Monday, August 18, 2014

For a good education, you need to have good teachers. But, that ain't me?

I can feel in me the seriousness, the urgency, of the upcoming academic year and the conference.  My senses are so focused that even when I took a break to play a few minutes of bridge, I was lethally there.  It is as if I knew exactly what the other hands were.  When we are focused, we see things--as simple as that.

A focus on intellectual and emotional preparation for the courses means that all of a sudden I see that essays are popping up from every direction for me to read, reflect, and, of course, blog about too.  But, the essays that I read today made me wonder why students are not enrolling in my classes even when I am doing exactly what those authors seem to describe as habits of a good teacher.

Exhibit I is from this essay in Slate, by William Deresiewicz, who is all over the thinking-circuit after his lengthy cover essay in The New Republic:
In class, you do not spend your time transcribing information. The proponents of distance learning are not incorrect to believe that lectures are usually an inferior form of instruction. That is why a significant portion of classes, at least, should be small enough to run as seminars. The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them.
This is exactly what I have been doing for years now, ever since it dawned on me that my role in the classroom is to help students explore and understand not via any monotonous lectures aided by fancy Powerpoint graphics but by asking questions and making them think. But, then I think of this one student, who perhaps articulated aloud what many think within, when she said something along the lines of "I know you want us to think about this and understand the importance, Dr. Khe, but I really don't care about the subject. I just want to get going with my life."  I was shocked at her brutal honesty, but much preferred that to complete nonchalance.

As I read this part of Deresiewicz's essay, I kept thinking to myself that, again, this is exactly what I do as an advisor:
 You do not talk to your students; you listen to them. You do not tell them what to do; you help them hear what they themselves are saying. You ask the kinds of questions that Lara Galinsky talks about as being im­portant at times of decision—those “why” questions that help peo­ple connect with what they care about. Most advisors just tell you what courses to take, a student at Brown remarked to me, but the best ones “help you to think in a different way about the choice.” As Harry R. Lewis suggests, a mentor looks for the questions behind the questions their advisees ask. “The most important job of the advisor,” he writes, “is to help students understand themselves, to face and take responsibility for their decisions, and to support and to free them to make choices that are at odds with the expectations others have for them.” 
A few years after a student had graduated, when we met again, I asked her during that lengthy chat how she decided to reveal to me, of all people, the problems that she was having with her boyfriend.  To her it was simple.  "You are a good listener" she said.

Finally, Deresiewicz writes this:
Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is.
That is precisely what I do too.   It is always about helping students see the connections, and to make sure they don't develop a tunnel vision of sorts of the world via some narrow disciplinary thought.  I am that way in the life outside the classroom too.  The other day, the friend asked me how my mind connected between two things and I told her that it just happens.  That is how I am wired, I think.  I even wrote an essay on this, back in 2005, in the context of the Honors Programs--click here to download that short essay and read it.

Which means, I, as a failing professor who cannot seem to bring in more than a couple of students to my classes is a living and breathing example of if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and even quacks like a duck, well, I ain't no duck!

It is one hell of a crappy reality, it seems.  But, am enjoying it; so, who cares!

Tomorrow, Exhibit II, after which you might treat me to a cup of delicious hemlock ;)


Ramesh said...

Your post itself is a theme you have covered a few times - and it resonates well. Nothing more to add there.

However the William Deresiewicz essay, which probably prompted your post, was way too airy and flowery to make me sit up. Yes, the teacher should encourage the student to think, connect the dots, etc etc. All well. But to be a mentor, is not necessarily the objective of a teacher in today's education system. It may happen, but it is not the primary purpose, I believe. When he starts to exhort "if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit" I am left with the sour aftertaste of reading an academic paper !

I am also uncomfortable with the putting down of imparting information. That is not a lowly objective. Sure, it can be obtained from elsewhere, but it can also be obtained from the teacher and that is not something to be sneered at. In specific skills oriented courses, that is a lot of what I want. When I want to learn to drive, I want my teacher to tell me how to drive.

By the way, if you "humble (gently) the self-assured " me, I shall sock you in the eye :):)

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, cut Deresiewicz some slack; after all, you can remove a man from academe, but you can not ever remove academe from a man ;)

I bet he, too, doesn't think there is no place for teacher-driven explanatory approach. There is a place for that. In the old, old days, when information and knowledge were only within people and then in books, the lecture was mostly how students would have learnt too ... but, to rely on that in the current settings as THE way is wasteful and uninspiring--even in skills-based courses.

Which then brings up the related issue of skills-based education itself. Like you have mentioned, these are issues I have blogged about a lot and we have traded points as well. In the old days, the skills were not what one studied in a university--that happened through apprenticeship of different sorts. (In India, the CA apprenticeship model continues, right?) Universities are not driving schools ;)

I will stop here because I value my eyes ;)

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