Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

I’m Sorry I Didn’t Make Class, Did I Miss Anything?

In academia, computer science, discipline on October 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

Another day in the office, another student asks me the time honoured question.

Hi Professor <look a bit sheepish> I wasn’t in class the other day, did I miss anything?

This is one of those moments where because they are young, and because I was once young too, I find myself suggesting that they borrow someone else’s class notes and talk to someone who was there. But every now and again I get this urge I have to suppress to respond in one or more the following ways.

  1. No. You missed nothing. I come here only to entertain myself, frankly you’d be better off talking to your cat to get the answers to your midterm/homework.
  2. Yes, you missed approximately 1.5 hours in which I lectured, the students discussed, we conducted some group assignments, I provided feedback. Now go and write me an essay about why that might constitute missing something in class.
  3. Actually I told the people who bothered to show up what questions were going to be on the final. And I made them promise not to tell you.
  4. Really, seriously?

MOOCS: Another To-Do in a Culture of Busyness

In academia, academic management, discipline on July 30, 2012 at 10:22 am

My institution, Georgia Tech, recently signed up as a participant institution in the Coursera MOOC. This, and other events, have caused a lot of discussion about MOOCS. I won’t rehash them all here, but I will point to Mark and Ian’s blog posts about learning and the assertions made both explicitly and implicitly made.

I was doing my readings about MOOCs while reading another book, an ethnography of the contemporary LA middle class family. It’s a rich portrait of the lives of 32 families specifically, and a reflection on our lives at home. And this led me to another question I have about MOOCS. When, exactly, are we supposed to find the time for the courses?

It’s not just the faculty instructors who have to take on workload to prepare the course (at Georgia Tech this is extra workload not associated with or balanced against our other responsibilities). But, what about those who take the classes. This imagined modern American learner likely has many things to juggle, a job (or multiple jobs), a family, and so forth. As the book makes painfully clear, the average American has very little time left to spend on anything, let alone education. So, how are they supposed to cram in a 6 week course and assignments on top of all the other responsibilities?

I wonder whether the high rates of dropping out can be partially explained by people wanting to learn, feeling that education and self-improvement (which is a big industry marketing its own life-long worth) matter, but then it turns out to be impossible to juggle the programming assignment with their children’s homework and extra-curricula activities. If, as this book claims, Americans are down to meals that last less than 30 minutes and don’t feature all the family, because they are so pressed for time, where does a MOOC come into that equation?

End of the Semester

In academia, computer science on December 7, 2011 at 7:59 pm

I’ve been really quiet for a while. Its not that I didn’t have things to say, but work has kept me busy. It’s the last week of classes and I am looking forward to the different rhythm. But I’m also going to miss the students. I started out this semester being so nervous of meeting a new crowd. And now they are all familiar strangers. I know a bit about their personalities from the things that they have written, from the t-shirts they wear, and other clues.

But I also know it because slowly over time some of them have taken a bit of time after the class to hang out with me and chat. And I’ve enjoyed that its a reward to have people just open up and talk a bit rather than scurrying off to the next class, or away from the current one.

I turned out the light in the classroom I’ve been going to for 16 weeks, twice a week. I was the first one there on that first day and the last one out on the last. As I turned it off I ended another chapter of teaching, another set of memories and experiences. And these have been good and I will not forget them. And I will be excited about the next set I will create, but right now, I’m feeling some loss for the ones that are now past.

Anonymous Class Feedback

In academia, academic management, computer science, empirical, research on January 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I am always really nervous about anonymous class feedback (Georgia Tech, like most Universities I am sure, invites students to participate in an anonymous survey about the class). It’s not just because my Dean reads the reports, but also because it’s the final evaluation by the students of my ability (or not) to communicate to them. I dread seeing figures and written comments that could suggest I’ve not done an important part of my job of teaching.

Despite my dread, each year I try to encourage the students to participate in the survey. I explain that it really is anonymous to me. I can’t tell unless you’ve been the student who has complained about X during the semester and in the feedback it looks like you’ve cut and paste that email message into the comments field. I believe that it’s an opportunity for students to help the instructor improve the class, and it’s their voice into their education.

Teaching feedback has definitely helped me though.

Take for example the following

This was the first course instructor has ever taught. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter is bloody fantastic, however the organization of the course seemed rather haphazard.

It was an accurate comment (which continued with more details about the nature of the disorganization), and I was appreciative that the student had called out the fact that it was my first class ever. It (and other comments) helped me to revise parts of the class extensively. The mistakes I had made had not been intentional, I didn’t imagine that they would cause the problems they did. Those sorts of comments, which I have had for other classes, remain the hardest comments to read. I hate reading comments that suggest that a decision I made had unintended negative consequences. Those are also the comments that make me wish that the students would approach me during the class and discuss the issue, but I understand that’s not always possible. When I can (sometimes I am a bit stumped on how to take action), I revise the class and in some cases now, hundreds of other students who have taken the class since then have implicitly benefitted from those changes. Anonymous class feedback does work, if it means that classes evolve accounting for things that could, on reflection, have been done better.

Teaching feedback is also an interesting reflection of me as a person. I get comments about the British slang I use in classes (and I have gotten better about knowing when I’ve said something no-one in the room understands), and my apparent ability to get off topic. One year I was even told that I was being benchmarked against another faculty colleague who also had a similar reputation. The competition was apparently which one of us would veer the farthest off topic, how they measured this remains a mystery to me. I also have an “um” that I need to work on, and I should seriously consider how much I walk about (one time I tried lecturing in high heels which rather than slowing me down resulted in me taking my shoes off and lecturing).

Some of the most rewarding comments have been about my sense of humour. It’s always good to know that people think I have a sense of humour. This is particularly gratifying because I’ve never seen it on a teaching statement, but I decided to include some text in mine on why humour is a useful way to take a mental break during a long lecture of difficult or dry material. Interestingly enough a student told me through the feedback that it’s also a great way to remember a particular concept. Something I’ve been meaning to add to my teaching statement. One source I draw on for humourous tales is the many mistakes I’ve made, and luckily I’ve got a set of instructional material that includes some pretty funny fails.

Another set of rewarding comments are those from students who feel that what they’ve learnt has changed them. One of the classes I teach includes observation methods. I received this comment.

I am different today than before taking this class: I am more aware of my surroundings after taking this class.

I can’t easily put into words what comments like that mean to me. Sometimes people who will not likely use the methods or content of the class again tell me that it helped them or has changed them. Wow. Once I got a hand written letter from a former student telling me that something I had taught him had helped him land a job (the interviewer had asked him questions about a particular HCI method, one that I had taught him, and even though he was going to be focused on systems development he had helped the interviewer understand what the method was and when/why it was valuable). And to whomever wrote this, well yes, you made my day (and not just because you spelt favourite correctly).

This was my favourite– that’s right favourite– course that I have taken at GATech.

So despite my dread, I will be anticipating anonymous class feedback. I will be reading it, taking what’s good and cherishing it, and trying to amend and evolve my classes. And secretly wishing that I’d gotten it all right the first time.

The End of the Semester

In academia, computer science on December 14, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’ve written about teaching nerves, and the anticipation of that new semester and new academic year. This week is finals week, the semester is now almost over. I’m writing this post as much for me as for anyone else, although I will always gladly take comments. This post is about the end of the semester and the feelings that I come to have by week 16, it’s a reminder of them, that I plan on re-reading shortly before I start teaching again.

Last week I said goodbye to the students who I had seen on a regular basis for 16 weeks. I am sure that they didn’t all share the same feelings I had, which were those of a type of sadness that comes with knowing that people you’ve seen routinely will now fade into the student body. For a small group of those students, that actually won’t be much of a change from the times when we did meet. However, for the large majority whose personalities have been more evident to me, I’ll miss their habits and being able to potentially predict what they might say.

There are the students who always sit in the same place. Even if they say nothing, I know where they will be. They are also the ones that look vaguely confused if someone else happens to take their seat. There are the students who show up for exams in pajamas and other fine attire (I had a student who wore a shirt suggesting to me that he was in Spain when they won the World Cup this year, I thought what a fantastic experience that must have been and wondered whether that was made possible by the GT Barcelona program). T-shirts with lots of geek humour made me smile, and appreciate the sensibilities of their wearers. And of course there were students who were preparing for job interviews and came to class looking much tidier than the instructor, a piece of me was rooting for their success, another wondering whether I should have combed my hair or attempted something more tidy for class myself.

Then there are the students who speak during class discussions. I learnt so much from them, not just content that was related to the class, but through their perspectives about their lives, their experiences and so forth. Glimmers into the myriad of different worlds that our student body collectively comprises. Over the course of the sixteen semesters I watched as people found their voices, saw individuals drawing connections among the different elements of the class materials. I guess that’s what it means to watch learning happen. I had after-class encounters. Sometimes a little awkward, not everyone wants to hang out with their Professor on the Tech Trolley, it’s not very hip after all. Ah, I remember feeling the same. That was a long time ago. But others wanted to chat, about class, about life outside of class. Some wanted to know about England, what could I tell them about student life there and so forth.

And now that’s done. It is time for all of us to move on to the next challenge. People I saw routinely will no longer be in that circle, but I am sure I will continue to catch glimpses of them as they move around campus into new classrooms and experiences. I started with apprehension and ended by missing those familiar students.

Teaching Nerves

In academia, computer science, discipline on November 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

I’ve been writing about service lately, so I thought it was time to give teaching some coverage. It’s week 12 of a 16 week semester, and at this point my teaching schedule has been internalised and I have gotten over most of my nerves. But, nerves about teaching accompany each semester.

The very first time I taught at Georgia Tech, I actually did not teach I gave a 1 hour conference talk. Mmm… not so good. My first thought was “oh shit, I’m going to run out of all my carefully prepared material” in a fortnight. I also decided that I was going to need to come out from behind the podium and interact with the class. I was nervous and frightened, not because of the students, they were lovely and kind and as my first class I have fond memories of them (thank you, you know who you are). But I was still nervous, I wanted to do a good job, but it was apparent to me then that I didn’t know how to teach and had had little practice to draw on.

My style has evolved in the 7 years since then. Mostly in a good way. I am still known for getting off topic, for my “um”, and for mispelling things on the whiteboard and then trying to unsuccessfully convince people that it’s British English. Georgia Tech students do not typically fall for this, but it does mean I don’t try to correct the misspelt word anymore. (I have learnt that once the word has gone wrong it’s just best left alone, attempts to correct frequently result in even worse misspellings).

But despite the evolution in teaching methods the nerves remain. Before class starts each semester I typically have dreams about teaching. I miss class. I teach the wrong class. I discover 5 weeks into a 16 week semester that I was meant to teach a class that’s been meeting without me (not likely) for those 5 weeks.

This builds until the first day. And I now understand it to be a combination of performance anxiety and meeting new people. I’m always a bit nervous when I meet a lot of new people. And there’s nothing like class for meeting a lot of new people. All at once. They all know you, and you don’t know any of them.

One of the things that eases over time is that you start to get to know the students. Some by name. Some by the place where they sit, for we are all creatures of habit. Some because they knit in class. Some because they show up wearing pajama bottoms to class, something that you wish you could do. A degree of familiarity gets established, for these particular hours on these particular days, we will be together, and we’ll have to make the most of it.

One area where my nerves have dissipated over time is in trying to reach everyone. Some people have terrible game faces. They sit there staring at you as if you were mad, or as if they were angry, but it turns out that that’s just the way that they pay attention. Knowing that made me less nervous. And I am glad that there is reach there, even if it’s accompanied by a look of vague hostility (sometimes not so vague).

I used to get nervous when I couldn’t reach someone. Then I read a wonderful book about the experience of being a student. I learnt that some of the students in my classes are not there to be reached (or at least not as much as I would like). They’ve made calculation that involves prioritizing among the classes they are taking, and yours doesn’t make the top end of the cut. I still try, for a while, and then once it is clear what my place is in their classroom calculus, I recognize it, and at least while other feelings of frustration may ensue, I am not nervous.

There is one thing that still makes me nervous, when students receive grades that are not what they wanted or expected. Female Science Professor wrote about this, I am glad I am not alone.

But the main reason I wanted to write the post was to say that in the 7 years I’ve been teaching, my nerves have subsided, but they have not gone away. I spent some years thinking that eventually my nerves would pass, now I wonder whether some degree of nerves is central to the experience.

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