Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Employing a student to criticize my teaching

Whenever I describe the following experience to colleagues they tell me I should write it up. So. Here it is:

In Fall 2007 I taught a freshman seminar for the first time. The topic was Children, Marriage, and the Family, and students also took two, thematically-linked, classes in other departments together. The design is there are 20 students (in fact I've had 21 each time); it might be worth knowing in what follows that nearly all of those students have been women which, I am told, is a result of the subject matter. I had, up till then, very little contact with first or second year undergraduates. My regular large service class, although perfectly suitable for freshmen and sophomores, is under-supplied, so upper-class students nearly fill it up before the others get to register. And I usually teach upper level courses for majors otherwise, which, again, mostly contain juniors and seniors.

So teaching first years was a big challenge. Lecturing them is absurd. But I had no discussion-prompting skills, and no knowledge of what the students would know. I was uneasy all semester long for lots of reasons, and never felt entirely on top of things. And I felt particularly inadequate because I had just read Our Underachieving Colleges. It certainly got better, and I had a (then) graduate student who is a much more skilled teacher than I am visit a few times, partly for recommendation-writing purposes, but mainly to get her help.

I taught the same seminar again in Fall 2010. That summer I had one of my semi-regular meetings over tea/coffee with Emma, a 2007 student, who by then was a Nursing major, and with whom I had talked a lot about the classes she was taking during the intervening time. She, knowing I was going to teach the class again in the Fall, asked whether there was anything she could do to help.

I knew immediately what I wanted her to do.

Who really knows about teaching at a large research university like mine? Most of the teachers don't know much: the only people they have watched systematically were their own teachers -- who were, probably, pretty good for them, but may have been no good at all for the kinds of students who didn't become professors (some of whom didn't become professors because...they were not well taught!). And most of us have done little if any subsequent professional development as teachers -- we have taught our classes, tried things out, and scrutinized our practice seriously only when our evaluations reveal something seriously embarrassing.

My guess for a long time has been that who really knows about teaching are the 10% or so of undergraduates who are most attentive to and thoughtful about teaching. Undergraduates are exposed to lots of teachers, lots of practices, good, and bad, and those who are actually thinking and observing know a fair bit about what does -- and more about what doesn't -- work well in the classroom and lecture hall.

So what I asked Emma to do was to visit my class regularly, watch me teach, take notes, and then debrief me telling me everything I was doing wrong.

It turned out that her clinicals at the hospital coincided with my Thursday class session, so she visited just once a week, for the Tuesday class session. (Just to be clear, I was not exploiting her -- the superb administrator who runs our FIG program volunteered a budget to pay her for her time when we told him what we were planning). She would watch the 75 minute session, then we'd meet for 30 minutes and talk, and then, every week, she sent me notes on what I had done.

What did I learn? I don't think I learned anything fundamental that would make me a great teacher of first years. The main benefit was the day-to-day criticism she would give me. Here are some examples.

1. Week 2. "The material you're covering is very challenging for freshmen. It is good you are challenging them, and this is not too hard, but it is would help them a lot if you would sum up where the lecture and discussion have got to every fifteen minutes"

2. Week 3. "Well..... you didn't do what we said last week". (This was, obviously, the point at which I knew it was going to work well, because she proved she would tell me when I was screwing up. In fact I had done what she had advised the session after the one in which she gave me the advice, but forgot by the following week when she was visiting again).

3. Week 3. "You've had six sessions with them and you still don't know all their names. You should know all their names by now" (I had 19 of the names, but kept confusing two students, who, now, I cannot see any resemblance between at all).

4. Week 4. "It is ok to cold call -- in fact I wish more teachers would cold call. But you need to tell them in advance that you are going to cold call -- M was really put on the spot by it today". (One of the advantages of her being there only one session a week was that I could refer to her advice the subsequent session without her being there -- so I asked whether they agreed, which they all did, and I apologized to M, and told them that in subsequent sessions I'd feel free to cold call).

5. The subsequent year I employed her again. During the class we spend a couple of weeks on the tensions between multiculturalism and feminism, and I use two pieces, both of which use specific practices among the Hmong as illustrations -- and are quite negative about the practices. In the 2011 class, I had 5 Hmong students, and Emma anticipated my anxiety about teaching those papers with the Hmong kids in the room. My inclination was to drop the papers, which would have been an easy way out. Her inclination was to assign 3 of the Hmong kids to present those papers (everyone had to do a group presentation in class). I followed her advice, which turned out to be just great -- the Hmong students had not been very vocal participants (I'll get to that under the next item number) and assigning them these papers enabled them to be the experts in the room -- none of the students in the room knew even as much as I did (not much) about Hmong culture and practices but (obviously?) the Hmong students knew a lot. Oh, and they thought both the papers we read characterized the practices accurately and were right to be critical of them.

6. Again with the 2011 class. This was unusual not only in being 1/4 Hmong, but more than 50% non-white and more than 50% low income/first generation. The students would sit in a crescent formation that was, after a week, more or less a rainbow -- with the all but one of the black kids on one end, then Hmong, then Latina, then white (and at the far end the two Jewish girls and one black boy). There would be small group discussions in the preponderance of class sessions, with groups of 5 or 4 discussing some question I had set them. My habit has always been to assign people to these groups by going round the room assigning numbers (1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4 etc) so that people don't always sit with their friends. But the consequence was that that the loquacious white girls were taking up nearly all of the discussion time within the small groups, and all of it in the larger group discussion (because they were always assigned as group reporters).  Emma was able to think out the problem with me, and convinced me that the solution (which had occurred to me, but made me feel uneasy because it made the groups so vividly racially homogeneous) was to just assign people in blocks to their small group discussions (1,1,1,1,1; 2,2,2 etc). Indeed -- this led to much more discussion participation from the non-white students -- and much more connection to the class from the non-white students.

I could give more examples.[1] She was very diligent about making notes, and giving them to me, so I always knew what I had done wrong the previous week. She also, during the 2010 class, developed an additional role (which she devised) of peer mentor, about which more another time (but, I'll add, the aforementioned superb administrator has funded peer mentors as a normal part of the program as a result of our discussions with him).

I have no proof that the students learned any more in that class than in other classes. I am certain that  having her as a teacher-critic on the spot as it were made my teaching better during the semesters in which I hired her, but also that my teaching has improved, generally, as a result. And she was very cheap -- $500 per semester. I've thought a lot about what made it work well for me. I chose her, knowing that she had thought a lot about pedagogy, and was sharp about it. It may have helped that she was not a philosophy major -- she was more sensitive than a major might have been to the difficulties students had, and had no institutional need to please me. I had and have a particularly good relationship with her which enabled her to be completely frank about my deficiencies (though she always prefaced criticism with a lot of positive reinforcement -- I don't think she ever criticized me before having found something to praise). And, of course, I wanted to be criticized -- I have tenure, so it really doesn't matter for my professional standing what an undergraduate says about me (within obvious limits), and I would like to be a better teacher.

Most of these conditions are replicable for most professors -- at least, most tenured professors. I doubt a program assigning even willing students to criticize uninterested professors would yield much --  but a program encouraging, and making funds available for, professors to hire undergraduates to criticize (or, maybe a nicer word, coach) them (after some sort of training for the undergraduates, which I did not provide for Emma, but which she and I will provide for her successor this coming fall) seems like it could be beneficial. I only know of one program like this (at Utah Valley University) but I'm curious whether anyone else knows of similar programs or has had similar experiences.

Cross-posted at Crooked Timber

[1] I'm not counting the occasion on which a student, after hearing another student read out a harrowing first-hand account of a clitoridectomy, walked out of the room and passed out; at which point having a nursing student available was particularly valuable.


  1. Harry - Very cool idea. I've never heard of involving students in teaching observations in this way. I hear time and again about plans to create 'teaching mentor' or 'teaching partner' programs on my campus (programs where faculty observe one another's teaching on an ongoing basis), but they don't ever seem to come to fruition. So perhaps students are an easier resource to mine. Honestly, I think it would be fascinating to have a faculty member and a student do this simultaneously.

  2. So glad you wrote this up Harry! I'm going to need to find some funds at CCNY to foster this kind of thing. I had an almost reverse situation last term. One of my students from my first year seminar got picked to be a TA for a science course the semester after he was my student. He is ridiculously bright but he was nervous about teaching. So he would stop by a few times during the term to talk about pedagogy, fill me in on how his sections were going, etc. And though I never observed him, I learned a lot from these conversations because he was, as you said, a thoughtful undergraduate who had lots of ideas about how teaching could be better.

  3. This is really interesting and useful -- thank you! Did Emma already personally know any of the students in the class? I think that if I were to do something like this, I'd strongly prefer to hire a student who was, at least at first, a stranger to the students enrolled in the class. But do you think that that makes a difference? Do you think it would have made a difference in this case?


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