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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Teaching Matters

A new book targeted toward graduate students new to teaching is worth checking out for anyone interested in improving their classroom practices.

June 20, 2022
 
 

As frustrated as I sometimes get about the state of teaching in higher education, the truth is, tremendous progress has been made since I was first in the classroom as an instructor.

In 1994, when I started graduate school and would be TAing two sections of developmental English, my “training” consisted of a single 90-minute session that primarily covered how to fill out a grade book, and approaches to “classroom management”—e.g., kicking a disruptive student out of the room without resorting to physical touching. If there was a word of pedagogy uttered, it didn’t stick, and I was definitely listening, because I was panicked about being in charge of my own class.

By 2001, when I started a gig as a lecturer in the English department at the University of Illinois, I was looking at three days of presentations and discussions exclusively focused on pedagogical issues. It put concepts and techniques on top of what I’d learned the hard way during my three years of graduate school, greatly accelerating my development as a teacher.[1]

While there is still a stigma surrounding the scholarship of teaching and learning, and those who work in teaching and learning centers are sometimes disrespected by some of their peers, even more progress has been made in the last 20 years.

Of course, more can always be done, and the ways I think additional progress could be achieved are without number, starting with not assigning the least experienced instructors to work with students who need the most help, but institutions genuinely do seem to care about teaching more than before.

Part of continuing this progress involves providing resources that help new instructors approach the challenge teaching, which is why I am pleased to see Teaching Matters: A Guide to Graduate Students by Aeron Haynie and Stephanie Spong, published by West Virginia University Press, making its way into the world.

Haynie and Spong are the director and associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of New Mexico, the kind of people I have come into contact with often over the last several years as I attempt to spread my particular gospel about teaching writing. When I’ve been invited to these spaces, I’ve always been impressed with the seriousness and spirit with which they tackle these challenges. The work is inspiring, even as it remains (in my opinion) underfunded.

For me, Teaching Matters joins David Gooblar’s The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching as indispensable resources for new instructors, or really anybody who is looking for a framework and guidance for their class preparation, pedagogy and execution.

While Teaching Matters and The Missing Course overlap in terms of purpose and audience, there are several reasons I recommend both books, rather than choosing one or the other. Teaching Matters is organized like a handbook, with a series of early how-to chapters, including: How do you design a course? How do you create a welcoming classroom community? and How do you develop a classroom practice?

These chapters are loaded with specific pedagogical frameworks for different aspects of one’s teaching practice, almost to an overwhelming degree at times. Teaching Matters is a book you can return to again and again as instructors feel the need to examine and alter their practices.

While Gooblar’s book has lots of concrete and practical advice, the animating spirit of the text is Gooblar’s personal journey as a college instructor. As someone who had a similar journey, Gooblar’s presentation resonated strongly with me, but I also think it does the important work of showing that good teaching is not solely a matter of concepts and techniques. It is also a matter of orientation and mind-set, and to be privy to how an experienced pedagogue like Gooblar works the problem is a great help for any instructor, regardless of how many years they may have in front of or behind them.

Neither book is prescriptive, and both capture what I think of as an essential truth about teaching—above all, it is the work not of individuals, but communities.

To oversimplify, I think instructors tend to fall into one of two camps. One is made up of those who believe the burdens of learning fall entirely on the students themselves. The instructor’s job is to cast out the pearls of wisdom, and it is the students’ job to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be swine. I would like to convince these folks that this is not true and they can make both their students and themselves happier if they abandon this notion, but that’s a longer conversation, a different journey.

The other group of instructors places the burden entirely on themselves, figuring that if they can get the design and presentation of the course just right, the potential of every student will be unlocked in a glorious celebration of learning.

The truth is that learning in a classroom context will always be a collaborative enterprise between instructor and students, and recognizing and planning for that reality can be difficult—fraught even.

Teaching Matters helps break down what happens inside a classroom community in a way that makes these dynamics legible and explicable. It is a tremendous service to the profession.

That doesn’t mean teaching will ever be easy, but what fun would teaching be if it was easy?


[1] It’s also where I first met John Griswold (also known to longtime Inside Higher Ed readers as Oronte Churm), who ultimately was the conduit to this gig. He was the mentor/leader of my faculty peer group that continued to meet throughout the semester.

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