Notes on a Class

by Harry on December 18, 2009

I’ve just finished my most enjoyable sustained teaching experience so far. In Fall 2007 I taught a small freshman seminar (with 20 students) on Children, Marriage and the Family. This is part of a program my university has called the Freshman Interest Group (FIG) program (about which more here). 20 students all take a seminar together, and during the same semester they simultaneously take 2 other classes together, usually large lectures in which they are all in a single discussion section. The professor of the core seminar designates the associated classes, which usually, but not always, have some intellectual connection to the core seminar (in my case, they took Sociology of Marriage and the Family, also, unusually, in a 20-person class, and an Ed Psych course on child development in large lecture format). The point of it is not to give them a coherent intellectual experience, though that is a hoped-for component — but to provide them with a “natural” peer group, people with whom to identify in an otherwise large and anonymous campus. Ultimately the idea is to construct an element of their experience which matches the experiences they would normally have in a small undergraduate college. [That said, the integration between the classes was unusually good — even the timing worked out well, without much coordination (for several topics they covered the relevant sociological material just one or two weeks before they covered the corresponding material in the philosophy class).]

I did not do a brilliant job.

I had only taught freshmen once before, and misjudged some of the material. It also took me time to adjust away from the lecture-driven format that dominates my lower-division experience (in upper division classes I also tend to dominate the classroom in presentation, but somehow have managed to figure out how to prompt a lot of engagement and discussion — which is easier with students who have more experience and are more opinionated, and many of whom are philosophy majors). I gave them too much reading (most of which most of them did), and was too slow in returning their written work. I was also unusually unsettled for various reasons (now resolved) unrelated to the students, and always felt that I was not quite up to par.

That said, I enjoyed it enormously. At one point, about 6 weeks in, someone made a comment about how capable and motivated UW students were, and that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t: he was immediately contradicted by another student who commented “look around this room; this is not a representative group of UW students. We’re in this class for a reason.”. Much as I admire many of the students I encounter here, she was right (and I was surprised at her perceptiveness) — this was a very highly motivated and capable group, and that’s always delightful.

I had a budget associated with the course, and a friend of mine suggested that I use part of it to take them to dinner the following spring. They almost all attended, and a day later one of the students (who had already become, and remains, a conduit between me and the class) told me that as they walked home they had chatted about wanting to repeat the experience, and asked if I could figure out how to do it. So, this Fall I offered a version of my usual Contemporary Moral Issues class that was only available to them (in addition to my regular courses — I couldn’t really justify teaching such a restricted enrollment course as part of my regular load). Of the original 20, 1 was in Australia, a couple couldn’t fit it into their schedules, and some others, no doubt, found it unappealing — 13, though, took it. This is not a class of, or for, Philosophy majors – their majors are psych, elementary ed, human development and family studies, communication, and nursing. The content was a mix of what I regularly teach in Contemporary Moral Issues (abortion, educational inequality and school choice, should parents be licensed?) and revisiting issues that they had dealt with two years before (concerning childhood, marriage and the family). I was also able to do things that I otherwise could quite feel comfortable about doing — one week I made them read Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges which I discuss, briefly, here, but which I’ve never really talked with students about (Class begins — HB: Well, what did you make of this book?; Student: “Well, it made me think that our education here has kind of sucked”; HB: “Yes, that’s the book I meant”).

It’s enjoyable to teach a class to students who have not only selected in, but asked you to teach the class. Its always seemed to me that one reason that professors at research universities put less energy and expertise into teaching than you might (and Bok does) think they ought to is that the intrinsic rewards of teaching reasonably, but not brilliantly, well, are not great. Reflecting on my own experience, whereas I get repeated positive signals concerning my research and service work from people I know reasonably well and respect, I get very little positive feedback about my teaching from such people. A key reason for this is that the only people who really know anything about my teaching are my students, and I simply don’t get to know many of them well enough for them to be people I know reasonably well and respect. 16 weeks with a class of 160, or 80, or even 20 students is not long enough to develop the kind of relationship in which positive feedback is strong and highly motivating. I get very few repeat students over time, and only a very few who repeat in groups. By positive feedback I don’t mean pats on the back, so much as observation of improvement and growth which gives one a sense that one’s efforts are part of a process that is having a real effect.

So teaching 13 students whom I’ve known somewhat well for a couple of years was great. It also helped that they knew each other. Several had made friendships in that first class which had become close, and most of them had maintained casual acquaintanceship with most of the others. What made this especially valuable was the effect on class discussion. A level of trust was there, pretty much from the start, that mean they were able to consider and entertain ideas that they knew others would reject and even find offensive, without inhibition. I think it is the only class in which a student has said something that implied an insult to several other people in the room and I have felt able to prompt the others to express that they felt insulted and to explain why (this was about religious belief and commitment), with really good results.

What did I learn from the class. First, it seems that some sort of intellectual development really does happen between that first semester and junior year. All of them were more confident, and had more justification for being confident, this time around. They were still a little more deferential to me than they should be. But, second, knowing the professor reasonably well does help. After one class in which I talked too much and they talked too little, two of them quite uncomplainingly expressed their disappointment — thus confirming my own impression, and helping me to prepare the next time. Third, what you get in a semester is just a snapshot of the student, and it is not necessarily representative of who they are. Two of the weaker students in the freshman semester turned out to be two of the strongest (of a strong group of) students in this semester. Each had changed in surprising ways. One was very quiet and unintrusive the first semester, but this time had become one of those students you know you can turn to in a lull, and get to say something interesting that would prompt other students to talk. The other had, to me quite unexpectedly, developed an appetite for the abstract — one of the best moments of the class, for me, was watching her eyes get wider and wider as she turned to the third version of a trolley problem on one of my handouts, and saw the thrill she was experiencing as she tried to get to grips with it. Fourth, 18 months or so is long enough for them to have a different reaction to material they are re-encountering. Several of them said that they had quite different views about whether parents should be licensed than they had the first time around. I think that revisiting a debate like that in a formal setting was valuable in helping them to reflect on their former selves. The most important lesson for me is not really something I can articulate. I learned from the situation a lot about how to present and discuss philosophical ideas to students who are not going to be philosophy majors, but who can make use of the skills and knowledge that we can provide, if it is presented in the right way and in the right context. One of Bok’s many observations is that we tend to design our curriculum around the needs of the major, and target among our majors those students who might be bound for graduate school in our discipline; but then we press for our classes to fulfil requirements that other students have to meet. If we want these students to be encouraged or required to take our classes, we should design our classes with their needs and interests in mind. The intense situation, and the fact that I can ask them, directly, what they think about any element of the course and get a direct and honest answer, has given me more insight than I had before about what works with them, and how to make what works work.

More frivolously, I learned that students really appreciate that you remember what they say. Early on in this semester, in a discussion of children’s interests and children’s rights, I was about to say something, and then realised that what I was going to say was something a particular student had volunteered the first time we’d discussed the issue. So I looked at her and said

“well, this is the point you made, isn’t it?”
Student: “um, when did I make it?”
HB: “you know, the first time we discussed this, in the third week of the FIG”
Student: “You mean in the freshman year”
HB: “yes”
Student: “You mean you remember something I said two years ago?”
HB: “Yes. I remember a lot of what a lot of you said”
Student: “But I don’t remember any of what I said”
HB: “Well, for all you know I could be completely making it up”
Student: “Oh no. That’s definitely something I would have said”.

I felt a bit embarrassed, and refrained from pointing out that they had just learned more about how uninteresting my life is than about how good my memory is. Though that too.

The class ended a bit damply. Our last class session was supposed to be a discussion of The Disappearance of Childhood, which had been my inspiration for the original course, and had prompted a lot of thoughtful discussion the first time round. This was to be last Wednesday — and, instead, the campus closed because of snow for the first time in a generation. But most of them came over to my house for dinner last night, mostly to be entertained by my children, but also to eat my bakewell tart and mince pie (sans walnuts for allergy reasons). I grilled them as to what they found most interesting in the course. One student said it was the abortion readings (Thomson and Marquis) which she forced her room-mates to read, thus shutting down the constant bickering about abortion in her house. Two of them, though, said the most interesting thing was the one thing I did entirely for myself and not for them at all — reading Our Underachieving Colleges which, they said, explained a lot about their college experience and made them feel less crazy because someone important agreed with them about the defects of the place.

I’m teaching the freshman version of the course again next Fall. The current students are eager to be engaged with the next group, so I’ll plan a couple of common social events, and get the current lot to come in and make presentations and lead discussions. If it goes ok I’ll figure out a way of reconvening the next group in their junior year.



kid bitzer 12.18.09 at 3:18 am

that all sounds brilliant, except the bakewell tart.


Salient 12.18.09 at 3:57 am

I would be full of love for Bok’s Underachieving Colleges if he were only a little more self-aware, a little more self-reflective. One can learn a great deal about how Bok happened to develop his own critical thinking skills by reading Bok’s book, and that is significantly to the book’s detriment. (I suspect this weakness may be opaque to many of your students, given the distance from their majors to the natural sciences, but would welcome the news that my suspicion is unfair & incorrect.)

I guess I can afford to be a little less cryptic/guarded about the specific fault: Bok demonstrates a suboptimal grasp of the roles numeracy^1^ and scientific inquiry can play in developing one’s critical mind. Let me humbly recommend following up his book with a reading on numeracy — or at least the essay “Quantitative Literacy: Everybody’s Orphan” by Bernie Madison or maybe the interview “Numeracy, Mathematics, and General Education” with Peter Ewell^2^ — to provide a meaningful counterbalance. The MAA publications are good reads and many of their books are available as free PDF downloads (at that link). I may require my math education students to read this next semester, but extending beyond that, it seems to me that someone majoring in “psych, elementary ed, human development and family studies, communication, [or] nursing” would benefit greatly from some attentive consideration of numeracy/innumeracy (ok, maybe not nursing). I don’t know how well it would fit in with “Contemporary Moral Issues” if Bok’s Underachieving Colleges wasn’t part of the reading, but given that inclusion, numeracy seems on-topic. I mean, most numeracy folks seem to talk about, and treat in the literature, quantitative literacy quite explicitly as a topic in social justice (unless they’re talking about pedagogical best-practices nuts and bolts, of course).

Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace was a good read, and is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted to read as a college freshman to whom the workings of university are opaque; it would be topical at UW given the Reebok / WRC Codes of Conduct controversy of a few years ago, but I don’t know if it fits into the course topics. Still, mentioned as a casual aside…

^1^To a first approximation, QL is equivalent to numeracy; to be unnecessarily more subtle in distinguishing, people who use the term QL tend to more explicitly sweep up statistical literacy as a component; some people who use the term numeracy place more emphasis on concrete measurement and tool use. I use the terms completely interchangeably and have never been called on it in conversation, for whatever that’s worth.

^2^Wild unsubstantiated conjecture: students aren’t assigned to read enough interviews or respond critically to interviews (both interviewee and interviewer).


AnnMaria 12.18.09 at 6:27 am

You made a point I have always thought – that one semester with 20 or up to 80 people is not nearly enough to have any kind of real connection. Now that an extraordinary percentage of courses are taught by part-time faculty this is going to be the norm for both faculty and students. This is not at all the experience I had as an undergraduate and I do see the current system as short-changing everyone.

Good for you for finding a way around it, at least for some people.


nefkowitz 12.18.09 at 1:37 pm

Reading blog posts like this gets me all misty-eyed. Tarts aside, a mindful educator is a beautiful thing.


Harry 12.18.09 at 1:44 pm

Well, the truth is that they found the way around it. Those who’ve talked to me about it (which is most of them) are very aware that this has been a quite unusual experience, which their friends envy. Some are unduly grateful, not quite understanding that I, too, got a great deal of benefit from it.

So, I agree with you salient, about that, and will follow up the references. I think that in context it is a rather small criticism of the book; something you’d want to pay a good deal of attention to in forging a reform agenda, but what the book does for students is explains to them why their experience is the way that it is. I guess I need to do a full post on the book (which I’ve been intending to do since I read it 3 years ago). I was surprised by some of the effects on the students (which I shouldn’t have been). For example, most of them have already fulfilled their ethnic studies requirement, and most have been irritated by it: reading OUC explained the point of the ethnic studies requirement to them (nobody had done that before) and made them less irritated by that part of their experience because they thought it was well motivated.
Anyway, more on that later.


Miranda 12.19.09 at 3:58 am

What a great semester! But one reason you haven’t had this experience before is because you are teaching at an RI place. I teach at a SLAC and one of the huge pleasures of it is getting a student in freshman comp who then takes other classes from you, allowing you to see their development. You can actually see them grow up, which is nice. The cohort thing sounds very nice as well.


anon 12.19.09 at 6:57 am

Harry, this post makes me jealous. You should offer a fig for majors sometime. I would have gotten a lot out having a group of phil majors that I trusted and could have decent conversations with. In too many of my philosophy classes, even upper div, the chatty students were just the obnoxious ones or the ones who wanted to be spoon fed material from the lectures that they didn’t attend and the readings they didn’t read. To be honest, it was quite boring. I would have learned so much more with a program like the one you taught.


zic 12.19.09 at 4:54 pm

I apologize if this is a thread hi-jack, but you’ve reminded me of one of the best educational experiences my children had in their early years. My oldest son’s second and third grade were the same children, same teacher for the two years. I believe the term for this is looping. (It would be a disaster for a bad student/teacher match, I imagine.)

Best thing that happened to him in school.

And as parents, it was good for us; we formed a much closer bond in school life and cohesive voice in school politics.

Both instances indicate, to me, that the relationships of education are undervalued.


Michelle 12.19.09 at 6:31 pm

I too love teaching undergrad seminars with 15-20 students but am unlikely to offer them again at the lower level; sadly I have found that younger students do not read much (or well, despite a list of items to look for) and are generally too shy to discuss the material in class. They lack any outside experience to make sense out of what they are reading, haven’t had enough introductory classes to guide them, and seemed too intellectually under-developed to actually enjoy the course. Frustratingly I had to return to a lecture format and my own enjoyment steadily diminished over the 15 weeks. I will continue to offer such classes for seniors, but only after they have had lots of preparation! It should be noted that I am at a small, regional school with 100% acceptance rate…most of our students are the first generation to go to college and our local high schools may not be preparing them adequately; some students struggle quite a bit, but many are very bright and creative!


Jennifer 12.20.09 at 1:49 pm

How were you able to reach an overload without getting paid (or did you get paid)? When I’ve tried to do this, I’ve been told (a) I can’t teach an overload for budgetary reasons and (b) I can’t teach it without pay for some other (maybe legal?) reasons. I’ve found some creative work-arounds, but I’m curious to know how you managed to make this happen.

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