This morning’s developments – Trump sacking the acting Attorney General Sally Yates for ‘betrayal’ – has brought to mind one of the more frustrating episodes of my teaching career.* Some years ago I was advising a mature student, a retired commercial lawyer, on his Masters thesis; lovely bloke, good knowledge of the material, interesting ideas, but we hit a complete impasse when it came to his style of argument. He would cite a passage from a source as if its meaning were obvious, or at best assert his understanding of it and move on; or he would make a statement, with a reference to a single modern source, and then treat the matter as settled. Our meetings increasingly became variants on the same basic conversation: “Don’t you think it might be more complex than that?” “No.” “What about these other interpretations and arguments?” “I don’t agree with them.” “Don’t you think you should set out your reasons for rejecting them?” “No, I don’t see that.” (more…)
Posts Tagged ‘teaching’
It’s the week before my first week of teaching in Exeter (a week earlier than I’m used to, creating an unfortunate clash with the Deutsche Historikertag in Hamburg, so it’s actually going to be my first half week of teaching…). Busy uploading module (not ‘unit’ or ‘course’; must remember that) information onto ELE, learning the relationship between seminars and study groups, revising the ILOs according to house style, checking availability of e-books, re-writing guidance on source analysis exercises, navigating SRS to send out messages, trying to grasp the workings of BART and RECAP, and wondering where I put my copy of the guide to local acronyms. I dunno, in my day you got a photocopied bibliography in the first lecture if you were lucky, none of this spoon-feeding and eDucation nonsense… (more…)
“But he doesn’t seem to know our names…” I remember reading this in a student feedback form years ago, from a unit being taught by a senior colleague. I actually thought it was pretty impressive, and a mark of the Bristol spirit, that such an eminent scholar would be teaching a beginners’ course for first years without a hint of complaint, rather than (as often seems to be the case elsewhere) insisting on limiting his exposure to students to advanced seminars where they could be expected to do most of the work themselves. I can also fully appreciate the difficulty, as one gets older, of learning names and retaining them; apologies to any of my students reading this, but my short-term memory is basically rubbish these days, and the effort of learning the names of all the second-year ancient historians for the unit in this half of the year has driven out roughly 60% of the names of the first-year ancient historians that I memorised back in the autumn. (The good news is that, according to our discussion in a class on digital history, today’s students don’t bother with blogs, so I may be okay). (more…)
If you haven’t already seen it, head over immediately to Rebecca Schuman’s hilarious and perceptive piece on Slate, PowerPointless, subtitled “Digital slideshows are the scourge of higher education”. Then, if you are a teacher, spend five minutes contemplating those things you have done with PowerPoint that you ought not to have done, for there is no health in you. There are people working on a suitable scale of penances; using the ‘spin’ animation is obviously a sackable offence. Students and other non-academics can, for the moment, start smugly compiling a PowerPoint Bingo card for the next lecture they have to attend; if you have to do PowerPoints they’re probably rubbish as well, but that’s our fault for setting such a bad example. “Faculty who abuse Powerpoint create students who abuse Powerpoint”.
On the whole, I don’t think my practice comes off too badly in terms of the various sins that Schuman identifies; I do at least keep the animation to a minimum, don’t try to cram too many words in tiny font onto a single slide, and have never ever simply read out the words on the screen. On the contrary, I treat the slideshow rather like a jazz standard in small group improvisation (more…)
I’ve just been evaluating the student contributions to the blog f0r my unit on Approaches to Ancient History. I introduced this a few years ago as a means of encouraging reflection on the issues raised in the unit, not least in recognition of the fact that not everyone feels comfortable about speaking up in a moderately large class – blog technology not only made the whole thing much easier to supervise than the former practice of everyone having to write a reflective journal, but it also created the possibility of ongoing discussion and debate. All students were expressly required to spend at least an hour a week on the blog, reading and commentating (with no serious expectation that they’d actually do this, but at least they ought to be engaging with it at least once a week); the contributions were not marked formally as a set proportion of the total marks for the unit, but high-quality, sustained engagement was rewarded with up to 5 extra marks on the total, and failure to engage was penalised with a reduction of up to 5 marks. Or at least that’s how it used to work…
One of the things I most enjoyed about spending a couple of months in German universities this year, and most envy about their set-up, was the sense of freedom when it comes to teaching. Within remarkably broad limits, and subject only to a remarkably small number of regulations and administrative imperatives, it seems that professors can do more or less what they like, and can extend that freedom to their colleagues. One can teach a course over a full semester, or over half a semester with an all-day Blockseminar, or even (presumably) through a number of Blockseminars rather than a weekly class, whatever seems to suit the topic and the level of the students best. One can introduce a new course on one’s research interests without having to complete a lengthy form and submit it for approval from the university – and without the risk of being told, sorry, because of the work involved in completing and approving forms, no new units are being accepted for the foreseeable future. Indeed, when I mentioned even a few minor examples of the bureaucratisation of teaching (without even hinting at the scrutiny of assessment), all I got were incredulous stares. Goodness knows what my German colleagues would think of the full reality. (more…)