by Mark J. Drozdowski
Each week I receive my fair share of unsolicited newsletters of various ilk. For a price, they promise to help me raise more money, become a better public speaker, reduce stress, manage people or time more effectively, or somehow improve my job performance and make me a happier camper. In most cases, I send them straight to File 13 without a second glance. Newsletters and I have a checkered history.
With that history in mind, I cautiously opened the Magna Publications envelope containing a dozen issues of The Teaching Professor, each numbering six or eight pages of cream stock with green accents. To my eventual surprise, they managed to steer clear of File 13, instead finding a permanent place on my office bookshelf.
This newsletter traces its creation to 1986, when founding editor Maryellen Weimer (now associate professor of teaching and learning at Berks Lehigh Valley College of Penn State University) decided to take public the in-house piece she produced as Penn State’s director of faculty development. Since then, paid subscriptions have increased to more than 15,000, making it the most widely circulated teaching and learning newsletter in the U.S. and Canada, according to Weimer’s research. Subscriptions cost $59 per year, which buys 10 issues; single back issues run $6.00.
Its mission is to provide faculty with nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic strategies to improve teaching practice. Running anywhere from a few paragraphs to a couple of pages, articles come in two forms. About half are original contributions from faculty members representing various academic disciplines. Weimer receives 30-50 such submissions per issue and will publish between two and five of them. They’re not peer-reviewed in the traditional sense but chosen based on Weimer’s judgment. She has two criteria. First, does the article address a universal theme constant for faculty across disciplines and institutional types? And second, does it contain pedagogically sound strategies?
The other half are synopses, all written by Weimer, of current research found in about 50 leading educational journals and magazines and in recent books on teaching and learning. She culls from publications such as the Journal of Educational Psychology, College Teaching, Teaching of Psychology, Innovative Higher Education, Journal of General Education, Change, and the Journal of Marketing Education, and from books such as Richard Light’s Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. Weimer samples the literature and summarizes the findings, thus combining the virtues of the Utne Reader and Reader’s Digest. In essence, faculty interested in teaching and learning strategies find in this newsletter an alternative to poring through dozens of journals (and perhaps buying subscriptions to many) and wading through research designs and statistical analyses. The Teaching Professor thrives on words alone.
I happily dove in hoping to find tips and tricks that might make me a better teacher (some self-help indulgence is acceptable, after all). Flipping through the pages, I was reminded of Forest Gump’s aphorism on fate, likening life to a box of chocolates because “you never know what you’re gonna git.” Articles and reviews offer a random array of topics, seldom adhering to a predetermined theme. Weimer says she tried theme-based issues early on but encountered resistance from subscribers who didn’t find a particular theme interesting and concluded that they had “wasted one-tenth of their subscription payments.” She adds that readers “want to see a little something of interest in every issue.” So instead we have a buffet of options catering to all palates.
Offerings I sampled came from the past year. I found helpful articles on course portfolios, storytelling and its affect on long-term retention, the Socratic method in six easy steps, using e-mail to connect with distance learners, student cheating, making the most of office hours, Internet resources for scholarly research, first-day activities that promote interaction, and advising colleagues on teaching effectiveness. Titles are straightforward, allowing for easy browsing. Among those I noted were “So What do They Remember?” (Answer: anything that promotes active learning); “A New Approach to Using Controversy Constructively”; “Reflections on the Relationship Between Teaching and Research”; “How Do Students Respond to Written Feedback?” (They “ignore the advice offered in comments on their papers and repeat the same, obvious errors”—how true, I thought); “Faculty and Students View Class Attendance Differently” (“…students find more reasons acceptable for missing class than do faculty…”); “Students and Textbooks: Feedback Can Improve the Relationship” (“The relationship between a student and his or her course textbook is not a pretty one.”); “Service Learning: Students Describe Their Experiences”; and “What Students Look for in Prospective Group Members” (“Is it best to let students form those groups or should the teacher assign them?”).
Some articles made me chuckle. One classifies students according to the Seven Dwarfs (Happy, Dopey, Grumpy, etc.—presumably the professor was “Doc”). Another examines “Humor as a Teaching Tool,” adding “Careful You Don’t Cut Somebody.” While it doesn’t exactly explain how humor cuts, it does contain useful insights. “If we are using humor to get laughs,” the author concluded, “we are probably using it for the wrong reason.” He advocates telling jokes to begin and end classes and before a student presentation to reduce anxiety. Cartoons, he says, increase retention of information. I’ll have to find an appropriate Ziggy. Yet another author writes about “Engaging the Reluctant Student Through Empathy and Humor,” telling us that, while guiding students “through the foreign land of mathematical concepts,” he is “willing to risk looking foolish if it helps them relax.”
Of course, I found certain articles more useful than others. Those less valuable simply reinforced (validated, perhaps) what I already knew. In “Can Ratings Measure Complexity of Teaching?,” the authors conclude that “most faculty have difficulty accepting that the essence of their teaching can be captured in such summative assessments.” True enough. “Valid Pigeonholes at Last” presents students as disengaged, recreators, socializers, collegiate, scientists, individualists, artists, grinds, intellectuals and conventionals. This typography, taken from the Journal of College Student Development, doesn’t divulge anything I didn’t learn from my student days. “Ten Common Teaching Mistakes TAs (and Veterans) Make” tells us to allow time for small talk, to review graded material at the end of class, not to rely too heavily on notes, to avoid projecting a weak presence through timidity or indecisiveness, and to reinforce student participation. And “Grades: What Students Expect and What They Get” reveals that students are more concerned with getting good grades than with learning material, prefer multiple-choice tests to essays, and overwhelmingly support grading on a curve. Again, useful information but hardly revolutionary findings.
I also wish The Teaching Professor had a complementary Web site enabling subscribers to view back issues on-line and perhaps including a search function. But in an e-mail, Deborah Holbrook at Magna Publications explained that, “We are primarily a print publication. Although we have offered on-line subscriptions, there appears to be little market for them….” Subscribers, though, can view the current issue online and receive each newsletter as a PDF file via e-mail.
What’s more, adjunct faculty won’t find anything aimed specifically at them as a group. Weimer views adjunct issues as political, not pedagogical. That said, adjuncts of course teach, so in essence everything in the newsletter address them.
Those concerns aside, I do recommend The Teaching Professor to faculty looking for ways to improve their classroom performance. For the cost of a modest lunch each month, you’ll gain a better understanding of your students and your role as an instructor.