Outdated and Outdone

Shari Wilson explores the world of handouts that shouldn't still be handed out -- and the professors who hand them out.

November 7, 2005

A well-known geology professor asks to see the manager of the Media Center at a university in northern California. He is angry because Media Services has dumped the 16mm film collection and inadvertently retired his favorite plate tectonics film from the 1970s. Initially sympathetic, the manager searches several collections and vendors to find that the film is out of print. When she tries to show him some newer titles on the topic, he storms out of the library, shaking his head.

At a large community college, students have been filing into the department chair’s office every semester for seven years complaining about a poetry class. Seems that the long-time professor of a particular course has been using the same typed-and-copied handouts for over 20 years. He not only refused to use a computer to type up handouts, but didn't see the rationale for updating the information "since the poets were dead." The complaints continued and each successive chair finds a reason not to bother this in-house scholar.

An established speech professor can't understand why students can’t seem to get assignments in on time -- much less refer to sources properly. Although many students have complained about his WebCT supplemental, he never makes time to update information. The current undated syllabus, handouts and course documents are dated 2003. None of the links refer students to information properly -- and frustrated students finally formed a study group to unravel the mess.

One math professor has copied handouts that were original purple dittos produced in 1974. Her syllabus is two pages long and does not reflect the current course. She assigns rote-memorization exercises from many-times-copied sheets dated 1976. Not only do students avoid her, but her colleagues have also accepted her refusal to participate in committees as a sign that she is no longer a viable member of the teaching team at this university.

When do instructors decide that teaching is "doing time?" When do research and other activities become so important that teaching becomes such a chore that any effort is considered wasted time? At times I have been shocked that colleagues with so much knowledge seem intent on
making that information indecipherable to their students. What is the motivation here? Under pressure, a few colleagues have admitted that they simply don't care. A few others simply seem oblivious that good teaching requires effort. After watching a senior professor hold committee members hostage to pontificate and grouse, a colleague scratched the words "God-complex" on a tablet and flashed it to me. Could this also be the reason that our older colleague's materials are decades old?

One colleague has confided that he thinks this refusal to update materials, assessment methods and teaching methods basically makes difficult graduate-level courses into "academic cod liver oil." I have to agree.

Yes, some topics are decades old -- does that mean there truly is nothing new on the horizon? Maybe. Maybe not. In graduate school, I took courses from a tenured professor who was well known as a Joycean scholar. True, Ulysses was finally published in 1922 –- yet he made this course exciting. Not only did he continue to publish, he also constantly read current interpretations on this writer’s work. Yes, he was an expert, but he was fresh. He squeezed our brains until we spit out something worthwhile -- and on occasion an original idea surfaced.

Excited that a tiny new thread was developing, he'd showcase it and develop it in the next class. True, he almost never gave handouts, but his quizzes, midterms and final were constantly changing to reflect developments in current theory. His courses were always overflowing with students fighting to get in -- a true reflection of his desire to learn and develop as an instructor after thirty years of teaching.

Why rework old lessons and develop new exercises and experiments to teach subjects that were being taught as early as the 19th century? Several reasons:

1. Students feel valued.

2. After identifying a student population (or even a particular class), targeting their area of need is simply effective teaching. It also gives rise to flexibility in teaching difficult subjects -- not that
syllabi are discarded, but lessons may be developed to re-teach an area that students find difficult.

3. Textbooks are updated -- so why not professor’s lessons?

4. It's invigorating to find new ways to teach old materials. By researching and redoing assignments, instructors often feel "refreshed" and able to teach it more effectively to students. This also may encourage instructors to use less passive teaching methods.

5. New examples of old subjects can make an instructor seem reachable -- and interested in his or her students. This often opens the door for communication.

Yes, sometimes the information is as old as the hills; but the way that we teach it does not have to be antiquated. Reaching for new worksheets, developing new handouts and assessment tools is simply good teaching. At the least, the willingness to develop as an instructor can stave off the dreaded replacement when younger instructors are being interviewed at record pace.

I know one woman who, at 72, commands a lively classroom and is constantly being recommended by students. Her trick? She often digs up current information from the media (and at times from her own students) to develop topics. Newspaper clippings circulate the classroom -- and the use of less traditional teaching techniques keeps her students interested. No longer content to rely on lectures, she has incorporated short audio or video tape clips into readings, has students on debate teams for tricky subjects, and often has students reply either in small
groups -- or through index cards -- which gives students the anonymity they need to really express themselves. After hearing her students roar with laughter one day, I sat in on her class and was excited by the energy she generated. Now I have borrowed some of her techniques, and often drop by her office to see what she is developing for her classes. I can only hope to be this interested in teaching at 72! The department chair has warned her that she will never be allowed to retire -- she jokingly says she will "die at the chalkboard." And when she does, it
will be quite a loss.

I understand that in some cases, professors have their hands tied. A department-approved syllabus may give an instructor very little "wiggle" room. Those who haven't yet earned tenure, non-tenure track professors, or adjuncts may give in to pressure to simply adapt a syllabus from a template or existing format. A list of "acceptable" texts or only one particular text allowed in a course can be stifling. Still, I know many instructors who have worked with materials, topics,
and experiments within the curriculum to pep up what could be a dull subject.

Once asked to teach business management at a small, private university, I was limited to one text and a standardized test bank. I not only worked to choose questions that reflected our in-class work, but also choose current (and often edgy) business news stories to represent the less interesting business practices outlined in our text. Students were much more engaged when they could see how the concepts in the book were taking place in the real business world. Instead of just memorizing facts for standardized tests, these students had the opportunity to apply what they were studying to case studies in several papers. Many went through several drafts to ensure that they were drawing the correct inferences. I was thrilled to see a variety of topics with each
set of papers -- it was obvious that these were thinking adults with interests of their own.

I’m not sure if it's because I've only been teaching for six years, or because I've never had the security that comes with tenure, but I am constantly developing new handouts and materials for my courses. In fact, to secure the job I have now at a university in the Midwest, I created a sentence structure handout that included several local landmarks. Butt-kissing? Sure. But the students paid attention and were able to identify dependent and independent clauses by last example.

In addition to this mini-lesson, I also developed a new lesson for them on logical fallacies. Since the students had done a somewhat dry section in the textbook requiring the memorization of approximately 20  forms of ineffective argument, I focused on review. Realizing that JimCarey's Liar Liar had a wonderful scene full of faulty arguments, I reviewed a short three-minute scene of the movie many times and typed up a transcript of the dialogue, word for word. I then created a
handout with instructions, this dialogue and a quick review of the faulty arguments from the textbook. In class, I put on the video, and played the three-minute scene a few times. Not only were students thrilled to be "watching a movie" in class -- they quickly started to put into place what they know and correctly identified line after line of faulty arguments. The discussion was lively.

While on staff at this university, I’ve developed a number of handouts based on in-class discussion and my students' assignments. Last week I asked students to write a well-structured paragraph on a current television show, "My Name is Earl." After following my instructions
online, students read several short articles on the show and were instructed to write a solid topic sentence and supporting details -- including three short, direct quotes from the linked articles.
They were instructed to e-mail the paragraph directly from their computers to my office e-mail account. In addition to immediately e-mailing them concrete suggestions with what worked and what needed improvement, I then developed a worksheet for use in class the next day.

I chose a paragraph that had a somewhat confused topic sentence, a few good supporting details, some off-topic writing, and wonderful sentence structure. I featured this paragraph at the top of the handout (anonymously, of course), and using MSWord, set up columns for my typed
comments. In the columns, I typed in specific comments and questions about each sentence and used short lines with arrows to point to the sentence in question. Below I typed up four other examples of paragraphs -- to be used for group work in class. After going over the first sample paragraph, students felt much more confident in evaluating the remaining paragraphs and reporting back to the class. It was a rousing success, with students able to see their own writing evaluated and use those tools to evaluate classmates’ work (and later their own). I was rewarded with visible improvement in paragraph development in the next stack of essays from this class.

I realize that this development of assignments and handouts takes time. It's true that I don’t always have time and sometimes rely on standard tools that have been in use for years. But when I take the time to look at my students’ abilities and develop something just for that class, I
am always greatly rewarded in my effort. And I suspect that the students feel important, too. Students really enjoy seeing their own work in print -- even if they're going to be constructively criticized in class. I am always careful to start out with the positive and gently guide the discussion as we go along.

On occasion, I "mix up" the examples from several sections of the same course so that students don't feel threatened. But my experience is that students love the attention and often brag to friends that they "made the handout." At a campus where I taught in California, my developmental writing students often turned in work with the comment, "Oh, please use mine." They really wanted to improve -- and the reward they got when the class praised them built confidence. Specific comments in the context of a lesson helped them more than a vague C at the top of a page. I’ll admit that at this college, a posse of undergraduates followed me from course to course -- and when they ran the gamut, they asked me to recommend "another cool instructor."

An online colleague accuses me of being an "academiwhore." She believes I am pandering to students rather than looking toward the loftier goal of asking students to learn about history while doing English grammar exercises. She may be right. I’ve never been the pompous type. But I
have enjoyed teaching these last six years -- and deans seem to want to hire me. So I have no complaints. To me, recent texts, up-to-date syllabi and materials are part of the "teaching solution." Good education, a desire to help people, and the ability to be open-minded seem integral as well. Like many instructors, I rely on in-services where instructors share effective lesson plans, industry publications,  am sure I need all of it to avoid becoming disdainful of my students -- and ultimately un-teachable myself.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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