September
18th 2009
Is this going to be a discussion?

Posted under: jobs, students

linusIn “Can We Discuss This (II),”  over at Inside Higher Ed, Rob Weir has some good ideas for herding students into a discussion, keeping discussions on track, and tips for recognizing and dealing with student personality types.  You should go read the whole thing–I think he’s got a lot of great ideas for people across multiple disciplines–you’ll just have to decide what works for your discipline, your classes, and your teaching style.

Here’s Weir’s sensible advice:

Some students exude how little they wish to participate. I generally deliver gentle-but-firm out-of-class warnings to these students. I periodically remind everyone of the percentage of their grade that rides on discussion and that I apply those standards to everyone. I encourage each to contribute and I take shy students aside and brainstorm ways they can experiment with being more vocal. (Some of you will disagree, but I think we do students a disservice if we allow them to plead shyness. Moreover, unless a “shy” student has a documented psychological malady we’re not allowed to grant special dispensation!) Tell the lazy and clueless to step up their efforts and don’t waste your breath with the attitude-laden unless they become defiant. But if you best efforts fail, dispense an F for class participation and let grades suffer accordingly. (Because my criteria are written down I’ve never had a discussion grade successfully challenged.)

I agree–I always explain to my students that communicating their ideas in groups is going to be a skill they will need in the vast majority of careers open to college graduates:  for example, running a meeting, making a sales pitch, teaching a class of their own–all of these activities require a high level of confidence in oral communications skills.  I always have students prepare a short precis or set of study questions before our weekly discussions, so that the less confident have a “script” before them that they can use, Linus-like, as a security blanket if they need it. 

Weir has other ideas about in-class writing assignments that can be used to prompt discussion:

At best, writing loosens embedded thoughts, but even at its worst it provides discussion fodder. Another time-tested way to break the stall is the two-minute essay. Rephrase the question at hand and give students two minutes to write about it. Ask a few students to paraphrase what they’ve written and reopen the discussion floor. As remarks come, ask follow-up questions and brainstorm examples.

As a humanities scholar, and one who assigns a lot of reading, I think discussions are too important to give up on.  It’s easier to lecture–easier for faculty (past their first few years of constant lecture-writing and being fearful of not having enough material to fill the time), and easier for students to just sit back and check out.  Just because we’re lecturing doesn’t mean that anyone is listening!

For all my efforts, though, I get one class about every 8-10 years that utterly resists my efforts to draw them into conversations.  (And as I have noted before, because my classes are usually all about sex and violence, students usually have a lot of opinions!)  I chalk it up to some mistakes on my part, but in my (happily few) experiences with a class like this, it has more to do with the particular mixture of student personalities.  Either there are not enough, or no students at all who are openly enthusiastic about the material and participating in discussions, or there are too many people who create a psychological undertow that actively works against the development of a group dynamic that would support a free exchange of ideas.

What do you think of Weir’s advice?  What do you do when you get one of those classes that remains totally passive?

30 Comments »

30 Responses to “Is this going to be a discussion?”

  1. PhilosopherP on 18 Sep 2009 at 9:52 am #

    I like his advice, and plan to try it next semester when we try a scheduling experiment in Ethics — right now the class is 50 students and the “discussion” is generally me talking until one of the few of them have something to say.

    This semester I’ve started to structure the class period a bit differently — and I have yet to see if it really works.

    The idea is that I break the material up into about 9 questions (or, sometimes it’s 4-5 questions printed twice)– and have the class break into groups of 4-6. Each group then comes up and picks up a question that they’ll be responsible for answering. They have 5-10 minutes to discuss it, find the answers in the book or whatever.. — then I lead the discussion by going from one group to the next to answer the questions. I have a feeling it will work once they realize that I’m really going to call on them.

  2. Notorious Ph.D. on 18 Sep 2009 at 10:01 am #

    I think it’s good advice. But what if the person who won’t talk is one of your grad students? I’ve got a new one who didn’t say a single word last week (first seminar discussion, 2 hrs, only 12 people). Here’s what I’m contemplating:

    1. Essentially the same approach I take to undergraduates: gentle, friendly reminder; non-intimidating.

    2. “You’re in grad school now; time to step it up/I’m not sure that you’ve even done the reading” speech: VERY intimidating; meant to scare student.

    3. Let student sink or swim, figuring that part of the difference between grad school & undergrad is a greater degree of adult responsibility and self-motivation: non-interventionist.

  3. Deborah on 18 Sep 2009 at 10:10 am #

    As an undergrad, I was one of those shy students. Even though I was reading actively and mentally participating, I lacked the self-confidence about my own ideas to engage with more assertive class members. Even into graduate school, I’ve always been one of the quieter people in a group. It wasn’t until I started teaching more of my own classes and attending conferences that I began to feel more comfortable speaking in groups.

    So, I’m sympathetic to the shy students. I like Weir’s advice to take “shy students aside and brainstorm ways they can experiment with being more vocal.” I wish someone had done that for me as an undergrad. In my classes these days, I use some of the things Weir suggests — the short, in-class response essay, the list of discussion questions students create before class. I also find that assigning group projects to be completed outside of class and presented informally in class helps give shy students more confidence — they prep ahead of time and get to speak within a small group before they have to speak to the larger group

  4. perpetua on 18 Sep 2009 at 11:33 am #

    Thanks for the timely link! My seminar tanked last week and I am in need of some new ideas, or maybe just a refresher. (In my position I teach relatively few seminars; thus, I find integrating discussion into lecture in a largish group 40-50 much easier than 3 hr seminars.) I think I’ll try the 2 minute writing exercise next week. . .

    I had an experience with a shy student when I was a TA that was useful (for me). She never spoke so I had no idea if she was smart, or interested, or what. But then I received her first paper and it turned out that she was very bright. So I pulled her aside after I returned the papers and told her how much I wish she contributed more to the class since it was obvious now that she had much to contribute. Her face lit up and she spoke up more after that – I think just hearing that I welcomed her voice helped the shyness.

    Small groups also help the shy, which is another reason to break them up from time to time.

    @Notorious, you might try #1 with a little sprinkle of #2. If the grad student is new, ze might still be intimated, especially if there are second years in the seminar. While you’re right that grad students need to step up without help, first semester first years are sometimes clueless, but capable of learning.

  5. John S. on 18 Sep 2009 at 11:52 am #

    For my last several seminars, I have had students in my seminars prepare a precis and two discussion questions. It allows for an interesting teachable moment in the beginning on what is or is not a good discussion question. (“Where was Ben Franklin born?” is not a good one. “Why did he worry so much about ‘appearing’ industrious?” is a good one.)

    It also gives me a chance to give as little “chance favors the prepared” talk at the beginning. Being able to participate cogently in group discussions is a skill they’ll need in life. And you don’t get that skill, really, from some kind of sheer brilliance, but from having prepared detailed notes before hand (even if you don’t end up using them). This format gives “shy” students something to lean on, if they need a boost to their confidence as they get used to the class. Also: discussion and their precises count for 55% of their grade, so they better be good.

    Norotious–this brings to mind my last grad seminar, where no one talked. I let them flounder at first, then treated them like undergrads (force them to write discussion questions!), and nothing. I later found out that the students were all obsessed with me giving my gloss on the books, so that the could memorize it as the correct answer and be ready for comps. It was easily the worst teaching experience I have ever had. Who thought grad students could shut up for 3 hours straight?

    There was one exception–a student who would always short-cut discussion by trying to declare the “right” answer to any question, and then move on. Moreover, more often than not, the answers s/he gave were largely incorrect.

    I’d love some advice for the future: how do you deal with that kind of student? The one who focuses so heavily on questions and answers that shut down discussion? Or who gives answers that are problematic enough that you may feel the need to intervene?

  6. Historiann on 18 Sep 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    Notorious–I agree with Perpetua, although I might (if I had the time) take hir out for a cup of coffee just to talk. (You described hir as one of “your” students, so I think a little extra tenderness and concern is appropriate). You can ask in that less intimidating context how things are going, what ze found especially interesting and/or problematic about the reading, etc. And then you can deliver your smackdown: everyone needs to take responsibility for a seminar, this is the major mode of grad education, etc.

    John S.’s problem is of the opposite kind–the obnoxious student who shuts down discussions (wittingly or no). When I have a student like that, I interrupt hir and ask others to comment: “What do you think of that?” “What do you think the author of our book today would say to that kind of a question/comment?” If other students take this as an invitation to pile on (rare, but it happens), I can jump in and play Devil’s Advocate. For the most part, students like that are operating out of insecurity that gets expressed as false confidence or gradiosity. They need to be directed and challenged just the same as the quieter students.

  7. Kathie on 18 Sep 2009 at 12:23 pm #

    The potential gender aspect: In my first seminar as a grad student many years ago, I was the only woman among a male professor and five male students, most of whom were older and ahead of me in their training. They all talked endlessly, and I did not say one word the entire quarter during class. I wrote an excellent research paper, and the professor gave me an “A” with a “-” (minus) for not talking, and a written comment similar to perpetua’s suggestion above – he wrote that I was smart and had something to contribute, and really needed to say something in graduate seminars. I did improve, though I never really liked talking in seminars; and that professor became my adviser.

  8. Historiann on 18 Sep 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    Kathie–it’s too bad that your professor waited until he was administering final grades to let you know that you really needed to speak up! (It’s also too bad that he didn’t make opportunities for you to talk–by saying, for example, “actually, Kathie had a lot to say about that last week in her precis of the reading–Kathie, why don’t you fill everyone in?”)

    I think you’re right that the modal quiet student is more likely to be female, and that the modal blabbing/agressive student may be more likely to be male. (There are lots of exceptions, of course, speaking as a former blabbity-blabber without much to say in grad seminars!)

  9. perpetua on 18 Sep 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    You’re so right, Historiann, on the gendered aspects to seminars. It doesn’t end in graduate school, either. I’m constantly amazed by how much SPACE some male faculty take up. I have male grad students who talk and talk and talk and I just want to say (nicely) “Shut up. You’re taking up too much space.” As a (relatively) young female faculty member I often myself in the situation of having to be much more forceful with aggressive babbler male students, because it’s often a power play in addition to poor social skills.

  10. Deborah on 18 Sep 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    Weir brings up the issue of disability — “documented psychological malady” — and I think it’s worth noting that sometimes vision and hearing impairments, not always documented, can affect participation, as well. Surely, this is the exception rather than the rule with students who don’t talk, but it occurs more often than we might think. A student with a vision impairment, for example, who is otherwise highly functioning (self-accommodates with reading, writing, and exams) might not register with Disability Support Services, preferring to “pass” for normally sighted (see Georgina Kleege’s Sight Unseen, Stephen Kuusisto’s Planet of the blind — Kuusisto especially talks about his experiences as a legally blind graduate student who tried to “pass” for sighted). The student then finds hirself slightly lost in discussions, missing visual cues, not catching prompts written on the board, a few seconds behind the curve when discussion is driven by frequent reference to the text.

    It is, of course, the student’s responsibility to say something to hir professors, or get hirself over to DSS, but, as with the ordinary shy student, it helps to be proactive and encouraging. I try to be open and clear from the beginning about my willingness to make reasonable accommodations.

  11. Ruth on 18 Sep 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    One option is requiring students to post to a class blog/web site with a comment before class. This helps me prepare for the direction the discussion will go, and also helps bring out the quieter students: “Jane, you said something very interesting about this in your posting. Could you restate it?” I count these contributions toward their class participation grade too, and it’s a way for shy students (or ESL students who may be more comfortable in writing than orally) to show they’ve done the reading and have something intelligent to say about it. If you write good posts and never speak in class you still aren’t going to get an A for participation, but you won’t get a C.

  12. Historiann on 18 Sep 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    Ruth–great point. Software like Blackboard is useful for having students post discussion questions rasied by the reading, as do class blogs. I have colleagues who do this all of the time.

    Deborah makes a good point too about students wanting to “pass” instead of going through the whole rigamarole. I have had hearing-impaired students (and some vets who I think might have had a traumatic brain injury too) who asked to bring a tape recorder to class in case she was unable to follow the discussion in real time. Most students–especially at the grad level–know what works for them, and most let us know what they need. But we should remain sensitive to those who for whatever reason may have some real physical or psychological disabilities that affect their performances in class.

    Perpetua: I think you might just need to take up more space, rhetorically if not physically. I know how you feel–I sometimes think as a petite-ish woman that my physicality just isn’t as imposing as it could be. I keep hoping that a few more gray hairs will grant me more authority–but I think that in many students’ eyes I’ll just be a petite-ish old bag, not an authoritative one.

  13. Tigurina on 18 Sep 2009 at 3:11 pm #

    Thanks for the great post and comments. I’m always looking for ways to improve discussions. Since I have Blackboard I’m going to try using its blog function, too.

    Something that works for me is to give up leadership of discussion. A few years ago I decided to require students in my upper division courses to lead the class once during the semester. They meet with me the week before to brainstorm questions on the material to put to the rest of the class. On the day of class I don’t insert myself into the conversation until they stall out, which often is 30 or 40 minutes into the class time.

    It doesn’t work every time, but what I like about this is that they learn to talk to each other. They start responding to what other students say instead of just answering my questions. I also get one-on-one time with each student.

    I don’t know that this would work for everyone in every class. My upper-division classes usually have 20 students or so.

    It probably also helps that they know I record the names of those who speak and use that to calculate their discussion grade.

  14. Kathleen Lowrey on 18 Sep 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    Something I’ve done that seems to help is to make students a promise: that they will find class more interesting if they participate in discussions. It’s an easy promise to make, because it is 100% self-verifiable. My reasoning is that if they see speaking up in class as a gift to themselves, not a gift to me, and serving their quality of life during the time they are in class — not proving to me that they get the material — it kind of makes it a no-brainer. Still, there are always some clams.

    John’s question about over-talkers relates sometimes, I think, to Deborah’s points about disability: not every semester, but often enough, I’ve had students that I am pretty sure have some kind of developmental disability such that they don’t realize what constitutes a relevant contribution, how to pace their entries into conversation, how to produce genial affect in relationship to others’ contributions, etc. This is a really hard thing to deal with, I find. I want to model graciousness as the discussion leader, so I don’t want to display irritation. I am not a trained professional, so I can’t pull some kid aside and give him or her my laylady’s opinion about what kind of help s/he might seek out. And I really can’t do the “let the class handle the troublemaker” thing, which works for certain other kinds of issues (intentional meanness, obviously has not done the reading and is making stuff up, has hold of the wrong end of the question, etc) because often the class instinct is not compassionate: people are not that well-informed about developmental disability. This is something I wish the Support Services offices would produce literature about for professorial use: not so much the mechanics of dealing with disability in the classroom, but the social dynamics of it.

  15. Shane in Utah on 18 Sep 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    Great discussion! I’ve just in the last two semesters started following Ruth’s advice to have students post their daily journal entries to Blackboard at least an hour before class. Not only does it make it easier for me to call on the quiet students, since I know they’ve already given some thought to a particular issue; it also gives me new ideas for what to talk about and what aspects of a text to focus on in class, and it helps me to identify misunderstandings and misinterpretations of a text before the first big paper falls due. (My favorite undergraduate professor used to do the same thing with index cards that we brought to every class. It works better on Blackboard, though, because I can peruse their responses and incorporate them into my lesson plan, and because they can read each other’s responses.)

  16. Bookbag on 18 Sep 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Notorious —

    Does it seem like your student is shy, or just doesn’t care? When I was a first-year graduate student, I sometimes had trouble talking in one seminar, largely because it was populated by older graduate students who seemed to quote Foucault with the greatest of ease and I was intimidated. The professor simply wrote on one of my papers, “You have good ideas. You should speak up.” That fixed the problem; if he had pulled me aside and told me I wasn’t behaving as a graduate student should (option #2) that would only have fed into my belief that I didn’t belong in graduate school and couldn’t hack it.

  17. nicolec on 18 Sep 2009 at 5:11 pm #

    I enjoyed the bit about the defiant student and love the line “I presume your disagreement with me is based on a particular reading of…”. I’ll use that in the future. I have one of those students who today told me that my understanding of American women’s lives in the 50s was “wrong” (he wanted to argue that most women’s lives were like June Cleaver’s). I told him he was mistaken, he insisted, and then I asked him if he actually thought I was lying, to which he said, “no, I just don’t think you know what you’re talking about”. I tried understanding what exactly he thought was wrong, but in the end it was clear he had no evidence or point. I finally told him he was wrong and incredibly arrogant. He’s a 10th grader by the way!

  18. Digger on 18 Sep 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    Notorious, I’d likely tend towards silence in a first class also. My general MO is to suss out a situation before jumping in. Who are these people? Who is this instructor? What, exactly, am I in for here? What is the tone? Are any of these folks obviously a-holes? and to lift from Bookbag, is anyone going to quote Foucault like they’ve known him their whole life (yikes)? I can gear myself up to -not- do this, but it’s hard in a high-stakes game to blindly jump in.

    I’m enjoying the discussion… I’m working on weaning myself from lecturn-clutching, powerpoint driven lectures and into more of a discussion format in my teaching (ok, I don’t clutch). Familiarity with the material and the field on my part makes it -much- easier to do this.

  19. Shaz on 18 Sep 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    Knock wood, I’ve never had one of those silent classes, though I’ve had better and worse discussers. A random list of my tips to add to everyone else’s:

    1) Make clear what good class discussion is and is not, and that it is required.
    2) Don’t allow bullies/over-talkers to take over the class. It gets too easy for everyone (prof included) to rely on people who will always fill the space.
    3) Offer open opportunities to speak (One of my faves: “Someone tell me something, anything, about the reading today.”) Then it’s my job to work with the ‘anything’.
    4) Recognize some students take longer to raise hands and formulate thoughts. Wait wait wait.
    5) Call on students who don’t speak. Some, who don’t do the reading, will hate it. They deserve Fs. Some will welcome the opportunity and you’ll find and encourage those quiet smart students.
    6) Write on papers (as others have said), you have smart ideas, please share in class.
    7) Especially with grads, meet individually and ask them what would help — I’ve had a brilliant, quiet student say, please call on me, then I’ll be forced to comment.
    8) set up assignments that are good preps for class discusssions.
    9) do in-class group assignments and pick on the people who regularly speak least to present the group conclusions to the class.
    10) Always be aware of gender, ethnic, other dynamics. Make class a safe space.

  20. Indyanna on 18 Sep 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    My syllabi have something on this that tries to appeal to altrusim; to the effect that if you don’t understand something (this is as much about raising questions as about “class discussion”) others may also not and you can contribute to everyone’s enlightenment by bringing up a point. This of course will only drive the really competitive students in the other direction. I also think you have to implicitly or explicitly “promise” them that part of your role is to prevent any ridicule or abuse of the talkers by other students. When I want discussion to happen I formulaicly assure them the ceiling will not fall down on them if they talk. Then I get to say that with our old and crumbling building, it actually might, but not because of what they said, and they appreciate the ironic humor. Does any of this really work? Sometimes, but only sometimes.

  21. Horace on 18 Sep 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    In addition to 2-minute essays, which offer occasion to call on people who don’t necessarily think on their feet comfortably enough to participate often, I also do the whip-around fairly often, where I want to get a lot of ideas out on the table at once, and then ask students to respond to each other’s ideas. Everyone has to say something on the initial whiparound, and it loosens up the flow for discussion of unexpected contributions once that’s happened.

    Oh, and another thing about getting the ball rolling: sometimes the professor has to model how one deals with an idea that doesn’t work. I will often float an idea that I know is a bit flawed or at least out-there, and wait for students to respond. Seeing me revise and adjust my reading as the discussion ensues shows them that participation is rarely about having a right or wrong answer.

  22. Susan on 18 Sep 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    I have a few colleagues who have, this semester, used the wiki function on our class websites to have students write their notes for the lecture. So a section is responsible for each class, and they correct things, question each other, etc. It creates a set of notes for the lecture, but not from the professor. It also teaches them to take notes.
    That doesn’t do discussion though; in my grad seminar, we’re explicitly giving them question writing assignments — a few of them generate questions based on the readings. And we have discussions about what makes a good question.

    I have had at least one undergrad who was always asking questions/making comments; our assumption is that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, because he really has no idea how to pick up social cues. He drives other students nuts.

  23. Shaz on 18 Sep 2009 at 10:32 pm #

    Susan: I feel really strongly that we needs to serve the needs of students on the autism spectrum just like other students who need to learn– and as you’ve probably seen, traditional subtle cues don’t work.

    I had a student in a 300 person lecture who asked questions/made comments that were only tangentially related to class several times a lecture. It got to the point where other students were rolling eyes and otherwise being disrespectful — which is abusive to any student.

    With the help of disability services, I learned about giving the student a social plan — I called the student to my office, and provided a written first person list of what ze should do: 1. I will write down any questions I have during lecture; 2. I will consider sharing them with the professor later; 3. I will consider emailing them to my TA… etc.

    This completely solved the problem and the student did very well in the class. It was worth the effort and the discomfort of interacting with a student in a way that seemed totally inappropriate to me, but was appropriate to hir needs.

    I think we will all need to get better at meeting the needs of autistic/aspergers students in coming years, and hopefully campuses will provide faculty with information/services to do so. Otherwise, people wind up frustrated on all sides.

  24. Historiann on 19 Sep 2009 at 7:43 am #

    Shaz–can you do this without the student self-disclosing? It sounds like you were (as I would expect) very take-charge and highly effective, but one of the points Weir makes in his article is that unless a student discloses a physical or mental impairment or learning disability, he can’t do anything about it.

    I had a student like the one you describe, although it was in a class of only 30-35 students, and at a Catholic university. I was grateful, because there was no eye-rolling and all of the students remained respectful of him (i.e. no laughing even when he said things that were in fact hillariously strange, permitting me to set the tone for dealing with him, etc.) Truth be told, I think his classmates were probably already much more familiar with his personality, so they were more prepared than I was for his outbursts/questions! (In the end, it was not at all a big deal and class went along as it should have.)

    Shaz–thanks for your list of tips. Very helpful! I especially liked “Offer open opportunities to speak (One of my faves: “Someone tell me something, anything, about the reading today.”) Then it’s my job to work with the ‘anything’.” This also is similar to Horace’s comment about modeling the no-one-right-answer ideal of discussion. (I also use what Horace calls the “whip around,” but sometimes I find that students are so garrulous that it doesn’t leave much time to follow-up on very many of the ideas in class! It’s funny how some students, with just the barest invitation, will be very enthusiastic about talking…) I find that it works best in seminar classes, rather than in my upper-division courses with 30-35 students.

    Thanks, all, for keeping the discussion rolling while I was off-line last night.

  25. Historiann on 19 Sep 2009 at 7:47 am #

    Confidential to nicolec: That’s a case where I would just ask him gently what scholarship or impressions exactly his ideas are founded on. Then, without mockery or pointing out the obvious, I would give the class a mini-review of the current historiography on U.S. women at midcentury, noting where some of his ideas might be rooted in reality, but then pointing out (again, very gently) how much of what he says has been debunked. Everyone will get it, including the kid.

  26. quixote on 19 Sep 2009 at 8:37 am #

    Flashbacks again. One of my worst experiences as a teacher was a discussion section. It was the first one I did, it was a fascinating (absolutely fascinating!) environmental topic, and while I was doing my course prep, I couldn’t wait to get started.

    First class: 15 students who sat there and waited to take notes. Second class: 15 students who sat there and waited to take notes. Third class: 15 students who sat there and waited to take notes.

    All my attempts to get the discussion moving were met with the equivalent of “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.”

    I was completely exhausted after those classes. I’m ashamed to admit that I gave up and lectured.

    I did learn something, though, even if the students may have taken away less than I would have liked. Next time, the syllabus made it clear that participation was a lot more structured.

  27. pocha on 19 Sep 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Last year I had *two* very difficult classes, discussion-wise. These were both senior seminars, so there were fewer than 15 students in each class and they were not supposed to be lecture-oriented, although I would often begin the 2 hour class with a “mini lecture.” After the first one, I thought that the problem was a combination of text selection, student personalities, and yes poorly designed discussion plans (as in, I didn’t really have any and just assumed discussion would flourish organically). But when the next senior seminar proved equally difficult, I called on a senior colleague to observe me.

    I wanted to know what *I* was doing “wrong” and what I could do differently.

    I won’t go into details — she offered *so* much insight. But one of the nuggets she provided was this (in so many words): after a student responds to a question, don’t immediately praise the student (“that’s such a great point, I really like how you say x and x”). Rather, dole out some praise (great point), but immediately keep the conversation alive by remaining silent so that others can build on what the student has said. Such a simple observation has totally helped me see the small things I might be doing “wrong.” I loved this colleague for taking time out of her day to work with me on mine.

    So, I guess that’s my initial thought; in addition to reading helpful pieces like the one you linked to today (thanks!), I also find it incredibly useful to call upon senior colleagues (who have notable teaching records). As asst. profs. we go through biannual peer observations, but these, more or less formalities for the T&P process, usually yield letters of effusive praise and are not constructive in the way that an honest ‘off the record’ observation and post-seminar discussion can be. Plus, I can imagine how happy I would be in ten years or so to be able to help out a junior colleague in the same way. (And, of course, my senior colleague noted several times that in offering insight into my teaching practices, she was able to reflect on her own.)

    A win-win-win situation for myself, my colleague and our students.

  28. Historiann on 19 Sep 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks for your comment pocha, and welcome. Seminars *seem* like they should be easier to run, especially early in one’s career, because they don’t require lecturing and we all feel like we know what a good seminar is when we leave grad school. But, most of us don’t teach at institutions where we can expect the undergrads to approach a seminar with a grad student’s level of engagement or awareness of a seminar’s requirements. (As Quixote’s experience described above suggests. What a disappointment, to be all fired up for a class and be greeted with…lumps!)

    As for your annual review process: don’t think that effusive praise you get is dishonest. Your department’s biannual regime seems pretty rigorous to me–my department has a T & P committee member visit a junior faculty member’s class just once a year. Still–I think you could ask the reviewing faculty out for a cup of coffee and ask them if they have any ideas or tips for you in particular, or in general. Everyone likes being asked to talk about something they have some experience in.

    Finally–speaking in defense of the (somewhat) softball annual review letter: I would be extremely reluctant to write a critical letter of someone’s teaching unless it appeared that they and their class was extremely disorganized and everything was unclear. Good teaching takes time and lots of practice–and I don’t know anyone who would say that ze’s got it all figured out for all time in all cases.

    I was once subjected to some picayune and sniping comments and criticism of my teaching. Example: my first year, I was told that it was good that I was walking around the room and not clinging to my notes at the podium, but criticized for the fact that sometimes I had to go back to consult my notes because my critic said that was disruptive of the flow of the lecture. When I said that my assumption was that time and experience would smooth those bumps out, I was lectured, “Not necessarily!” Like I was going to be able to fix it all in one semester! (And he never offered me the magic formula for never losing your place or never needing a prompt from your notes.) Another example: I was informed that my lecture was “boring.” (By a someone who was a walking sleeping tablet of a human being, no less.) Well–what if it was? I thought I was doing well to make it through a 75-minute period lecturing in a reasonably organized fashion on something other than my research interests. She too never offered specific advice for how to fix my boringness.

    I guess my approach is never to offer advice or criticism that people can’t really address or demonstrate improvement in. But, if the advice is “make your expectations and assignments clearer on your syllabus,” or “try to organize your lectures better and stick to an outline,” well, that’s specific advice that people can follow. I think the advice pocha got from hir colleague sounds like that–and not getting freaked out by silence and letting the students jump in if it makes them uncomfortable is a great, and easy to try, bit of advice.

  29. takingitoutside on 19 Sep 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    I have to admit that I am often one of the shy grad students. Part of the shyness for me is simply feeling out of my depth. I study an interdisciplinary topic (Japanese popular culture), so I have to take courses where everyone else has a stronger background than me all the time. My first semester at grad school I had the pleasure of taking a course on Japanese literary theory where several other students were thoroughly knowledgeable of Foucault, who wasn’t on the reading list at all. However, I have been happy and vocal in talking about the things that I know about in many classes. So, my suggestions for quiet grad students:

    1. If you think that they’re out of their depth, but know they understand XYZ, either direct a question about XYZ to them, or ask it generally and

    2. Watch the students who jump in. My program had one person in particular who just interrupted whoever was speaking – and if you tried to stop her she would just keep going. She was smart and likable, so she got away with it, but on the few occasions where I tried to press the matter I ended up leaving the classroom exhausted.

    3. Run the discussion until you would normally end it, and then go one minute more. I took a course on poetry where I was often unsure of exactly how I wanted to phrase what I was saying, or, for that matter, what exactly I wanted to say. I can’t count how many times the professor stopped the discussion just when I was about to say something. And given that I had trouble interrupting someone who had interrupted me, I certainly wasn’t going to interrupt the professor!

    Finally,

    4. Tell whoever it is that you want them to talk more (in whatever way feels best to you). I had a joint undergraduate & graduate student class last semester where I was purposefully staying silent sometimes so as to let the undergrads discuss. The teacher asked me why I wasn’t talking, I explained, I talked more. Sometimes a little clarity is all that’s needed.

    Overall, where shy students are concerned, I’ve usually found that the student isn’t talking for some outside reason (interrupters, not having enough time to think, being unsure of requirements). So it’s a relatively easy fix, if you can manage to keep it in mind.

  30. Bavardess on 20 Sep 2009 at 3:49 pm #

    Lots of great of advice here. I’m one of those grad students who does talk. Though I’m careful never to interrupt anyone and I hope I’m not an over-talker, I do feel compelled to fill the silence when it runs to a minute or more (I just start to find it really uncomfortable when the silences start to stretch out). Out of my current seminar class of 8 students, there are only 3 of us who regularly contribute to the discussion. I would love it if the professor made more effort to get others in the class to speak up more, as it is exhausting always feeling like we are the ones doing all the talking.