I’ve done uncompensated overload teaching in the past and I suspect I’ll do it again in the future. Now I admit I’ve cried “uncle” a few times when my service load and course load have conspired to make my work week unmanageable, but really, I have no complaints about teaching the load that I do. I want to. I genuinely find teaching satisfying and I genuinely resent it when some aspect of my service work more or less requires that I have a course release.
It’s not just that I like the activity of teaching, but also that I use my courses as a thinking device, a chance to see how various materials strike others, to see if there are new ways to communicate or produce knowledge, to do a test run on my own writing or arguments.
The mid-summer is the time that I often start seriously thinking about the coming year’s teaching, and particularly when I’m coming back from a sabbatical I like to think about whether I’m going to make any serious structural changes to the way I teach. I’ve tried a few things in past years that I haven’t liked so much in practice. For example, in a previous 3-year cycle of courses, I tried some classes where student research teams would choose some of the reading material for everyone else in the last quarter or so of the semester. The results were a bit too uneven for my tastes, though I still like the concept behind it.
This time I’m planning to try using PowerPoint as a supplement to my lectures in at least one course. I’m just thinking that I miss the opportunity to display genuinely useful visual information far too often, and that’s what I want to use it for, mostly. But also I’m thinking it will discipline some of my lecture prep a bit, force me to think farther ahead about bringing extra material, providing definitions of terms, and so on. I don’t want to just display the outline of my lecture as I talk, that’s no good.
The other two issues I’m considering are grade inflation and discussion management. I have begun to feel a bit as if we’re not asking enough of our students in the humanities and social sciences here. It’s not necessarily that I want to just mechanically knock my grades down a peg, it’s more that I want to be a bit more sharply pointed and less generically encouraging in the kinds of feedback that I give, with some slightly more drastic consequences when somebody really blows off an assignment. Right now I tend to unload a B minus or C plus on weak work, a B for mediocre work: that’s what I’d like to adjust some, to put some teeth into it. A B should mean something: right now in my own grading, it can describe lazy work by a strong student or decent work by a weak one. I need to differentiate between those, and the first type needs to get a swifter kick in the pants.
Still, when I look at all the inquiry into grade inflation, I do wonder if sometimes the simpler explanations are overlooked. For one, the lack of explicit discussion of pedagogy in graduate training is not a recent shift in academic life: it runs very deep, back into the old days when average grades were much lower. As a result, then and now, you tend to start your teaching career in higher education with almost no sense of what other people are doing in terms of grading or how they do it. You get a vague, possibly erroneous sense of what the local norm is and you try to hit close to it. That’s a system which is almost intrinsically vulnerable to positive feedback effects. If the perceived norm drifts even slightly in one direction, that drift is going to feed on itself, and push the entire system towards an attractor. It doesn’t require any deeper underlying explanation or intent, as long as there’s nothing that “pushes back” or corrects on the system. I think to some extent providing extensive information about grade inflation and the distribution of grades within an institution is just such a corrective, and now that many institutions are doing that regularly, I suspect that there will be some push-back.
More pragmatically, there’s also a simple reason why assistant professors grade more generously than associates, on average. It’s not necessarily a calculating attempt to get high evaluations from students (though surely that is part of it). It’s also that you have an incredibly small data set on which to base any kind of comparative idea of your grades. If you’re evaluating students subjectively (as surely we must in the humanities), you have no idea how the first twenty or fifty or two hundred students you teach in a single year compare to the larger universe of your potential students over a longer interval of time. I keep altering my sense of who the best 1% of my past students are. In my first year of teaching, there are students I would have classed as such who I now would regard as great students but not that distinguished from the top 20% of students I’ve taught. A few of the students that I described as among the very best I had taught then remain among the very best now, but the level of confidence I bring to that judgement is much stronger. If I want to make the consequences for weak or mediocre work a bit sharper now, it’s because I have a far more precise sense of where the dividing line is between mediocrity and strong competency at this institution.
As far as discussion management goes, the big thing for me is that on one hand, I want to learn to endure silences a bit more often. I still have a terrible tendency after many years to anxiously fill a silence with a leading prompt that gets the discussion to where I feel it must go. On the other hand, I think I want to be ever-so-slightly less generous to students who like to talk a lot without having engaged the material. There’s one or two in every class, and I tend to try and make neutrally encouraging remarks whenever anybody speaks up. I’m not about to cut people off at the knees, it’s not my style, but I do think I want to challenge students a bit more when they make straightforwardly incorrect statements about the material because they’re bluffing their way through it. Socratic pedagogy has its limits, much as I find it a comfortable way to go much of the time.