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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My On-and-Off Teaching Career, Part I

Reading the book about introverts (see previous post), I was reminded of my experience teaching college classes in philosophy. It’s something I never did fulltime, and there were years when I didn’t do it at all, but still, over time, it was an experience in which I learned and grew along with my students, and I’ve been thinking about how it was that a “shy” person might lead a class and do it well.

As a graduate student, my first “teaching” experience was as an assistant responsible for helping professors grade papers written by students in their large lecture classes. Those of us grading papers worked alone and almost never had direct contact with students whose papers we graded. We worked behind the scenes, which you can see is often the perfect introvert position. One incident, however, stands out in my memory.

A student wrote to the professor to complain about her grade, certain that the reason she had received less than an A (I believe the grade assigned was B+) was that the graduate student grading her paper didn’t agree with her conclusion. The professor, a quiet man whose policy was to give all his students, graduate and undergraduate, minimum advice and maximum autonomy didn’t tell me what to say but asked me to write a response to the student’s written complaint. It was a delicate situation and the first serious challenge to what little “authority” my position held. 

My written reply assured the student that she had been graded on the quality of her argument alone, with no reference to my opinions on the subject. The problem  was that the example she had chosen for support undermined rather than supported her conclusion. The rest of her argument was excellent, as was her articulation of it. I reminded her that all her other work for the class had been A work and said there was no reason to believe it would not be excellent for the rest of the semester. I predicted an A for the course for her, based on her overall performance up to that point.

The next time the lecture class met, I had butterflies in my stomach. How had the student taken my explanation of her grade? Would she pursue her complaint? Would the professor be happy with the way I had handled the situation? The incident had a very happy ending. The professor could not have been more pleased, and the student, attentive in the front row, looked happy and confident. Her major was pre-law, so my explanation had satisfied her, and I think she learned something from that one B+.

From grading I went on to leading small discussion sections that met once a week.  In the large lecture hall, there was no time for questions, so discussion sections were set up to compensate and to give students an opportunity to converse on the week’s topics.

Finally, I had the opportunity to “teach my own classes,” as we grad students put it—and as it really was. At large universities, undergraduate classes offered in smaller than huge lecture sections are often taught by advanced graduate students. (Course listings that say “Staff” rather than having a particular professor’s name attached will usually be taught by an adjunct (temporary; term) faculty member, a postdoctoral fellow, or an advanced graduate student. Some will be disappointing, others excellent, but this is true of classes taught by senior faculty, also, isn’t it?) At this level, we were given an opportunity to choose our own textbooks and write our own syllabi. Courses I taught at this level were intro to philosophy; intro to ethics; philosophy and public policy; and introduction to logic. Logic gave me the most initial anxiety. Public policy was the class I most enjoyed.

Logic? Me? Oh, the shock when that assignment was handed down! The first time I’d signed up for logic as an undergraduate, I’d dropped it halfway through the semester—the only class I ever dropped in my entire academic career! I managed to get through it on my second try, with a different professor (it’s amazing how a subject as apparently cut-and-dried can be so different from one professor to another, depending on their particular interests in the subject), but can still recall the many nights I went to bed metaphorically banging my head against the wall to understand “only if.” “If “ was no problem; “if only” was no problem; “if and only if” was a piece of cake; but “only if” gave my brain fits. Will you believe that understanding came to me in a dream?

Well, they say that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. My best day in logic class was when one of the male students skeptically asked me if I was “sure” about an argument form I’d told the class was a fallacy. I remember how good it felt not to have a sudden sick feeling at the student’s challenge but to be able to say calmly, “Don’t take my word for it. Do the truth table.” There is no arguing with truth tables! In fact, this is one of the joys of “arguments” in formal logic: they are like mathematical demonstrations. A friend from a country that had been torn by civil war told me that following the conflict all the philosophy students wanted to work in formal logic, because arguments about “the good life” were just too frightening, and they didn’t want to end up in prison.

So you can see right away that philosophy and public policy would have been avoided like the plague by students in my friend’s native country. Here in the U.S., at the university where I taught, however, the subject held a lot of interest. How did I teach it? In order that everyone in class have a common background vocabulary and principles with which to work—and because it was, after all, an undergraduate class in philosophy--we spent the first half of the semester reading John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Many of my students were not thrilled with this work. A couple of them, dragging through what to them was archaic language, asked jokingly one day if we could read the work “in translation,” and from then on I asked that all students come to class with a written list of the numbered paragraphs assigned for that day, along with a one-sentence summary of each paragraph. The results were excellent. The students were fully capable of understanding the ideas but had to think about them, not just let their eyes skitter down the page. Sometimes there would be a paragraph that a lot of people had trouble with, but the trouble was obvious from the sentence summaries, and we could address the confusion together. Discussions were good, too. There was disagreement and argument, but it was focused, thanks to the common reading.

In the second half of the semester, we took a new and different direction. The class divided into groups (three? four? five? I no longer remember), and for the remaining weeks each group would work as a team. Each team was to imagine itself as a village or town council, and each individual was to give himself or herself a specific character. Characters and towns were to be imagined in detail: How old are you? Are you single, married, childless or a parent? What kind of work do you do? What are your personal beliefs? What is the population of your town? Describe its economic base, demographics, and history. What is important to the citizens of this place? Then a proposal was brought before each town council: Should the town have a public, tax-supported day care facility? Within each group, members were to argue for their positions in character, and at the end of the semester each group would present its conclusion and rationale for the conclusion.

The group exercise half of the class was a huge success. As an introvert myself, I’d seldom been comfortable working in groups—preferred to work on my own—but I’d realized that many students relished working together, and the class was for their benefit, not mine. There must have been introverts as well as extroverts in the class, but—and maybe it was the size of the groups or the fact that they’d already had weeks together in the same room—everyone seemed to find a comfort zone in which to work. They enjoyed having an opportunity to bring imagination into play, and they appreciated getting to know one another in the process. When it came time for final presentations, those were very impressive. Each group, as I’d hoped it would, had taken on a unique,well-rounded identity, and the conclusion each group reached was consistent with that identity.

I’ve read that citizen groups, at whatever level, can more easily come to agreement on a practical question than on a question of principle. Certainly my students, in their roles as town council members, appealed to principles in part, but they also paid attention to the real needs of their respective towns. And when there was argument over principle, they had—thanks to Locke—a common vocabulary and background against which to frame their disagreement.

Introverts had the initial comfort of working alone and subsequent opportunity to voice their thoughts in the safety of a group smaller than the entire classroom, while extroverts had a chance to energize the group process and to shine as presenters. I don’t recall anyone who was unhappy with the class.

I’m thinking back on classroom teaching because getting up in front of a roomful of people is a challenge for an introvert, and it’s interesting for me to think back on my experiences in light of insights provided by Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. One reason I think I grew confident at the front a classroom was that the authority of my position meant I didn’t have to compete with extroverts for attention. It was my class. And one of the strengths I believe I brought to the classroom was I was a good listener, not just a star performer. I could see when someone didn’t understand something or had a thought to share, even when that student might be sitting quietly, and I could help the students hear each other, too, not just try to out-shout each other.

Later teaching as an adjunct was both similar to and different from my teaching as a graduate student, but that I’ll save for Part II.


Dawn said...

I agree...being an introvert doesn't mean you can't lead a group...precisely because as the leader you have authority. I used to love training, but I am essentially shy. That never seemed odd to me.

P. J. Grath said...

You are very clever, Dawn, to have seen that from the start. I did learn way back in high school that there was no contradiction between being shy and loving to act onstage. In fact, many actors start out life as shy persons. Give them lines to speak, let them pretend to be someone else, and they're fine. Another way that introverts can work well "out front."

ShareCare said...

I never got over standing in front of a class or feeling like I didn't know enough to be leading a group of students down a deservedly good path to learning. Even though the responsibility for learning rests, in part, on the students, they still need someone guiding them. I never felt I was that person.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, man, I hope you don't say that because a certain tech-phobic TUTOR ran off in a panic. The STUDENTS seemed to be doing fine!

fleda Brown said...

I also really appreciated the book, Quiet. My daughter gave it to me as part of my birthday present last year. Logic, yes, we could use a lot more of that in early schooling. We know that people make decisions based on instinct, but that can be corralled a bit and directed with logic. If they knew how to use it. Good thoughts. Thanks.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Fleda, for your visit and your comments.