The 13th Grade

This blog has been geared toward introductory classes and those teaching them, since my assumption is that a blog on teaching tips will be most attractive to new professors, and new professors largely teach the introductory courses.  This is also a blog geared toward adjuncts, and though some of us may be lucky enough to garner courses in our specialty area, the truth is, we are the Sherpas of the academic world – and the bulk of our workload will be made up of teaching sections of  ____________ 101.

If you are teaching introductory courses in your discipline, it is highly likely that you will also face a preponderance of freshmen, so I see this blog as dedicated to the newest of the new on both sides of the podium.  If this is you, then you may have found one of the most obscurely difficult tasks to have been defining what your actual job is.  My theory is that, around those of us in iconic jobs (professor, priest, cop) there is actually a veil of mystery about how we really go about our days. 

On the sitcom Friends, there was a running gag about how no one knew what Chandler Bing did all day (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandler_Bing) but in truth, his type of job is much more familiar to most people; sitting at one’s desk, doing data entry, going to meetings, the old 9 to 5, etc.  But us? Who are we and what are our actual jobs? How shall we conduct ourselves in a way that communicates our role most effectively?

This question becomes most acute while in the classroom filled with fresh faces, some of whom can still be in high school.  As I mentioned in my last post, these students may still insist upon calling you “teacher” and “Miss So and So” despite your doctorate. It is therefore up to us to enculturate them into a universe that more closely resembles the nineteenth century Russian civil service than it does a cult of Druids hacking down mistletoe with golden scythes in the groves of academe. 

Formality helps, and in my opinion, you are doing students no favors if you encourage them to call you by your first name.  Eventually, they will run into someone who yells at them over this.  I am slowly leaning toward also calling students by an honorific and their last name, though I have not yet put this into practice. This is, of course, a controversial subject, generating much heat and light in the blogosphere (https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/hschein/www/readings/What%20Should%20We%20Call%20the%20Professor.htm).  Robert T. Tauber in his book, Classroom management: sound theory and effective practice, going into the details of ‘naming’ practices on page 398, essentially argues that this somewhat old-fashioned orientation breeds respect between student and professor (as long as it is not deployed sarcastically).

Stereotyping our students as teacups and krispies may be fun,(http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/xxfactor/archive/2009/03/19/we-don-t-want-to-raise-teacups.aspx); but the idea that Millennial students are vastly different from those who have come before  has little empirical validity (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Millennial-Muddle-How/48772/) and thus is not terribly helpful as a guide to understanding them, their worldview or behavior.  Regardless of generational differences, however, one fundamental schism between high school and college remains; high school is mandatory while college is a choice. Therefore students need to be swiftly weaned from the idea that we will chase after them like mother hens, and in fact, the relationship is reversed.  If they want our attention they will need to fight for it like lumberjacks at a pancake breakfast.  Keeping in mind, this is 180 degrees from their previous educational experience, where teachers and parents jointly decided their fates.  Now, even the most intensely involved parent must, perforce, distance themselves from the day to day activities of their chicks.

The other day, a student came up to me after class, and wanted me to provide him with an individualized refresher on the assignment that was coming due.  I told him ‘no’, and explained that, as written in the syllabus, he needs to get together with fellow students to obtain information that he may have missed in lecture.  This is not to be mean, or even as a time-saving device (it isn’t) but I do it because I want to encourage them to be responsible for their own education.  Developing a collegial network of their own is, counter-intuitively, conducive to their independence. They no longer need to dangle from my apron strings, expecting me to individualize my course for them after the other forty students have filed out of the door.

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2 Comments
  1. Susan_Mazur says

    Thanks for your comment –

    I think you might want to re-read what I am saying. I did not discuss whether or not to keep students up to date on this post. I agree that is important. What I am not doing is individualizing the course for one student who chooses to neither attend class nor follow the syllabus.

    As for the last name issue, as I point out, it is contentious. I may not be young, but you may be male – many female professors have written that it can be difficult to maintain levels of authority when students call them by their first name, especially at the beginning of their career.

    I personally enjoy experimenting with my pedagogy, and hope that this blog will be a place that engenders thinking about what we do, but I am not prescribing any one approach. If yours works for you, then that is great, keep on trucking!

  2. Elderly Adjunct says

    I’ve been adjuncting for over 35 years (in addition to and alongside full-time teaching, administrative work in higher ed and jobs in my profession) and disagree with most of what you’re saying. I let students call me by my first name, always update individuals on what’s goine on, etc. I guess there’s no point in my reading your blog any further, but I wanted to let people know there are probably as many ways to teach college intro courses as there are teachers. I suspect you are young.

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