Teaching Conundrum

Well, thank goodness from my Wednesday Sophomores. They totally dug the exercise and got really into it. In fact, one of the students who is doing least well in the class actually pulled out his textbook to look something up while analyzing the cartoons so that his group could better understand what was going on in the image. He used the texbook as a resource! I almost cried. They talked to each other and to me for 85 minutes about these materials and had some really interesting interpretations and a lot of ideas. It made me very happy.

So, this leaves me with a serious problem. I think I’ve lost control of the MWF class. (Which was reinforced yesterday by the students’ behavior in the library tour and computer lab exercise yesterday. I had to tell one kid TWICE to stop checking his email DURING the reference librarian’s presentation, and I had to walk around and poke and prod MANY of the other students into actually doing the activity the librarian had developed — which was a good one for finding secondary sources on the web.) I was completely frustrated. If I had wanted to monitor the behavior of my students, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade of my life attempting to get this freaking degree. I would have gotten an education degree, (the M.uchlesshard A.ctually degree) been in and out in a couple of years and gone on to teach junior high. I did not take this route because I do not want to teach children. I want to teach adults. But, here I am, having to teach children.

In addition to this unruly library tour behavior, the number of stupid disruptive things that happen in the classroom have increased in the last couple of weeks. I’m not sure I can really articulate it, but I have this strong sense that the MWF class isn’t engaged, and that they have just decided to write the class off and ride it out for the last half of the semester. I feel like they don’t respect my authority, nor do they feel challenged or stimulated. But I don’t know and/or can’t tell if it is that they are too challenged — that the material is too difficult for where they’re at. I’m suffering all sorts of existential angst about this. And am not really all that surprised to discover that it really matters to me that this group of young men and women seem disengaged from the materials and from the course.

So, I’ve got a couple of questions that I would love some advice on:

1. What do you do when you think you’ve lost a class? I’ve got 7 more weeks to go — I clearly have to do something. But what?

2. Should I scold the whole group for the behavior of a few students during the library tour and tell them that I was embarassed and really unhappy about the disrespect they showed to the librarian? (In the students’ defense, there were a lot of computer problems with the library links, so this made things awkward and kind of disjointed in his presentation and in their ability to work through the exercises.) The last time I scolded a class, it was bad — it turned them against me and led to mutiny. Seriously. It was that first horrible class and after I scolded them for not doing the work a few weeks into the semester, a group of them got together and went to the head of the program to complain about how much reading I had assigned. Which, FYI, was WELL BELOW the parameters set by the program for weekly reading assignments. To my eternal gratitude, the program director told the mutinous ones to get the hell out of her office and to be grateful that they had a good teacher. But, regardless — this experience left me skittish about public expressions of dissatisfaction with the students. Plus, as a good midwesterner, I avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs. So, my question is, what do you guys do when a class has misbehaved? (And I still can’t believe that I am having to ask this or deal with it. It is so bloody stupid.)

3. I’ve never been a big fan of mid-semester evaluations, but I’m thinking about doing one to get some feedback from them about what they think is going on. Do you have a format that you like that elicits constructive feedback and not just griping? I have the sense that these kids would love the opportunity to complain about the quantity of reading and workload, but I don’t want to give them that chance. I’m well aware that they feel pushed by the amount of work. (The same amount that the WF students seem well able to manage.) But, I do want to know why they seem to have checked out recently. Can I include that on the form? (Question 1: What is working well in the class so far? Question 2: What do you want to see more of for the remainder of the semester? Question 3: Why are you all turning into petulant children?)

I really don’t know what the best approach is going to be here. I just have to hold my nose, close my eyes, and dive in. But, man, right now I’d really love to get my hands on that “Here’s How To Teach Correctly” manual that I was looking for way back in August as I worried about, ironically, what to teach on Friday, October 21. I must have had some kind of prophetic sense that I’d be in trouble on this day.

Anyway, anybody out there who has that manual, look up Unruly Classroom for me in the index, and send me what it says.

————-
Spellcheck is down — sorry for any stupid mistakes.

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20 responses to “Teaching Conundrum

  1. Sorry no manual here. But you are doing something right to have a class where the student pulls out the textbook–AMAZING. As far as the unruly behavior goes, you may want to speak on it. Frame it in a way that takes the heat off a little–“I realize that as we approach the end of the semester you all have a lot going on, you’re stressed, and overwhelmed with the misfortunate life of a student who can afford a college education, but you need to focus, maintain scholarly decorum, blah blah blah, and not act like petulant children.”

    I’m no fan of mid-semester evals either. Perhaps if you frame it in a creative way, “Make a top 5 list of your favorite topics/texts this semester and explain why.” If you don’t want to hear a lot of moaning, I would avoid prompts that highlight negatives. I think your Question #2 is a good one.

  2. I’ve been having similar worries about my MWF class and considered some mid-term evaluations. But my wife, who is a high school teacher and therefore a much more experienced classroom manager than I am, warned against that step. She said if I’m feeling like my authority is unstable, giving students an opportunity to tell me so will only compound the problem. I’ve done mid-term evaluations in past classes and think they worked well. But good mid-term evals really require an engaged class that cares about the course’s success. If the problem seems to be that they are not engaged or have checked out, they probably won’t have constructive things to offer you/us.

    One of my closest advisors told me that every once in a while you have a class that just needs a chew-out to get serious. He’s one of the nicest people I know so I have a hard time imagining him cracking down, but he told me that usually once a semester he halfway fakes a meltdown by chastising students for not doing the reading, taking things seriously, respecting their classmates, etc. Usually, he says, it’s so unexpected that it does the trick. I haven’t tried it myself though, so buyer beware.

  3. New Kid on the Hallway

    I actually would recommend midterm evals, because I have done them in the past when things weren’t working the way I liked in a class, and learned some useful things (primarily that the things I thought were the problem, weren’t). It can happen that students use them to challenge your authority, but I’ve had it flip the other way round, where the students were just impressed that I cared enough to ask (favorable mentions on final evals, for instance). Which way it goes will probably depend on your student population. Of course, if the midterm evals *do* reveal something that they students consistently perceive as a problem, administering the evals kind of obligates you to do something about it, or at least try to address it with the students, because otherwise they slam you for asking for their opinion but then ignoring it.

    An example: I had a class that was pretty sluggish, which I attributed to the lack-of-success of a particular activity I’d woven throughout the semester, b/c I was unhappy with that book/activity. When I did midterm evals, however, I realized that the problem was that they felt very insecure about the primary sources (few of the students in this class knew any medieval history before taking my course), and so I started handing out discussion questions the day before, and they knew what to focus on for the sources and felt much more confident about discussing them (not that I’m suggesting this as a solution – just saying that the evals helped me get a better sense of what was going on, and to address it).

    Unfortunately my midterm evals last fall helped not a whit, but I think the class was well on the way to tanking WITHOUT the evals, so they didn’t hurt (and still gave me interesting info).

    I’ve used a variety of forms, but basically the questions I want answered boil down to: 1) What’s working in the class? 2) What do you think needs to be changed? 3) Do you feel comfortable participating in class? and 4) Is there anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable participating in class? You may well find out they want less work, but having it in writing allows you to walk in the next time and start a discussion with them about the amount of work – asking why it’s too much, maybe asking them why they think you assigned it, why they don’t like it.

    As for the engagement thing – I think it might be worth just walking in and saying to them something like, “I get the sense that a lot of you have checked out of this class and are just going through the motions, and I wanted to start off today asking you if that’s correct, and if so, why.” You can make clear it’s about sharing reactions to the course and coming up with solutions, not scolding them. I think asking them what would make the material more interesting to them is a valuable exercise (note: not what *you* can do to make the material more interesting; what would make it more interesting to them). One of the things I have seen about classroom incivilities is that they often come out of a sense that the professor is equally checked-out/uncaring about the class – kind of a, “if s/he isn’t going to care about me, I’m not going to care about them” kind of thing. I doubt this is what’s going on here, but raising the topic explicitly can be really useful. You may find it’s something entirely unrelated to what you thought it was.

    I’m not a big fan of the come-to-Jesus moments myself – not that I don’t think they work for other people, but I can’t work up the drama/energy for them unless I really am angry, pissed off about something specific. I’ve chewed out a class for blowing off a video I showed (there were people reading for other classes instead of watching), but I have a hard time chewing them out unless there’s a really specific trigger. But that’s just me – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with chewing them out if you feel confident about pulling it off!

    I also think what you end up doing has to work with your own personality/comfort level. A mentor told me once about a colleague of hers who walked into a class partway through the semester and said, “I know this class isn’t working, and I know I’m a good teacher, so you need to tell me why.” My mentor, who’d been teaching 30 years, thought this was a great response, but admitted that she’d never be confident enough to tell her students she knew she was a good teacher!

    Good luck.

  4. Professor Bastard

    I can vouch for the effectiveness of the meltdown/chew-out approach. Almost two weeks ago I took over a course from an adjunct who was ineffective. From the day I took over until yesterday’s class I had mounting classroom decorum problems: most students were not doing the reading, students were coming to class 5-10 minutes late, using their lap tops in class for everything but taking notes, lots of chattering, etc. It culminated Monday with two remarkably and blatantly rude students doing everything but standing up and facing me with their middle fingers extended the entire hour.

    So I began class Wednesday with a 30 minute lecture about: the minimum expected standards of classroom decorum; that it was remarkable to me that I had to explain to them these minimum standards; that they were beginning their professional training (i.e., professional lives) *now* as students; that what made me angry is not the disrespect they show me (I can sleep at night knowing some 19-year-old girl doesn’t think I’m worth listening to); what makes me angry is the disrespect some of them show the rest of the class by failing to pull their weight as members of the learning community; i.e., we all need one another to understand and explore the course material, and that means we all have to be prepared and focused on the material, every class; what also makes me angry is that the unprepared, undisciplined students don’t respect themselves enough to put in an effort they can be proud of; college is hard work, but consider all the alternatives of how their lives could work out–no one’s going to work every morning in a chicken processing plant where you can’t get the taste of chicken guts and shit out of your throat; no one’s standing at a checkpoint in Iraq, wondering if the next car is going to blow your intestines out all over yourself; and no one’s going to go to bed tonight not knowing where breakfast is going to come from–so let’s be pretty goddamn grateful (yes, that’s a quote) that we have the opportunities we do and *get to work*. They were stunned, they were quiet, but there was a lot of participation in the subsequent class discussion for the rest of the hour, and I think I got my point across. I’m curious to how future classes go. I’ll be posting about it at my blog.

  5. Marcelle Proust

    I’d do midterm evals that focus on them: how much time are they spending each week on reading & on writing (separate questions) for the course; what would they find useful (tailored for your class–more grammar? more about organizing papers? more about using primary sources?); what kinds of assignments have they learned best from in the past (try to get at learning styles). Then when you respond to their answers by saying, “Since you like creative assignments and want more about using primary sources, we’ll do that, and we’re also going to talk about professional norms and what’s expected at college” (or something along those lines. Make it about them, not about the class; then they don’t have the opportunity to rant (well, they could highjack it, but you aren’t offering the opportunity on a platter) and may be more forthcoming, since we all like being asked about ourselves.

  6. I’m with New Kid and Proust…I have had a similar experience to what you describe and I am also a midwesterner who avoids conflict at all cost (who decided we had to be the ‘nice people’?). I ask questions about both the student and the class. Ask them to evaluate themselves first–I ask about the amount of work they are putting into the class (attendence, reading, participating, etc.) THEN I ask what I can do to make the classroom a better place for them to learn. I find that their comments are then tempered by their personal evaluation–most (not all) will admit when they have contributed to the problem.

  7. New Kid, Proust and Statgirl all make excellent points. Reading back over my comment I realize I sounded more committal than I actually am, probably because I was feeling a bit down about my own class on that particular day.

    When I feel a class isn’t going well, my first instinct is to think that there’s something I can be doing better to engage students, and my second instinct is to ask students what that is. Teaching is a two-way process, and one reason I haven’t tried the “meltdown” approach is because it really isn’t me.

    I just wanted to make clear, for what it’s worth, that I didn’t intend to dismiss mid-term evals (which I’ve done in all of my past semesters) or to give the chew-out method a ringing endorsement. As in all things, I guess, which of these methods works depends on the particular class, the particular problem, and the particular personality and pedagogical style of the teacher. Much as I’d like a universal manual for these kinds of questions, I know deep down that I can’t escape the particularity of teaching–and don’t really want to either, since that’s what makes it exciting and rewarding.

    This is a helpful thread! Thanks for the advice.

  8. I have had some success with the chew-out method, but like with NK, only when there’s a specific and tangible trigger–the class that’s been lame for a couple of weeks and then one day absolutely no one has done the reading and so we can’t proceed. I usu don’t make too awfully big a deal of it, I just make it clear that I’m angry and disappointed and tell them to get out and to make sure they come back the next day with all the reading done, because they will be quizzed on it.

    OTOH, I have had this method entirely backfire too. One semester none of the class had read the first half of Arcadia on Tuesday, so I kicked them out. They came back on Thursday, and still none of them had done the grading. That was the end for that class–I ended up failing well over half of them because they simply refused to read and would sit there glaring at me every class period.

    I’ve never done a full-blown formal midterm evaluation, though I’ve come close once or twice. My classes have been mostly awesome this semester, and today I spent half of each class session asking them to identify the larger themes of the class, and asking them to think about my objectives in selecting the texts and in the way I’ve presented them to them. The students were really positive, as I felt pretty confident they would be, and brought up a bunch of ways they’ve been thinking about the class materials outside of the classroom–even some of the students who I had thought were checked out at least somewhat piped up with some affirmations. Not that you should try exactly that with a group that’s already belligerent or anything, though, but perhaps asking them to step back and to think about the larger narrative of the course and about what they’re doing in the class would be helpful?

  9. New Kid on the Hallway

    Scrivener, I find it really telling that in your comment you talk about sending the students home and that they came back on Thursday still not having done the grading! Your to-do list must look much like mine about now… 😉

    I do agree with the comments about asking them about themselves and what they’ve been doing/not doing (one of the forms I use, for instance, asks them to ID how often they’ve come to class and how often they’ve done the reading when they’ve done so). And I agree that they’ll often acknowledge if they’re part of the problem – I’ve had students comment before about discussion not going well because they hadn’t done the reading, and they knew it was their own fault. (Again, I think it depends on the culture of your school – my sense is that the higher level of entitlement, the less you’ll get this kind of response…)

    FWIW, I also think Professor Bastard’s lecture sounds *excellent*. I just can’t quite pull that kind of thing off very well. But I’m also lucky that I haven’t encountered that level of incivility – partly due to student culture (I’ve mostly taught in very passive-aggressive “nice” parts of the world), partly because I teach small classes at small schools where students know each other so do have a certain degree of respect for each other that doesn’t happen in some of the big, anonymous schools. (I like to think that I also have a classroom persona that helps to discourage this behavior, but over the years I’ve become less convinced that it has anything to do with me!) I’d love to pull off one of those clean-up-your-act speeches with a group that really needs it, but I’m too much of a pushover.

    I’m thinking perhaps now I should actually do some midterm evals… I’d better decide quickly or we will be too far past midterm!

    (Sorry to go on so long – the later at night, the more I ramble. ;-D)

  10. I usually use midterm evals if only to reinforce my sense that things are ok. Most of the students let me know that.

    The ideas about asking them what *they’ve* been doing is new to me; I’m going to try that.

    The downside of the midterm evals is going back to the class, as I did last week, and saying – yes, I think you’re right about increasing the response papers’ point value and changing the text, but those are things I can’t do mid-semester. However, I can eliminate pop quizzes and put them online for you to take (or not) before class. So I had to be very honest with them about what I could and couldn’t do, even if I agreed with them. I wish I had said upfront that these evals usually help the next semester’s class, whereas I said they could help me with this class, unlike the evals at the end of the course.

    good luck!

  11. NK: D’oh! I feel like you’ve uncovered my secret pain…

    Stewgad: I thought of another thing to say, which isn’t advice about how to get your class back in order, per se, so much as it’s advice about thinking about your role as teacher. And my guess is that you know this already, but I find that I need to be reminded of it periodically myself, so I’ll say it here.

    I think there’s a tendency for us to think that you have real control of the classroom because you’re the prof. But you are only one person in that room, and the fact is that the students have an awful lot of control over the experience. That might not be true if you were going to run a straight lecture class under a “banking concept” of pedagogy. But once you’ve decided to involve the students in the educational experience, you’ve necessarily decentered control and given them a lot of power over the dynamic. That’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But they have to step up and put that power to good use. If they refuse to cooperate then no matter what you do, it isn’t going to work in a libertarian classroom. (I’m using Frere’s terms of course.)

    So the easiest thing you could do to turn the classroom around would be to stop using group activities and such and start just walking in and lecturing for an hour and then giving them multiple choice exams and such to evaluate their ability to absorb what you’ve told them. And it might even be worth considering such a choice, but obviously that would not be the way I’d recommend you go.

    I guess where this becomes advice about managing the classroom is that you might even want to pose it to them in these terms.

    Here’s what I might do if I were you, and what I have done before. Copy the first page or so of Frere’s “Banking Concept of Education” and hand it out to them. Give them a couple of minutes to read it–it’ll be very familiar to them from their high school experiences. Talk to them for a minute or about the distinctions between “banking” education and libertarian education, and then explain that your preference is for libertarian education but that it requires their cooperation and commitment–explain what they gain in such a transaction adn what their responsibilities are. If they are very responsive and interested, you might ask them if there are ways in which they have felt you not trusting them to respond or ways in which you have not quite been willing to turn over power to them–only ask this if you’re pretty sure that they’ll mostly be willing to affirm what you’ve done, though.

    I have done this activity–guess it’s my version of the midterm evaluation process–in many classes and it has helped. I think we assume that they understand what their roles are in these decentered classrooms, but they still have very little experience with being expected to contribute to classroom discussion, at least the first years and sophomores don’t. Sometimes it’s just a matter of making them aware that “having to participate” also means that they are allowed to take some control of their own education and to make the class respond to their own interests and concerns too. And that they are responsible for contributing to their classmates’ education too–they don’t know that unless you point it out to them, but it’s the kind of responsibility that some of them will take more seriously.

  12. New Kid on the Hallway

    Oooh, Scrivener, that’s a really good idea. Some of the problems I ran into last fall were definitely me running up against students’ assumptions that we were operating under the “banking” model of education. I may have to adopt that activity at some point (though I might do it at the beginning of the semester the next time I teach my non-history course…).

    And timna, I’ve definitely run into that issue: “Okay, you may hate activity X, but since half the students have done it already, we can’t just ditch it now!” sigh…

  13. What a brilliant comment, Scrivener. Not just helpful advice, but an edifying reminder of why we’re doing this. It’s so easy to stray off the straight and narrow and start being the banker.

  14. Professor Bastard

    Hello, All –

    Could anyone point me toward where I could find Frere’s “Banking Concept of Education”? I’ve not read him before . . .

    Thanks much –

    Bastard

  15. Bastard,
    I’m sure it’s around in a number of places, but I know that it’s in the anthology Ways of Reading ed. by by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky.

  16. Oh, and New Kid, I’ve done it the first day or two of class too, sometimes successfully. If you do it first thing, be prepared to reference it again multiple times over the next weeks, because that first day it won’t sink in. On the other hand it does set a tone for the beginning of the class that can work well.

    And thanks Caleb!

  17. Bastard, I found the opening section of the essay online here. (Note that I misspelled Freire in my earlier comment, and this site misspells his name too. It is Freire.

  18. Freire’s essay on the banking model was the first one we read in my composition classes this semester. It really helped set a good tone for the class, and when I have problems with people reading, etc., I have something to come back to. I’ve had a funky gender dynamic going on in one section this term, too (men dominating discussion, interrupting women, sometimes being quite rude), and so I’ve given them an essay on gender and communication to read for tomorrow. I like making our class dynamic the subject of the day’s discussion when we’re able to connect it to reading… it keeps things focused in a way that “What do you like/dislike about the class” doesn’t seem to do for me.

  19. Professor Bastard

    Scrivener – Thanks much! I’m going to use it next semester at the beginning of my classes.

    Stew-How did it go?

  20. Wow. What an awesome conversation. I’m coming across it quite late — but better late than…

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