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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Advice to Young Teachers: Be Yourself

I don't know who said it first, but here's the best critique I've heard of Leonard Cohen: "No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song like Leonard Cohen can't."  Apropos.  And not meant, I think, as an insult.  (If you're unfamiliar with the work of Leonard Cohen, just insert Bob Dylan's name into the quote, and you have the same idea--oh, and get familiar with the work of Leonard Cohen.)  Despite his indisputable talents as a lyricist and composer, Cohen is, shall we say, a somewhat limited.  But that's OK, because he knows his limitations and arranges his songs to take advantage of both the good and bad qualities of his voice.  If  he tried to sing like someone with better vocal "chops," the effect would no doubt prove disastrous.

The other day, a new part-time faculty member came to see me.  She was concerned about the fact that some students persisted in texting in her class despite several reminders that this was not acceptable.  She asked me how I handled similar situations.  Honestly, I told her, I usually don't.

I explained: My feeling is, these students have chosen to attend college, they have paid to take my class, and, if they choose to spend class time texting friends instead of paying attention to what's going on in the classroom, then that is their prerogative.  Similarly, though, I explain to these students that, if they produce unsatisfactory work or get low test scores because they don't pay attention in class, then I will fail them: That is my prerogative.  (Of course, if their cellphone behavior becomes a disruption to me or to other students, then it's on like Donkey Kong.)  Ultimately though, I explained to the part-timer, I don't get angry.  I don't yell.  I don't lecture students about the importance of taking notes or of showing teachers respect.  I don't tell them their texting is bothering other students because, as far as I can tell, it isn't: Those who want to pay attention have no difficulty doing so.

So, the new teacher asked, I won't get in trouble for NOT telling these students to stop texting?  Well, I answered, let me ask you this, Does it really bother YOU that the students are texting?

"Not particularly."

Is it disrupting the class?

"No, it doesn't seem like anybody else is even really noticing."

And how do you feel when you tell people to stop texting?

"Honestly, I feel kind of silly."

Well, then, there's your answer.

To be clear, I'm not condoning texting in class. I don't think it's the best use of a student's class time, especially when they could be listening to my trenchant, stimulating lectures (my disquisition on the semi-colon has brought a tear to many an eye).  And I do try to discourage texting in the way mentioned above.  I encouraged the new teacher to adopt or adapt my methods as she saw fit.  Which is the ultimate point of today's post: Teachers must do as they see fit--and they must do it in a way that is natural to them.

Students, even inexperienced ones, possess highly-sensitive bullshit detectors.  And when teachers adopt strategies that they themselves do not believe in, these detectors go off.  A former drill sergeant stepping into a classroom can command immediate respect by treating his students like raw recruits on day one of basic training; I am not a former drill sergeant.  A kindly grandmother-type can win students over with maternal expressions of care and concern; I am not a kindly grandmother-type.  A cynical bastard can win students' cooperation by expressing the fact that, as long as they don't make his life miserable, it's no skin off his back whether they pass or fail; a cynical bastard can point out that it's THEIR time and money they're wasting, but please themselves; a cynical bastard can suggest that, since they've gotten up early and dragged themselves in to school, they might as well get something out of it. . . . Now this strategy I can get behind!  And my students understand where I'm coming from and, quite often, stop (or at least cut down on) texting and other non-scholarly behaviors.

Accept your limitations.  Play to your strengths.  Otherwise, your teaching style will be the equivalent of Leonard Cohen trying to sing like Freddie Mercury.  And nobody wants to hear that.

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