Yet Another Teaching Self-Evaluation

Time again, for a teaching self-evaluation. This semester, I taught three classes, and ran three independent studies. This workload was a mistake. I use the term ‘mistake’ because I signed up for those independent studies; that is, I chose to over commit myself. I had foolishly imagined I would be able to do justice to these multiple commitments; I soon found not I could not keep up. The result was one of the most disorganized semesters I’ve ever suffered–or made others suffer. The time taken up by class meetings–including the discussion sessions with my independent study students–and class preparations, reading weekly written responses, grading, office hours, and so on, quickly swamped many other commitments; and I failed to respond with adequate organization. (Yes, that dreaded ‘time-management.’) My students felt this lack of disorganization; I constantly felt harried, underprepared, late, and negligent. Several students complained to me that I did not respond to their emails in time; in each case, they were correct. I also committed the mistake–out of sheer emotion and physical weariness–of not sticking to my specified restrictions on assignment deadlines; the result was a blizzard of late submissions and resubmissions. Which of course just further increased my sense of disorganization. One manifestation of my harried feeling this semester was that I walked out of a class meeting when it became apparent to me no one had done the reading; I’ve done this three times in my fifteen years at Brooklyn College, and on each occasion, the fury I evinced left me feeling empty and spent. And my students bewildered.

What went well? I enjoyed great classroom interactions–of varying kinds–with two out of my three classes. Two of my three independent studies went well in terms of the quality of the discussions I had with my students. I used new syllabi for all classes; this was required for one class, which was new, while the other received makeovers; and in general, my selections–four ‘religious novels’ for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class; Plato, Hume, and Nietzsche for my Landmarks in Philosophy class; and Marx, Weber, and Durkheim for my Social Philosophy class–went over well with my students. (Some students, quite understandably, found the assigned readings from Weber a little too dry.) Many students impressed me with the quality of their responses to the readings, and by the sophistication and thoughtfulness of their papers. Some told me they enjoyed my teaching; an affirmation that is always gratifying. Some of these responses, to be honest, brought tears to my eyes; they included comments about my ‘passion for teaching’ and how I had ‘taught them a lot.’ I do not think I can adequately convey my emotional state on hearing my students express themselves so openly and emotionally to me in these personal and private encounters. I also think I did a good job in my one-on-one interactions with students when going over their papers with them; almost everyone I worked with told me they found these sessions useful.

So, another semester of learning–in both directions–comes to a close. Teaching remains my greatest philosophical passion; and my partners in this enterprise–my students–continue to enrich my engagement with philosophical thinking. I’m looking forward to the summer’s travel and writing plans, but I’m also looking forward to the teaching in the fall–more new syllabi, more unread books to be worked through. Hopefully, I’ll be a little wiser then too, and will have learned from this semester’s mistakes.

Teaching Self-Evaluation For The Semester That Was (Almost)

Classes for the fall semester ended last week; finals and grading lie ahead of me. It’s time for another self-evaluation of my teaching. As usual, I find myself earning a mixed grade for my efforts.

This semester I taught three classes: Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, and Introduction to Philosophy. (Interestingly enough, this is the first time in my thirteen years at Brooklyn College that I’ve taught Introduction to Philosophy.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way. I do not think I did a good job in my Philosophy of Law. I was unable to make headway on the oldest problem of all: getting students to do the assigned readings. And neither was I, by sheer dint of effort and pointed interactions with my students, able to get a robust discussion going in class. I was also too easily distracted and put off by some of the body language on display–bored expressions, slumped posture. It was all too clear to me I was not being able to make the material interesting or engaging and as the semester wore on, my sense of futility grew; I could sense my interest in the class lessening. My students and I were not helped by a classroom that was alternately too hot and too noisy. In an effort to shake things up, I changed the seating arrangement in class, going from the traditional ‘teacher-in-front’ to a square configuration with me sitting down with my students. It did not work. Perhaps I gave up too easily; I should have been more unconventional, and I should have tried individual interventions–by email, or in my office hours–with some of the students most clearly in need of one.

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I adopted an unconventional tactic to introduce students to philosophy: I would do so via the Stoics. My syllabus consisted of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; through their writings I would introduce students to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. I would begin each class by asking my students to write a brief reaction to a verse/chapter/section from the assigned reading; we would then use their responses as the foundation for the class discussion. I had mixed results in this project. I was teaching at night, in one of those terrible 150-minute slots, which are a pedagogical disaster. My students were tired, and sometimes unable to summon up the energy to participate in class discussion. They did, however, find plenty to provoke and intrigue them in the Stoics, and by virtue of connecting Stoic nostrums for a good life to their own personal experiences, I was often able to evoke vigorous responses from, and interactions with, them. Many students spoke with a great deal of feeling about how Stoic insights resonated with them; these responses would, in turn, provoke other students to speak up. Thanks to the Stoics, I was also able to introduce the students to Buddhism (they found the Buddha‘s ‘no-self’ theory of self utterly fascinating.) In retrospect, I would say that I could have dropped one of Seneca or Epictetus and brought in some other readings to supplement this unrelenting diet of the Stoics. I look forward to conducting a class like this again with a modified syllabus.

My Political Philosophy class was greatly aided by a classroom which featured a seminar table, thus automatically introducing a more informal, less hierarchical spatial structure to the class discussion. I was also aided by interesting and provocative readings, by the idiocy on display this election season, and by many students being diligent about the assigned readings. I stayed very close to the texts, and read aloud many passages in class, stopping again and again to discuss them with my students. These class discussions were easily the best I had all semester in any of my classes.

I continued to struggle with grading writing assignments but was happy to note that at least on a couple of occasions students took advantage of my offer of resubmission opportunities and came to see me with revised papers, after working on which they secured higher grades. Some of these personal interactions were very rewarding as I could sense students were able to learn something about the difficulty and the pleasures of the writing process by working with me.

Thus endeth another semester of teaching. (Grading remains though.) More mixed results; more food for thought for the future.

A Bad Teaching Day

Yesterday, I had a bad teaching day.

First, I was scattered and disorganized in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class; I repeated a great deal of material we had already covered; I offered only superficial explanations of some important portions of the assigned reading; I did not answer questions from students satisfactorily. (It was pretty clear to me by the end of the class that I did not know how to explain Wittgenstein’s argument against private languages to a novice.)

Then, fifteen minutes later, I walked into my Philosophical Issues in Literature class-where we were scheduled to discuss Jose Saramago‘s Blindness–and floundered again. (Though not as badly.) Here, I largely failed to satisfy myself that I had covered all the bases I wanted to. For instance, I was unable bring the class discussion around to a consideration of Saramago’s satirical tone, his view of humanity, the novel’s take on technology and the reaction of the state to sudden catastrophe–all important in studying Blindness. Instead, the discussion ran in several different directions and I felt entirely unsure that I had done a good job in keeping it coherent.

Later, after a break of a couple of hours, I traveled to Manhattan to teach my graduate Nature of Law seminar. Now, I struggled because of faulty syllabus design. My fifth and sixth weeks of the class were ostensibly to be devoted to studying legal realism. For the first of these two weeks, I assigned three essays by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; for the second, a selection of articles from an edited anthology. There were two problems with this choice. First, the readings were disproportionately assigned to the two weeks–the first required the students to read a mere forty-five pages, the second, approximately two hundred and twenty. Second, and more seriously, some of the readings for the second week should really have been assigned as companions to the Holmes essays. This poor design almost immediately manifested itself in the class discussion.

It was quite difficult to discuss Holmes essays without the surrounding context–historical and legal–that the additional readings would have provided. As a result, my students and I found ourselves either listening to me lecturing about that missing component, or returning, again and again, to discuss threadbare, the same central theses of Holmes that had begun the class session. (Indeed, I found myself repeating some points ad nauseam.) As the class wore on, I could not fail to notice that my students were losing interest; perhaps the assigned readings hadn’t been substantive or provocative enough. Perhaps.

That expression, of students fading out, is a killer. I almost ended the class early–one normally scheduled to run for two hours–but not wanting to admit surrender, hung on for dear life. With ten minutes to go, my students were packing up. I desperately sought to show them the reading at hand had more depth in it, looking for a money quote that would illustrate, brilliantly, a point I had just been trying to make. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, and had to settle for a lame substitute.

Which is how the class ended, lamely.

Hours later, after I had reached home, had dinner, and begun to settle down for the night I was still fuming. This morning, it continued. And here I am, writing a blog post about the whole day.

Teaching can be a wonderfully invigorating experience; it can also be painfully demoralizing.

A Teaching Self-Evaluation

Today is the last day of classes for the fall semester of 2014. Today is the day for reviews, discussing paper plans (and in one class, surprisingly enough, answering questions from students who wanted to know a bit more about my personal background.) A week from today, I will administer finals in two classes and collect final papers for the third. Then, a brief and frenetic phase of grading before I submit grades. And another semester–my twenty-second at Brooklyn College–will be in the bag. I will see some students from this semester again–in other classes, on campus. (As of now, I know that at least three students from this semester’s classes have registered for my classes next semester.) Some students I will never see again–they’ve entered my life briefly (and I theirs), and then moved on.

As always, I wonder about how good a job I did.

I did some things right. I picked interesting readings and assigned a fair amount every week. I never got the feeling, as the semester wore on, that I had assigned too much or too little. (In my Social Philosophy class, I realized very early on, that I had assigned too much reading and tackled that problem by simply slowing down and letting readings fall off the end of the syllabus.) The novels I selected for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class were uniformly interesting and thought-provoking; the anthologies I picked for my Philosophy of Religion and Social Philosophy classes brought my students into contact with diverse styles of philosophical engagement. (And the books I picked were not a financial burden for my students.) I managed to provoke good discussions in many of the class meetings, and often did a good job of carrying out close, detailed analysis and exegesis of the texts. I asked many questions of students, and was able to provoke many interesting and thoughtful responses from them. I was able to place many issues discussed in class into broader philosophical contexts.

I continued to struggle with some old problems. I frequently found it hard to get students to do the readings and come to class prepared to discuss them; this remains a frustrating and vexing business, and I feel stuck in a rut of sorts. I showed little imagination in devising writing or reading exercises beyond the standard paper assignment and group discussion exercise. I was not able to provide more than brief comments on student papers. (I did, however, provide good feedback to those students who came and saw me after they had received their graded papers.) My style of teaching continues to rely a great deal on students being independently motivated, which often does not take care of those who struggle with motivation and inspiration.

Teaching remains a challenging business: it is exhilarating, exhausting and perplexing. At its best, it is creative and edifying; at its worst, it is infuriating and demoralizing. At the end of the semester, as always, I’m struck by what an acute blend of science and art it is. That, I suppose, has a great deal to do with its charms and lures and pains.

Semester’s End: A Teaching Self-Evaluation

As this semester winds down to its inevitable, slow, painful end, it’s time to reflect just a little on what went right and what went wrong with my teaching. I taught three classes: Philosophical Issues in Literature, Core Philosophy (Honors), and Political Philosophy. These three constituted three ‘new’ preparations for me: I last taught Core Philosophy (not at Brooklyn College) some fifteen years ago, and Social Philosophy (the second of our pair of Social and Political Philosophy classes) some eight years ago (and besides, this semester’s syllabus was drastically reworked to reflect my focus on revolutions).

My grade for this semester, I think, was a solid B. I did some things right: I devised an interestingly unconventional syllabus for Political Philosophy and picked a reasonably diverse and provocative set of readings for Philosophical Issues in Literature; I managed to spark some reasonably robust discussion in all three classes on many occasions;  my reading assignments were reasonably sized; I asked questions and encouraged students to ask them as well; I provided good introductions to many central philosophical issues in both my core classes and often managed to pique interest in those areas; I often provided detailed exegeses of difficult passages and made some interesting connections with other philosophical debates. Among other things. (Says he, flatteringly.)

I got some things wrong as well: my syllabus for the Core Philosophy class could have been more inspired; I failed, as I often did, to get many students roped into discussions and in some cases, gave up on some of them; I did not give very detailed or helpful written comments on papers (though in my defense, I would say I was good at meeting students one-on-one and providing detailed feedback on their papers on those occasions); I was sometimes disorganized in my discussions in Political Philosophy class; I did not pay enough attention to the written responses my students provided me for Political Philosophy (I deeply regret this because many of the responses were excellent and could have served to spark some very interesting discussions); my discussions in my Philosophy Core were a little rushed at times; and so on.

I have now taught, on and off, for over twenty years, ten of those as a full-time faculty member. My challenges remain the same: devising syllabi that are not tedious for the students and myself; sparking robust discussion in class; coming up with an evaluation scheme that is fair and pedagogically sound; helping students with their writing; explaining difficult arguments clearly; finding ways to represent philosophical positions in a way that is fair and not superficial. I have yet to master any of these, and every semester finds a way to either remind me of my inadequacies or induce a step backwards in a domain where I thought progress had been made.

My students continue to delight, confound, perplex, and edify. They raise me up, they bring me down. I sense I am a small part in their lives, but for fourteen weeks, twice a year, they are a very big deal in mine. I will see some of them again in other classes. Others will graduate, yet others will avoid me like the plague. Some will ask me for recommendation letters, others will advise their friends to give me a pass.  Our encounter, for now, is over. I can testify to the traces they have left; their lives will testify to whether I was able to make any sort of impression at all.