Thursday, June 21, 2012

What I've Learned from Teaching

Here are a few random observations on what I've learned from teaching...there are are more, but these were at the forefront of my mind today...perhaps because they tie together several different projects I'm working on.

1. Clarity - With a Myers-Briggs personality type of INFJ, I tend to think broadly and abstractly. I tend to seek out new and improved ways of doing things rather than following traditional or standard methods. So one of the things I have to be mindful of is how to communicate broad, abstract ideas or processes in concrete, understandable ways.  My course syllabus averages 13 pages and includes a Table of Contents.  My essay assignments are generally 3 pages long and include "Do's and Don'ts." If what I'm saying in class (or to any audience) isn't clear, it's pretty easy to tell: the glazed eyes (which can also just be a sign that I've been talking too much and need to switch to more engaging activities, like having them write!), the furrowed brow, the whispered questions from one student to another asking for clarification.  And I find that this more overt attention to clarity--Am I making my points clear?--translates into what I do outside the classroom.  It's not enough to say what I want to's also my responsibility to confirm that my audience gets what I'm trying to say.  Clarity doesn't equal simplicity...complex thoughts and ideas and processes can still be presented in ways that make them clear to others.

2. Structure - Both in a pragmatic sense and in a creative writing sense, teaching structure has made me much more keenly attuned to the way communication is structured, the way plot is structured, the way we establish points; raise expectations; and then develop, defend, and deliver on those expectations.  We could jump willy-nilly into situations guided by instinct and impulse (and I'm sure I still do), but I have a greater appreciation for how strongly attention to structure can foster more effective communication.  The five-act structure in drama (also sometimes known as Freytag's Pyramid), for instance, is a classical skeleton for any story.  Even non-fiction uses that basic structure to build audience interest.  It's also the basic setup for business letters: exposition, complication, climax (why you should hire me), resolution, and denouement.  I didn't fully appreciate the five-act structure until I started teaching I see it everywhere (and sometimes my students do too).  And structure goes hand in hand with clarity.

3. Empathy - I remember what it was like to be a first-year college student.  And yet some of my students don't have the naive ego I had.  I was a Honors students with a full scholarship to a prestigious university; I "knew" what I was doing.  Right. During my first year, I basically embarassed myself as the dunce of the Honors interdisciplinary program that was the special first-year experience of my Honors cohort.  I knew how to regurgitate what I read, but as a first-year college student, I didn't really know how to do close readings of classical texts.  Plato was Plato...what he said must be do you analyze that? The Epic of Gilgamesh...yes, it described the flood that's also referenced in the Bible...okay, what am I supposed to do (aka, write critically) about that?  In some ways, my teaching is directly shaped by and echoes the expectations that were laid upon me then, although I tend to use a "bunny slope" version with more contemporary and accessible (and short) readings for my students to work with.  Critical thinking skills are vitally important...and I believe ultimately enable students to be better learners and better self-teachers in all I emphasize skills like analysis, evaluation, and argumentation...BUT I really do remember what it's like to think "What the heck does this professor want from me?  What is he/she asking me to do?  I have no idea what this means!"  And I like to think that, while I maintain high standards and great expectations of my students, I also do whatever I can to help students get past that "I have no idea what you want from me" phase of critical thinking. 

Abrupt ending. Expect a totally unrelated topic next week.


  1. Salutations Precie! I find myself nodding with your observations from teaching. You've described well that feeling of "how exactly do I bring something to the table with three heavy weight thinkers at the head?"

    Critical thinking - YES. So essential to writing and life.

    I'm snooping around your blog because there's a flash fiction contest afoot:

    I couldn't resist saying howdy and sharing the link. Hope you're enjoying the summer!


  2. Jade--Hi!!! It's good to hear from you! Thanks for the link...I also got their notice in my Twitter feed. I keep meaning to put up an announcement here, and this is just the reminder I needed! I hope all is well with you!