Seeking some new insight into the most current deliberations on college-level teaching – my profession that spans over thirty-three years, I find Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught, a Tomorrow’s College article by Emily Hanford, the Education Correspondent of American RadioWorks. I read it with laid-back interest. No sign of excitement in me whatsoever. No “Eureka” moment. One that I had been hoping to live one of these days. No further progress in sight. For, I have already gone through the techniques and methodologies she accentuates in her reflection on her interviews with two physics professors, one from a state university, the other, from a Ivy League college: Don’t lecture; resort to technology in class; get students involved in their learning process, instead. Besides, rethinking how to teach any of my Liberal Arts classes – all in German at the moment – has been a conscious act for me before every new semester. I must keep looking, then. Perhaps before retirement – still a far point of destination for me, I may invent the magical solution for all our ills at college-level instruction. Regardless of the field of study. And for students and non-students alike.
But first, I shall remain in the moment’s reality.
Hanford’s description of a “typical scene” for the onset of a class triggers in the brain the very vivid and very recent memory of my own experience: students are sleepy, chatty, laughing and finding their seats; or, they have found their seats and are sleepy, chatty and laughing. “Class begins with a big ‘shhhh’ from the instructor,” she writes. Mine is an “shhhh”-less alarm. My entry into each classroom is of extra-cautious nature. As a sign of my thankful welcome to their livelihood: if their energy level is high enough to chat with one another in laughter while being able to find seats to their sleep-deprived bodies, such behavior promises to me their active involvement in the upcoming subject matter (although, too often, the promise faces emptiness). To signal we are starting regardless of their chatter and laughter, I resort to the German words of “hospital and library” in the same breath – two places where one must keep silent under universal understanding.
The “shhhh”-less alarm of mine works every time. They look up, at me, most of them, smiling. On my more patient days, I look around the classroom, with a slow and calm movement of my head with no frown in sight on my face, speaking no word. My complete silence gets the attention. But what happens, or what does not happen, after class begins, is wherein the dilemma lies. To what extent does learning takes place in reality? Such is the open-ended question. Where the following comes in to play, however, is not: my alertness, willingness, readiness, creativity, innovativeness and enthusiasm to meet their need for a maximum learning outcome for each of them (that is, for whoever is receptive).
Hanford announces another well-known fact: “Research conducted over the past few decades shows it’s impossible for students to take in and process all the information presented during a typical lecture, and yet this is one of the primary ways college students are taught, particularly in introductory courses. It’s a tradition going back thousands of years.” As a personal trait, I refuse to follow traditions in the strict or lose sense at any rate. I haven’t found much use in them. My rejection of them gains on passion, when the core element of my extensive career, the precious teaching and learning exchange is concerned. Each of my students is an individual and therefore, a learner with a vast variety of skills, comfort level, study habits, time management practice and response readiness and speed. All of which characteristics are not a carbon-copy of their peers. Each of them deserves to have exposure on a regular basis to task-based practices and assignments through which s/he – on an individual level – will have the opportunity to advance upon the proficiency toward the material taught. Without having to face a confrontation with lectures that rely on standardizing all vital differences between each of the learners in that captive audience. “DON’T LECTURE ME,” the article’s headline, is a plea I remember raising – however silently – to all my professors during my university studies. The yellowed papers almost in no longer glueable pieces of one professor, in particular, still are notable in my temporal lobes today. Along with his slow-motion efforts to read out of his writings – most likely beyond de-codable even to him – in order to copy whatever valuable information was left on them from those pitiful, ancient-old sources onto the one blackboard we had. All the while expecting us to keep full silence and looking at us only to check if we were still taking notes.
With or without such eye-opening experiences, rethinking how I teach my college students is not a difficult undertaking for me. I have gone through such contemplations so many times, implementing all that I had rethought as a result, learning and re-learning on behalf of my students. I will do so again. There is, however, a hit I have to take. As Hanford concludes, “[c]hange is slow in the academy, and professors tend to be rewarded for focusing on their research, often at the expense of their teaching.”
I, for one, haven’t advanced upon the research component of my professional existence in years. I won’t be advancing on that platform for years to come. I have been teaching only. Not because there has been any tangible reward in the academy. There simply is no room for me to do justice to both areas. For our current higher education construct does not yet allow a balance between the demands on time, energy and concentration commitment for teaching and research in any reasonable terms. There, thus, had to be a sacrifice. But, it wasn’t going to be my teaching. It still isn’t.
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