Making a mark in the classroom

September 3, 1999

When Elaine Showalter decided to pass on 30 years of teaching experience to her graduate students she opened up a fraught and secret domain

Everyone complains these days that we do not train graduate students to teach, but no one ever seems to do anything about it. At the University of California this spring, students protested about being thrown into classrooms without preparation. "It was scary," said one. "I knew the material, but I felt that I needed a lot more help."

I have always believed that academics are responsible for preparing their students to teach - but I also can understand why professors are reluctant to step forward as pedagogical experts. For most of us, teaching is a jealously guarded private domain, fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Setting ourselves up as experts on teaching feels like tempting fate. Given the fickleness of student opinion, which of us dares to volunteer our own class as a teaching laboratory?

Happily, the advent of new electronic technologies is having the unexpected side effect of breaking down some of the privatisation, secrecy and isolation of teaching. As course pages on the worldwide web become more common and accessible and as computerised indexes and on-line bookstores make it easier to locate materials on teaching, it is becoming possible to find out what other people are doing behind their closed classroom doors.

Last autumn, I decided to take the plunge and start a weekly teaching seminar for the nine graduate students assisting me in a large (more than 350 students) undergraduate course on contemporary fiction. In the beginning, my primary goals were to coordinate the 28 discussion sections ("precepts", as they are called at Princeton) that the graduate students and I were teaching, and to pass on such wisdom as I had garnered from 30 years of experience.

In addition to meeting each Monday, each of us - including me - compiled teaching portfolios of our lesson plans and ideas, kept journals about our precepts, and posted excerpts on an electronic bulletin board.

I was not sure how teaching assistants would react to attending an extra seminar. As an incentive, I offered to write a detailed teaching report for each of the students, which they could use for their professional dossiers. Postings on our bulletin board were mostly positive. Amada Sandoval, who was teaching undergraduates for the first time, noted: "We were surprised and pleased to have someone who was willing to put the thought, energy, and resources into providing a think-tank and support network for the preceptors."

Sally Bachner, who had already taught five precepts, worried that the seminar would be too much work. Later, she concluded that "the time was well repaid". Karen Beckman found the idea of the electronic bulletin board "intimidating" - a competition to show off "who had the best lesson plan". But she soon found that "people began utilising the space to ask for help and advice, which took away the pressure to perform".

When I began the teaching seminar, I assigned some reading from my own bookshelves and my files of photocopied articles and from professional journals such as Academe, College English and The Chronicle. Stuart Burrows, a teaching assistant from Britain, found "much of the self-help stuff embarrassingly personal, touchy-feely, or plain wrong", while at the other extreme, Mika Provata, from Greece, argued that teaching was so individual and intimate that it could not be analysed. But almost everyone liked the case studies of classroom dilemmas found in Teaching and the Case Method, by Louis B. Barnes, C. Roland Christensen and Abby J. Hansen - a textbook on the craft of leading discussions.

One essay, "An earthquake had started", describes a political-science seminar in which a black student said the Holocaust was not a sufficient reason for the United States to go to war, because "I'm not sure it happened like it did, and in the second place, I'm sure they had their reasons". What should the instructor have said next? My assistants split on that question, with some arguing that Holocaust denial had to be condemned immediately, some unsure whether to say anything, and others - including me - believing that the instructor should first have asked the student to explain and clarify. Discussing the challenging case gave everyone more confidence to deal with explosive classroom issues.

Reviewing my first semester's experiment in preparing for a second teaching workshop in the spring, I began to hunt for other, more-affordable books. Gradually, following up on bibliographies and searching online, I discovered some outstanding texts.

With money from the university, I began to buy those books for the English department's library. At first I was afraid that it would seem as though I was telling my younger colleagues about classics they already knew - sort of like recommending a great new novel, Catcher in the Rye. But so far, my younger colleagues have been as amazed as I was to find so many good books on teaching.

No matter how many memoirs and how much teaching theory teaching assistants read, they still come up against the quotidian realities of leading precept discussions and the problems of guiding a class. In our seminar, those were the problems that engaged us most deeply and the postings on our bulletin board week-by-week showed them gain confidence and skills. Marah Gubar was teaching for the first time: "At the beginning of my first precept I was so nervous that I forgot to tell the students my name!" Over the next few weeks, all of my assistants struggled with the difference between the level of discussion in their graduate seminars and the level in the undergraduate classes they were teaching - all worried about how to convey content, information and critical sophistication to their jaded, recalcitrant, or aesthetically resistant students. Barry McCrea, from Dublin, thought his precept on Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John was a disaster. "I tried to talk about postcolonialism and they were all resolutely uninterested," he said. "Finally I gave up, had them close their books and asked them what was wrong. They did not like the book, so we talked about this for the last ten minutes, which was an amiable and pleasant enough discussion, if a long way from all I had hoped to do." Sally Bachner was startled when her students declared that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was full of `"corny images we've all encountered in a million novels". Gage McWeeny's students were annoyed with the lack of realism in Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides. "One person,'' he shared with us, "contending that no one, and I mean no one, could get away with wearing a dirty wedding dress in Grosse Pointe, Michigan."

But as we shared ideas abut the importance of the teaching process and brainstormed about ways to generate productive discussions, the precepts began to take off. Soon, Karen Beckman from Manchester reported: "Today I began by asking, 'Why does this book take so long to read? Why is it so difficult?' This turned out to be the best strategy. They had tons of questions and talked more to each other than to me."

Stuart Burrows wrote: "We had an interesting discussion on suicide notes: If someone writes one and then does not commit suicide, is the note meaningless (or even a lie); does it have meaning if the person does commit suicide? A very enjoyable discussion, though again I think I gave them too much guff on postmodernism."

For my graduate students, the teaching seminars have been an unqualified success. They have learned from my ideas in our discussions - and from my mistakes as an undergraduate lecturer. And they have learned from each other.

There is no question that my own approach to teaching has changed. Thinking about pedagogy has made me both a more critically reflective teacher and a more courageous one. This spring, for the first time, I dared to have a midterm evaluation of one of my courses. Before, I had always worried that it would be like asking the audience at the interval how they liked the play so far. One student said on the midterm evaluation that my course "kicks ass". Not a ballet, exactly, but I'm going to keep trying. This autumn we are making the teaching seminar part of our regular English graduate programme, open to all teaching assistants.

Elaine Showalter, a professor of English at Princeton University, has just finished a term as president of the Modern Language Association.

Teaching, pages -30

IF YOU BUY ONLY EIGHT TEACHING BOOKS THIS YEAR...

The best specialised text on pedagogy that I found is Wilbert J.

McKeachie's Teaching Tips, which stresses active, learner-centred teaching, with sections on course preparation, learning activities, meeting a class for the first time, facilitating discussion, lecturing, teaching large classes, testing, grades, multiculturalism, lifelong learning for teachers and teaching for "higher-level goals" that include values.

* Two outstanding general guidebooks are Joseph Lowman's Mastering the Techniques of Teaching and Kenneth E. Eble's The Craft of Teaching. Lowman offers a "conservative vision of college classrooms as fundamentally dramatic and interpersonal arenas". He aims to help college instructors make best use of the lecture/discussion mode.

Eble's book is more personal, challenging and ambitious. It is the book you want on your bedside table to psyche you up for the next day. He gives an enormous amount of specific advice on how to become a good lecturer, including mastering the skills of performance.

He is funny and sharp about the dangers encountered in discussion sections:

"Avoid semantic tangles at all times, if possible, but most certainly at the beginning. Though it may seem necessary to spend time with the person who says, 'But what do we mean by a (book), (chair), (desk)?' it may be better just to hit him or her with a (book), (chair), (desk) and get on with it." He admits that after more than 30 years of teaching, he still does not like grades, distrusts their accuracy and "has problems giving them".

* I also recommend to my graduate students some of the research material available on the different problems that faculty members need to confront in their teaching at various stages of their careers. Paul Ramsden, in Learning to Teach in Higher Education, warns that professors face particular challenges at both ends of their career: "When people believe they cannot make a favourable impression on an audience, social anxiety is felt," he writes. But he goes on to note: "On the other hand, when people are confident in their ability to make the right impression but see their audience as unappreciative, anger will be feltI For college teachers, these theories predict that over their professional lives, they will be inclined to fear students early in their careers and despise them later in their careers."

* Reading about how other teachers have confronted those pitfalls is an excellent way to help students avoid them. Jane P. Tompkins's A Life in School is a wrenchingly honest meditation on how fear makes young faculty members teach defensively, trying to protect their fragile self-esteem rather than focusing on students. "What I had actually been concerned with," she writes, reflecting on the development of her lecturing style, "was showing the students how smart I was, how knowledgeable I was and how well prepared I was for class I I realised that my fear of being found wanting, of being shown up as a fraud, must have transmitted itself to them."

* In Plato's Cave, Alvin B. Kernan's memoir of his experiences at Yale and Princeton, he offers a dark, unflinching examination of how institutionalised patterns of academic competition, hierarchy, and snobbery can produce not only an adversarial environment in the classroom, but also depression, dysfunction and despair for scholars towards the end of their careers. Kernan describes his first indirect lessons about teaching in the 1950s when the director of undergraduate studies in Yale's English department amused himself by putting all the students with "unpronounceable names" into one section, and when "a certain indifference to the students, mixed with a heavy manner of bored exasperation, was thought to set the right tone in the classroom". Kernan's account of the increasing bitterness and professional alienation of a generation of scholars that internalised those values makes enlightening, if sobering reading.

* In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen D. Brookfield, another pedagogical guru, is refreshingly forthright about using "mind-numbing lectures" and boring conferences as occasions to learn how not to teach.

I use Education for Judgement, edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin and Ann Sweet, as a required textbook for the teaching seminar. Christensen's essay is among the best, stressing his beliefs about the teachability of teaching, the need for students to be actively involved, the critical place of fun in the classroom and the discussion group as a "partnership".

For publishing details for the books featured visit The THES website: www.thesis.co.uk

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