Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assessing the Seminar

I'm teaching a graduate course for the first time this semester, and to call it merely a learning experience would be a gross understatement. I was working primarily from my own experience as a student in the graduate classroom, (experience that is now five or six years old at the back end), and some scattered advice from colleagues, my advisor, and from the blogosophere. That was all helpful to be sure, but I couldn't really apply it many concrete, or at least confident ways, until I actually set foot in the classroom.

I've learned some lessons:
  • The space matters: a bad classroom set-up can totally change the dynamic of the classroom, and after the first two spaces (there was an unofficial room change, and then an official one), I ended up in a room with a seminar table, and while it is by no means a perfect space, it is a familiar one for me.
  • Good discussion needs to be taught: I was really flummoxed early on by what I initially believed was a lack of ambition in the class. A few folks recommended structuring exercises--the occasional groupwork, a bit of lecture here and there, guided questions and discussion as opposed to the more free-form discussion I had hoped for--and those helped early on. This past week, I wanted tot test how well these structures had been teaching discussion, and not just serving as a crutch...for two texts that I have a fair amount of expertise on, I announced that I was going to sit back and listen as much as I could. I tried to interject to keep the discussion rolling with discussion questions, and stopped to give a bit of a primer on some relevant theoretical models (Sedgwick, Butler), but by and large, I left the actual work of criticism up to the class. And while I had to bite my tongue a lot (I REALLY like to talk about books and plays), things kept rolling at a good pace, most of the major ideas and issues were hit upon, and most were handled with a modicum of sophistication, and more people than usual spoke more than usual. It was good.
  • That midstream feedback from the class is as important in the grad class as it is in the undergraduate classroom: I did a midterm eval exercise around week five, and got some really excellent suggestions for tweaking the class, including providing more background context (I figured it was not as necessary for a class that focused on lit from the past sixty years, but it was, and I myself needed to brush up on some of it). It also gave the class a sense of ownership over what was going on there, and I think that this moment was important for spurring on their own incentive to step up their participation.
  • At first I thought that good syllabus design was no more than half of a good course. Now I think that good syllabus design is fully half of a good course. I took some advice to not overload the reading to heart, and I actually think I lowballed the amount of reading. Maybe not, but there are a lot of things that I'll make sure I'm doing on the syllabus design for future classes: Including more and denser theory that I sort half-expected that people would know; thinking a bit more closely about subject-matter coherence (as opposed to simply using a survey approach to a nonetheless focused period and genre); building in structures that will rely less on discussion early on, but build toward it, etc.
It's the comparative paucity of theory that I'm most worried about in terms of what students will leave the course missing (and that may come up on evals, too, which are taken very seriously around here). And as I begin to think about which course I'd like to teach in the future, figuring out which topics will allow for the most appropriate level of theory must be a factor.



undergroundprof said...

I like this post a lot for the careful and thoughtful discussion of graduate teaching. Based on my own experience I can endorse some of these things. In particular, you can't assume that graduate students have read a particular thing (theoretical or otherwise); and you can't assume that they will fill in the gaps for themselves.

Mostly what I like, though, is simply that this is a post with the kind of explicit discussion of pedagogy that is usually reserved for the undergraduate classroom. I do not mean to criticize others for discussing undergrad teaching, especially on blogs. I think that's terrific as well. But in so much official discourse about teaching, pedagogy=undergraduate teaching. This has two negative consequences: First, it means graduate teaching is undervalued at the institutional level (at least at my institution), and second it means that graduate teaching rarely benefits from the explicit pedagogical discussion that has aided undergraduate teaching. One reason for this paucity of graduate teaching discussion is that seminars are so discipline specific at the graduate level. But I also think it's because there's a presumption that graduate teaching is easy and natural in a way that undergraduate teaching is not.

Finally, since this is your first class, I'll just mention something about evaluations: graduate evals tend to be much more critical than undergrad evals, even in successful seminars. This is because, I think, grads think they are being trained to "critique" everything. I just say this so that you are not disheartened by the evaluations; even a critical set of evaluations can indicate a very good course.

Good luck!

Horace said...

Thanks for the encouragement. I have been thinking about this course a lot, and I think people seemt o be enjoying it, but I already know that some of the critiques I'm applying to myself will come up in evals, which means that a few others will too. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that the feedback is helpful...

Tom said...

These are some good ideas, and I plan to use them. Believe me, the questions you confront are not unique to newer teachers--I have been teaching graduates for over ten years, and I have never really been satisfied by my seminars (OK, once I was!) so the idea of mid-term evals, which I have done before, will definitely be a key feature of my course this term. Also having a lecture in the can might well serve as a crutch in case discussion really does come to a screeching halt, which can happen. My classes are a night seminars, which are really challenging because many of the students (and the instructor!) are dead on their feet after a long day.

Would love to see more discussion here.