Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Teaching Life and the Lecture

On the Chronicle of Higher Ed's website, there is a brief review by James Lang of a teaching memoir entitled Teaching Life, by Dale Salwak (University of Iowa Press, 2008). There are two points I'd like to raise related to this article.

First, I thought I'd solicit suggested readings from anyone who has read a teaching memoir, as described by Lang. This past semester I read Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, and found it to be inspirational and thought provoking. If anyone has books in this genre that they'd like to suggest, please do so in the comments section.

Second, Salwak raises an interesting point about the lecture, when he says "Conclude with a question toward which the lecture has been building, and then say that you'll answer it next time." I've done this at times in my teaching, though I wonder if it is really all that effective. Students are so inundated with advertising pitches, and I'm not sure that this sort of thing will work in the philosophy classroom. Anyone had success (or not) with this technique?


  1. I second the request for the teaching memoir.

    As for the technique, I've something akin to it. It's harder than you think to execute, but reasonably effective. What I do is generate questions about the arguments we covered. Amazingly, most of those questions are addressed in the next reading. So, with a book, I can say something like 'Descartes has established X, but to be convincing, he's got to say something about Y and Z.' Or maybe I'll raise questions designed to show that a particular premise might need more support, and the next reading challenges that premise or offers support.

    It requires that I know the structure of my readings very well, and when the discussion makes things messy, I abandon the strategy for that day, but it's not as important for classes where the students are already engaged. It works to engage an otherwise lackluster class. It also helps them think about their own papers and gives them idea of how I'll grade. I'll ask similar questions of them, so they should write to answer those questions.

  2. From what I've seen it does some good, but not because it keeps them on pins and needles for the next class (no matter how well you do it, it will at least sometimes be the case that half the class or more wouldn't even be able to recall it); rather, it gives you an anchor you can refer back to in the next class. Those who remember it clearly will get the point; those who don't remember it clearly will be reminded of it; and those who don't remember it at all (there are usually a few) will feel encouraged by the sense that the course is actually going somewhere rather than jumping around randomly!

  3. I've definitely used variations on this technique. In general, it seems to make total sense that students benefit from there being a sense of continuity, even 'suspense', between class meetings.

    One variation I like is to take 3-5 minutes at the end of class and have students generate questions based on the meeting you've just completed. They put the questions on notecards that they hand in, and I promise to address the 2-3 most difficult or insightful questions during the next meeting. This has the benefit that since students generate the questions, they're likely to think the questions are important and are therefore motivated for the next meeting. It's also a form of indirect feedback to the instructor in that the questions are often revealing about what students understand/don't understand, find important/unimportant, etc.

  4. It's not quite a memoir, but I have found Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do to be an engaging and interesting look at teaching.


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