Calibrating the Classroom

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.

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13 Responses to Calibrating the Classroom

  1. ebehren1 says:

    PowerPoint? Aaarrrrrrrghh! I’m curious to hear whether you think, in retrospect, that your class discussions were more or less lively after you shut the windows, dim the lights, and do the PP show. Nothing provides structure and organization to a presentation like preparation. (Personally I think you’re way too good on the stump to rely on a crutch like that!)

    Another Jedi gone to the dark side. Tsk tsk.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s tricky. I’m going to experiment. I’m not going to put up outlines or anything like that.

    Part of it is simply preparing in advance key terms that I want to define for the students rather than trying to remember as I rumble along what terms probably need explanation. Also timelines and such. If I’m going to do that, why write the definition or timeline out on a notecard and write it in longhand on the chalkboard? Why not type it out in advance and have it ready to go on a screen? Why waste everyone’s time as I scribble?

    The other puzzle I’m trying to solve is getting images (still and moving) into my lectures. Powerpoint seems as good a way to do that as any–better than getting a slide projector and better than using transparencies.

    So, to give an example, in my opening lecture in the Image of Africa class, I’ve already prepared definitions of “trope” and “representation”. I’m preparing a timeline of “key works” in the history. Then I’m going to talk about the visual representation of the “missionary/explorer in the cannibal’s cookpot” and just show six to ten examples of such images that I’ve found.

    If there’s a better technological way to do these things, I’m open to suggestions. PP just seems an easy tool that’s readily at hand.

  3. ebehren1 says:

    I think PP is fine for the purpose of your thematic slide shows of images (or even video clips) to accompany your lecture. That’s what it does well.

    I agree that you shouldn’t waste everybody’s time scribbling timelines and definitions on the board…that’s what paper is for! Really, there are so many advantages for your students to you putting that stuff on paper handouts. They can scribble and underline. Take notes. They can reference later. They can catch up on the discussion when they wake up from that daydream. They can use the citations later in their research.

    I think the same is doubly true for your timelines. A computer screen has so much less useful resolution than a piece of paper. Timelines are tools that allow you to understand the sequence and relationships between many items/events. The way the human mind works, it will do a much better job at evaluation relationships between visual information if they can see it presented simultaneously, rather than sequentially. A Powerpoint slide will only allow you put a few clipped phrases across the screen and still be legible to your students. Put it on paper, arranged horizontally, and you can fit tons of text and images that spin off of the timeline.

    We have a lovely new color printer over here that even prints out 11×17 tabloid sheets, which fold conveniently into regular sized paper, but is assume for laying out large amounts of data in a single view. We’re really only a few steps away, and you can even print to it from your desk.

    Longer term, we’re laying groundwork for our digital asset management future. Someday you’ll store all your teaching images in a groovy database, keyword cataloged. To create a slideshow, you’ll just check off the images you want, and they’ll pop over into an elegant image display tool that you’ll use for the classroom.

    The digital revolution hasn’t happened yet…

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Good points on definitions and timelines. I still like to have it up on a screen as well as in their hands, though. I also like the idea of having those materials in digital form deposited at a course website as well as being handouts. You’re right though that PP slides aren’t the way to go, now that I think on it. Some other application for both–definitions could just be Word documents, perhaps timelines something more graphical.

    The main thing is just to use PP as a slideshow application for visuals (and yes, for this course, definitely video clips.)

  5. David Chudzicki says:

    PowerPoint seems to get a pretty bad rap among students. Maybe this is too obvious to be worth saying, but plenty of professors use PowerPoint in every single lecture, and it works out fine. I think we only notice the PowerPoint enough to talk about it (as a problem) when the professor’s lecture style was problematic anyway.

    On the other hand, I’ve also been in classes where I felt the quality of the lecture drammaticality improved when some technical malfunction prevented the professor from using PowerPoint as he had planned. But, of course, PowerPoint can only become a crutch like that when you start using it to outline your whole lecture. When it’s primarily a convenient tool for images and video, there wouldn’t seem to be any such danger.

  6. ataraxite says:

    Problem with Powerpoint is it puts students in TV-mode. I feel myself becoming passive and sponge-like just thinking about it. If you have to use it (and there are some legitimate uses, as you say) don’t let ’em get too comfortable!

    I think profs forget about the physical side of an intellectual interaction–biological processes are happening inside your students as you teach them, and a good snack or a minute of calisthenics in the middle of a long seminar can have a remarkable effect on the level of discussion. I suspect that turning those lights off and turning that glowing screen on has a real effect on our brains, and not one that you want to encourage.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, TV mode is not good. I’m actually not planning on dimming the lights, and all that–I’m hoping that the images will show up well enough without that.

    The physical side of teaching is something I think about anxiously now and again, though I used to think about it even more–not so much what the students are thinking or feeling, but how my movements, posture, gestures can either emphasize what I’m doing or distract from it.

  8. bostoniangirl says:

    On grade inflation. In law schools junior faculty are often much stricter about adhering to curves set by deans.

    I’ve actually seen assistant professors who were much harsher graders than full professors, especially if they just came out of graduate school. I think you get this problem a lot when you get readers/ graders of senior honors theses. The full professor has a better sense of what it’s reasonable to expect from an undergraduate. The newly hired assistant is afraid to look soft and expects graduate level work.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s something I’ve seen too–but I think it’s just the first semester or year that an assistant professor is teaching. They don’t want to be taken advantage of, they grade more harshly than everyone else, and if they’ve got their ear to the ground at all, they hear the rumble of discontent and correct a bit. It’s the same way that a lot of first-year assistant professors come out and try to teach exactly to the canons they worked with in graduate school, and are overly ambitious in terms of coverage.

  10. David Salmanson says:

    You need a smartboard Tim. It allows you to move between programs from an interactive whiteboard that you can mark on electronically. It comes with some decent time line programs as well. Next time your in the neighborhood ask for a show.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    You know, I hadn’t really heard of these. Just spend about thirty minutes researching them now. They look really cool. Much better than dragging the laptop in, setting it up, opening an application, etcetera.

  12. David Salmanson says:

    You must come for a demonstration. I talked to Kitty Howard and I think she was the only one who got one in the new science building, everybody else didn’t see the point. Whoa, were they wrong.

  13. karen says:

    Powerpoint! AAGGHHH!!! (Throws self on ground, thrashes arms and legs.) I’m a grad student, one of those retreads who goes back to school in middle age. As an undergrad back in the days of castles and dragons, I had professors who lectured exclusively from overhead transparencies. I hated it, and struggled to extract much from the lectures. Even with copies of transparencies to take notes on, the timing of the lectures just seemed off, and difficult to follow. Powerpoint is just the modern equivalent. Lecturers who learn to rely on it go _much_ too fast, establishing a lecture pace that makes it difficult to ask questions. Those of us who think slowly have to think about the material before we can ask, and a powerpoint presentation leaves no room for that.

    Now, I’m agreeable to the use of the tool for video, photos, and such, especially since the old standard method of reproducing photos in black-and-white onto transparencies left so much to be desired. The problem is the slippery slope — it’s awfully easy to let more and more of your presentation become based on powerpoint. Beware!

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