Two years of teaching: A self-assessment

In my two year career at Kalamazoo College, I have taught eight unique classes, repeating two of them. I have taught historical theology (New Testament through Medieval), contemporary theology (liberation and feminist), a major contemporary issue in religious studies (Global Christianity), philosophy of religion, and an interdisciplinary elective (Images of the Devil). While I wish I would have had more opportunities to teach philosophy, I am grateful to have gotten the opportunity to teach such a broad range of classes within the study of Christianity. The ability to repeat what was, according to my evaluations, one of my strongest classes (Medieval) along with one of my weaker ones (Feminist Theologies) was also perfect — I was able to confirm that my success in Medieval was not a fluke, and I was able to learn from the pitfalls of the first time I taught Feminist (which obviously presented unique obstacles given my gender) and create what I feel was a much more successful class.

One thing that has surprised me is the way my classroom style has evolved. I stand by my earlier remarks about the possible use for brief, targetted lectures for helping to orient students for their reading and consolidate what they’ve read — but as time has gone on, lecturing has increasingly fallen by the wayside. I’ve always kept the lecture as a subordinate element geared toward preparing them for their reading and therefore for discussion, but particularly this quarter, it has grown less and less necessary.

Particularly in Feminist Theologies, the students have increasingly taken on a leading role in guiding class discussion, in response to a challenge I issued them at the halfway point of the quarter, claiming “I must become lesser, you must become greater” — that is to say, I challenged them to take responsibility for their role in the democratic pedagogy that naturally grows out of feminist convictions, and especially to help the class overcome the natural awkwardness that a male leader brings to the table. Some students are of course more shy than others and have been reluctant to address the whole class, but they participate actively in small group discussion and even whisper to each other about the topic during whole class discussions. Over time, I’ve managed to achieve the dream role of being a genuine moderator and facilitator, helping the students grapple with the issues among their peers rather than handing down the law from above.

I’ve maintained a more central role in Philosophy of Religion, simply due to the greater difficulty of the texts we’re dealing with — and I also suspect that the 8:30 timeslot works against me. Early in the quarter, I would sandwich the discussion between an opening background mini-lecture and another mini-lecture preparing them for the next reading, but as time wore on, our discussions were naturally going longer so that there was no time and relatively little need for my preparatory remarks. It never got to the point where students were taking initiative in the same way, and I wonder if one way to generate that would be to assign a smaller amount of reading and then demonstrate through discussion that I am holding them accountable for more detailed engagement. (I also suspect that it would’ve helped if I had been able to require a previous philosophy course, because it’s hard for the students to be thrown into the deep end of the pool with no preparation — but various institutional pressures make it difficult to require prerequisites.)

If I try to think of what has changed since my first quarter, where I struggled to cultivate good discussions, I would say that in part it’s that I’ve developed better methods — above all, discovering how well students generally respond to small group discussions among themselves has been a life-saver. Honestly, though, I think that a big part of it is simply that I’m more experienced and therefore more confident. When discussion isn’t going well, I no longer panic and berate myself, so I have more emotional energy left over for thinking of new questions and new ways into the topic. I also feel more comfortable simply asking the students what would help them or why they’re having trouble. There’s no substitute for just trusting your students as human beings who, by and large, sincerely want to understand and who have had enough educational experience that they know the kind of help they need.

So overall, I’d say that at the end of this term at K College, I feel confident in what goes on during the actual class sessions — not that I’ve “arrived” definitively, but that I’ve put together a set of techniques that seem to work well enough to give me a basis for experimentation. Where I still want to develop further is in designing assignments. I’ve realized belatedly the degree to which I need to take hands-on responsibility for helping my students develop as writers at all levels, rather than the seemingly more standard approach of assuming that some previous level has or should have “taken care of that.”

One frustration at K, however, has been the lack of structure in the program: students have no set requirements aside from a couple level-specific seminars and choosing a major. Outside of that they can take classes basically at will, and most departments are disinclined to have prerequisites outside of “structural” courses in the major, as anything that might pull down enrollments is to be avoided. Essentially, I never know what I can reasonably expect from students, even when comparing freshmen vs. seniors, and I also never know if my work on trying to improve their writing will be followed up on, or even contradicted later. Being part of a more structured program would be great in this respect.

In most of my classes, I have had two papers: one comparing two of the authors read during the first half of the class, and then something more open. I’ve also tended to have weekly quizzes or structured response papers, primarily as my way of seeing how their reading comprehension is going. The second time I offered the medieval class, I had a more systematic approach, building up from a simple expository paper (an analytical summary of a passage from Augustine) to more of an assessment (of Anselm’s “ontological argument”) and finally to the work of comparison (of two authors’ views of how to gain knowledge of God) — all with the overarching goal of driving home the point that theology is primarily about argumentation rather than (as they often come in assuming) simple authoritative assertions. Too often in my other classes, however, I fell back on what seemed like a “normal” kind of assignment without really reflecting on how the assignments fit in with my overarching goals for the course. By and large, the papers did turn out fine, but it’s an area of course design where I need to become more attentive and purposeful.

This is especially important as I have tried to make sure that the course design is coherent on the level of selecting readings: not making it just a grab bag, but making sure everything fits and fulfills a particular purpose (usually multiple overlapping purposes, given that I only have ten weeks here). With such a short term, I’ve tended to organize courses around a central problem — for instance, in my patristics course, Christianity’s transition from persecuted to dominant religion, or in my medieval course, the relationship between reason and religious experience (as represented in the broadly Augustinian tradition). Making sure my assignments reinforce the engagement with that central problem and also help them build or refine borader academic skills is obviously an important element of course design that I need to focus on more.

Overall, though, this has been an invaluable experience, a great opportunity to find my feet as a teacher in a supportive environment with motivated students. I wish things could have worked out differently so that I could simply make my career here — but failing that, I can’t imagine how this could’ve gone better.

4 thoughts on “Two years of teaching: A self-assessment

  1. “I also feel more comfortable simply asking the students what would help them or why they’re having trouble. There’s no substitute for just trusting your students as human beings who, by and large, sincerely want to understand and who have had enough educational experience that they know the kind of help they need.”

    Truth. And also, congratulations on two years of solid teaching.

  2. Thanks Adam. I’ve really appreciated all your posts about teaching (as well as your syllabi) – they’ve been a great help to me, and a real stimulus. Your comment here about designing assessment is really helpful too – it’s amazing how, without constant vigilance, we can just start reproducing the same old bad pedagogical habits.

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