When I teach creative-writing courses one of my go-to assignments requires students to construct a long, grammatically correct sentence in the service of whatever story or poem they’re working on. Paired with a week of close syntactic study, the goal of this assignment is to show students how a thought’s shape can itself be dramatically productive, and also to challenge them to be creative and ambitious in how they connect and modify phrases. At my previous institution, “the long sentence” had to contain only 50 words, but, generally, more than half of the class needed to revise their work in order to receive credit. These past two semesters (at an elite liberal-arts university) I gave the same assignment, but asked for a sentence of at least 100 words. Here, more than three quarters of my students managed the technical requirement on their first try.
My point is not simply that the students at one school are stronger than those at the other. Rather, as I begin preparations for another move to a new institution, I am mindful that a new student body will necessitate certain changes in the way I teach. This goes well beyond rudimentary modifications to individual assignments. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it takes some time to move past the published demographics on the university’s Web site and get to know the specific needs of a student body, what they expect from their instructors, and how I can adapt my teaching style and syllabi to best challenge and engage them.
What strategies have you found useful in familiarizing yourself with a new teaching environment? How have the students at your current institution surprised your expectations and how have you responded to those surprises?