20. Survey courses can be much more than surveys of the content and are a huge responsibility because they provide a last opportunity to reach students. As much as possible, I use the survey courses that I teach in United States, Texas, Mexican-American and African-American history as surveys of much more than hundreds of years of past peoples and events. More and more I strive to also provide a survey of various methodologies.
For example, for primary sources, we’ll look at a range of the traditional written sources, as well as films, music, objects, paintings, photographs and short stories. We’ll look at secondary sources that are based on an analysis of historical memory, oral history and archival sources at various points during the semester. We’ll look at articles concerned with environmental, religious, military, political and intellectual history and more. For actual face-to-face time, we use a mixture of learning through interactive lessons, watching and discussing documentaries, completing written assignments and group assignments, and listening to and discussing clips from songs and movies. Sometimes we focus on grassroots, sometimes the great men, sometimes the culture. We’ll even have a bit of chemistry or psychology or something else mixed in here and there, as it helps uncover ways to study the past.
I hope students get a survey of teaching methods, content and ways of studying appropriate primary and secondary sources. The survey is also a survey of ways to think and learn.
Required freshman- and sophomore-level survey courses demand that we cover a bunch of material in far too little time and provide essentially the last and only opportunity in an institution of higher education to show students how wonderfully complex, diverse and interesting our subjects are. After the vast majority of students take the required six credit hours in American history, they will never again take a history class and will likely never read another history book. I take seriously my only opportunity to show them how and why history is important and how and why anything and everything is history. While most students are not history majors and do not become history majors, so far my students say again and again that they leave my courses more aware of the history around them and embodied in everyday culture.
21. Teaching takes all of your time -- in the best way possible. Teaching does take real time as far as planning, actual teaching in the classroom or online, giving feedback on assignments and answering emails, but when I say teaching (and learning) takes all of my time, I mean something very different. Anytime I am doing anything, I am always consciously and unconsciously thinking of ways my current task could improve or influence how I teach or what I teach. I find myself at all sorts of random times, including in the middle of the night, thinking about something insightful a student said or pondering ways to reach so-and-so that seems to have an untapped spark for learning. Teaching is not a job or a career. It’s a life. For me, teaching never feels like going to work and always has the same (or more) excitement as if I were still taking classes myself.
22. Thrive on the deep satisfaction of teaching. Again and again while teaching, I find my aches, pains and worries evaporate. We all frequently have opportunities to open up and share personal details about our lives because the classroom is a safe place -- a safe place to learn new perspectives from each other, to discuss hot button issues and to ask deep, powerful questions. Laughing is fun and important, too. When it happens naturally, laughing is a great thing for helping a class bond and learn together. Sometimes the things that evoke laughter surprise me and make me laugh even harder! And college is one of the few places in society where deep, intellectual conversations are welcomed and celebrated instead of demonized.
23. Stick to your beliefs and instincts (within reason). There are always new studies saying something is effective and then another studying saying, “Wait, no.” You know what I mean. We must stay up to date, as much as possible, with new research in best practices, as well as research in the areas in which we teach. But at a certain point we have to stick with what works for us and our students. We should try new things, but each professor has a distinct personality and way of reaching students. If something works, it works.
24. A quiz can work wonders at getting students to read and understand the syllabus. I recently experimented with requiring my student in my online Texas history class to take a multiple-choice syllabus quiz before they could begin to work on any of the assignments or earn any grades. The quiz was in Blackboard. Students could take it as many times as needed until they earned a 100 percent, at which point they would see all the course materials appear.
This worked so well that I’ll be doing it in all of my classes from now on: I’ve received almost zero questions this semester about assignments, deadlines, policies and other “syllabus stuff.”
Questions on the quiz were very detailed and picky, per se, but were designed to get students to really look at everything in detail and to become familiar with the syllabus and to notice important or unusual aspects of it. For example, I had questions about late work, the font required for assignments and whom to contact with questions. The way the class is set up, it’s better to read Chapter 12, followed by Chapter 11, in one of the books -- so I made that into a question. Such an approach guarantees the syllabus is read and hopefully helps students internalize the most important information.
25. Twitter and Facebook don’t work (for me). A lot of professor friends incorporate assignments and online discussions into their classes where students use Twitter and Facebook with great success. But that has not worked for me so far. I still want to try it again sometime. Thus far, however, I find that students forget about it because it is still somewhat unusual to use social media for assignments, or they resist having their fun space cross over with school space. Oftentimes, too, they don’t have any social media accounts and/or don’t know how to use them and don’t have the desire to figure them out. Twitter and Facebook assignments also make the grading process much more difficult since everything is not automatically and easily together. The latest technology simply isn’t always needed (and sometimes is a hindrance!) for effective teaching and learning.
26. Blogs do work and work wonders. For over a year now, I have had some of my students create free blogs on wordpress.com in lieu of some more traditional tests and papers with great success overall. Blogging is important and interesting because it forces students to think differently. The Times New Roman size 12, double-spaced paper won’t work. They need images and tags and to have control over what their page looks like. Blogs work best when the topic is fully open-ended. In classes where students blog, I also always have them reply to blog posts from each other.
27. Teaching involves constant flexibility, trial and error, and change. Effective teaching requires near constant adaptability, boldness, change, determination and experimentation. I always enjoy the challenges, successes and failures of innovative teaching strategies. Likewise, we have to be flexible with ourselves, our classes and our students. I have a firm no-late-work rule that I seldom enforce because I understand students have busy, busy lives.
28. Effective discussion-based classes are tricky. My experiments with discussion-based classes are ongoing. Thus far, I find that discussion-based classes work best if you have a small class and all (or almost all) of the students are exceptionally strong -- who do everything required and more. Even then, I find that students don’t actually know enough (for the simple reason that they haven’t been studying said subject forever). I find discussions work best when we talk about one specific source, essay or thought question. I am still experimenting with these discussion roles.
29. Students don’t know how to read (or study). The difficulty students have with reading is one of the newest things I have learned and internalized. For some time I’ve realized students have difficulty pronouncing new words. (Due to dyslexia and slight hearing differences, this is something I too have struggled with and still do occasionally.) But I’ve only in the past few months realized that students have great difficulty sitting down, reading any kind of material and retaining that information. Lately, I spend more and more time giving advice for effective reading. With growing frequency, students understand exactly where they need to improve but struggle in unlearning strategies that were seemingly successful when they were given an automatic A on everything in high school.
30. Not every student will like you, and you can’t reach every student, every semester. Almost all professors want to reach every student and have a positive relationship with each one. This simply isn’t possible. There isn’t time. And not every student and professor will match. (The unpredictable, unscientific ways in which people get along well or not so well is one problem with programs that automatically match a student with a faculty mentor.) Additionally, some students at this historical moment are not in a place where they can thrive in college.
31. Being rested is tremendously important. Effective teaching requires not only sufficient sleep but also mental rest. On the days that I teach, from the time I start my car to the time I park it, 35 to 41 minutes have gone by. This is treasured time when I can prepare mentally. Before teaching, I try to avoid checking my email or talking with students about anything too serious, so I can keep my mind fresh. I like to have a bottle of water, too.
32. Mentoring students is a really important and fun part of teaching. Teaching and visiting with students outside of the classroom is fun and important -- just as important as inside the classroom. I love the conversations that I regularly have with students, whether they just need a friendly ear or some sort of career or academic advice. I especially enjoy staying in touch with students well after the formal end of the semester.
33. Students are busy from mental and physical exhaustion. Through talking with students, I’ve found that they are almost always too busy. Given society as it is in 2016, students face struggles of paying for an education that is more and more expensive, while also working and taking care of children and sick relatives. They are busy and tired. Society does not provide them the assistance they need. They are also tired from having been in school for 13-plus years by the time they reach college. They’ve never had a chance to breathe and play, or as Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus would say, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” More here.
34. Challenging students with ideas is just as important as challenging them with the word load and type of assignments. I’ve always been a big fan of challenging students as far as what I ask of them when it comes to reading and writing. Students continue to rise to these challenges. But I’m also increasingly realizing that college is an important time to challenge students in terms of the ideas and types of material they are exposed to. We have to allow time for the corresponding emotional demands of college.
35. Student overwhelmingly respond to the new and unusual more than anything else. Again and again, students respond best when I teach material in ways that are new and shocking. They are always fascinated when we talk about Christine de Pizan, lynching, or how Margaret Sanger advocated for birth control in part because she hoped it would cause black people to become extinct. Likewise, they are captivated by the songs “Ain’t No Bugs on Me,” “Atomic Power” and many others. Various film clips, paintings and photographs are always popular, too.
36. Low-stakes assignments can backfire when some students don’t take them seriously. Students sometimes see that earning a zero on that discussion or quiz will only hurt their grade by one or two points. The saddest part of this is they miss a learning opportunity, and even a teaching opportunity, since we all learn from one another. Additionally, they sometimes think that one too many times, and it ends up having more negative consequences. More here.
37. Students frequently don’t understand how grades correspond with their performance. Most of our current college students come from high schools where essentially no one ever earned a final grade below an A or never read a book, wrote a paper or did homework. Therefore, we need to explain even more what we are looking for and what is necessary for a college degree. More here.
38. Students can be tricked into talking louder (and doing other things). I frequently have trouble hearing students in the classroom, even when I am close to them. I know other students have trouble hearing their classmates talk. By walking farther away, instead of closer to, the person who is talking, I encourage them to talk louder, and then everyone can hear them. I have also just finished one successful experiment where students assign themselves work to do before the next class. With full freedom, these students assigned themselves a good amount, and for the first time in the semester, they all came to class fully prepared and having completed their work.