Posted in Rants on September 17th, 2014 by Ed

The first time one teaches a college class comes with no meaningful preparation. In most graduate programs there is a one-semester lip service course on pedagogy that ostensibly exists to teach teaching; in reality it is the graduate version of a blow-off course and it mostly imparts crucial lessons like "Don't fuck the students" and "Make a syllabus." To say the least, teaching (as the instructor, not as a teaching assistant) for the first time is largely a "jump in an hopefully you'll figure out how to swim" affair. Accordingly the first year or two in the classroom ranges from awful to barely adequate depending on one's natural abilities. The learning curve is steep.

Among the most common mistakes we make at the beginning is creating a course that is far more difficult than the undergraduates expect. We start out naively assuming that undergrads are like we were as undergrads. They're not; we were nerds. We were the 1% of undergraduates who care about the material enough to consider graduate school and a life in academia. The other 99% are somewhere on the continuum between ambivalent and totally uninterested. We expect that the students read the assigned readings (They don't). We expect that they learned certain things in high school (They didn't). We expect that when we tell them something in a lecture, often multiple times, they will remember it (They won't). We expect that they will study for exams and spend more than a few hours on a research paper (Probably not). The preceding may not be true if you are lucky enough to teach at some elite institution. For the vast majority of us, though, the early teaching experiences shock us to accept the reality that many undergraduates had a woeful K-12 education and/or they have very little interest in excelling academically.

So we adjust. We reduce the amount of material we attempt to cover and vary what we do in the classroom until we find what appears to work for the students. We concoct ways to force the students to keep up with the reading. We account for the fact that some freshmen wander into an American government course without knowing that "legislative branch" refers to Congress and that Democrats are more liberal than Republicans. We analyze data on our own exams and assignments and make adjustments where the students haven't done well. We like to think that we improve as teachers and make the class better, and certainly most of us do continually improve. But let us not kid ourselves: compared to our initial teach experiences, we make the classes easier. This is both practical – We don't want to explain why our class of 40 had 33 F's – and necessary, as students deserve a class that is at the appropriate level, which varies greatly by type of school and student population.

Eventually we reach a point at which we can't make the class any easier. More accurately, we won't. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, "The only way I could assign any less reading would be to assign none." Eventually you have to struggle with the question of what is the minimum necessary for something to be called a college course at an institution that attempts to maintain academic standards. You look at the topics covered and decide that nothing else can be pared away while still doing the intended scope of the course justice. You look at the exam questions and assignments and decide that you simply can't make them any easier, simpler, or less time consuming. You look at what you present in class and come to the conclusion that this is as basic as it's going to get.

It's an unpleasant moment when you reach that point and find that the students' performance is still not where you would like it to be. The remaining explanations are that the students simply cannot succeed in a true college-level course or that you are a very poor teacher. Personally, I never wanted to find myself rooting for either of those options. And the tendency of the system is to either make excuses for the students and blame everything on the teacher or vice-versa with little middle ground.

This post is not one where the story is resolved at the end. These are questions we never stop asking – what can I do to be better, and if I'm not the problem then what can I do to fix it?