Teaching Follow-Up

This post is long overdue. It is also overlong, so my apologies in advance. It’s taken a little while to get my evaluations and I didn’t receive a lot of actual comments. Three, in fact.

Student Feedback

Since I am not returning to teaching in a university setting (explanation later), I feel I can respond to these anonymous comments with a certain amount of freedom.

“Excellent background to be teaching this course. Offers real world constructive feedback.”

Not much to say here besides, “Thank you.” So: thank you!

“Instructor is obviously intelligent, if even equally spacy at times. Would have likely benefitted from creating own syllabus rather than modifying pre-existing EH 300 syllabus. Highly informative w/ constructive feedback. Will likely only improve w/ additional semesters instructing.”

Guilty as charged. I used someone else’s syllabus for this class, partly because I was required to for content’s sake, but also because I’d never done this before. My moments of spaciness came when one of the following situations occurred:

  • My due dates conflicted. To be fair to myself (and my students), if there was a conflict, I gave them the later date.
  • The inherited instructions on the syllabus were unclear. This usually resulted in a five-minute interrogation session by my students, who wanted to know “What do you mean by X?”
  • I just flat-out gave the wrong lecture. This only happened once. It didn’t do the students any harm, though I was embarrassed when it was pointed out to me, as we were to go over an assignment in class and I ended up covering something else entirely. My apologies. I was not nearly as prepared as I could or should have been for every class. Personally, I give my teaching efforts a C+ for the semester.

“Some of the in-class questions were too vague to find a ‘correct’ response.”

I’m flipping a coin on whether this was a bad thing or not. There were times when I would ask a question and hear the equivalent of crickets from the class. In fact, on a couple of occasions, I actually played a cricket sound effect on my iPhone in class. After the second or third time I did this, one student asked, “Are those the ‘uncomfortable silence’ crickets?” I responded, “That’s exactly what those are, thank you for noticing.” Later in the semester I played the “Final Jeopardy” music from the game show. They can’t fault me for trying to make things interesting.

But returning to the topic of vague questions and “correct” responses, I guess I’ll say this: Most of my work consists of vague directives or uncertain assignments. It’s an environment in which I thrive. Most of my “cricket” moments dealt with real-world situations, where I’d ask the class, “Given X situation, what do you think might be of most interest to the customer when it comes to content?” As the semester wore on, I started saying, “Look, there’s no wrong answer here. Just take a guess.” More crickets. But really, the workplace–for which I was trying to prepare my students to write–is often amorphous and vague. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you have a couple options: 1) Ask. 2) Make up your own answer. I’d have settled for either.


Why I’m Not Teaching Anymore

The hardest part of the class for me came about halfway through the semester, and I have only myself to blame for it. For one assignment I asked the students to write a business letter to the department chair offering suggestions for improving the content (not the presentation) of the Business Writing 300 class. “You can gripe about my personality all you want in the student evaluations at the end of the semester.” The letters were decent–nobody in my class got lower than a C–but some students couldn’t resist venturing beyond the content-only mandate and making comments about how I conducted my class. The bottom line was that nearly everyone was dissatisfied with how I graded things. So I took the time to explain my grading scale, which was structured as follows:

  • 50% Content
  • 35% Mechanics (Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar)
  • 15% Aesthetics (Formatting)

My logic here was that this is how I’m “graded” on the job: 1) Is the content correct/does it answer the mail? 2) Is it relatively free from egregious errors? 3) Is it neat/pretty on the page? Usually I have the luxury of handing off my stuff to a graphic designer, so I didn’t gripe much about aesthetics. However, I did get some gripes about my multiple markdowns for formatting consistency or instruction-following issues.

The feedback that hurt the most was, “None of us here wants to be a professional writer.” Fair enough. But the implication of the comment was, “…so go easy on us.” Like hell! My response to this comment was a bit frustrated. I said, “Look, last week I gave you guys a 14-point list of things I asked you not to do on your papers. If you don’t do those things, you won’t get marked down for them!” Mirabile dictu! The next week they read the list, didn’t do the things I asked them not to do, and everyone’s grade shot up.

I really can’t complain about the quality or intelligence of my students. I did have a couple students who just didn’t do the homework on occasion. They didn’t even do me the courtesy of making up a clever or dramatic excuse to win my sympathy–not even “The dog ate my homework!”

One student got upset with me for getting solid and very respectable “B.” They wanted extra credit. I explained that there was plenty of time left in the semester to bring up that grade. The one day I did offer extra credit, I offered it to everyone. It was the review for the final exam, and suddenly the crickets were drowned out in a raucous chorus of class participation! Education for its own sake? Not much of a motivator. Education with the possibility of reward? And chocolate in the classroom? Activity! Engagement! And much to my happy surprise, the answers I heard in the session–I’d set it up more or less like a game show–were the right ones. Well, that was an eye-opening class, and actually pretty fun, but by the time I learned that lesson, I’d already made my decision not to return to teaching.

Lastly, and this is not a reflection on the students at all, but on me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more introverted. Now it is entirely possible to be in a public speaking, teaching, or other profession and be an introvert, but you’ve got to have a passion for the work. Part of the problem is that I lack that passion. There are other things I can and do enjoy doing with my allegedly copious free time. Part of the problem were those damned crickets.

Lessons Learned

So if you’re gung-ho to teach at the university level and would like some advice, here’s what I can offer:

  • Don’t make the entire class (or, God help you, the semester) a long lecture. It was painfully obvious to me that just because I enjoyed listening to a learned and witty older person, that is not the preferred learning style for many or for Generation Y.
  • Find ways to get the students engaged in some sort of participatory, group activity where they can work together.
  • Set expectations: yes, there will be X activity, but they have to absorb the content before they can start applying it, yes?
  • Make the activities semi-relevant or semi-realistic.
  • If you can find engaging, group-related ways for students to absorb the content, go for it. I wish I’d been more creative on that score, but sometimes the only way to get the content out there is to read it, listen, and apply it. You try to make MLA citation standards exciting!
  • If you solicit feedback, expect that you’ll hear things you don’t like. I’ve had some excellent professors over the course of my education, but that doesn’t mean everyone in my class liked them. They were excellent professors for me because they taught in a manner that appealed to me.
  • Don’t teach unless you’re serious about it, committed to it, and love doing it. Most likely you don’t need to be told this or you wouldn’t have taken the job. However, I went into teaching as an experiment. I didn’t know if I’d like it, but it was on my “bucket list” of things to try (not everyone wants to run a marathon). Now I know. I’m glad I did it, and I appreciate the indulgence of UAHuntsville and my students for putting up with my off-kilter sense of humor last fall, but from here on, I’ll stay here in the blogosphere. I’m a writer, I’m passionate about writing, and that’s why I do what I do for a living.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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