Thursday, February 12, 2009

Stepping Back

I met today with a student who is mentoring one of my introductory lit courses. S/he's a good, solid upper level student, with grad school aspirations, and a really good writer.

When we talked about the mentoring thing, we talked about the lit s/he really loves, and so I included some in the course design. So today we talked about teaching that lit, worked out passages, questions, a handout (for group work). And tomorrow, my student will take over the discussion.

It's sort of scary giving over a class to a student. It's not scary in that our students would be uncooperative. Indeed, our students tend to be very cooperative, especially with student mentors. But it's hard to step back and not talk, especially if something isn't working.

There's a lot of practice involved for most teachers (I think) in being able to "time" a class so that you get deep enough into the topic or issue, and also give some sense of how it fits within the class or discipline structure, so that you balance telling students something and helping them figure it out themselves. You can work out what you want to accomplish and how you want to get at that, but actually doing it isn't easy (at least it isn't for me).

And so, I'm a little hesitant about doing it. And it's hard not to step in if something isn't working, if the less experienced mentor hasn't practiced alternative ways of asking a question or something.

In my phud program, new grad students tended to get put into a comp classroom as teachers early on, and only later TA'ed for lit type courses. So most of us sank or swim on our own in a classroom for a couple years before we had an opportunity to do a "guest lecture" or anything. And when we had those opportunities, it was usually in a huge undergrad lecture class, so it really was a matter of lecturing. (As I was finishing up, the program sort of reversed so that new grad students got some experience leading discussion sections and grading before being responsible for organizing a whole course and such. It makes a LOT more sense that way.)

But I remember one prof I TA'ed for (and did a guest lecture for) who seemed to have difficulty letting grad students take over a lecture day. It's a huge thing, to take up an hour's time of 250 or more students, because if it's wasted, that's a LOT of time. But, of course, I didn't think of it quite that way then; I just wanted to get a chance to try out lecturing and all.

I had some good mentors in grad school, but I think they all figured we'd sink or swim giving a lecture, and I'm not as easy about that with my mentor. Of course, s/he isn't in grad school, and hasn't had time at the front of the classroom other than in the normal student presentation way, so maybe it's reasonable to be a little more controlling?

But it really does make me think about how controlling I tend to be in the classroom, because stepping back and letting someone else take control is really difficult for me!


  1. is it possible to chat with your mentor a little about ways that discussions sometimes get derailed, and some strategies for getting back on track? [maybe that would be too overwhelming, though, on top of the class prep...]

    most of my experience is with professional training sessions, which might not be relevant, but a couple of the usual problems are people going off on tangents, or the loudmouths who want to do all the talking.

    it's a little awkward for anyone besides the discussion leader to say, "can we hear from someone else?" or "that's very interesting, but outside the scope of our topic today." on the other hand, it's your class.

    i don't think it is awkward for a knowlegeable participant [such as yourself] to ask a question that redirects a discussion which is wandering into strange territory, though.

  2. I had the same problems when I started assigning presentations in class. This semester I'm experimenting in one class -- I have the students give a factual and general introduction to the topic area. They cover facts, laws and general arguments. I realized that they do a better job with the facts and laws than do I -- because each group collectively puts more time into the research than I am willing to. Of course, I'm better with the philosophical arguments, which is why we cover them in-depth later in the unit.