Off on the wrong foot

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Anon4:
Thomas Benton's recent article on "respect" suggests that when teachers feel disrepected by their students, it's often because the students may be feeling disrepected by their teachers. A course I'm teaching this semester seems to have started out on the wrong foot, and I'm wondering if anyone has some suggestions on how to change it or repair it.

Somehow the vibe I feel coming from most of the students in this class (it's an intro to film course) is an antagonistic one. Many don't seem to like being in the class, and one student in particular cooly stares me down when I'm trying to offer them up ideas to consider. I started out giving students quizzes on assigned readings on film terminology, and have tried backing off from this in the past week, instead giving them a worksheet to complete in groups. To help discussion, I've also tried having them discuss in small groups at first, but many of these dicussions seem to get off topic, and students will talk about non-class-related things. The short presentations I've assigned (topics related to each week's film) have so far been terrible.

I know the students can do better, but they're just not trying. I'm feeling very frustrated with the class and fear I might be making the situation worse as a result. Any suggestions, any at all would be welcome.

Anon V:
Hi,

It sounds like you have a very challenging course. This is only my first year of full-time teaching, but there are some things that have worked for me that I thought I would suggest.

Don't get discouraged by the students that are not into the class/etc. I have come to the conclusion (and can finally accept this) that even if you have many students who enjoy/interact/ask questions, there is also usually one student that either acts disinterested/sleeps, etc. Now when I realize who that particular student is (the one that gives expressions of disinterest), I do not look at the student because that distracts me. Focus on the student or students who are nodding their heads, look involved, etc.

Anyway, to get students to read the material and be prepared, I assign short "reaction papers" of about a half to full page in length. To receive credit, it is due the night before the class online. I usually assign a question or questions that relate back to either the lecture or the readings. Students receive either a check (full credit), minus (half), or zero. If I can, I try and make some of the questions interesting -- e.g., do they believe the conclusion? what suggestion would they make to the government, etc.? If I want to have further discussion on the material in class, most of them have now read it.

To keep class discussions (group work) on task, I give students something to discuss/or a problem, and give them only a few minutes -- three to five -- to work on it. I walk around and also check if they have a conclusion yet, and when most groups do, stop it right away so they do not get off task. I also call on each group (not an individual student) and ask for their solution to the problem, so they know there will be accountability.

If you can, try to find things within your field that you think may strike their interest or imagination, and drop that into your lecture once in the while (e.g., I discuss genetic engineering, and after students brainstorm about genes to put into an animal, I give them real-life examples that are odd -- i.e., goats that express the gene for spider web material in their mammary glands, etc.). This may still not interest your bored student, but there will be students who will ask you for more information after class/e-mail you, etc., so that you know at least some are involved.

If this helps, let me know and I can mention other things that I have tried, but this could be the blind leading the blind since I have not had much teaching experience either. So hopefully those who have will reply.

Best of luck.

TMK:
It sounds like you've done many subtle things that one can do to try to make a shift in the atmosphere of a class. When all else has failed for me, I have found that being very straightforward with my students can help.

For example, say something like, "Well, I don't know about you, but I am not happy with how things are going in this class this semester. I need you to be engaged in the work of the course, and I don't feel like that is happening, and I'm not sure why. What I do know is that if you're not engaged then the likelihood is that you will not do well on papers and tests, and that's not what I want to happen. So what I'd like to do is take 15 minutes and have each of you write what is working in the class and what isn't, and how you would like the class to change."

Have them do these little evaluations anonymously, and then, after reading them, you should have a better sense of where they are as a class. And, if they all write, "I thought this was going to be an easy class where we would just watch movies," you can come back the next class and explain to them why they are mistaken about the aims of the course.

I'm not sure if this will work, but I have found that giving my students a little responsibility for the way a class is going can be a good thing -- both for them and for me.

Bookish:
I agree that it's good to give the students some responsibility for how the class is going, but the strategy of asking for their opinions can backfire if not handled carefully.

I always get mid-semester informal evaluations from my students so that I can try to correct any problems before the class gets too far off track. However, this year for some reason, in a small seminar I'm teaching, the process has led to a continued voicing of complaints as we're settling into, or leaving class -- we're doing too much history, not enough history (this is a literature course), we have too many assignments that require going into the library to find sources, etc. -- as though they need to give me a running tally of what's wrong with the class (not, of course, what's going well). I taught almost the same class last year and heard nothing like this, and my student evaluations have been uniformly excellent in the past.

I am open to hearing about students' experience of the course, but it seems like this year the student evaluations opened the door to creating a culture of whining in which students expect the class to be tailored exactly to each student's individual preferences (more interdisciplinary critical articles, fewer of the same, etc.) and in which they expect everything to be photocopied and handed to them in class. Worse, one student's complaints seem to trigger another, and another ... . They seem to think that I came up with the class on a whim, not that I spent hours (as you all do too) crafting the specific combinations of texts, coming up with appropriate research-writing assignments to go with each group of texts and lead up to the capstone essay, etc.

All of this does not, remarkably, seem to hinder our class discussions, which continue to be lively and productive. But it certainly reduces my pleasure in teaching the class, and I'm not sure how to change the dynamic. I have two new students joining us for second semester, so I'm hopeful that will help.

I will still solicit student evaluations in future, but I may be more careful about how I phrase my questions. Perhaps I will preface the evaluations with a brief reminder of the pedagogical reasons for some of the more unpopular assignments (weekly responses and library research in particular).

B.F.:
I also do a mid-semester evaluation and I agree with Bookish that if it is not done correctly it can open up a Pandora's Box. I recommend not saying anything about how the class is going before you read the results of the evaluation. I have worried about a class only to find after reading the evaluations that everything was fine. If you wait until you read the evaluations, you can then spend time thinking about what they say and how you will respond.

My mid-semester evaluation is to have them answer the following questions: "What is working well?", "What is not working well?", and "Is there anything you would like to see changed?" I only discuss the things I am going to change, stating that "it was based on the evaluation." You do not want to have an open forum where you discuss different changes you could make and ask for their input. Each student then gives their opinion about what you should be doing and expects you to do it. The last time I made that mistake some of the students wanted to form a committee to determine how I should teach the rest of the course.

I have not had glaring and annoyed students since I stopped requiring attendance. I encourage attendance but do not require it. The annoyed students stay home.

If you decide to do the mid-semester evaluation, post what they say. I would be happy to suggest a response.

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