This is a piece that I shared with graduate students last semester during a Preparing Future Faculty class called "College Teaching." I had wanted them to reflect on a moment in their lives that had shaped them as educators.
There was a lot of chatter in the comments of my last piece about adjuncts and faculty development. Although I didn't say it in this piece, much of my inertia stemmed from a lack of support for professional and pedagogical growth because I was contingent. I do think we need to support adjuncts in a non-exploitative way, and suggestions as to how to do that are welcome. I'm still crafting a response for this space.
I'm currently obsessed with the song "I Wanna Get Better" by the Bleachers. The chorus rings out, "I didn't know I was lonely 'til I saw your face/I didn't know I was broken 'til I wanted to change." This is a story about me learning that I wanted to get better as a teacher.
When I learned as a naive MA student that I could *teach* during my PhD, I was overjoyed. I was going to get to read and write about literature AND get to lecture about those two topics three times a week? SIGN ME UP.
I had been a teacher of sorts for a very long time. I started coaching swimming and teaching swimming lessons when I was about 12. I specialized in helping the youngest swimmers excited about swimming and then getting them to master the basics. I'll never forget the summer where I had to ask for extra space for my swimmers in the butterfly because so many of them wanted to race it. NO ONE likes to race butterfly, the most challenging of the strokes, but I had a gaggle of seven and eight year-olds clamoring to race it and show what they had learned. From me. And I loved every minute of it.
All of my best teachers had basically been lecturers, so I lectured my lessons. I am an extrovert so speaking in front of a group of people, large or small, was never intimidating for me. In fact, it was exhilarating. And there was no reason for me to change my approach; my teaching evaluations were always strong, and my students would often change majors or take on a new minor because of my classes. So what was the point of changing?
When I started to teach writing (instead of exclusively literature), I quickly realized the folly of lecturing about writing (rather than having the students actually, you know, write). But it took a long time to really break the lecturing habit. I made small steps, but it took being confronted with my own hypocrisy by my students to finally shake me out of my complacency.
I was teaching a writing class and we were discussing Paulo Freire "The Banking Concept of Education." It articulated much of what I had come to despise about the modern education system, especially when it came to my own young children; how did students go from being enthusiastic learners, desperate to soak up as much as they can, into the slouching, resentful students I had sitting in front of me semester after semester in college? Freire rightly identifies the loss of agency that students experience during their educations, being taught (among other things) that "the teacher knows everything and the student knows nothing." We cultivate a passivity within our system of education, through our approach to learning. "But, Dr. Bessette, aren't you practicing the banking concept with your teaching style? I mean, you lecture a lot."
I didn't know I was broken until I wanted to change.
The hypocrisy didn't sit well with me. This was around the time as well that I became very involved in Twitter, and found the inspiration and mentorship to radically change how I taught. On the ground in my own department, lectures were still the gold standard, and was once told point blank that I shouldn't tell anyone else in the department what I was doing in my classes. My students largely embraced a peer-driven learning approach with me. Their work never ceased to amaze me with its creativity and insight.
Obviously, as you saw last week, it's really easy for me to slip back into lecturing; after over 30 years of either being lectured to or lecturing myself, it's a hard habit to break. And sometimes, it's necessary. But a mix of active and participatory learning activities, alongside an occasional lecture, is true to who I am as an educator.
I hope that you start to figure out for yourselves what is true to you as an educator.
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