A colleague e-mailed me recently — would I be interested in getting together an informal group of folks, every now and then, to talk about teaching? Would I! This colleague, I should say, is a master teacher himself — winner of innumerable awards, author of a book on teaching himself. I've been wanting to reach out to him for a while to talk about some of the things I'm hoping for our first year seminar program — but he got to me first.
He got to me, in part, from this blog. It's an odd thing, writing a blog. Folks I know — or colleagues I don't know, for that matter — can stumble across it in ways they're unlikely to come across my academic work, but they don't often let me know they read it. That's fine — one of the great pleasures of reading is how private it can be at times, how personal, how intimate. And if they don't like it I certainly don't need to hear it! But when I do hear about it, then writing a blog post becomes part of an ongoing conversation. I think we need both kinds of reading, the private and the social; the first allows us to drink deeply of new ideas and to reflect on them, while the second can allow us to put them into practice, to hone and refine them. (Or, one allows us to skim hastily while the other forces a certain accountability — that's always another possibility.)
I've read a couple of articles on teaching recently that I'd like to read more socially than privately. Recently I read in the January/February Atlantic about Teach for America and its studies of teachers, and then just this past weekend The New York Times Magazine had a piece about "Building a Better Teacher." Both articles focus on K-12 teaching, not college teaching, but I think we have much to learn from them anyway. The Atlantic piece on TFA suggests, for example, that a big part of excellent teaching is reflectiveness: " Great teachers ... constantly reevaluate what they are doing." The Times article focuses on specific classroom management practices as well as content-area skills; both, perhaps surprisingly, rely on what Elizabeth Green, the article's author, calls a "close reading of the students’ point of view." Good teachers, she suggests, try to figure out who their students are, breaking down directions for those who aren't following the general guidelines, examining why they make the mistakes they make — imagining, in other words, what it's like to sit in their seats. (It's worth noting here that in the comments on Aeron Haynie's terrific piece last week were two references to a teacher who is literally sitting in her students' seats by eating a school lunch every day — a noble and probably instructive sacrifice!) Reflectiveness and an empathic imagination seem to me related qualities—are they enough? And, can they be taught?
I'm not sure yet how to adapt the insights of these two articles — and I'm sure there are many others — to college teaching. Some of my colleagues will say we don't need to — that students who have made it to college have the responsibility for adapting to our methods rather than vice versa. And certainly I don't advocate pandering or "dumbing down." But if I can help my students better to learn the material I care so deeply about, to better acquire the skills of critical thinking and close reading that have so improved my own life, why wouldn't I want to do that? So, yes, that's a conversation I want to have.