Yesterday, after coming across my teaching statement, a reader named Arber Borici sent me the following questions:
In your opinion and based on your experience at various institutions, what would you recommend to me (a young, inexperienced scholar) regarding on how to best remove students’ attention from the mediocrity of grading to the eagerness for knowledge or, at least, high culture? … I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.
It seemed like good fodder for a blog entry, so with Arber’s kind permission, I’ve decided to post my response to him here (with only light editing).
Dear Arber,Thanks for your thoughtful email! I’m always delighted to hear from people who share my views about the inherent problems in combining teaching with evaluation.
Alas, your question of how to get students to focus on intellectual exploration rather than on their midterm grade is an incredibly difficult one, since it depends not only on you but also on your academic context (for example, you’ll probably be required to give grades by department policy). I’ve been struggling with that question myself for the past three years, and still haven’t answered it to my satisfaction, but here are a few small tips I can offer.
(1) Some students didn’t come to college to learn, but for any number of other reasons: to party, get a high-paying job, satisfy their parents, etc. Or they’re only taking your course because it’s required for the major, while their real interests lie elsewhere. Treat these students fairly and with respect, but don’t kill yourself trying to awaken an intellectual curiosity that isn’t present. Instead, identify the students who are in your class to learn, memorize their names and faces, and make special efforts to reach out to them—for example, by sticking around after class to chat with them about the lecture and answer their questions. (In my experience, many intellectually curious students prefer sticking around after class to coming to office hours. In many cases, students who come to office hours are there because they want you to do their homework for them!)
(2) Grade generously. I usually give at least a B- to anyone who makes a serious effort in the course. (In practice, that policy turns out to be compatible with giving a fair number of Cs, Ds, and even Fs.)
(3) Most importantly, if you don’t want the students to focus only on low-level boring stuff, don’t lecture only about low-level boring stuff! Tell stories about Alan Turing and his codebreaking work. Talk about the philosophy behind the Church-Turing Thesis, or the arguments for and against identifying “feasible” with “polynomial time,” or the implications for AI if it turned out that P=NP. If a student asks a really good question, don’t be afraid to take a 10-minute digression to answer the question. You’ll constantly feel pressure in the opposite direction—there’s so much “real material” that needs to be “covered”! But think about what your students will remember from your course twenty years from now, long after the details of implementing red/black trees have been forgotten, and the right course of action will become clear to you.
I should point out that there’s a paradox at the heart of teaching, which your second question (which is actually a variation on your first question) makes clear:
I would also appreciate it if you could provide me with one or two guidelines in approaching students to appreciate what they are being taught and to teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves.
To see the difficulty with what you ask, picture a classroom full of glazed-eyed students, dutifully taking notes on “how to seek knowledge for themselves,” so they can repeat back your tips on intellectual initiative for the test!
In my experience, probably the best (only?) way to teach people how to seek knowledge for themselves is to illustrate by example. Let your students watch you in action doing all of the following:
- happily admitting when you don’t know something.
- looking something up and getting back to the asker during the next class meeting, rather than simply letting the matter drop.
- thinking a difficult/novel question through on your feet.
- eliciting help from the students in a “Socratic” manner.
Seeing a positive example will embolden the students who have a spark of any of these tendencies in themselves.
Anyway, I hope that helps!
Best of luck,