New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate

 
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
Starter Kit

New to
College
Teaching

Everything new instructors
need to know to be successful.
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
Starter Kit

          New to
     College Teaching
  For those new to college teaching, entering the classroom for the first time can be
intimidating. Whether you are fresh from a Ph.D. program or transitioning into a new ca-
reer as an university instructor, teaching presents a variety of challenges: How to connect
with your students? How to make a big lecture feel personal? How can technology help —
or hurt — in the classroom?
  Chronicle editors searched our archive for the best articles and opinion essays to answer
those questions. This collection includes analysis of teaching trends and tips from experi-
enced professors, both those who love to teach and some who don’t. For those just stepping
into the role of college instructor, we hope this is an invaluable guide.

 4   The Personal
     Lecture                      9   The 4 Properties of
                                      Powerful Teachers          11   The Messages to
                                                                      Send on the First Day
                                                                      of Class

12   The Absolute Worst
     Way to Start the
     Semester
                                14    Small Changes in
                                      Teaching: The First
                                      Five Minutes of Class
                                                                 17   All the Classroom’s
                                                                      a Stage

19   Rethinking
     the Exam                   21    Could Grades Be
                                      Counterproductive?         23   A New Generation of
                                                                      Digital Distraction

26   Playing With
     Technology                 28    Knowing When to
                                      Teach Current Events       30   Teaching the Art
                                                                      of the Difficult
                                                                      Conversation

32   I Don’t Like
     Teaching.
     There, I Said It.
                                34    What Professors Can
                                      Learn About Teaching
                                      From Their Students
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion   |   ne w to college te aching

The Personal Lecture
How to Make Big Classes Feel Small
By KATHERINE MANGAN

          Cynthia LaBrake, a
    lecturer in chemistry at
  the U. of Texas, often has
    her 400 students break
       into small discussion
     groups. Her 1970s-era
         classroom, which is
 scheduled for an overhaul
        next year, has desks
        bolted into the floor,
   posing a challenge. “We
    crawl over the space to
     reach them,” she says.
       “It’s not ideal, but we
               make it work.”                                                                     ILANA PANICH-LINSMAN FOR THE CHRONICLE

                                 I
                                                                                                                      AUSTIN, TEX.
                                           ntroduction to Psychology is about to begin. A student in the
                                           front row of the studio audience cues her 23 classmates to give her
                                           professors a rousing cheer. Cameras are rolling as the rest of the
                                           class — all 910 of them — tune in from their dorm rooms, coffee
                                           shops, and study rooms at the University of Texas flagship campus.
                                               Over the next 75 minutes, they’ll watch a “weather report” that
                                  maps personal stereotypes by regions of the country (red zones splashed
                                  across parts of the Northeast mark areas of high neuroticism), and listen to
                                  an expert flown in from Stanford University discuss what someone’s Face-
                                  book “likes” reveal about her personality.

                                                             4                                                               TOC»
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion       |   ne w to college te aching

   They’ll participate in a lab exercise     massive open online class, he says. More      lecturer of civil, architectural, and envi-
that matches students from the studio        than 20 faculty members are now offer-        ronmental engineering who directs the
audience with their taste in music and       ing SMOCs.                                    center.
groan when the burly guy who looks like         “We want faculty to appreciate that            Sareena Contractor, a freshman who
a country music fan actually favors Lady     our students are using online technol-        is enrolled in the psychology class, says
Gaga. They’ll take a pop quiz and watch      ogies most of the day,” he says. “That’s      the pop quizzes and interactive exercises
a video clip of their professor snooping     part of who they are.”                        keep her focused, even when she’s work-
around someone’s office for keys to his         Mr. Pennebaker is leading a university-    ing from home and surrounded by dis-
personality.                                 wide effort, Project 2021, to redesign un-    tractions. “I thought it was going to be
   Welcome to a version of the giant in-     dergraduate courses at UT-Austin.             like watching a TV show and I’d be get-
tro class that’s almost guaranteed to keep      Part of the project’s goal is to get in-   ting up and doing stuff,” she says. “They
students awake.                              structors to rethink the traditional large    keep you engaged.”
   For generations, students have com-       lecture course with its emphasis on a sin-        The start-up costs of setting up a stu-
plained about feeling like nameless specks   gle wise professor holding court in front     dio like the one at Texas could run be-
in a cavernous lecture hall. Faculty mem-    of hundreds of students. Lectures can be      tween $750,000 and $1 million, accord-
bers often dread a sea of blank faces, or    effective teaching tools, says Mr. Pen-       ing to university officials., Once in place,
worse yet, those absorbed by online shop-    nebaker, but their impact is sometimes        the classes cost about the same to run as
ping or video games.                         overrated.                                    other large classes, Mr. Pennebaker says.
   As budget cuts intensify pressure to         “Faculty members are often bamboo-         The psychology class is being rerun in
pack more students into these class-                                                          the spring to another 1,000 students
es, universities are experimenting with                                                       and to several hundred more in the
ways to liven them up. The approach-                                                          summer. The same studio space broad-
es can be high-tech, like the webcast
psychology class, or they can be more
                                              “Anyone who’s been                              casts to some 8,000 to 12,000 students
                                                                                              who are enrolled in about a dozen other
rudimentary, like breaking big class-
es into small brainstorming groups or
                                                to a good lecture                             courses throughout the semester.
                                                                                                 Not all the solutions to the imper-
interspersing lectures with snippets
about students’ backgrounds gleaned
                                               knows how you can                              sonal lecture are as tech-heavy as the
                                                                                              psychology class. Cynthia LaBrake,
from surveys. Regardless, the goals are       be carried along by a                           a senior lecturer in chemistry at Tex-
similar: Make classes feel smaller and                                                        as, has her 400 students break into
more personal.                               gifted lecturer as they                          groups of two to four to work on prob-
   Given economic pressures, “the                                                             lems while a dozen undergraduate and
large classroom is not going away,” says       unspool a story and                            graduate teaching and learning assis-
Kathryne McConnell, senior direc-                                                             tants circulate through the room. Her
tor for research and assessment at the            interpret it for                            1970s-era classroom, which is sched-
Association of American Colleges &                                                            uled for an overhaul next year, has
Universities. “You can look at it from              the class.”                               small desks bolted into the floor, mak-
a deficit perspective and say, Here’s                                                         ing group work a challenge. “We crawl
everything that’s wrong with it. But                                                          over the space to reach them,” she says.
what if we flip that and look at what                                                         “It’s not ideal, but we make it work.”
the scope and scale of this class could                                                          At the University of California at
allow us to do?”                             zled into thinking that students are going    Berkeley, Martha L. Olney, an adjunct
   Three years ago, two professors of psy-   to remember all these pearls of wisdom        professor of economics, uses a similar
chology, James W. Pennebaker and Sam-        we’ve tossed at them,” he says.               approach in some of her courses. She
uel D. Gosling team-taught what they            Because the program just began in Jan-     breaks classes of 150 students into groups
termed the first “synchronous massive        uary, it’s too soon to measure success, but   of three or four to discuss portions of her
online course,” or SMOC, the precursor       the factors administrators will look at in-   lecture — a technique she says takes get-
of the introductory psychology class Mr.     clude the number of departments rede-         ting used to. “If you’re going to have 50
Gosling now teaches with Paige Harden,       signing their curricula, the changes that     conversations going on at the same time,”
an associate professor of psychology.        result in higher grades in subsequent         Ms. Olney says, “you have to be very
                                             courses, and increases or decreases in        comfortable with noise.”

T
     hese intro classes, with their short,   students’ satisfaction with the quality of        For larger classes, like her principles
     snappy segments, may be bigger,         their education.                              of economics class that typically enrolls
     Mr. Pennebaker says, “but they’re          Much of the experimentation taking         more than 700 students, she manages to
psychologically smaller.”                    place at Texas is coordinated through its     incorporate active learning, even if it’s
  Teaching a small class of students         Faculty Innovation Center.                    just using hand-held clickers to quiz stu-
while simultaneously beaming in hun-            “The problem with lectures of over 50      dents and be sure they understand the
dreds of others gives the classroom a        has been that it’s hard to know how stu-      material.
more dynamic and personal feeling than       dents are doing and very difficult to have        That way, she says, students are get-
students would get from a MOOC, or           a discussion,” says Hillary Hart, a senior    ting feedback a half-dozen times a day,

                                                                 5                                                            TOC»
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
5 Ways to Shake Up the Lecture
Transforming a large lecture class into a more personal, engaging experience doesn’t have to involve high-tech gadgets and a
team of production assistants. Plenty of other strategies work. Here are a few of the approaches that have gained traction.

Flipped Class                              ronment with Upside-down Pedago-           ing undergraduate students who have
  Instructors seem to either love or       gies.                                      done well in a class to help out for
loathe this approach, which revers-          The Massachusetts Institute of           class credit or pay.
es traditional teaching by giving stu-     Technology’s version, known as Tech-         Having more teaching and learning
dents recorded lectures and lessons        nology Enabled Active Learning, inter-     assistants allows instructors to offer
to access in the dorm or at home and       sperses 20-minute lectures in physics      frequent short quizzes and writing as-
using class time for hands-on assign-      with discussion questions, anima-          signments. This lets them engage stu-
ments or projects.                         tions, and pencil-and-paper exercises.     dents more deeply and assess them
  Many students like being able to                                                    more regularly.
stop, start, and rewind a recorded lec-    Small-Group Exercises                        A 400-seat chemistry class at the
ture until they understand it. In class,     A more traditional lecture class can     University of Texas at Austin relies on
students learn from one another while      still be split up intermittently into      a dozen undergraduate and gradu-
the instructor circulates through the      groups so that lectures are deliv-         ate TAs circulating through the room
classroom, acting as a facilitator or      ered in 15-minute bursts rather than       to help students during group work.
coach.                                     50-minute orations.                        The instructor has developed a “peer
  In order for this to go smoothly, stu-     Professors might check in with stu-      learning assistants” course to train
dents have to prepare extensively          dents from time to time using hand-        undergraduate chemistry majors to
before they come to class. Faculty         held classroom response devices,           serve as learning coaches in large
members who have struggled with            or clickers. When the answers (or si-      classes that use active learning. The
the approach say that doesn’t always       lence) indicate the students are con-      goal is to give a small-seminar feel to
happen, and some have responded by         fused, the professor might ask them        a class that could seem large and im-
giving graded daily quizzes.               to brainstorm with someone sitting         personal.
  Variations of the flipped class          nearby.
abound. Many instructors flip only           Some faculty members create work-        The Personal Touch
a portion of the class, or a few ses-      ing groups at the start of the semes-        Even when it’s impossible in a
sions a month. The most successful         ter, aiming for a diverse mix of class     class of 300 to remember students’
often take place in classrooms that        years, majors, and demographics. The       names, professors can personalize
have been redesigned to create col-        same groups meet throughout the            their lectures by referring to details
laborative work spaces.                    year, so members are encouraged to         that show they’re interested in their
                                           sit near one another.                      students as individuals. Faculty mem-
Scale-Up                                     Other faculty members rely on ad         bers sometimes start by asking stu-
  One of the most ambitious efforts is     hoc groups that change each class.         dents to fill out a card listing personal
the Scale-Up approach, which is being      Students are often graded on group         tidbits like favorite songs, hobbies, or
used at more than 250 campuses,            assignments, which creates peer            hometowns.
according to Robert J. Beichner, the       pressure for them to come to class           One professor asked students what
professor of physics at North Caroli-      prepared.                                  songs they listened to when they were
na State University who is perhaps its       Collaborative learning works much        stressed; he then played a couple of
biggest champion.                          better when seats swivel and desks         selections before a test by a class
  Nine students sit at a round table       aren’t fixed. On a growing number of       favorite — Ed Sheeran, the English
in three groups of three, each with a      campuses, classrooms are being built       singer-songwriter. Another professor
laptop and whiteboard. The instructor      with this in mind. Existing ones are       makes a point of asking students
gives them something interesting to        being reconfigured to eliminate the        their names when she calls on them
investigate, and while they tackle the     long desks and bolted-down chairs          and then refers to them by name in
challenge, the instructor and assis-       that are typical of lecture halls.         her response.
tant roam around the classroom, ask-                                                    And one asks two students to help
ing questions and sending teams to         Undergraduate Assistants                   him take notes when a guest lectur-
help one another. Depending on the           Group work requires more assis-          er is speaking. He then combines
enrollment, a classroom might have a       tants to roam the classroom and help       the three sets of notes to give to
dozen of these tables.                     keep discussions on track. There usu-      the class and takes the two student
  The acronym stands for Stu-              ally a
                                                ­ ren’t enough graduate students      note-takers to lunch.
dent-Centered Active Learning Envi-        to go around, so universities are hir-                       — Katherine Mangan

                                                           6                                                             TOC»
New to College Teaching - Everything new instructors need to know to be successful - Academic Senate
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion         |   ne w to college te aching

and not just when they get a D on the         make a difference in student engage-             too many hoops to keep their students
economics midterm. If she throws out          ment. At Virginia Tech, as in many oth-          entertained. There’s something to be
a question and gets a lot of blank stares,    er universities, new classrooms are be-          said, they argue, for getting multitask-
she might ask students to brainstorm for      ing built with interactive and technol-          ing, hyperconnected students to sustain
a few minutes with someone in the same        ogy-driven large classes in mind. Seats          attention on a full-length, well-crafted
row.                                          can be turned around and multiple                lecture.
   She tries to set the right tone from the   screens project shared and student work.            Molly Worthen, an assistant profes-
start. When students walk in, she gives         Yet for some lecturers, these extra            sor of history at the University of North
them a set of three to five questions they    technological bells and whistles aren’t          Carolina at Chapel Hill, says teaching
should be able to answer by the end of the    the key.                                         centers are often biased against the tra-
hour. “That encourages them to listen for       For Gabriel K. Harris, an associate            ditional lecture.
those things during the class,” Ms. Olney     professor of food science at North Car-              “There are loads of resources for
says. “They have to show their TA that        olina State University, creating a mem-          flipping classrooms and experiment-
they tried to answer, and they grade their    orable experience in his 200-person class        ing with other forms of active learning,
own quizzes the next day.”                    that he refers back to throughout the se-        but if you just want to become a better
                                              mester is what works.                            speaker, that isn’t something that’s ad-

O
        ne of the most popular trends           Once, he fried mealworms and served            vertised,” she says. “It isn’t perceived of
        in recent years has been the                                                             as trendy.”
        flipped classroom, which usu-                                                               Students sometimes tell her they feel
ally involves having students watch                                                              shortchanged if the faculty members
videos and read course materials out-
side the classroom so that class time is
                                                   “Humans are                                   who are experts in their fields turn too
                                                                                                 much of the teaching over to peer dis-
used for hands-on experiences and dis-
cussions.
                                               fundamentally hard-                               cussions. There’s nothing passive, she
                                                                                                 says, about listening to a lecture, syn-
   But students don’t always do the
work before class, says Peter E. Doo-
                                                wired to remember                                thesizing the key points, and taking ef-
                                                                                                 fective notes.
little, assistant provost for teaching          stories, and when                                   “Part of what I’m doing when I’m on
and learning at Virginia Tech. Quiz-                                                             stage is modeling the act of analytical
zes and short writing assignments can         they do, the scientific                            thinking,” Ms. Worthen says. “Anyone
help hold students accountable, he says.                                                         who’s been to a good lecture knows
   During the summer, Mr. Doolittle           principles associated                              how you can be carried along by a gift-
helped lead a national conference on                                                             ed lecturer as they unspool a story and
teaching large classes, where faculty           with them will be                                interpret it for the class.”
members critiqued various strategies.                                                               Ms. Worthen believes that a good
   In addition to clickers, some faculty            retained.”                                   lecture lays the groundwork for a rich-
members use programs that allow them                                                             er, more informed discussion session
to create interactive lectures.                                                                  than she would get if students watched
   Conference participants also de-                                                              videos to prepare for the class. Her in-
scribed plenty of low-tech ways of engag-     them to willing students over rice with          troductory history classes, which typi-
ing students.                                 vegetables, then took the same insects,          cally enroll about 100 students, meet
   Poster presentations, the staples of       dry roasted them, and ground them into           three times a week. Two of the sessions
faculty conferences, are becoming in-         powder to add to oatmeal raisin cook-            are lectures and the third is a discussion
creasingly popular assignments in large       ie batter. What better way to make the           session for groups of 15 to 18 students
undergraduate classes. Groups of four         point that insects can be a sustainable,         with a teaching assistant.
or five students present their research       high-quality form of protein that people            Advocates for revamping the tradi-
findings at a public exhibition, and peers    will eat “if you don’t see six legs.” It’s the   tional lecture concede that persuad-
evaluate one another.                         kind of experience they might go back            ing some faculty members to change
   Another increasingly popular way to        and tell their roommate about.                   traditional lectures can be a challenge,
make the class feel smaller is to bring          “Humans are fundamentally hard-               in part because there isn’t a lot of data
in undergraduate teaching assistants to       wired to remember stories,” he says,             showing what works.
supplement the work of graduate TAs.          “and when they do, the scientific prin-             Faculty members who flip their class-
Undergraduates who have done well in a        ciples associated with them will be re-          rooms or try other techniques to get
course can lead small-group discussions       tained.”                                         students involved risk flopping in their
in exchange for course credit or pay.                                                          end-of-semester assessments, say Mr.

                                              F
   “Undergraduate TAs provide extra                 ew people would disagree that              Pennebaker and Ms. Hart at UT-Aus-
eyes and voices,” says Mr. Doolittle.               getting students more engaged in           tin. Students are sometimes most com-
“They’re sources of energy, working                 their education is a worthy goal.          fortable with a class that rewards them
with groups and helping keep discus-          But with so much focus today on active           for memorizing facts for a few exams
sions on track.”                              learning, some faculty members feel              per semester. Daily quizzes and grad-
   The layout of the classroom can also       like they’re expected to jump through            ed group work make it harder to skate

                                                                   7                                                             TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion     |   ne w to college te aching

through a class.                              sion courses, he says.                     an index card at the start of the semes-
   Even though they’re key to keeping            Faculty members, Ms. Hart says, are     ter with personal information, includ-
students engaged, daily quizzes hav-          given incentives to try new techniques     ing something interesting about them-
en’t caught on with UT-Austin faculty,        and not have to worry that they’ll be      selves.
though, “because it’s too damn much           punished if students don’t immediately        When a student confided that she
work,” Mr. Pennebaker says.                   warm to the changes. Those incentives      was an avid participant in “cosplay” —
   Yet it can pay off in better attendance.   include pay bonuses for professors to      in which participants wear costumes to
In a typical course he teaches, about 60      prepare new courses or for departments     represent a specific character — Ms.
percent of students were still showing        to experiment with new curricula.          Turner tracked down the student and
up two-thirds of the way through the             But elsewhere, changes can also be as   asked if she’d mind explaining her hob-
semester. After an overhaul that includ-      simple as making an extra effort to con-   by during a session devoted to how
ed daily quizzes, it was more like 95 per-    nect with students on a personal level.    people play out different roles through
cent, and students were scoring a full        When that happens, students tend to be     dress.
grade higher on their tests.                  more engaged in a class, and less likely      “If the student feels like he’s just a
   Moving some of his course work on-         to skip, says Windi D. Turner, an assis-   number and doesn’t feel a connection
line also gave students greater flexibili-    tant professor of family and consumer      or purpose,” Ms. Turner says, “he feels
ty and allowed him to expand his class        sciences education at Utah State Uni-      like he could slip away and the professor
sizes, especially for introductory cours-     versity.                                   would never know.”
es. Big introductory courses allowed the         She has each of the 180 students in
university to offer smaller upper-divi-       her “Dress and Humanity” class fill out    Originally published December 4, 2016.

                                                                8                                                          TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion            |   ne w to college te aching

                                                    ADVICE

             The 4 Properties of
             Powerful Teachers
     Even if you weren’t born with some of these qualities,
                    you can develop them

                                            By ROB JENKINS

A
              merican higher education seems to               great teacher, you can still work to develop some of
              be experiencing a kind of teaching              those traits.
              renaissance. Articles on the subject               Just what are those traits? Here are some I’ve
              proliferate on this site and others, sug-       identified, and you could probably add to this list:
              gesting a renewed interest and com-             Great teachers tend to be good-natured and ap-
mitment to the subject across academe.                        proachable, as opposed to sour or foreboding;
As a faculty member for almost 30 years, I have               professional without being aloof; funny (even if
been inspired and motivated by all of the online              they’re not stand-up comedians), perhaps because
chatter. It’s made me think about the great teach-            they don’t take themselves or their subject matter
ers I’ve known — and I’ve known many, from kin-               too seriously; demanding without being unkind;
dergarten through graduate school and beyond.                 comfortable in their own skin (without being in
Several taught in my department when I served as              love with the sound of their own voices); natu-
chair, and I had the pleasure of observing them at            ral (they make teaching look easy even though we
work.                                                         all know it isn’t); and tremendously creative, and
   Those experiences have led me to conclude that,            always willing to entertain new ideas or try new
when we boil down all the metrics, we’re left with            things, sometimes even on the fly.
four qualities that all powerful teachers possess.               If none of the above describe you, and you’re
I’m not just talking about adequate, effective, or            afraid that means you’ll never be a great teacher —
even good teachers. I’m talking about the ones who            well, maybe you’re right. Or you can work to devel-
most move us, who have made the most difference               op some of those traits and become a much better
in our lives, and whom we most wish to emulate.               teacher than you are now. And if you’re fortunate
Perhaps we can’t all be that kind of teacher, but I           enough to possess several of those traits already —
suspect many of us at least aspire to be.                     as I suspect is the case with many who choose this
   So what makes those teachers so great?                     profession — then you can still work hard to fine-
                                                              tune those qualities.

PERSONALITY
                                                              PRESENCE
   Nearly all of the great teachers I’ve watched in              What I mean by that, in part, is the unmistak-
action have similar personality traits. To some de-           able capacity some people have to “own” any room.
gree, teaching is an ability, and just like musical or        We might call it charisma, but it’s more than that.
athletic ability, some people seem to have more of            It’s the ability to appear completely at ease, even in
it than others. At the same time, just because you’ll         command, despite being the focal point of dozens
never play the Hollywood Bowl doesn’t mean you                (or even hundreds) of people. To some extent, this
can’t do wedding gigs with your garage band. If               aspect of presence is something you’re either born
you weren’t born with the personality traits of a             with or not, although I would also argue that own-

                                                          9                                                            TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion          |   ne w to college te aching

ing the room is an ability people can develop over         term as if for the first time. It’s that level of prepa-
time.                                                      ration that allows great teachers to make it all look
   But that isn’t the only relevant meaning of the         so easy.
word “presence” in the context of great teaching.
In his recent essay, “Waiting for Us to Notice             PASSION
Them,” James Lang talked about what he called
“a pedagogy of presence.” He argued that, just as             Of all the qualities that characterize great
we are sometimes disengaged in our interperson-            teachers, this is the most important, by far. The
al relationships, so, too, can we become disen-            Beatles famously sang, “All you need is love,” and
gaged in the classroom — simply going through              while in teaching that might not be entirely accu-
the motions and barely acknowledging students              rate, it is true that a little passion goes a long way.
at all.                                                    Or as St. Peter put it, love certainly “covers a mul-
   Yet the best teachers, as Lang concluded, are al-       titude of sins.”
ways “present” — fully in the moment, connecting              Passion, or love, manifests itself in the class-
with both their subject matter and their students.         room in two ways: love for students and love for
That’s a type of presence to which we can all as-          your subject matter.
pire, whether or not we’re born with great charis-            I’m always amazed, and more than a little puz-
ma. All it takes is a degree of self-awareness, a little   zled, at how many of my colleagues don’t seem to
concentration, and a fair amount of determination.         like students very much. Those faculty members
                                                           are the ones who always buttonhole you in the
PREPARATION
                                                           hallway to talk about how irresponsible and disre-
                                                           spectful their students are; who take great delight
   Speaking of determination, something else all           in pointing out students’ deficiencies or constant-
teachers can do, regardless of their natural gifts, is     ly regale you with examples of (supposedly) stupid
prepare meticulously. Knowing what you’re talking          things students have said or done; who are always
about can compensate for a number of other defi-           tsk-tsking about “kids today.”
ciencies, such as wearing mismatched socks, telling           I sometimes want to say, “If you dislike students
lame jokes, or not having an Instagram account.            so much, why are you in this business? Why in the
Preparation occurs on three levels: long-term, me-         world would you want to spend so much of your
dium-term, and short-term.                                 time with a bunch of people you find so disagree-
   Most of faculty members have already accom-             able?”
plished the necessary long-term preparation by                Don’t think, by the way, that students don’t pick
virtue of your advanced degrees. That preparation          up on the disdain. They absolutely do. And my
will serve you well, and be your primary source of         experience with evaluating faculty members over
authority, from your first day in the classroom un-        the years suggests that the teachers who are most
til your last.                                             widely disliked are the ones who most dislike stu-
   In between, you must continue your education            dents. Conversely, the faculty members who seem
on a regular basis — by reading extensively in             to love teaching and love (or at least really like) stu-
your field, attending conferences and seminars,            dents are the ones who are the most popular and, I
conducting and presenting your own research,               believe, the most effective.
and remaining a practitioner of your art or sci-              You also have to love your subject matter. Stu-
ence. You must also continue to learn and grow             dents might not even like a course at first, espe-
as a teacher by exploring new advances in ped-             cially if it’s one they’re required to take, but a
agogy and technology that can help you in the              teacher’s passion for the subject can be extremely
classroom.                                                 infectious.
   And in the short term, to be a powerful teach-             Love of your field is probably a reason you became
er you must go into every single class meeting as          a teacher. But it may be that, after teaching the same
prepared as you can be, given the time you have.           thing year after year, you’re beginning to get a little
That means more than just reviewing your notes             burned out. That’s where preparation comes in. Per-
or PowerPoint slides. It involves constantly reas-         haps becoming re-engaged with your field is just the
sessing what you do in the classroom, abandoning           spark your teaching needs to reignite the passion. Or
those strategies that haven’t proved effective, or         maybe it’s time to switch things up — bring in new
are just outdated, and trying new ones. It means           reading assignments, try out some new technology,
being so familiar with your subject matter that you        add a new in-class activity.
can talk about it off the cuff.                               The point is that teaching is, in a way, like a re-
   Some of that will come with time, as your level         lationship. You have to work hard sometimes to
of familiarity with your subject will naturally in-        keep the passion alive, and yet it’s vital that you do
crease the more you teach it. Then again, just be-         so. And if you don’t, students pick up on that, too.
cause you’ve been teaching a course for 15 or 20           If what you’re covering in class every day seems to
years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t approach it each          bore you, how do you expect them to be interested?

                                                       10                                                             TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion         |   ne w to college te aching

   Maybe teaching just comes naturally to you. But         Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at
even if it doesn’t, you can still have a powerful im-      Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a
pact on students. By learning what great teachers          Career in America’s Community Colleges. The
do and how they do it, and then applying those les-        opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily
sons in your own classroom, you could become one           those of his employer. You can follow Rob on Twitter @
of the “greats,” too. With apologies to Lady Gaga,         HigherEdSpeak.
your students will never know if you were born
that way or not.                                           Originally published March 16, 2015.

                                                     ADVICE

The Messages to Send on the
     First Day of Class
                                           By ANNE CURZAN

W
                     ith August almost halfway over,       (c) Students will learn lots of interesting and some-
                     my mind has turned to the first       times random linguistic facts and gain the tools to
                     day of class. When I first started    answer their own questions about language; and (d)
                     teaching college-level classes, the   While this course will require a lot of work every
                     first day seemed so straightfor-      week, the study of language can be very fun. No
ward it hardly required prep. As long as I had the         matter how many clever quips I embed in the syl-
syllabus finished, my lesson plan seemed to write          labus, or how friendly and engaging I try to make
itself: (a) introduce myself, (b) hand out and review      it, the syllabus is not up to the task of sending these
the syllabus carefully, and (c) do some kind of ice-       messages.
breaker to learn students’ names. Almost 25 years              My classes are 80 minutes, and now I spend at
and many, many first class days later, I have aban-        least the first 40 minutes of the first day of my in-
doned the low-prep, autopilot lesson plan, with no         troductory course talking with students about lan-
regrets. I now spend much more time strategizing           guage puzzles (e.g., if the boxes are “still unpacked,”
about the setup of the first day — and I don’t review      is there stuff in the boxes or not?), polling them
the syllabus until near the end of the class.              about how they use the language (e.g., is a “sight for
   There is nothing revolutionary in my saying that        sore eyes” good or bad?), asking them for examples
I believe the first day sets the tone for the semester.    of new slang, listening to a current song that cap-
So what tone does it set to review the syllabus at the     tures an intriguing linguistic phenomenon, taking
get-go of the first class? For me, at least, not a very    an informal survey about what they believe is true
energizing or exploratory one. The syllabus is the         or not true about language (e.g., the idea that wom-
class contract, filled with policies and assignments       en talk more than men), and the like. You’ll notice
and due dates. It is important, without a doubt, but it    that all of these activities are participatory, to es-
is not the heart or the point of the class itself.         tablish from the very beginning that this is a class
   When I stopped to prioritize what messages I            where students will be talking with each other and
wanted to send on the first day of my undergrad-           with me (it’s also a chance to start learning names
uate introductory linguistics course (just to take         even before we get to icebreakers or going through
one example, probably because I will be teaching it        the class roster). And all of the activities are de-
this fall), I came up with: (a) I hope and expect all      signed to spark students’ curiosity about language
students will participate actively in every class; (b)     and to show them that this linguistics course will
Together we will explore the workings of the lan-          be relevant to their daily experience of language.
guage they see and hear around them every day;                 I do tell students near the beginning of class that

                                                       11                                                            TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion       |   ne w to college te aching

the syllabus will be coming, but in a bit, so that       come a believer in showing students on the first day
they can relax and participate in the activities with-   what the class will prioritize not only in theory but
out wondering whether I am ever going to give            also in practice. If we are going to expect students
them a syllabus. Then when we get to the syllabus,       to write in class, for example, why not use a short,
I can relate the progression of topics and the goals     engaging writing prompt at some point on the first
of the essays to some of what we have already talked     day? If students are going to be solving problems in
about in the class. I can also tie some of my policies   groups, why not do so on the first day? I know that
(e.g., asking students not to be late to class and not   students often have not read or mastered any of the
to use laptops) to the kind of participatory learning    specific course content yet, but we can always create
community that they have already seen me try to          a prompt or an activity that is self-contained and
create on the first day.                                 will welcome students to our classrooms and what
   Each of us as instructors will have different mes-    we plan to do there more than any course descrip-
sages we want to send on the first day. While I hear     tion or schedule on the syllabus can.
rumors that a few instructors are trying to scare
off students (and I did see this as an undergraduate     Anne Curzan is a professor of English at the Univer-
at a college where we had two weeks of “shopping         sity of Michigan. Her publications include Gender
period”), I think many of us are trying to engage        Shifts in the History of English and How English
students in our course, which they have already          Works: A Linguistic Introduction
made the commitment of registering for, and to
help them understand what to expect. I have be-          Originally published August 10, 2017.

                                                   ADVICE

    The Absolute Worst Way
      to Start the Semester
                                        By KEVIN GANNON

“A
                   re you keeping us for the whole       education anymore. But since this isn’t a New York
                   time today? Because I need to         Times op-ed, I’d like to take another approach and
                   leave in 20 minutes,” asked a stu-    talk about the actual teaching and learning impli-
                   dent with a baffled expression        cations of Syllabus Day. My student wasn’t asking
                   on his face. As I looked at him,      for anything unusual from his perspective; he only
I wanted so badly to explain: Of all the ways you        sought affirmation that I would adhere to the ex-
could have chosen to introduce yourself on the           pectations he had for our first meeting. And those
first day of class, that was not the optimal one.        expectations came from experience — his own and
   At my university — as was the case at other in-       that of his peers.
stitutions where I’ve taught — students call the            There’s a reason that Syllabus Day has become
first day of class “Syllabus Day.” Their expectation     a hallowed tradition and a nearly ironclad rule: So
is that they’ll show up, the professor will hand         often, that’s all that happens when a class meets
out the syllabus, go through maybe 10 minutes’           for the first time. Whether by accident or design,
worth of housekeeping stuff, and then turn them          the pedagogical decisions we collectively make
loose until the course really starts later in the        about the first day of our classes have conditioned
week. My student was visibly deflated when I told        students to expect nothing more than a syllabus
him we would have class for the entire 50 minutes        (which they will likely leave unexamined for the
(though, curiously, he did not leave after 20 min-       rest of the semester), a few perfunctory introduc-
utes. Victory!).                                         tions, a word or two about classroom conduct, and
   One way to approach that anecdote — the easy          an early exit after about 15 minutes.
and tempting way — is to lament the laziness of             That’s the absolute worst way to begin a semes-
Kids These Days™ and wail that no one values             ter. Like the cliché says, we never get a second

                                                     12                                                          TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion       |   ne w to college te aching

chance for a first impression. And in our cours-            Just because we’re rejecting the traditional it-
es, first impressions go a long way. If we lament        eration of “Syllabus Day” doesn’t mean there’s no
that students never check the syllabus during the        place in the first class for a discussion of this cru-
semester, well, what was their first impression of       cial document. If my Twitter timeline this sum-
that document? If we are frustrated that students        mer is any indication, we spend a lot of time creat-
don’t take class discussion seriously, did we convey     ing our syllabi. Why ruin all that effort by merely
its importance when we introduced the class?             passing it out to students and announcing “read
   Many of the problems we encounter throughout          this and let me know if you have any questions”?
the semester can at least be mitigated if we take        That doesn’t invite students to examine what their
a mindful approach to planning that first day of         experience will be for the rest of the term, nor
class. Here are some alternate approaches:               does it spark their interest or curiosity. At the oth-
                                                         er end of the spectrum, though, reading the entire
   • Ideally, the first day gives students a taste of   document aloud doesn’t accomplish those goals,
      everything they’ll be expected to do during        either — and instead can leave the impression that
      the semester. If the course is going to be dis-    you’re pedantic, some sort of apparatchik, or both.
      cussion-heavy, then a brief class discussion          A better strategy is to highlight important
      needs to be in the first day’s plan. If students   points and direct students to the information
      will be doing a lot of the group work, then a      they’ll need throughout the term. I’d also recom-
      group activity should be on the docket. If you     mend you announce a syllabus quiz for later in the
      teach a large lecture class, and plan on inter-    first week, especially if you plan on giving regular
      leaving activities such as think-pair-share or     quizzes throughout the semester. That way, your
      minute papers, give your students an oppor-
      tunity to experience that routine on the first
      day, and model your expectations and feed-
      back for them.                                     In my experience, when
   • I n addition to modeling the specific activi-
                                                         students come up with a
      ties, though, the first day is an excellent op-
      portunity to convey your larger approach
                                                         list of class expectations,
      — your tone and style for the course. If the
      class is small enough, begin learning stu-
                                                         they hold themselves to a
      dents’ names right away by having them in-
      troduce themselves to both you and their
                                                         higher standard than we
      peers. If you want students to engage in ac-       would expect.
      tive learning, give them an immediate op-
      portunity to do so.

   • Take some time in that first class to do a         first quiz can both: (a) encourage students to read
      mini-lesson on one of the exciting, weird, in-     the syllabus thoroughly, and (b) give them experi-
      triguing, or controversial parts of the course     ence with the specific format of your assessments,
      material. Let your own enthusiasm for the          but in a low-stakes environment that allows them
      material shine, and let it be a model for your     to build some early confidence.
      students. If you’re teaching a new prep, use          Another important first-day subject that tends
      the novelty to your advantage — what are the       to be a slog — though it doesn’t have to be — is
      interesting questions you’re going to cover in     on policies and expectations for classroom con-
      the course?                                        duct. When I was an undergraduate, I sat through
                                                         many a class where we spent an excruciating sev-
   • Sometimes an explicit discussion of your           eral minutes listening to a list of don’ts from an
      course structure — the pedagogical deci-           instructor who treated us like unwelcome distrac-
      sions you’ve made — can be powerful. By            tions rather than college students — and that was
      letting students peek under the hood and see       before the prevalence of laptops, cell phones, and
      the method and purpose of certain aspects of       other mobile devices in the classroom.
      the course, you’re demonstrating that they’re         It’s all too easy to wield a mighty ban-hammer
      partners in its success.                           in an attempt to prevent distractions in class. But
                                                         a one-size-fits-all technology ban, for example,
  Whatever your plan for the first day, students         can be counterproductive (and illegal if you have
should get some idea of what’s expected of them          students with documented disabilities who depend
throughout the semester, and also have the op-           upon technological assistance). If you don’t want
portunity to discern their place in the class and its    devices out at all, and have sound pedagogical rea-
activities.                                              sons for your stance, share those reasons clearly

                                                        13                                                        TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion          |   ne w to college te aching

 with your students. If you don’t mind devices used            Opening day presents a unique opportunity in
 for class purposes (laptops for notes, cell phones         our courses. Our students haven’t experienced any-
 for a voice-recorder app) — but are wary of all the        thing yet, so there’s a default level of interest which
 other ways in which they can disrupt what’s hap-           we can leverage with engaged teaching and a wel-
 pening in the classroom — invite your students             coming atmosphere. The tone we choose to set and
 into the discussion on the topic.                          the structure of activities we design can impart a
    I’ve had a lot of success with collaborative expec-     positive first impression, and might also preempt
 tations-setting, in which I ask students how they          some of the more common frustrations that pop up
 would like to see our class work during the semes-         later in the term. Sure, some students will lament
 ter: What helps you learn? What gets in the way of         the passing of Syllabus Day, but the dividends from
 your listening or comprehension? What distracts            a more substantial and engaging first day will more
 you? In my experience, when students come up               than offset that disappointment.
 with a list of class expectations, they hold them-            We dedicate so much time to designing our
 selves to a higher standard than we would expect.          courses, planning our activities, reading up on our
 The collaboration gives students a sense of owner-         content, and constructing our syllabi. We ought to
 ship over our class meetings; they’ve gotten to help       ensure that time was well-spent by planning a first
 frame how learning occurs on a day-to-day basis,           day of class that encourages students to become
 and they’re more invested in the course as a result.       engaged participants in every aspect of the course.
 An additional advantage is that, when an incident          This fall, let Syllabus Day go — some traditions
 does occur, rather than play the bad cop (“Please          aren’t worth keeping.
 stop texting and put away your phone now”), I am
 merely reminding them of the rules they created            Kevin Gannon is a professor of history and director of the
 (“Remember, we decided that cell phones were only          Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL)
 for looking up class-related stuff”). It’s a simple, but   at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.
 powerful, shift — and it originates with a mindful
 approach to the first day of class.                        Originally published August 3, 2016.

                                                      ADVICE

 Small Changes in Teaching:
The First Five Minutes of Class
                                            By JAMES M. LANG

 “M
                            any years later, as he          character on the brink of death, and yet intrigues
                            faced the firing squad,         us with the reference to his long-forgotten (and
                            Colonel Aureliano Bu-           curiosity-inducing) memory. That sentence makes
                            endía was to remember           us want to keep reading.
                            that distant afternoon             When I teach my writing course on creative
                            when his father took him        nonfiction, we spend a lot of time analyzing the
 to discover ice.”                                          opening lines of great writers. I work frequently
    In a conversation I had with Ken Bain, my long-         with students on their opening words, sentenc-
 time mentor and favorite education writer, he              es, and paragraphs. In that very short space, I ex-
 cited that quote — the first sentence of Gabriel           plain to them, most readers will decide whether or
 García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Soli-          not to continue reading the rest of your essay. If
 tude — as one of the great openings in literary his-       you can’t grab and hold their attention with your
 tory. It’s hard to disagree: The sentence plunges          opening, you are likely to lose them before they
 us immediately into a drama, acquaints us with a           get to your hard-won insights 10 paragraphs later.

                                                        14                                                               TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion       |   ne w to college te aching

    The same principle, I would argue, holds true         the end, he returns to the questions so that stu-
 in teaching a college course. The opening five           dents can both see some potential answers and
 minutes offer us a rich opportunity to capture           understand that they have learned something
 the attention of students and prepare them for           that day.
 learning. They walk into our classes trailing all           For example, in a session of his “American
 of the distractions of their complex lives — the         Government” course that focused on the separa-
 many wonders of their smartphones, the argu-             tion of powers, the first question of the day might
 ments with roommates, the question of what to            be: “What problem is the separation of powers
 have for lunch. Their bodies may be stuck in a           designed to address?” And the last: “What forc-
 room with us for the required time period, but           es have eroded the separation of powers?” Those
 their minds may be somewhere else entirely.              questions are also available to the students in ad-
    It seems clear, then, that we should start class      vance of class, to help guide their reading and
 with a deliberate effort to bring students’ focus        homework. But having the questions visible at
 to the subject at hand. Unfortunately, based on          the start of class, and returning to them at the
 my many observations of faculty members in ac-           end, reminds students that each session has a
 tion, the first five minutes of a college class often    clear purpose.
 get frittered away with logistical tasks (taking at-        So consider opening class with one or more
 tendance or setting up our technology), gather-          questions that qualify as important and fascinat-
 ing our thoughts as we discuss homework or up-           ing. You might even let students give preliminary
                                                            answers for a few moments, and then again in
                                                            the closing minutes, to help them recognize
                                                            how their understanding has deepened over the
Having the questions visible                                course period.

at the start of class, and                                  What did we learn last time? A favorite ac-
                                                            tivity of many instructors is to spend a few
returning to them at the end,                               minutes at the opening of class reviewing what
                                                            happened in the previous session. That makes
reminds students that each                                  perfect sense, and is supported by the idea that
                                                            we don’t learn from single exposure to material
session has a clear purpose.                                — we need to return frequently to whatever we
                                                            are attempting to master.
                                                               But instead of offering a capsule review to
                                                            students, why not ask them to offer one back to
 coming tests, or writing on the board.                   you?
    Logistics and organization certainly matter,            In the teaching-and-learning world, the phe-
 and may be unavoidable on some days. But on              nomenon known as the “testing effect” has re-
 most days, we should be able to do better. In this       ceived much ink. Put very simply, if we want to
 column, the second in a series on small changes          remember something, we have to practice re-
 we can make to improve teaching and learning in          membering it. To that end, learning researchers
 higher education, I offer four quick suggestions         have demonstrated over and over again that quiz-
 for the first few minutes of class to focus the at-      zes and tests not only measure student learning,
 tention of students and prepare their brains for         but can actually help promote it. The more times
 learning.                                                that students have to draw information, ideas, or
                                                          skills from memory, the better they learn it.
 Open with a question or two. Another favorite              Instead of “testing effect,” I prefer to use the
 education writer of mine, the cognitive psychol-         more technical term, “retrieval practice,” because
 ogist Daniel Willingham, argues that teachers            testing is not required to help students practice
 should focus more on the use of questions. “The          retrieving material from their memories. Any
 material I want students to learn,” he writes in         effort they make to remember course content —
 his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, “is ac-        without the help of notes or texts — will benefit
 tually the answer to a question. On its own, the         their learning.
 answer is almost never interesting. But if you know        Take advantage of that fact in the opening few
 the question, the answer may be quite interest-          minutes of class by asking students to “remind”
 ing.”                                                    you of the key points from the last session. Write
    My colleague Greg Weiner, an associate pro-           them on the board — editing as you go and pro-
 fessor of political science, puts those ideas into       viding feedback to ensure the responses are ac-
 practice. At the beginning of class, he shows four       curate — to set up the day’s new material. Five
 or five questions on a slide for students to consid-     minutes of that at the start of every class will pre-
 er. Class then proceeds in the usual fashion. At         pare students to succeed on the memory retrieval

                                                         15                                                       TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion      |   ne w to college te aching

they will need on quizzes and exams throughout            Frequent, low-stakes writing assignments con-
the semester.                                          stitute one of the best methods you can use to so-
   One important caveat: Students should do all        licit engagement and thinking in class. You don’t
of this without notebooks, texts, or laptops. Re-      have to grade the responses very carefully — or
trieval practice only works when they are retriev-     at all. Count them for participation, or make
ing the material from memory — not when they           them worth a tiny fraction of a student’s grade.
are retrieving it from their screens or pages.         If you don’t want to collect the papers, have stu-
                                                       dents write in their notebooks or on laptops and
Reactivate what they learned in previous               walk around the classroom just to keep everyone
courses. Plenty of excellent evidence suggests         honest and ensure they are doing the work. Lim-
that whatever knowledge students bring into a          it writing time to three to five minutes and ask
course has a major influence on what they take         everyone to write until you call time — at which
away from it. So a sure-fire technique to improve      point discussion begins.
student learning is to begin class by revisiting,         In my 15 years of full-time teaching, the only
not just what they learned in the previous ses-        thing I have done consistently in every class is
sion, but what they already knew about the sub-        use the first few minutes for writing exercises,
ject matter.                                           and I will continue to do that for as long as I am
   “The accuracy of students’ prior content
knowledge is critical to teaching and learning,”
write Susan A. Ambrose and Marsha C. Lovett
in an essay on the subject in a free ebook, be-
cause “it is the foundation on which new knowl-
                                                       In my 15 years of full-time
edge is built. If students’ prior knowledge is         teaching, the only thing I
faulty (e.g., inaccurate facts, ideas, models, or
theories), subsequent learning tends to be hin-        have done consistently in
dered because they ignore, discount, or resist
important new evidence that conflicts with ex-         every class is use the first
isting knowledge.”
   Asking students to tell you what they already       few minutes for writing
know (or think they know) has two import-
ant benefits. First, it lights up the parts of their   exercises, and I will
brains that connect to your course material, so
when they encounter new material, they will pro-       continue to do that for as
cess it in a richer knowledge context. Second, it
lets you know what preconceptions students have        long as I am teaching.
about your course material. That way, your lec-
ture, discussion, or whatever you plan for class
that day can specifically deal with and improve
upon the knowledge actually in the room, rath-         teaching. I love them not only for the learning
er than the knowledge you imagine to be in the         benefits they offer, but because they have both
room.                                                  a symbolic value and a focusing function. Start-
   Here, too, try posing simple questions at the       ing with five minutes of writing helps students
beginning of class followed by a few minutes           make the transition from the outside world to the
of discussion: “Today we are going to focus on         classroom.
X. What do you know about X already? What                 So don’t limit student-writing time to papers
have you heard about it in the media, or learned       or exams. Let a writing exercise help you bring
in a previous class?” You might be surprised at        focus and engagement to the opening of every
the misconceptions you hear, or heartened by           class session. Build it into your routine. Class has
the state of knowledge in the room. Either way,        begun: time to write, time to think.
you’ll be better prepared to shape what follows in        In writing, as in learning, openings matter.
a productive way.                                      Don’t fritter them away.

   Write it down. All three of the previous activ-     James M. Lang is a professor of English and direc-
ities would benefit from having students spend a       tor of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assump-
few minutes writing down their responses. That         tion College, in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of
way, every student has the opportunity to answer       Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the
the question, practice memory retrieval from the       wScience of Learning. Follow him on Twitter at @
previous session, or surface their prior knowl-        LangOnCourse.
edge — and not just the students most likely to
raise their hands in class.                            Originally published January 11, 2016.

                                                     16                                                        TOC»
t h e ch ron icl e of h igh er e duc at ion         |   ne w to college te aching

                                                     ADVICE

All the Classroom’s a Stage
                                   By SARAH ROSE CAVANAGH

O
               ne crisp fall evening during my fresh-      putting all of that on display for your approval.
               man year of college, I gathered up             I was already intrigued by the intersections of
               my courage and struck out across the        teaching and acting when I ran across a recom-
               campus to audition for my universi-         mendation by the psychologist Tom Stafford that
               ty’s amateur theater season. In perfor-     all teachers read Impro: Improvisation and the The-
mance after performance, I could tell I was pretty         atre, a 1979 tome about teaching improv by the
flat, and I could read an answering flatness in the        acting coach Keith Johnstone. Little did I know
eyes of the judges.                                        the book would forever change not only how I
   After a series of frustrating flops, a young wom-       teach but also how I think about human interac-
an popped out of one of the audition rooms and             tion in general.
summoned three of us in. She announced that —
rather than reading lines from a play — we would           Lessons on status and vulnerability. Early on in
be doing improv.                                           Impro, Johnstone makes the claim that nearly ev-
   Any form of acting involves vulnerability — of          ery human interaction involves manipulating one’s
taking something earnest inside yourself and laying        status with reference to someone else — making
it bare in bright light, risking ridicule and rejection.   yourself or the person you’re interacting with big-
But a script allows you some protection, at least. You     ger or smaller, more or less important.
didn’t generate the ideas, you only delivered them.           In the weeks after I read his book I saw people
In improv, however, it’s all you. Given only the           manipulating their status everywhere I looked. An
sheerest of prompts, you share something of your-          older couple on the train squabbling over whose
self with no chance to consider, prepare, or rehearse.     aches and pains were worse were jostling for sta-
   The director explained that she would give us           tus. In battles with my 10-year-old, I now saw an
one word and we’d act it out with whatever came            innately high-status creature eternally frustrated
to mind — words, movement, song. I took a deep,            by the low status awarded her by virtue of child-
nervous breath.                                            hood. Most heartbreakingly to me, a passing fe-
   “Hymen,” she said.                                      male undergraduate in the hall scoffed to a male
   I froze. I felt exposed, my face hot. But I also re-    one: “I have no idea how I got that A. Probably
ally, really wanted this part. So I closed my eyes.        just lucky guessing.”
I summoned all of my deep, conflicted emotions                Teachers, especially college professors, come
and surrendered to them, without judgment or               with high status preinstalled. We sweep into the
sense of propriety or shame. I became my feelings.         room with our Ph.D.s, our jargon, our mysterious
And then I acted them out.                                 notes to shuffle, and, of course, our ability to cast
   It was the only callback I received that day.           judgment on students in ways that could open or
                                                           close doors to their desired futures.
Teaching is acting. If you teach, you are acting.             Then we demand that they stretch out their
Like acting, your best performance will stem from          tender necks and hazard guesses that might betray
tapping into your true emotions and connect-               their ignorance or (worse) their shallowness or
ing with your audience on an authentic level. But          strangeness of thought. “The student hesitates not
you are still crafting an act using speech, move-          because he doesn’t have an idea,” Johnstone says,
ment, and props — and laying it before a critical          “but to conceal the inappropriate ones that arrive
audience. Your highest hope isn’t that your stu-           uninvited.”
dents will approve, necessarily, but that they’ll be          We ask students to risk all of that, not just in
moved, or somehow changed intellectually and               front of us, but also before their peers, who wield
emotionally.                                               a different sort of status — the power to giggle or
   If you ask your students to participate in class        roll their eyes. “Laughter is a whip that keeps us in
activities or discussions, they, too, are acting.          line,” observes Johnstone.
They are pulling ideas and words out of them-                 Such pressures are present for every student.
selves, choosing different tones or stances, and           But just imagine how much heavier the burden for

                                                       17                                                          TOC»
You can also read