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Performance Anxiety

January 30, 2007, 2:22 am

I recently received an email from a younger colleague about how much pressure s/he feels to “perform” for students. This concern followed on a set of teaching evaluations that, the same email said, were the “best ever.” So it looks like the great teaching evaluations, instead of bolstering confidence, made this young teacher feel as though the bar had been raised. Last semester’s “good” could not be good enough this term…..oy.

I’m trying to think about how to respond to this in a constructive way, but it caused me to think of a couple other things about teaching that, when I remember them, I try to pass on to my untenured colleagues.

1. When you are really sick it is ok to miss class. I know a very famous historian who told me, years ago when I was working for her, that she had never canceled a class, ever. This made a huge impression on me, and I too decided that the show must always go on. But as I got older, I found that a sore throat was usually made worse by lecturing or running a discussion; several times I actually lost my voice for three or four days because I insisted on teaching when I shouldn’t have. So my advice: have some flex classes in the schedule, and a movie sitting on your desk at all times. If you can’t bear to have the departmental secretary put a sign on the door saying class is canceled, know that you can show the movie at the last minute even if you feel you must attend class.

2. Less is more. When I am observing a young teacher I know s/he is in trouble when I see four or five pages of lecture notes. I top out at about a page and a half nowadays — the bones of the argument, and then I build on it. Having a huge amount of material that you feel you must get through wears the students out, and wears you out trying to deliver it. And assigning less reading to students and knowing they have got it is better than making really fancy, super-hard syllabi that you can turn in for third-year review – along with your teaching evaluations that characterize your classroom as one of Dante’s Circles of Hell.

3. Students are not wowed by Powerpoint: they are, in fact, easily bored by it (so are search committees), and by all technology that wasn’t invented yesterday. At the most, if you are a historian, use your Powerpoint to organize photographs. DON’T put your lecture up in bulletpoints: the difference between your classroom and an IBM strategy meeting instantly dissolves. Note: as far as I can tell students also hate BlackBoard, discussion boards and chatrooms (at least, chat rooms organized around your class.) Oh, and speaking of technology — you might want to consider taking down your Friendster page unless you can honestly space it out that your students are cruising you and all your friends.

4. If you know you are performing for your students, you may be on the edge of going too far. Attention getting maneuvers are fine; doing voices (say, Eleanor Roosevelt) is borderline, as are props; and outfits are out of bounds.

5. Don’t let students make out in class, even though it is awkward to make them stop. I will allow cuddling, within reason (on the theory that it is below my dignity to notice) but smooching crosses the line. My favorite technique? Throw a pop quiz. After the quizzes are handed in, you say (since the smoochers have had to part briefly to complete the assignment), “Every time I see people making out in class there will be another quiz.” I guarantee you it will end that day.

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