Teaching Thursday

With apologies to Bill Caraher, who offers regular reflections on teaching under this title, it was appropriate. Today I read two pieces—including one by Bill—about teaching worth engaging with.

The first came in Keith Law‘s newsletter where he talked about his experiences teaching one course on communication. Klaw is one of my favorite sports-writers and his blog is one of the reasons I write about books in this space. He described the course this way:

It’s turned out to be one of the hardest, most anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever chosen to do.

Teaching is not rocket science, but that doesn’t make it easy. It takes continual adjustment and the ability to adjust on the fly when the best laid plans fail to survive first contact. This reality is something that is hard to appreciate when your only experience with teaching is as a student taking classes that you may or may not have enjoyed.

I am all-too familiar with the fear that Keith Law explained is haunting him:

I’m constantly plagued by the fear that I’m not doing enough for the students – that maybe what I’m teaching them isn’t useful enough, or that I’m just not giving them the information or insight they’ll need.

Any time a class goes well I am reminded of how I posted a sign that I read about on the internet on the inside of the door of my first post-PhD office. It read:

You are only as good a teacher as your next class.

No class is going to be perfect, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many of those are spent in the classroom. All you can do is reflect, adjust, and move forward. I suspect that KLaw, someone who is a reflective person and who I think came into the experience with a healthy appreciation of teachers, is doing fine. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh knowingly when I read the entry.

For college teachers who want to improve, you could do a lot worse than read Bill Caraher’s regular Teaching Thursday column.

Today’s entry was the latest in a long series of posts that document how he has adapted his World Civilizations course over the years.

World Civ can be a hard course to teach and a frustrating one to take. In the first “half,” it is a course that tackles several thousand years of human civilization spanning the entire globe and taught as a general education course to first-years and non-majors. There is no chance at comprehensiveness and I find that approaching it through a series of themes and broad connections easily become abstract to the point of uselessness except to students who are already passingly familiar with the specific examples that illustrate the theme.

(I often think that World History would be a more valuable course at the senior level, but this is not the system we have and I can see an argument that such a radical inversion would hurt enrollment.)

In this series , Bill has talked about his solution to the problems of a World Civ class, namely flipping the class and challenging the students to produce material together in class, as well as the reasons he made the change. I wonder a little bit about how this assignment would work in a class that meets multiple times per week rather than in long blocks, but I also recognize wisdom in how he has developed the class. It can be a surreal feeling to walk around a classroom where the students are working in groups and I am just eavesdropping. Bill calls it “boring;” I can’t disagree. But if the students are engaged with the historical material while I am bored, doesn’t that mean that I have done my job?

I am not sure that I will — or even should — go quite as far as Bill has in moving the class material to class time, but our courses also have different demographic contexts. And yet, in my first time teaching my World Civ class in its current institution and current iteration, I am finding myself thinking about almost all of the same issues. There is only so much that I can change mid-stream, but I have a lot to consider for next time. In addition to the mechanics of a World Civ course, Bill’s post engages with outcomes and ungrading more generally and both are worth considering. Check it out.