Essay on the importance of cues in college teaching


When teaching undergraduates, it's important to remember what they don't know and to offer cues, writes Rob Weir.

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Essay on how much a professor learned about teaching from his mentor

In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.

To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.

As my adviser would have pointed out, that was Sartre's metaphor for the superego, which he (Sartre, not my adviser) claimed not to have, his father having died when he was two. And perhaps that’s all my adviser was, a pumped-up academic superego, driving me to know more, to be less dumb, to write better.

He -- and he had a name, Antoine Raybaud, and a face: sea-blue eyes that burned when he stared, a beaked nose, broad smile and churlish gray curly hair -- would have given growth hormones to anyone's superego. His lectures were like Stéphane Mallarmé's salons, two hours of noteless improvisations on poetry and artistic creation. His seminars were fearsome: like a cat toying with its prey, he would hide the answers to his questions in ambiguous phrases, leaving us dangling in confusion. When the inevitable wrong answer was proffered, he would bat us away with a “Non, non, c’est pas ça du tout.” And then a long, oppressive silence would ensue, until another foolhardy student would offer up a sacrificial comment.

He taught in French, because this took place at the University of Geneva, where I was a student. Raybaud himself was French, a graduate of Normale Sup’, the elite French university for future academics. He had come to Geneva to replace the legendary Jean Starobinski, one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century. I had known none of this when choosing French as my main subject at the university. But Raybaud was well aware of his place in institutional history: perhaps he could hear Staro’s voice in his own head, belittling his lectures.

The atmosphere in Raybaud’s seminars was so tense that every detail of that room is seared into my memory. The tables, arranged in a long rectangle, with a no man’s land in the middle; the door to the hallway, at the center of the room, always slightly ajar; a mobile whiteboard in front of one window; and then, beyond, the tantalizing views of the Salève mountain and the chestnut trees in the Parc des Bastions -- their beauty all the more wrenching when students were driven to tears by Raybaud’s caustic remarks on their presentations.

I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.

Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.

I often wonder whether Raybaud’s tough love wasn’t the best pedagogy I could have received. I don’t dare repeat his method on my own students. But I fear I may be failing them by being too friendly, by not pushing them to their limits, not giving them a chance to surpass themselves. This is not a teaching style for all students, to be sure. But I know that without his punishing comments, I would be a lesser scholar today.

While Raybaud did not do much to enhance my vacations or relationships, having that voice in my head, for so many years, was not always a bad thing. By forcing me to rewrite every paper I handed in, he turned me into my toughest critic. I needed to internalize him, if I wanted to make any progress. Had Raybaud merely told me what was wrong with my arguments, I would never have learned the most important lesson of all: how to spot my own weaknesses.

After six years -- which was how long most of us spent in our studies, since we paid next to nothing -- the demon who had hounded me across Greece had become a friend. We were close, if not intimate: I could never bring myself to call him “tu,” even though he encouraged me to call him Antoine. He shared his own disappointments, or what he called his “insuccès”: not failure, but something almost worse, a lack of recognition.

But his vulnerability taught me a final lesson. Anchises is not really someone else, only your own voice in disguise. Raybaud was the name I gave to a part of my mind I’ve since recognized as my own. He no longer disrupts my vacations or family life, but without his rigor, there is a side of myself I may never have discovered. Antoine died in 2012, and I never had the chance to reveal just how much I owed him. But a part of him will always be a part of me, reminding me that, no matter how painful or tiring, I should really rewrite that paper one more time.

Dan Edelstein is professor of French and, by courtesy, history, and the W. Warren Shelden University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.

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Antoine Raybaud

One women's college introduces a hybrid degree program to help women juggle their education with other demands

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A women's college is phasing out a weekend college that was once key to serving adult students -- and replacing it with a hybrid program.

Colleges start new academic programs

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Education Adds Likelihood of Holding Work Credential

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics shows that the proportion of adults with a work credential typically increases with educational attainment, excluding those adults with a doctoral degree. The figures range from 6 percent for adults with a high school diploma having a work credential to 68 percent for people with a professional degree.

Over half of credentialed adults -- 53 percent -- have less than a bachelor's degree.

Work credentials are often used as an alternative or supplement to education credentials like diplomas and degrees. The credentials include occupational licenses and certifications. The most common work credentials are obtained in health care, education and the trades, according to the report.

Study links procrastination and bogus excuses by German university students

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In Germany, university students who delay their work are more likely than others to lie about it and to engage in other forms of academic misconduct, study finds.

A Toni Morrison novel makes it into a curriculum known for its classical roots

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Columbia's core literature course, long criticized for its lack of diversity, adds to the list a novel by Toni Morrison -- the first living author and the first nonwhite author.

How to Better Serve Returning Adult Students

Up to 35 million Americans have enrolled in college at some point but failed to earn a degree or certificate. A new report from Higher Ed Insight, a research firm, tracks the challenges adult students face when they return to college. The 69-page document is an evaluation of the Lumina Foundation's adult college completion work. It seeks to describe what works with this population, in part by looking at local, state and national partnerships that bring together higher education and employers to better serve and engage returning adult students.

Several key changes in policy and practice would benefit these students, according to the report. They include:

  • Access to advisers who are capable of addressing adult students' complex needs;
  • Student services that are available during nontraditional business hours, or online;
  • Additional sources of financial aid, particularly at the state level;
  • More transparency about transfer credit policies, including before students enroll;
  • Flexible course scheduling, online courses and innovative degree-completion programs;
  • Access to opportunities to earn credit for prior learning.

Report Tracks Latino STEM Graduates

Excelencia in Education today released a report that lists the 25 colleges that graduate the most Latino students in science, technology, engineering and math. Using data from 2013, the nonprofit group found that 2 percent of all U.S. institutions graduate one-third of Latinos who earn STEM credentials. While the number of Latinos earning these credentials has increased, they still account for just 9 percent of STEM credentials earned. Latinos working in STEM also are concentrated in lower-paying jobs, with a higher representation in service fields than in professional occupations.

“The report shines a light on what many of us know to be true: that diversification within STEM postsecondary education, particularly among Hispanics/Latinos over the last decade, has been largely in the area of certificate/associate levels and diminishes at each successive level,” Gabriel Montaño, a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and president of the Society for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, said in a written statement. “The result is an increasing discrepancy in positions of leadership within the STEM workforce.”

The lists of top colleges for the production of Latino STEM graduates follows:

Certificates Awarded to Latinos in STEM Fields

  1. Instituto de Banca y Comercio Inc., Puerto Rico
  2. South Texas College
  3. Miami Dade College
  4. Wyotech-Long Beach, Calif.
  5. United Education Institute-Huntington Park, Calif.

Associate Degrees Awarded to Latinos in STEM Fields

  1. South Texas College
  2. San Jacinto Community College, Texas
  3. University of Phoenix-Online
  4. El Paso Community College, Texas
  5. Instituto Tecnologico de Puerto Rico-Recinto de Guayama

Bachelor Degrees Awarded to Latinos in STEM Fields

  1. University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez
  2. Florida International University
  3. The University of Texas at El Paso
  4. Texas A&M University at College Station
  5. University of Texas-Pan American

Master's Degrees Awarded to Latinos in STEM Fields

  1. Universidad Politecnica de Puerto Rico
  2. Florida International University
  3. University of Texas at El Paso
  4. University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez
  5. University of Southern California

Doctoral Degrees Awarded to Latinos in STEM Fields

  1. Stanford University
  2. University of California at Berkeley
  3. University of Texas at El Paso
  4. University of California at Davis
  5. University of California at Irvine

A new graduate school of education will be competency based

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A new graduate school of education will be competency-based. As demand for teachers increases and alternative preparation programs spread, this school hopes to stand out to the best aspiring educators.


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