Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Teaching Thursday

As far as blogging is concerned, everyone should know by now that I am a copy-cat. And so I will proceed to copy the TEACHING THURSDAY feature in my favorite blog, The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World. Connecticut College begins classes this Thursday and I will be teaching two sections of the Art History 121, Survey of the History of Art I. I've taught this class at Clemson numerous times as a large lecture (200 students) or seminar (19 students). At Connecticut College, I'm looking forward to the liberal arts setting, the smaller lecture class (45 students), the focus on pedagogy and the expectations of writing and analysis. I'm not sure that I"ll be able to fill in the shoes of Professor Joseph D. Alchermes, who regularly teaches this course but is on leave.

Even before the first day of class, focus on teaching became evident to me at Connecticut College, when I was invited to attend a syllabus workshop at the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, directed by Michael Reder. The seminar lasted for 3 hours and there was no dull moment. Most academics would scoff at a workshop on such a simple task, which is perhaps part of the problem. My choice to attend the seminar has a lot to do with reading Derek Bok's
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton, 2006). Bok, president emeritus at Harvard, spells out the problems of higher education, including the disjunction between what professors think their function is and what they actually achieve. And most faculty members are so self assured that they would never ask for advice on teaching (a practice which, after all, nobody taught them at graduate school). Professors spend incredible energy substantiating their scholarly research, but rarely bother to document the effects of their teaching, or consult research on teaching effectiveness. Bok's book is interesting in attributing fair blame across the board (high schools, tests, tenure process, competition). What is difficult to deny is that today's students are shockingly lacking basic skills of reading comprehension, writing, critical thinking. Caught in the admissions race, colleges don't always recognize this deficit. From my experiences this holds across the board even in the most elite institutions. One of my favorite articles is Ross Douthat's "The Truth about Harvard," Atlantic Monthly (March 2005), pp. 95-99. (I have this article in PDF if anyone wants it)

I am in no way an expert on education theory and current research. I read the
Chronicle of Higher Education only once in a while, and I'm a sucker for inspirational essays on teaching. During one of my usual Saturday night escapes at Greenville's Barnes and Noble a couple of years ago, I chanced on Bell Hooks' Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom (New York, 1994). It completely changed my attitude about information based learning; at least it lead me to redesign my art history survey class.

I won't bore you with the details of what I learned in the syllabus workshop, but I will tell you about a book that was given to us, McKeachie's
Teaching Tips (12th. ed. 2006). I'm reading it now -- procrastinating from actually completing my syllabus -- learning all about what works on the first day of class. In addition to some great feedback on my own syllabus, the workshop left me with incredible respect for Connecticut College. The workshop was attended by senior faculty (including my wonderful new chair) and mostly new visiting instructors. I don't know of too many institutions that invest these resources on their part time faculty. What is more amazing is that one of the workshop practitioners is a Connecticut state senator, Conn College alumni teaching a course in government. When I told my wife, she amusingly said, "I wonder if Tony Blair is participating in a syllabus workshop at Yale," where he, too, is adjuncting this semester (clearly at a different pay scale). Somehow, I doubt it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my vast experience of having taught at 5 different institutions as a lecturer on contract, I have always been given access to every resource the university has to offer (and, again, not have to worry about tenure!). In addition, you get to learn a lot about the various types of institutions that are out there. No two colleges / universities are the same!

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States