Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ten great tips for teachers and mentors

(Cross-posted at BlogHer.)

Lately I've run across a glut of blog posts packed with excellent teaching and mentoring advice. Herein I cull these wise bloghers' advice.

1. Ask your students to stretch beyond the familiar.
Barbara Ganley writes of her success in sparking students' creativity and curiosity through the use of multimedia:

One student is making an installation; some used audio/image, some text/image, some audio/text/image; lots of iMOVIE, some hypertext, slides--we used no college server, few expensive high-end tools. It was scary. Frustrating. Yet already they have stretched themselves to consider themselves as writers both in traditional ways--hunkering down with words on paper, and in emerging ways--exploring the ways in which words, images, and sound can come together on the computer screen or in a gallery space.

Click through to Ganley's post for specific examples of students' projects.

2. Reflect on your identity while teaching, especially when delivering difficult material.
Clio Bluestocking just spent a class period talking about Emmett Till. She writes of her struggle in presenting the material:

I wonder about my role as a white woman teaching this class, teaching about Emmett Till. White female purity was the excuse for lynching; and bodies like mine became the occasion for -- and participated in -- the destruction and oppression of bodies like my students'. Today I felt as if my body were a guillotine or a gallows, a smoking gun, standing in front of the class. If I were one of the students in the class, I might hate me -- that is, the white lady teacher. Maybe not her personally, but her in general, what she represented. I would want to know why, with all of the black teachers, a white one was teaching the class.

I, as me the white lady, cannot answer that completely just yet. I am a member of the oppressor class and I am teaching the people whom my people oppressed -- whom they still oppress. How does that affect the dynamic of my students' learning? How does that affect the dynamic of me teaching? I questioned that when I began teaching online, but my physical presence was not a factor. Here, it is. Maybe just for me, but it is still a factor.

(For another excellent post on identity issues and difficult subjects, see "Being "Diverse" in the Middle Ground: Thoughts on Racisms, Sexisms and the Many Phobias" by Tenured Radical.)

3. Consider the promise of the mentor as well as the promise of the mentee.
Dr. Shellie writes about a discussion she had with a male colleague who passed along a potential mentee's name to her--because both Dr. Shellie and the student are women.

He explained that he found female students (myself excluded) very timid and not very tough. As a PhD student, he had worked with a female student who reacted very badly to his criticism and left the group. So he did not think he would advise any female students, at least not any time soon.


I agree with him that he would probably make a poor advisor of female graduate students, and would not recommend female students to work with him.

4. See evaluation and critical input as opportunities rather than threats.
Female Science Professor writes about the endless cycles of evaluation and criticism in academia:

Being constantly evaluated can be exhausting and at times painful, but overall I appreciate the critical input. Of course there are examples of cruel and unreasonable comments in these reviews and evaluations, but in general the system works, and I feel that it makes me a better researcher and teacher. As long as the negative comments are balanced by positive comments, my self-esteem is not destroyed by the occasional bludgeoning.

Check out the comments to her post for some really interesting discussions about confidence, advising, and adaptability.

5. Embrace interdisciplinarity, and use it to meet students where they are.
Dr. Curmudgeon explains why she teaches popular culture, and in so doing models some excellent pedagogical practice. One of my favorite passages from her post:

One of the real joys, though, is that teaching popular culture means I'm not limited to one approach. I get to play with the toys that more traditional disciplines (or at least departments) often put off limits. I've worked places where certain approaches were clearly not welcome. Teaching popular culture well requires an openness to approaches. I get to talk history, economics, psychology, sociology, business, cultural studies. I can use Karl Marx or B.F. Skinner or Benedict Anderson or any other notable under the sun. Sometimes I have to, and I'm always glad to.

6. Find spaces to nurture and be nurtured in return.
What Now? shares a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the disciplinary committee at the girls' school where she teaches. The process is filled with moments of support as well as discipline for the girls involved. What Now? concludes the post with a related anecdote about a colleague's gripe:

[O]ne of the other teachers, who was also hired this year, said that she just isn't proud to teach at FGS as she has been of some other schools at which she's taught. She has suggested similar things before but had never stated it quite so plainly, so we pressed her a little on it, and it turns out she really doesn't care for the nurturing environment and the "girls are powerful!" culture of the school. She's taught at very formal co-ed boarding schools before this, and it seems that she finds FGS's all-girls environment and relaxed atmosphere and mix of boarding and day students all annoyances. I found this such a good example of the very real issue of "fit," since of course I LOVE the nurturing environment and the "girls are powerful!" ethos. These things could be taken too far, of course, and FGS is hardly perfect, but I find it such a supportive, challenging, feminist environment that I'm really happy to go to work each morning, and yet here is my colleague who is regularly grumpy about being here. I feel bad for her, and once again I'm reminded just how lucky I am to have landed in a place that fits so well with my own ethos and values.

7. Practice Viral Professional Development.
Jennifer Jones of Injenuity offers a post overflowing with excellent tactics for creating an environment in which faculty can extend their own learning as teachers and users of technology. I found the post to be at once common sensical and revelatory. Definitely go check it out, as it has lessons on community building and learning far beyond the academy.

8. Don't succumb to "stranger danger" syndrome; let your students engage meaningfully wth the world beyond the classroom. (Technology helps.)
Barbara Sawhill offers two heartening stories, one about a "stranger" who took time to explain his language to a student via a comment on the student's blog and another on the usefulness of Twitter in teaching.

9. Refuse to be pigeonholed because of some aspect of your identity.
Dr. Crazy reflects on how students perceive her (women first, teacher second, professor third) and how this impacts her opportunities for tenure and promotion.

What I'd like is to be seen as an assistant professor first, a teacher second, and a woman third. What I'd like is for there to be a way that teaching is evaluated and valued that is less about how well one fits into the mold of "sage on the stage" (sorry, I don't have the jacket with elbow patches and the pipe required for that role) and more about what students actually learn in one's courses (imagine that). I'd like a structure for student evaluations that is more about what actually happens in a course rather than about how students "feel" in relation to me. I'd like for students to appreciate it just a tiny bit that I'm tough on them rather than deciding I'm a rude bitch because I am.

10. Get tenure and start the revolution.
Also from Dr. Crazy's post above:

And it's all of the above that makes people check out at a certain point, stop trying and stop caring. And as much as I get frustrated and angry, it's not really in me to check out. So the only thing for it, I suppose, is to get tenure and to start the revolution.

What's the best teaching or mentoring advice you've heard lately?

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