Thursday, October 21, 2010

Great Teaching

One of my departmental jobs in the Philosophy Department is to serve as our department's Teaching Mentor, which means that I supervise our graduate student instructors. Right now I'm in the thick of observing their classes and writing up reports on my observations.

For the most part, our graduate students are not only good teachers, they are great teachers, often putting the faculty to shame with their passion for teaching and commitment to student learning. They tend to be pioneers for innovative teaching, creating unusual assignments (such as, in a course on Philosophy and Race, interviewing people to gather attitudes regarding racism, or requiring a service learning project that incorporates focused community service into the classroom experience,) or designing cool class websites. I sit in their classes, furiously taking notes, sometimes thinking, "I wish I could teach this material as clearly" or "Why didn't I think of that?"

Where I'm critical of our graduate student instructors, it tends to be for not using the chalkboard effectively - oh, how I love the chalkboard! To me it is a proud feature of a professor to walk through the hallways of academe covered from head to toe with chalk. When I sit next to the students in the class, I see that they write down in their notebooks all and only what the instructor writes on the chalkboard, so it is crucial to write everything important on the board and LABEL it so that the student can look back at her notes and know exactly what that random list of words is supposed to be. Sometimes I also find fault with the kind or amount of work assigned - some teachers grade only on the basis of exams, but where will students ever learn how to write a college-level philosophy paper if not in a college-level philosophy class?

Finally, sometimes I'm disheartened by the tone of a syllabus, particularly in its inclusion of a grim list of classroom policies for appropriate behavior and penalties for transgressing. My favorite syllabi are the ones that are warm and welcoming, inviting students in to the fascinating world of philosophy that we'll be exploring together this semester. One that I particularly liked began with the statement: "I am going to assume that you are all good students." Yes! That is so much better than a series of threats for what will happen if a student should text during class. I've given up on the texting issue myself. I don't know how to text, but if I did, I suspect I would be texting away under the table with the rest of them.

I think great teachers are the ones who expect greatness from their students. And then, because they expect it, they are the ones who get it.

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