• April 23, 2014

What I've Learned in the Classroom

Teaching 2 Careers Illustration

Brian Taylor

Enlarge Image
close Teaching 2 Careers Illustration

Brian Taylor

I was hired straight out of graduate school, 30 years ago, as an assistant professor of humanities at Drexel University. At that time, Drexel had only recently ceased to be a technology institute and become a full-fledged university, though it still tilted strongly toward science and engineering.

At first, I was distressed to teach at an institution where the humanities were peripheral rather than central. But in time I came to see that being marginal within a university, unlike being marginal within a society, had advantages as well as drawbacks. I could remain under the radar and experiment more freely in my scholarship, writing, and teaching than at a liberal-arts institution. I also had the opportunity to teach a wider range of courses to a more diverse group of students. Now, as Drexel has developed into a comprehensive university with a robust English department, I can reap the benefits of that evolution while having gained from teaching "on the margins."

For the past 15 years I have taught the "Introduction to Shakespeare" course in the spring term. Although my original expertise was in the 19th-century English novel, I claimed "Introduction to Shakespeare" when Drexel's Shakespeare expert retired. I have never regretted doing so. Harold Bloom said that Shakespeare invented the modern. I prefer how one of my students put it: "It's as though Shakespeare lived now and then went back in time." Certainly, you'd have to be a complete dolt not to become wiser as a human being and more skilled as a teacher in the process of teaching Shakespeare.

Chronicle Vitae

What follows are 10 lessons I've learned in the course of my 30 years of university teaching—half of those assisted greatly by my teaching of Shakespeare. I don't know how well my insights may apply to institutions different from my own or to disciplines outside the humanities. I believe that most young people are hungry for context and meaning at this stress-ridden, transitional point in their lives. They want learning to be an adventure but also a tool to navigate the world. And they want to believe their insights have value. My teaching philosophy places those desires at the forefront.

1. Don't take things personally. Early in my teaching career, I believed that whatever a student did in my classroom had something to do with me. If he glanced at his watch or she whispered to her friend, I saw that as a mark of disrespect. But after having children of my own—and growing more attuned to the way the world works—I now see that most of what others do has nothing to do with me. Even if it does, the best way to diffuse animus is to pretend that it doesn't.

Not taking things personally as a teacher frees you to shrug off or laugh at minor offenses, and to be firm and consistent with more important ones. It prevents you from being thrown off your rhythm by a student who comes in late or dozes off. You can behave with both more severity and more largess, as the case warrants, and that will translate into an authority—at once fair and compassionate—that students will respect.

2. Be accountable to your students. That means valuing students for their potential, however limited or uninterested they may initially seem. Last year I had a brief conversation with an English professor from an elite university who told me that he had only three or four students a year who were worth teaching. I would reverse those numbers and say I have only three or four students a year who are not worth teaching: Those few students are the ones who don't require a teacher; they will learn under any circumstances. It's the rest who need to be inspired, prodded, and seduced into learning.

Being accountable to the majority of your students means acknowledging the distinctiveness of their minds, and helping them realize at least some of their potential. That includes learning and using their names early and on a regular basis, making assignments as immune as possible to student shortcuts and plagiarism, and offering opportunities for revision so students always feel they have a chance to do better.

3. Make students accountable for their performance. Assign homework that forces them to keep pace with and invest in the course. In recent years, I've been cutting back on long papers, midterms, and finals, and substituting shorter but more frequent assignments. I also require print copies of papers to be handed in at the beginning of class, both because that creates an incentive for regular attendance and because the act of printing out assignments helps students catch errors they might miss when reading their papers on the computer.

And as I mentioned, I also encourage revision, even multiple revisions. If I am being accountable by letting students revise, they are being accountable by responding and striving to create their best work, which may not happen with the first or even the second try. The culture resulting from that sort of mutual goodwill often carries over into class discussions: Students end up listening better to each other and trying harder to give thoughtful responses.

4. Simplify. One of the most important principles I have come to embrace after years of teaching is that of simplicity. I value it on all levels. I assign excerpted portions of many secondary readings so that students can take away the core idea without having to struggle unduly with verbose and jargony language. I ask for shorter, more honed papers. I distribute shorter syllabi.

I would rather have students begin with simple readings and move into more complex ones than be frustrated and confused wrestling with complexity at too early a point. It also seems to me that many students confuse verbosity and pretension with sophistication because teachers have modeled that idea for them. The ability to simplify is to arrive at the most elegant form of an idea.

One of my steadfast principles is to limit the syllabus to one page—even for upper-level courses—to avoid clutter and confusion, and to encourage flexibility. As Michel Foucault has taught us, the more we try to control, the more likely new areas of discord and disturbance will emerge. I never use the syllabus to break down what a grade will consist of, or specify how long papers are supposed to be. Those things emerge organically over the course of the term. I post or e-mail additional requirements as the class begins to take shape. Assignment details imposed too early make students more likely to distrust their purpose and to want to engage in shortcuts and subterfuge.

5. Don't rush—i.e., slow down. As a young teacher, I tended to rush to a point, feeling it was necessary to get there before the bell rang. My anxiety destroyed the rhythm of the class, closed out possibilities, and conveyed the erroneous idea that a single or ultimate answer existed to questions relating to literature. Being comfortable with ambiguity and incompleteness is both something we need to learn and to teach in the humanities.

6. Listen. This is connected to not rushing. Unless a student is clearly a con artist and hasn't done the reading, there is likely to be something of value in his or her response.

7. Use. This is the corollary of listening. Everything that is said and that happens in a classroom is part of the teaching process and should be incorporated. Using what comes to hand is what creates what I call a "classroom culture." Each class has its own mix of personalities—its own unique ecology of mind. The classroom culture gets delineated when students have their ideas actively and continually integrated into the discussion.

8. Connect learning to life. John Dewey preached that lesson, and though it is followed in elementary- and secondary-school teaching, it is often forgotten on the college level. It seems to me important to encourage students to draw continually on their own experience and make analogies to what they read.

Recently, for example, in a discussion of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, someone compared the relationship of Angelo's initial, extreme virtue and subsequent fall into corruption with the relationship of antiseptic soap to MRSA infection. In another discussion, we related Shakespeare's use of disguise with the disguises of superheroes—leading to questions of what constitutes a core self versus a disguise. In a third instance, while discussing the end of Twelfth Night, an Indian student compared the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian (the brother of Viola, with whom Olivia had originally fallen in love when Viola was dressed as a boy) to an arranged marriage in his culture. He noted that some Indian families try to match their child with someone who resembles a person that child had liked in the past. The student's observation led to a discussion of anthropological studies of substitution and gift exchange, and sparked profound thoughts about long-term compatibility and the nature of love.

9. Make form follow function. When I first arrived at Drexel, microcomputers had just been introduced, giving rise to a frenzied effort to incorporate them into the classroom. Now online teaching tools are the rage. Before I adopt any tool, I want to weigh what will be lost as well as gained by using it.

Is a slide or PowerPoint presentation worth the loss of eye contact with students? Is the convenience and freedom of online material offset by getting to know students in the flesh? (For Shakespeare, meeting face to face, three days a week, works best for me, but I can also see the value of a hybrid approach that would make good use of both online discussion strands and weekly meetings.)

10. Trust your voice and amplify it. Students are supremely attuned to two things: inauthenticity and fear. They will forgive the latter but not the former. It has taken me years to realize that I don't need to seem smarter or cooler than I am. I can be myself in the classroom. Connected to that is learning how to be comfortable with ignorance. I used to be horrified of not knowing an answer. Now I see it as an opportunity to model how not to know and how to learn.

I liken teaching to being a supervisor in a lab where a great discovery is under way. With the oversight of a good teacher, ideas are generated and synthesized that lift the class and the teacher with it to a place that they couldn't have arrived at alone. I have had that happen: A group of seemingly lackluster undergraduates, many of them nonhumanities majors, can generate insights as original and powerful as those in a Ph.D. seminar. The combined work of the whole transcends the limitations of the parts—and we all profit and are exhilarated by the experience.

Teaching, like psychoanalysis, is an impossible profession. We can give rules, as I have done, but, to adapt George Orwell's famous caveat, "break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." And what is barbarous for one person in one context may be appropriate for another in a different context. It is an endeavor as difficult to navigate as life itself—as frustrating and as wondrous.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a professor of English at Drexel University. This essay is an excerpt from a plenary talk she gave at Drexel's First Annual Showcase of Teaching, held on June 5, 2013.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.