Monday, October 02, 2006


I was observed by a colleague today for a teaching evaluation. We do this on a periodic basis, much more often before tenure, but also after tenure.

In a way, after tenure is much more useful, or maybe just for me, or maybe just this particular observation.

My colleague came to observe me teach my writing class. Now, I'm a Shakespearean at heart, not a composition specialist. That divide is something a lot of English faculty members experience in a deep way at regional and small liberal arts type schools. We're incredibly trained in our field of literature, but we end up teaching a LOT in a field we're far less trained in.

I have some clues about research and findings in composition studies, but not nearly in the way I do about Shakespeare or early modern studies. I've adopted techniques and tried to make them my own, and I think I do pretty well, but it's not the same teaching experience for me. In lit classes, I'm more at home, so it's easier to take a real chance, to teach a novel I've never taught. In writing classes, I tend to stick closer to what I've found that works, and it's harder to try new things, even when they seem really smart and useful.

I try, though. For one thing, I try to use essay assignments that other professors have successfully developed, adapting them to my own classroom and teaching practices. Doing that helps me repeat specific assignments less often, so I can think of better ways to teach them more easily, since they're fresher for me. And because I adapt the assignments I get from my colleagues, it means I can fight the possibility of plagiarism a bit more effectively.

For me, then, today's observation of my writing class was a challenge, and I certainly did feel a bit of stress, but it was also an opportunity, because the colleague (I'll call this colleague, C) approaches teaching from a different angle than I do, but with a lot of the same goals. C, though, because s/he has a different specialty within our department, sees things a little differently, and can articulate some things I have difficulty with.

So, let me just say, my students were fantastic. While I struggle often to teach composition, it's also probably the most rewarding class I teach because the students generally really respond actively and well; they want to learn, want to engage with difficult material. They jumped right in to respond to questions, revealed that they actually learned what I thought I taught them last week about paragraph organization, focused right on their group work. I couldn't really have asked for a better showcase.

And mostly, I did a good job teaching and was able to bring some of my strengths as a teacher to the class.

Better yet, C was able to help me see one of the teaching "problems" in a new way. By teaching "problem," I mean the kind of problem where you ask, how can I best teach X here and now. Then you figure out what seems like the best way, and off you go. I don't mean "Bardiac's a bad teacher" sort of problem.

So, the issue has to do with how to help students work with the Christensen method of paragraph analysis in order to learn how to revise paragraphs more effectively. We'd worked through the list and step sequence paragraphs last week, so we reviewed those quickly (because the students were able to explain them and make up an example well, revealing that they remembered! Go students!), and then I taught them the mixed sequence paragraph. They all wrote a mixed sequence paragraph, and checked them together, so I knew they had the basics.

Then I had an overhead of a paragraph from a student's rough draft (by permission), and we numbered that, figured out where the numbering wasn't working right, and talked a bit about how to revise it. (C suggested that I should have given them more time and actually worked on revising it right there and then some; see, that's what I mean! C saw with a slightly different angle and was able to make a helpful suggestion.)

Then I had a photocopy of old student paragraphs (also by permission), and had them work together in groups to revise that. I basically told them that these were from a previous class, from an essay assignment they wouldn't see. They seemed to have a reasonably easy time numbering the sentences and showing the relationships, but then got stuck at trying to make revision suggestions. (And, revision suggestions are the name of the game in learning paragraph analysis! It's not just the fun of numbering sentences.)

Now, here's C's genius. C said (afterwards) that I might have set up the paragraphs with some rhetorical context. If I'd given them a copy of the essay assignment, and said, here's a paragraph trying to make a point in THIS assignment, then the students would have had a "problem" to help the writer solve, and so probably would have had an easier time suggesting revisions to solve the specific problem. As it was, I asked them to solve a problem without enough context, and since they're inexperienced, they had a much harder time.

And, of course, in real revision, we pretty much always have the context, be it the essay assignment or an idea of what the boss wants in a memo. So giving them the context would be better preparation all around.

I've got to revise my handout now!

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