New Academic Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions are, as everyone knows, completely ridiculous. But the idea of making a list of things to work on at the dawn of a new year might actually make sense when it comes to academia (especially since our jobs kind of depend on being better teachers more so than being better about not eating junk food). So in that spirit here’s a list of some things I will be working on improving this academic year.

1. Always Be Questioning

Raphael clearly understood that Socrates was really more of a talker than a listener…

Like most professors I say that I use the “Socratic Method” when I teach. But how often do we really think about what that means?

As anyone who has read Plato’s dialogues knows, Socrates is famous for asking Athenians to define concepts rather than offer his own definitions. But he is also famous for shooting down these definitions until the Athenian would either quit the “conversation” or just accept whatever answer Socrates gives in the end.

In other words, the Socratic Method can be dangerous, as it can give the appearance of having a conversation when in reality you are just playing the annoying know-it-all.

As Paulo Freire puts it, “dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task.” The key for Freire is to drop the pretense of dialogue where the teacher is the “Master” and the student is the “Disciple,” and instead engage in a real dialogue where all are “teacher-students” and “student-teachers.”

So this year I will try harder to fight the urge to answer my own questions, to jump in to silences with more information, and instead keep asking questions with the hope that students will become inspired to start jumping in to silences with their own questions.

3. Provide Better Feedback

Grading papers and grading papers meaningfully are not the same thing.

In theory, professors want to read great papers and students want to write great papers.

In practice, professors want to get through reading papers as quickly as possible, often to get back to applying for jobs/grants/food stamps, and students want to get through writing papers as quickly as possible, often to get back to the parts of college life that don’t involve a classroom.

This reality tends to create a feedback loop (pun intended) where professors provide little to no meaningful feedback on papers and students respond in kind by putting little to no meaningful work into their papers, which in turn leaves professors further uninspired to write meaningful feedback.

Rather than blaming students for being terrible writers, it’s probably better to think about how terrible grading produces terrible writing. Letter grades are obviously meaningless (especially in an ever-increasingly grade-grubbing culture), so the comments provided with the grades are the most important part of the paper assignment. Yet for efficiency’s sake I often write comments like “Awkward” and “Explain” all over students’ papers, even though such comments are themselves awkward and in need of explanation.

To counter this I recently began to insert time in my classes to have mini writer’s workshops after paper assignments so that students can go over their papers together in groups, and then I can go over their papers with the groups. This way the students often feel far less intimidated than they do in one-on-one office hours (it’s almost impossible for them not to see in any such invitation anything other than “SEE ME AFTER CLASS” stamped on their paper). Also, going back to #1 above, this helps to make students active rather than passive participants in the feedback process. In fact I’ve often found that students write better comments on each other’s papers than I do.

So I am hoping to continue to improve my feedback and find new ways to get students to learn from the feedback. I still have a drawer of papers I wrote in grad school, and the meaningful feedback continues to help me while the meaningless feedback continues to frustrate me.

3. Make Marginalia Meaningful

Samuel Beckett’s marginal doodles are just about as useful as anything I’ve yet come up with.

I begin each semester by telling students that we read with our hands rather than with our eyes (an important phenomenological point in favor of using books over ebooks). Yet I still manage to do a terrible job of making my marginalia meaningful.

This a problem since I tend to show students my marginalia in order to inspire them to read more closely and more critically, so if I can’t explain my marginalia to myself I certainly can’t explain it to them.

I develop systems like underlining important points, circling key words, and starring passages to return to later, and then I find that I’ve underlined, circled, and starred just about everything. And my marginal comments are so cryptic as to require their own marginalia.

So this year I am going to find a system that works, even if it kills me (or, more likely, kills my books). Maybe I’ll try the “Lucky Charms” method and use different marginal symbols for different levels of importance. If you have a system that works for you I’d love to hear it. Until then I will continue to leave my books black and white and red all over…

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