Friday, August 25, 2006

Not Really Random Reading: *My Freshman Year*

I skipped some blogging during the past week because my Ironic Friend came to visit! Yes, someone actually came to visit me in flyover country. (Read previous posts about IF here and here.)

Ironic Friend always seems to have the best reading suggestions, and this time she suggested Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year *What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (NY: Penguin, 2006; first published by Cornell UP, 2005). Basically, Nathan, an anthropology professor, used a sabbatical year to do field research into student culture at her university by enrolling as a freshman, living in the dorms, taking classes, and so forth. She was at AnyU, a pseudonymous public university, bigger than NWU, but the students sound familiar.

It’s one of those books that reminds me of things I’ve forgotten from my own time as an undergrad way back in the stone ages and makes me realize how much some things have changed. Nathan (that's a pseudonym, by the way) got me thinking especially about a couple issues, mostly thinking about how I can do a better job connecting with my students in light of her findings and discussion.

Office Hours
Nathan talks a lot about how students manage their experience at AnyU, especially how they choose general education classes, how they fit in working for money, classwork, and the other things they do, and how they think about their management. I can't singlehandedly give my students enough money that they don't have to work for money, but I can rearrange some of my own schedule issues to work better with my students' schedules, especially my office hour scheduling.

Nathan points out that she'd typically set up office hours during the middle of the day, before or after the lecture classes she taught (136). As a student, however, she discovered that she almost inevitably had another class to attend during her professors' office hours. She also points out rightly that more students work more hours these days than in previous decades.

Here's my situation: My schedule looks like this: classes: MW 9-12, W 6-9pm, and F 9-11. So I actually have two non-classroom days during the week. I also have meetings, of course. One obligation runs from 3-5pm every other Tuesday, another 1-2 on not quite random Tuesdays. I also have my athletic group on Tuesday evenings.

I drive a few minutes to campus, but if I want to park near my office building, I need to arrive before 8am. If I arrive between 12-1pm, I can sometimes find parking in the lot near my building. I'm a slowish starter in the morning, and value my 809am time for drinking some coffee, reviewing teaching notes, and waking up more.

NWU expects me to schedule 3 office hours per week, and to be available by appointment on some other occasions.

Before reading Nathan, I was planning to put my office hours MW 12-1, and F 11-12, knowing that few students would show up, and that I'd mostly work in my office. (But you can never count on that; if I need that time for prep or something, a student WILL show up.)

Now I'm looking for suggestions, and thinking that maybe I'll schedule my hours M 12-1, W 5-6, and F 11-12. The big change is to Wednesday, when maybe some students would be able to come to office hours after their other classes. I'd still have a chance to go home if I needed to, but could also just stay on campus. (Most of my Wednesday evening class prep would be done on Mondays and Tuesdays, I think.)

What do you folks think?

Reading Assignments
Nathan talks about how students choose which reading assignments to do for a given class, and crassly, the choice comes down to which assignments they'll be quizzed on, or they'll need for homework, or for which they'll be a discussion, especially if they're likely to have to participate (137-139).

Now, I KNOW that deep down, and tend to give quizzes a lot in my lower level classes. But Nathan brings out the point that more experienced students are even MORE likely to skip readings they don't think they'll REALLY need. I was exactly that student in many of my classes in college (though I tended to do extra suggested readings for the classes I really liked).

I think I'm going to make a habit of giving quizzes and such in my upper level classes, or having regular writing assignments (yes, which will have to be graded) that respond to readings. I resist giving quizzes in grad classes, but I know tons of times when I didn't do all the readings for a grad seminar, and I know other students didn't do them all either. So how to really encourage people to find the readings worth doing?

Plays are easy. Yes, we're going to discuss the plot and such, and it's not necessarily obvious from the title. But what about contextual readings? I'm thinking that for grad students here, responsive writing to many assignments will help them see that the readings ARE meaningful and will help them understand the complexity of early modern English culture, drama, and such.

Nathan points out that interlibrary loan services seem woefully underused by undergraduate students, and then explains that most student papers get written in a time frame of about a week (even though we'd LIKE to believe our students start their papers earlier), and that they can't actually get interlibrary loan books within that framework (139-140).

I've been aware of this problem before, and have my longer writing class paper set up so that students start WAY early. But I think I need to do more to push them to actually start the research process earlier. What are the best ways to do that?

Nathan's discussion of diversity in college culture is absolutely fascinating. She has a chapter on the experiences of international students, and also talks about the ways that majority white US students don't experience much diversity. That's certainly true at NWU, where some of our students express real disappointment that they don't learn more about diversity, get chances to interact more with international students or students of other races and ethnicities than their own.

One problem is that I can't realistically change the makeup of the great state of the Northwoods. Most people in this area are white, lutefisk white, stereotypically Prairie Home Companion white. And Christian. And so forth.

A second problem is that our students don't always take advantage of the opportunities they have; they don't get involved in different community groups, don't go to the local Pow Wow or international fair, don't introduce themselves to international students, or even talk to international students in their classes. It's SCARY, I know, but part of college is learning to deal with certain anxieties and discomforts, and learning that it's really NOT that scary to say hello, smile, reach out and shake someone's hand.

The international students Nathan interviews sound as if they'd welcome a bit of real friendliness and curiousity. The international students I know here certainly say that they would.

So how to encourage all our students? How to push them out of the comfort zone and into engagement?

All in all, then, a really great book to read at this point in life.

When I first got out of grad school, having taught for several years, I thought I knew how to teach. I looked a bit askance at people who read books about teaching or talked about reading books about teaching. More and more now, I realize I know less and less about teaching. And yet I have reason to think I'm a reasonably effective teacher.

But I'm not a great professor. And that's the goal.


  1. Sounds like a really useful book. And I like your attitude toward teaching, and not being an expert at it.

    Re: getting students to start research early. Last year I successfully incorporated an annotated bibliography into a course, and am doing it again this year. It is due about five weeks before the paper is due, and I grade it and hand it back in one week. I stipulate on the syllabus that I won't accept their research paper without having seen it first. I ask for the annotations (a minimum of six) and a paragraph or so that is a "snapshot of your current thinking about your topic". I don't ask them to present a fully formed argument, only to indicate where they think they might go, based on their observations with the material.

    It seemed to work quite well. It meant I had (for the most part) properly researched essays, and it helps combat plagiarism, too - in fact, the plagiarism issue is the major reason I incorporated it.

  2. As a grad student I can say that the annotated bibliography idea certainly works to get us starting to think about papers earlier. I hate the idea of the assignment itself, since I usually feel like the simplification that goes into writing a paragraph about each book/article then feeds into the paper itself and makes it dumber than it would have been. But I concede its usefulness.

  3. I'm actually teaching this book in my freshman writing class. I just read it a few weeks ago. I'm really interested in hearing if my students agree with everything in the book. I wonder if SLA college students have similar attitudes to state school students.

  4. I'm divided on quizzing them on readings -- it seems to me that they should learn to do the readings because they form the context of the class and that they'll be evaluated on understanding the whole thing.. it also seems to atomize reading material at the quiz level, which isn't what we want them to do. On the other hand, they are buzy and lazy and don't do lots of things that are good for themselves in the long-run.

    Also, maybe we need to think about what we are assigning more carefully -- and only include the most essential reading assignments as required reading.

  5. I have reason to think I'm a reasonably effective teacher.

    But I'm not a great professor. And that's the goal.

    I'm nodding my head vigorously in agreement and recognition. Yep.

    I don't know that I have too many thoughts on the questions you posed, though I'll be happy to read what others say here. I am, however, fascinated by your description of Nathan's book, and I'm going to buy a copy.

  6. Rather than quiz students on assigned reading, I will often require them to do some writing while they read. Depending on the class, this can range from composing abstracts to answering a few stock questions for each assignment. Last year I also began incoporating "learning assessments" into my classes. Those that I pass out at the beginning of a session always deal with the reading for the day. An example would be having students complete the following sentence: "The most important point in article X is ..." As a practical matter, and from a student perspective, how different this is from being "quizzed" depends much on how you grade, or don't grade, their responses. My primary purpose is to gather information about what my students seem to be getting, or not getting, out of a class. To the extent that I grade student responses to the assessments, it is mostly on effort and good faith rather than on the accuracy of their answers. If the assessments seem to point to a lack of effort when it comes to reading, I try to address that issue before the problem grows and becomes intractable. Sometimes my response is to change the nature of the assessments, narrowing the tasks or questions, for example, and sometimes it is to have frank discussion with students about the importance of the reading, maybe pointing out the extent to which major assignments hinge on their knowing the material. These are admittedly imperfect tools, but I struggle with the issues of atomization raised by inside the philosophy factory. I also resist what Dr. Crazy recently called "the infantilization" of students, especially my upper division classes.

  7. Thanks for your responses, folks.

    Office hours (responding to Dr. Crazy's (And thanks for your interesting discussion, Dr. Crazy!)

    I see a lot of students by appointment. But I admit to getting frustrated when a student wants an appointment but hasn't bothered to check if they can actually come to the scheduled hours.

    Quizzes: yes, quizzes tend to atomize and infantalize. But I want my students to actually look up words they don't know, and to take notes, and neither of those seems to happen much without a grade incentive.