Yeah, You Got Me

Less than a month until school starts! Holy crap.

So I was talking with one of the younger Masters-level GTAs in our program today about her preparations for the rapidly-approaching semester. She’ll be teaching the first in our uni’s two-course composition sequences, and this’ll be her first time teaching that particular course. She was telling me about all of the constraints (my word, not hers) that the program places on her, as a young GTA: a list of required assignments (including grammar lessons?! WTF), a mandatory textbook, and a brand-new (mandatory) reader.

I did a terrible job of hiding my horror at this set-up, because to me, teaching is nothing if not kairotic. The system that she described, to me, seemed to strangle all of the possibilities out of teaching, especially teaching freshman comp. Look, I did my best not to be a sanctimonious git. But I have really, really strong feelings about what makes for effective teaching–especially the teaching of writing–and what my colleague was describing? Came nowhere close.

Then, ok, I realized that my approach to teaching–cultivated over time and through the hands of many fantastic mentors and role models (wow, that makes me sound old)–is nothing if not idiosyncratic. I recognize that some parameters are necessary (especially for young teachers, I guess?) and that there are, no doubt, great teachers who thrive in such a scheme.

But it got me thinking about one of the docs I’ll need to draft soon, as I prepare for the job hunt: a revised teaching philosophy. My old one feels like a good place to start, but I’ve changed a bit over the past couple of years, and the philosophe needs to reflect that.

So round 1 of that revision: brain dump of the things I do as a teacher that I see as central to my success in the classroom.


1) I don’t give lectures. Ok, I very very rarely give lectures, even when I teach lit. (Heh! Though in retrospect, does a post like this count? Perhaps.)

2) My classes are discussion-based. See above. I come to class with an idea of where I want our conversation to go–or where I think it should–but I don’t freaking force it if what we end up talking about is more productive and/or interesting that what I came to class with. When I taught lit this past fall, this happened A LOT. And it was a really good thing.

3) I don’t use rubrics, but I do create assignment sheets that detail the requirements, due dates, etc. My assignment sheets will often focus on what the final product needs to do, and less on directives spelling out how the student to get there. But it depends.

4) I hate assigning grades to student writing. Like, a lot. When I teach composition, I use a portfolio system to put off the pain as long as possible.

5) I give midterms in all of my classes (yes, in freshman composition). When I teach lit, they get a final exam, too.

6) I require at least one conference per student each semester. When I teach writing, it’s usually two: one at the beginning of the term and a second either at mid-semester or just before the final. I encourage drop-ins and random appointments, too, but everyone has to come to my office at least once. I’ve found that, for some students, me breaking that initial ice makes it easier for them to come see me of their own volition.

7) I use my own writing (both good and ill) as examples in the classroom, where appropriate.

One of my favorite and most effective tricks is to bring in an excerpt from a paper I wrote as a sophomore in undergrad. I don’t tell the students that I wrote it, at first, but make a point of assuring them that this is an old example of student work by someone from another school (heh!). This excerpt has many issues in my book–and quite a few others, in the eyes of my students–and every time I’ve brought it in and used it as a basic for discussion (for a variety of reasons), it’s been a hit.

Last semester, for example, when my freshmen were struggling with how to respond productively to each other’s work, I used our discussion of the piece as a way of modeling how to translate the students’ many (valid!) criticisms into the kind of feedback the writer in question could actually use. And then at the end of the period, I casually mentioned that I was the author, to the students’ obvious amusement/horror/disbelief. Hee! It was great.

I’ve also brought in drafts of my more recent work and shown students the kinds of comments that reviewers and editors have made about my writing–in many instances, they cover the same ground as the comments that I give the students, things like: Explain further or Give an example or This sentence seems out of place. I do this to reiterate to my students that writing is ALWAYS hard, and the same issues they think they alone “struggle” with are, in many ways, universal. Or at least pretty freaking common.

8) I also use the students’ own writing as examples in the classroom, particularly in freshmen comp classes. Always anonymously, but with the open acknowledgement that this is work from one of the students’ own colleagues.

9) However, I don’t do this to trash students’ work or to point out its every flaw, because wow, is that a dick move. And super counterproductive. Instead, we talk about what works and what doesn’t in an example, and I do my best to model the kind of feedback that I’d like to see students give each other when they’re reviewing each other’s work.

10) I, uh, “rarely” use textbooks. Yeah, let’s put it that way.

11) Instead, I pick the readings myself. In lit classes, most of this selection happens before the semester starts; but in writing classes, I select most of the readings on the fly, as the semester goes along. This approach doesn’t always work, but 85% of the time, it does.

12) My syllabus is hard-ass; my demeanor with the students is not. A tough syllabus, I’ve found–and my willingness to back it up–gives me the ethos I need to relate to the students on a more easy-going, I’m human, You’re human, level. Sounds weird, but it’s served me well.

13) I don’t accept late work. Period. Unless there’s a documentable medical or family emergency, and those are rare.

14) I don’t write lesson plans. Not formal ones, anyway. Usually, it’s a list of items or ideas on a scrap of paper or a post-it. When I teach lit, I’ll often come to class with a set of discussion questions, but those, too, are often more of a place to start than a hard and fast plan. That said:

15) I break every class period into multiple tasks or activities. This is one of the most important elements of my teaching, and it came from the very first class I took as a grad student, during an ill-fated attempt to earn an MA in Social Studies Education (don’t ask). Still, key point: even if the class period’s only 50 minutes long, HAVE STUDENTS DO MORE THAN ONE THING. It helps keep them focused (hurray) and makes your life easier as a teacher (bonus); that is, if one activity bombs (as they do from time to time), you can move on to something else entirely and sweep the field clean.

For example, in a lit class, I might begin by distributing some discussion questions and asking students to jot down some notes (or write more formally, depending on the vibe) about one or two. Then, I’ll bring the class back together to chat. Sometimes, I’ll ask them to talk in groups of three first, and then we’ll talk as a class. Sometimes, I’ll skip straight to the “let’s all talk” phase. Again, depends on the vibe.

17) I trust my gut. It usually takes a couple of weeks, but once I can get a read on the class–a sense of the dynamic, how we work together as a whole, how talkative they are (or not), etc.–I let them steer me. Not in terms of what I’m teaching, usually, but in terms of how I teach. Some classes need more structure in terms of tasks; others work best when we spend most of our time talking. No two classes are the same, even if the material is; what bombs in one section will often sail in the next. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and let the students lead me.

18) I listen to my students. Duh, right? But I mean it: when I ask a question, and they answer, I fucking listen to what they have to say. If I don’t follow what they’re saying, I’ll break in at an opportune moment and say, “I’m not following you. What do you mean by X?”

Once the student’s done speaking, I’ll repeat it back to them in some way, often beginning with a statement like, “Ok, interesting. So what I’m hearing you say is [paraphrase]. Am I following you right?”

If the student says no, that’s not what I mean, I invite them to say it again; often, having heard someone try to summarize their point, the student’s second attempt is much more focused.

If the student says yeah, you got me, then I draw that thread of conversation back to the discussion as a whole. That is, I point out connections that I see between the student’s comment and what’s come before; or, between the student’s comment and where I’d like to (subtly) nudge the conversation to go next.

Honestly, this is probably the most important thing I’ve learned as a teacher, how important it is to listen. And, as a student, I’ve seen how few instructors do.

Thank you, Dr. Rippy, for brilliantly modeling this technique. She made it look effortless, easy, and when things are going well in the classroom, that’s what it can feel like, too.

19) I only plan the course readings and assignments (mostly) through midterm. I do this: a) because the speed at which I think we’ll get through material doesn’t always match reality; b) because shit happens; and c) because sometimes I figure out that students need something different from me than what I have planned. Having a halfway done schedule, as I tell the students, gives us room to maneuver and adjust as needed at midterm.

20) I enjoy my students. I learn far more from them, I think sometimes, than they do from me. And students can sense that; when you come to class happy to spend time with them, and when you show up simply out of obligation.

Ok, yeah. Getting a little preachy here. Heh! I admit: I’m ready for the semester to start. As for writing my teaching philosophy? Maybe a little less jazzed about that. But seeing all these ideas laid out reminds me that I actually do have a philosophy. And that’s pretty fucking cool.

Note to self: don’t say “fucking” in the actual document. Um.

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