it sounds like the years of preparation and effort you have already put in are starting to pay off. Perhaps you also come off as more confident and in control, which in turn elicits positive responses from your students.

Flavia said...

Fretful: I really like your theory, esp. about the possibility of a disgruntled minority in a class that seems to go really well--I haven't taught two sections of the same class in a while (though I will this upcoming term!), but when I did, on at least one occasion it WAS the case that the section that was a total blast--lively and fun and smart--gave me lower scores than the one that was painful and recalcitrant.

I also like dhawhee's theory, which aligns with several other commenters' remarks: that a crucial element is the appearance of confidence and competence.

And it occurs to me that last semester was the first semester where all three of my classes were repeats (and moreover, repeats of classes I'd taught quite recently and/or frequently), so maybe part of what I was feeling was fatigue/boredom. Luckily, I'll be mixing it up more in the coming semesters.

CattyinQueens said...

Oof...lots of things here sound very familiar, esp. the feeling that there was going to be a moment where it was totally clear that I'd prepared less than my students had for the day. But, the fact that it still pretty much doesn't happen enabled the same lack of prep for this semester. Didn't change as much stuff as I intended to, and with 2 conference papers to write, I probably will spend the first 3 weeks of class in the same way I spent last semester's first 3 weeks. Still, I think that even if I don't change much heading into a new semester, the real labor still happens in one way or another. Last semester I relied on a schtick for the day-to-day, and felt worried I wasn't doing enough or being dynamic enough at times. At the same time, I spent a considerable amount of time commenting on papers, so I put the time in anyway. Prepping lessons and in-class stuff isn't the only labor they recognize, and it's certainly not the only labor we do--answering their emails, for instance, seems to go a long way toward making them feel attended to, and it should because it takes up hours of the day. And sometimes I get the feeling that my re-cycled lessons are still more dynamic than what they get in some other classes they're taking.