Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Being the Professor vs. Being a Friendly, Older, Smart Person

In the spirit of sharing positive classroom experiences, as has been advocated over at Hybrid Pedagogy and other related and similar parts of the academic web (and to counterbalance what I do want to write about some missteps this semester but haven't quite fully finished thinking them through), I had a great class with my students yesterday. I'd love to be able to replicate it in the future but fear that the circumstances were so extraordinary that it just won't happen.

Some background: After a colleague had a medical emergency that required her to go on leave about a month into the semester, and because one of my classes for this term was cancelled, I was tapped to fill in. The trouble was that the class is on the cultural history of 20th-century Spain. Cultural history? Great. The 20th century on three-and-a-half days' notice? Deeply suboptimal. If I weren't under the gun to finish my book manuscript, I'm sure I could have managed to put together lectures on topics such as the role of women in civic life under Franco and just followed the syllabus. But I am, and so there was no way I could put in the kind of time it would take; so I agreed to take on the class on the condition that I lead it as a research seminar. I argued that I could teach the students methodology, theory and practice well and allow them to delve into a single topic of interest to them in a much deeper way. Initially this was supposed to last for four to six weeks, but is now looking like I will have the class for the whole semester since my colleague has not recovered as quickly as anticipated.

I created a schedule and teaching document to guide them through the research paper process. Since I was initially planning for a month and a half at the most, and since there are only four students in the class, I took the next for topics and offered them to the students as their research topics, requiring that they read the assigned primary and secondary texts dealing with their theme and then develop a bibliography of additional sources they found themselves. I told them that this was going to be a class that they'd get out of exactly as much as they put in.

At the first meeting I had with the students, it dawned on one of them that the pseudo-syllabus was my own work. Said she: "Wait, nobody at NYU handed this to you?" Said I: "No, Rob [site director] called me on Thursday and I put this together over the weekend." Said she: "This isn't half bad for a syllabus you wrote in a weekend." Another student, whom I had taught in a class last spring, added: "I was really worried when they told us you would be our professor." She realized how that sounded and added: "I mean, it's not that you're a bad professor." She realized that sounded worse, and concluded: "It's just that you gave us so much reading last year! I like this better."

And that's where the great classes and the irreplicable dynamic comes in. In reality, I'm not their professor. I walked in on the first day and was completely frank with them: I could help them with the practice of cultural history; but as for the material itself, while I'm not completely ignorant of the broad trends of the 20th century and while I've even read a decent amount from the Civil War period, this is not my wheelhouse. It's a very unusual situation, I told them, and we'll figure it out together. I'm not the professor. I'm a friendly, older, smart person with more experience and a few extra letters after her name who is helping them learn things for themselves.

It seems like it would be so artificial to try to replicate that posture in a regular class that I could teach in my sleep or underwater or standing on my head, but I think that it's what has led to such an open, fluid dynamic in the class.

Yesterday was the first day back from spring break and the students were supposed to turn in their rough drafts. When I asked if they were ready to swap with a peer for critique, they sort of... squeaked. I asked them what the squeaking meant, and they said that they had all had trouble/run out of time. It was a tight deadline (again, I was only planning to be with them for six weeks at first) and on top of spring break, I should have seen it coming. (To be fair, if I hadn't required a full draft, I suspect that they might not have gotten even as far as they did and wouldn't have had specific issues to discuss in class.) And they just started asking questions about their topic, about how to solve certain problems that they were having, and the discussion completely took off from there. They talked to each other, which I find is very rare in classes I have taught, asked each other good questions, and helped each other solve the difficulties they were having. I was there as a moderator who occasionally jumped in with an additional question or idea; they all walked out feeling much more confident about their research projects because they had much more focused ways of completing them. It was spontaneous and it was kind of perfect.

I don't know that deliberately instituting a fake schedule in the future would work. (I do that on a small scale in my regular seminars with first essays of the semester, having an unannounced peer critique and giving extra time to any student who wants to revise based on their peers' comments.) I think that it worked here because the students felt more at ease to totally blow a deadline because I'm not their professor and as much as they seem to like what we're doing, it's not what they signed up for. And obviously one can't count on spontaneity. And, finally, as I already said, I don't know how to replicate the "friendly, older, smart person" persona and the "in it together" spirit in a regular class without it seeming forced. That said, I'd very much welcome suggestions or thoughts on how to better encourage this kind of engagement in the future.

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