Teaching

In May of 1994 I was invited to present a workshop during the “Springtime Teaching Refresher” at York University; i.e. the workshop was geared to my colleagues, members of the teaching complement of the university. My memories of this experience bring up murky ideas of the positives and negatives group work brings to language teaching, but just recently, while clearing out my university office, I found the letter of thanks from the Academic Director of the Center for the support of Teaching, which included the summary of my session’s evaluations (see these below the post). As usual, participants were asked to list two things which they liked (among which these make me proud: variety of actual techniques presented, generation of discussion and sharing, well organized and presented). They were also asked to describe two things which could be added or improved. And here matters start to be interesting. Let’s concentrate on the following, i.e. some of those things the participants felt could be improved or added:
• handout with outline of group activities,
• instructions need to be clear,
• reading exercise probably did not reflect the students’ experience.
As for the first suggestion for improvement, there is something amiss when my colleagues need a “handout with outline of group activities”. Either they do not know how to follow an organized talk without some type of written outline, or they do not think any workshop presentation is worth its salt if it does not include some type of a handout. This attitude of “must see things written down” is troubling, since instructors themselves give students predigested chunks which the students follow during a lecture (and, predictably, their cognitive world crumbles if the instructor strays from this outlined material). Needless to say, there is no meeting, no conference (no matter how learned), no presentation, where handouts are not present. What does it say about our culture? Cannot we rely on our memory any longer? Perhaps: perhaps I would remember more of my presentation if I had made and kept a handout for it… But this reliance on written bits reflects the fragmented chunks of information we are surrounded with. It is not that we no longer read, it is that we read bits without context, that troublesome and time-consuming framework which helps us make sense of the world. And, in any handout, the context is sorely missing. What is the upshot of this lack of context? As my experience in the past 35 years of teaching has showed me, individuals (especially those between 18-30) do not have the skills, patience, willingness to read anything that has been written/published more than 30 years ago – let alone before and during the Roman Classical Period, Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Culture is therefore moving in the direction of a two-tier system where some people will be able to learn from and enjoy imagining the past and other will not. As one of my ex-colleagues tends to repeat, “We live in the new Dark Ages.”
The second suggestion surely conflicts with the approval the presentation received (well organized and presented) and reaffirms yet again the uselessness of session/course/workshop evaluations. Granted, the manner in which presentations of any kind are received by the audience transcends any quick-reply to questions on the evaluation sheet. Back to the fragmentation again, this time with a false sense of pride and security for the organizers: “We have written proof of the participants’ evaluative thoughts!”, which in the great majority of cases resemble the “like” button of Facebook. However, it is not always a question of the lack of time for the respondents to muse about the just transpired experience during a workshop.
The third suggestion for improvement of my presentation cuts to the core of what it means to teach at the university level, and what it means to teach nowadays. Teaching materials should “reflect the students’ experience”: that’s the slogan now. My question is why should they? Let me back up a bit, and say that any good (no need to be great) instructor can make anything he/she teaches, shows, relates, explains, demonstrates, etc. reflect the students’ experience. However, reflecting the students’ experience is not the purpose of teaching: that is simply an aid/trick used for the benefit of some students to help them grasp concepts better. One of the fundamental problems with university teaching now is due to this constant need to reaffirm the students’ experiences. And yet, that is not learning, that is simply helping students stay within their own individual bubbles, it supports their navel-gazing, endorsing the me generation’s understanding of the world. Teaching must be able to burst the individual bubble, to help lift the gaze outside of oneself, to learn about something brand new which is totally unlike oneself, unpredictable, amazingly and wondrously albeit dangerously different.
This is true for all types of courses, “Competency-based degree programs” included: these let students “breeze through courses” because they have a practical knowledge of the areas taught in those courses. The opinion that “[Competency-based courses] challenge the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that I must be disseminated in the classroom.” (from University Affairs 06/14, p. 31) shows a myopic, dim-witted and hollywoodian perspective on what professors really do.
How to stop this inopportunely unintelligent stance? First, by not using hand-outs. Second, by permitting students to make mistakes. Third, by forcing the students’ gaze outside of their bubble, outward. All of this with only a judicious use of materials that “reflect the students’ experiences”. Hopefully, this will aid in preparing a citizenry who can think on their own, who do not need (movie/sports) stars to lead them on the way to more consumerism. In other words, who look deeper into everything.

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