Category Archives: Teaching

January 30, 2011, 7:47 pm

If A Student Essay Falls In The Woods And No One Is There To Read It, Does Anyone Care?

They’re B-A-A-A-a-a-ck!

A while back, I assigned two papers in one of my classes.  In the first, I gave a straightforward “assignment” that asked students to think more deeply about the reading they had done up to that point and use what they had learned to analyze a primary document.  In the scale of things, this is a standard history assignment. I gave the class three documents to choose from, and awaited the papers.  When I began to read them, one thought came to mind:

“GAAAAH!”

Now, let me emphasize:  they weren’t bad papers.  Many of them were A-worthy; only a few received grades thought ought to have been worrisome to the recipients.  And yet, as I paged thorugh them, I dreaded grading them.  Why?  They were dull.

Subsequently, I did a little informal research among the students, and most of them admitted that they, had been uninspired and uncertain about the point of the paper. …

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January 11, 2011, 5:06 pm

If I Could Stick My Pen In My Heart/And Spill It All Over the Stage: Teaching Evaluations

If I could win ya, if I could sing ya
A love song so divine
Would it be enough for your cheating heart
If I broke down and cried? If I cried?
“It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (But I Like It),” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1974
In the past week or so, as many of us have been putting together classes for the new semester, teaching evaluations have arrived.  I suspect they arrive electronically at most places now, as that is substantially cheaper for the institution. At Zenith we switched over from a paper system, where students filled them out together in one of the final classes, to an online one in which they fill them out alone and receive access to their grade for the course only after having done so. Like everyone else, students are bowling alone.
But I like it, like it, yes I do.  Photo credit.
I have thought for years that fall teaching evaluations, received as the promise of the new spring…

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September 5, 2010, 2:16 pm

Cultural Studies; Or, The Perils Of Mislabeling Campus Problems

One of the things I have noticed, probably because I live with an anthropologist, is that academics tend to use the word “culture” to describe a variety of things that, actually, are not cultural at all. It is true that “culture” has a great many meanings, depending on the context in which it is being used, the historical period or thing that is being described, and the intellectual tradition (if any) that is being referenced: here are a few. For social scientists, most centrally anthropologists, “culture” is far more likely to invoke a set of usefully contentious questions and methodological choices than an answer to any given problem.

In a college or university setting, however, when someone starts talking about “culture” it is too frequently the end of the discussion, an explanation for why things must be as they are and/or a way of distancing from something nettlesome. You will…

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July 14, 2010, 7:15 pm

“Little Gels, You Are The Creme De La Creme:” Teach For America, Redux

It’s been a big week at Tenured Radical. For reasons we are not altogether clear about, our Monday post about Teach For America went viral. According to our sitemeter, Facebook had a lot to do with that, perhaps because people who had a positive or a negative interest in TFA reposted on their own FB pages. Tumblr played a minor role in the last 24 hours, and as I told our dog yesterday, at least four sites (including Google) listed the post as trending (“Trending?” she said to me condescendingly, “You may be a famous blogger and talking head, but speak English, please.”)


I must say, my readers deserve a lot of credit. The comments section represents one of the liveliest and most civil disagreements on this blog, ever. I deleted very few posts, and none for rudeness. You folks who are not very bloggy tended to repost the same comment, slightly edited, multiple times. In your case, I…

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July 13, 2010, 3:07 pm

The Politics Of The Classroom: Is It Homophobic To Teach About The Scriptural Basis For Homophobia?

Janine Giordano Drake, over at Religion and American History asks us to think about a university classroom inflected by sacred beliefs that do not coexist comfortably with contemporary cosmopolitan ideas about diversity, respect for personal dignity and human rights. In doing so, she raises the question of whether the absolute separation of secular knowledge from ideological or faith-based knowledge is desirable, or even possible. For those who want to read more of Drake’s thoughts about being a Christian scholar, click here.

The incident which prompted Drake’s post occurred at the University of Illinois which, as a public university, has special vulnerabilities around the separation of the sacred and the secular. In a nutshell, a Catholic theologian circulated an email to his class about why heterosexuality, and the gender binary system, are “natural” and “real”; and why consent does…

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July 12, 2010, 1:24 pm

Is Teach For America A Program For The Poor Or For The Rich?

I’m going to start with full disclosure: I have never liked Teach for America. If that’s going to bug you, you might want to move on to the next blog.

Why do I dislike Teach For America? Because it has nothing to do with permanent investment in our schools, or thoughtful reform of education. Because it is one of many organizations that seem to exist more or less to give privileged young people the “life experience” that will qualify them to go on to their next advanced degree. Because it relies for its prestige on the idea that people who are middle or upper class naturally have something special and intangible to offer to the poor. Because it activates our not so thinly-veiled social contempt for people who chose the hard work of teaching public school as a career, often doing it for decades in places where they are forced to buy books and classroom supplies out of their own…

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July 7, 2010, 2:13 pm

She Started A Heat Wave By Making Her Seat Wave; Or, Having Fun With American Studies

Given that we are going into our third day of temperatures topping 100 degrees, I can’t believe no one has posted this yet.

Since this is an academic blog, and a feminist blog, and since I am locked in my study with a small air conditioner roaring away, here is a brief teaching guide to this segment from There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954). An utterly dull period piece about a fictional theater family, this movie is far is better remembered for Ethel Merman’s belting version of the title song that valorizes the heartaches and spiritual rewards of “the business.” The movie also starred legendary dancers Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray (that’s the group watching from the wings in the crazy pastel “Mexican” outfits) — a who’s who cast in what was even then a dying Hollywood genre, the big budget musical.

This little tidbit of Cold War popular culture, originally…

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June 26, 2010, 3:12 pm

Uncivil Liberties: Teaching Evaluations and A Clarification

Courtesy of Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, who draws our attention to the recent exchange between Stanley Fish and Ross Douthat on this matter, I began thinking about teaching evaluations in a more orderly fashion than I have of late. My disorderly thoughts have been sparked by colleagues, several of whom are quite experienced teachers, receiving some of the rudest and cruelest teaching evaluations I have ever read at Zenith. Sexism is also on the rise, particularly among the students of younger, female faculty (who are also sometimes presumed to be adjuncts.)

I found these evaluations remarkable because my experience in the past has been that Zenith students often go out of their way to be charitable to someone they like and have empathy for, sometimes damning their professors with faint and contradictory praise as a result. The evaluations in question do the exact opposite: …

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May 22, 2010, 2:38 pm

If You Don’t Teach Well, At Least No One Dies

We at Tenured Radical are sorry to hear that Zenith alum and historian of Africa Tim Burke, over at Easily Distracted, was temporarily sidelined by a bout of diverticulitis. For the non-cognoscenti, this is a manageable, chronic condition that tends to introduce itself with excruciating pain. From here on out, it’s Fiber City, Tim. Get well soon, you hear?

As anyone in our tribe might have done, Tim used this small emergency and its resolution as an opportunity to blog. In a meditation on the state of two large, amorphous industries, higher education and health care, he writes:
Academia’s issues I see from the professional’s side, medicine’s problems from the perspective of the clientele. The first perspective tends to put me in the position of an apologist, the second as accuser. Maybe between the two some kind of insight is possible, though when I add it all up, I’m left…

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March 16, 2010, 1:43 pm

College Teaching 101: Managing The Lecture Class

In February 2010, I participated in a Roundtable discussion about teaching lecture classes at Zenith. The following essay about teaching is developed from the notes I prepared for that occasion.

Why is it important to learn how to teach lecture classes well?

First of all, for many of us, lecturing will make up the lion’s share of our course load – whether you measure that in students taught (a SLAC) or courses taught (a research or state university.) Novice teachers live with the terror of a little-acknowledged fact: the lecture room is where your weaknesses, or your inexperience, are most easily revealed; it is where your expertise will be challenged most publicly, often by questions that come out of left field, questions that may be designed to undermine you — or not. Disturbing things happen in the lecture room because students (having not yet gone to graduate school to be…

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