Prompted by our discussion on Monday about “Teaching and tenure: what counts (and what’s good?),” and by Dr. Crazy’s point that we ended up not “actually talking about how to evaluate teaching” on that thread. She asks, “[s]o I’m wondering: taking the student evaluation bull$hit out of the equation, what makes good teaching? How do we determine that?” To tell the truth, when I posed that question Monday, “what is good teaching?”, it was more a rhetorical question than one for which I have a clear answer. After all, so many of us teach so many different subjects to so many different kinds of students at so many different kinds of institutions that pedagogies are nearly infinitely variable.
So just to get our discussion rolling, I propose that good teaching shall be known by these three paramount qualities:
- Organization: Always ask yourself, what do I want to communicate to my students in this course? Break it down to ask, what do I want students to learn in each lecture/class meeting/assignment? Then organize your syllabi, lectures, and assignments accordingly. In this, organizing your teaching is much like organizing your writing. Just as every sentence should be in its place and every paragraph build on and reinforce something important about your overall argument, so you should focus your attention like a laser on your goals for the course and in each individual class.
- Rigor of material: Students should be exposed to new ideas and information, and they should be challenged intellectually. (Otherwise, what’s the point?) To be rigorous, a lecture need not be 8 or 10 single-spaced notes delivered at top speed in a 50-minute lecture. (This is a rookie mistake.) Aim to present sophisticated material simply. Treat your students like adults: those who aren’t in fact functioning yet as adults may pull their socks up and rise to the challenge, but more importantly, you don’t want to lose the bright and hardworking ones by appearing to patronize them.
- Clarity of presentation: If your medium for communicating in a given class is mostly lecture, then be sure you’re speaking in a clear and intelligible fashion–not too fast, not too, slow, but (as Goldilocks preferred) just right. (I’ve heard that videotaping yourself lecturing–while painful to watch–can help you eliminate unhelpful tendencies or annoying tics that might distract your students.) If you are using PowerPoint slides while you lecture, don’t just show pretty pictures for the heck of it–be sure that your slides help organize and illustrate your lecture clearly and effectively. If your medium for communicating in other classes is mostly on-line, be sure your instructions to your students are clear and comprehensive, and that you answer their questions about assignments promptly. In seminar classes, oral communications are critical–but in most cases, you’ll be communicating in all kinds of ways, across all kinds of technology platforms, so take care to be precise.
Beyond this, we all want style points, right? We want to be funny but not glib or aggressive in our humor. We want to appear smart, especially if we use technology (or at least we don’t want to appear like bumbling doofuses in front of our students). Many of us have spent hours and hours searching for the exact right photographs of the perfect material culture artifacts, engravings, or paintings to use in lectures. But–that’s all extra on top of the foundation of this three-legged stool. Want one, and the whole thing is rendered useless.
I refuse to venture into rating things like “charisma” or “approachability” in a colleague, because that seems to me to be evaluating their personalities, not their work. Besides, we all have our own styles, and that’s OK. My personality is direct and (some say) bold. Some students like it, but a lot of others find me “intimidating.” (Yes, that’s a gendered reaction, but what are you going to do? See the interesting later conversation in Monday’s thread between Kathleen Lowrey, LadyProf, and perpetua for more thoughts on the student evals and why “excellence” in teaching is a pretty silly goal.) Even if I could change that, which is doubtful, that would be a fool’s errand–but I also can’t tell everyone else to imitate my particular style. (This is of course the hazard of peer reviews of teaching, as John S. pointed out Monday.) It’s perfectly fine to have some colleagues who are shy and understated, because the students who find me too much will likely find them much more approachable. Let a thousand well-organized, rigorous, and clear flowers bloom, I say!
I know for a fact that many of you have much more experience (as well as much more success!) teaching than I have. What do you think makes for good teaching, and how do you approach evaluating it in others? (Hello, lurkers–and you know who you are!) What would you add to my 3-point list, or how would you revise it? Dish!
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