Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Day 31 (Round II) "In the trenches" ("Soft Day" edition)

Same-same. Beautiful rainy day full of shivery little Texans going past the coffeeshop windows--what in Ireland would be called a "soft" day: essentially any day in which the rain doesn't have a cold wind behind it. Texans definitely don't experience it that way, though ("Ah'm saow kaold! Ain't chew kaold?!?"). Ah well; this would be a good day to sit in a pub and play tunes. More preferably There than Here.

Moving into 8th week now. Kids are pretty well-locked in: Dharmonia's take on it is that they're exhausted, but myself I think they get a lot more worn-out in the spring semester, with all the distractions and interruptions of tours, TMEA, and spring break. In the fall semester, 2nd week of October is when they're pretty much over the acclimatization of realizing they're in college, first round of exams is past, and they're settled in/buckled down.

I also think this is the period when they begin to trust the experience, and each other, and even me. Nobody's died or flunked-out in the wake of the first exam, I haven't humiliated or otherwise abused anybody in class, and, most crucially, I've put them through the first round of progress reports: an opportunity for the student--in class, over email, or by anonymous note--to convey to me what is or isn't working. The generic way of handling state-mandated evaluations is to do them right at the end of the semester: distribute the scan-trons and the comments sheets, leave the room, have a proctor/monitor/graduate student pick them up and turn in directly (as confidential information) to the departmental staff.

While the premise behind this--that students' impressions should be considered in any assessment of teaching effectiveness--is sound, the reality of the execution is flawed at all kinds of levels: there are the legion opportunities for abuse and irresponsibility on the part of vindictive little criminals who just want to tank a disliked professor's percentage averages, or say mean and hurtful things (this is why the strategy I've blogged about before, of having a trusted colleague read and digest the evaluations, is a good one).

But there is a larger, more significant reason to re-think the process, and the purpose, of evaluations: the students supplying evaluations--responses to which should presumably include at least the possibility of course redesign or re-thinking--in the 16th week of the semester do not have the opportunity to benefit from any such redesign. They're essentially being asked to improve, for future generations of students, an experience which they themselves are just ending.

This seems counter-productive--or at least incomplete. Surely students currently enrolled in a course, if they are to provide evaluative comments and feedback, should also have at least the faint chance of benefiting from that feedback? If evaluations happen only at the end of the semester, this is impossible; and, moreover, the students know this is impossible. And so the investment by the good and conscientious students in the end-of-semester evaluations is low and their contribution to same small, which leaves more space for the spiteful and vindictive criminals to hold for (though, thankfully, the worst of those latter have tended to drop the course, or simply stop attending, by Week 15).

Much better, it seems to me, to open up the process of back-and-forth dialog much earlier in the semester: ideally, after the first acclimatization has occurred, after the first tools of assessment (especially exams), but before mid-semester grades we're required to issue to freshmen and athletes--an excellent practice likewise aimed to catching a failing kid while there is still time to remediate. Nothing focuses an 18-year-old's mind like Mom 'n' Dad yelling over the phone "How the hell did you manage to get a C- in only 8 weeks of class?!? Do you want to come back, live at home, and attend a community college?!?"

But I need to catch them, for evaluation purposes, before that mid-semester shock of cold water hits. Not so much because they can target me: I'm tenured, and don't have to subscribe to the "bring brownies andd avoid assignments on evaluation days".

But more because I want to catch them when their minds are relatively clear: when they're relatively able to focus, and think clearly, and least subjectively, about the process and their own responsibility within that process. So along about the 7th or so week of classes, I'll put this up on the Powerpoint screen:

And I'll say, "Let's have a conversation about this. What's working for you? What's not? We still have time to make changes that will help you excel; how can we all take responsibility for doing so?" I'll tell them they can respond to me right then, or over email if they're too shy for face-to-face, or by anonymous note in my mailbox if they would otherwise feel unsafe.

The goal is two-fold; its side-benefits are multiple. Goal 1 is simply to convey that they are entitled to provide feedback about what is working for them, and that such feedback is valued and attended. Goal 2 is to convey that dialog is an essential part of an adult situation: that both sides have rights as well as responsibilities, and that some of these are negotiable, but they can only be negotiated if both sides take responsibility for participating in the conversation (directly, via email, or anonymously--that part doesn't matter).

The side-benefits are even more profound, I think. First, it simply demonstrates that the faculty member in charge has both the confidence and the moral clarity to open up the possibility of critique: that the authority in the classroom derives not from the club/threat of the grade. Such power-imbalance is implicit in every classroom; "if I criticize the teacher, will I be victimized with a bad grade?" Anything that explicitly addresses that, that conveys "you are entitled--and safe--to express a critical opinion," empowers not only the student but also the teacher, and makes it clear that the latter's authority derives from expertise and skills to be conveyed--not from threat.

Second, it permanently and positively changes the nature of the in-class dialog. If the teacher opens up the possibility of student critique, and has honestly created a sufficiently "safe" environment that any given student offers such a critique, and the teacher is seen to respond fairly, thoughtfully, and openly, then all other students present have had modeled for them a kind of safe, mutually respectful conversation between two valued participants. This makes all other classroom conversations, of all sorts, much more open and egalitarian.

Third, and perhaps most lastingly, it's another important stage in a freshman's growing-up-and-taking-responsibility-for-your-own-damned-education maturation process. If the teacher provides you a safe, open, responsive, respectful arena (in-class, via email, or anonymous) in which to express your critiques or concerns, then you as the student must take responsibility for expressing that feedback. If the student does not, then s/he really has no cause to complain, right?

Of course, some of the lazy and immature ones will neither respond nor refrain from complaint: these are the ones who love to sit on the front steps of the music building, smoking cigarettes, and talking about "how much this place sucks." But, even if they continue in their taking-no-responsibility arrested-adolescence high-school-esque behavior, they've had modeled for them a kind of dialog that asks them to grow up. And the vast majority of them will rise to this opportunity, will grow up and begin to learn what it means to be an adult, taking responsibility and owning your education, human person.

One of my admired colleagues, now moved on to other pastures, put it very well, when he said, "I've come to think of my job as being about more than music. It's about using music to teach young people how to be human beings." Prior commenters, when I've cited this anecdote in the past, have taken the very politically-correct stance of "Oh, I would never presume in the classroom that I could teach someone how to be a human being...how very domineering and patriarchal of you!"

But I come from a much older school. Much older.

I come from the place where it was the sacred duty of the elders of the tribe to teach the younger ones how to survive. Because if the elders didn't--if they shirked their duty, which included not only passing-along data and knowledge, but also modeling a way to be a functional adult human--then the tribe would cease to exist. Part of that legacy has to be, not just knowledge and data, but also being an admirable and emulatable role model yourself.

Damned right I'm going to show a young person how to be a Human Being. That's my job and my heritage.

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