Comments on: Is this going to be a discussion? History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Mon, 22 Sep 2014 10:08:09 +0000 hourly 1 By: Bavardess Sun, 20 Sep 2009 21:49:36 +0000 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.

By: takingitoutside Sun, 20 Sep 2009 04:23:02 +0000 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!


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.

By: Historiann Sat, 19 Sep 2009 17:19:10 +0000 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.

By: pocha Sat, 19 Sep 2009 16:36:02 +0000 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.

By: quixote Sat, 19 Sep 2009 14:37:08 +0000 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.

By: Historiann Sat, 19 Sep 2009 13:47:07 +0000 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.

By: Historiann Sat, 19 Sep 2009 13:43:02 +0000 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.

By: Shaz Sat, 19 Sep 2009 04:32:57 +0000 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.

By: Susan Sat, 19 Sep 2009 03:51:58 +0000 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.

By: Horace Sat, 19 Sep 2009 01:40:52 +0000 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.