Graduate Students Forum
Terry Seip, October 2004
A question for graduate students who intend to spend a good portion of their adult lives in the classroom: As a part of your professional preparation, why not make a commitment to begin learning to teach in the same way you learn to research and write? In doing this, you are, of course, likely to be largely on your own; although systematic pedagogical training is being made available in some graduate programs, it is not yet widespread. A compelling argument can be made, nevertheless, that some ongoing, proactive investment of time and thought about teaching as a graduate student will pay-off in the long run, making one a more effective and efficient teacher. To begin this process, well before you enter your first discussion classroom, let me suggest that you engage in some serious self-assessment, read a little pedagogy, and start to explore a variety of classroom tactics and techniques to match method to material.
We all practice self-assessment as a matter of course, but it seems particularly important for budding teachers to engage in some thoroughgoing thinking about their likely strengths and weaknesses as teachers. For example: (1) How would you judge your verbal communication skills? Do you speak in clear, logically structured, easy-to-follow ways? Do you vary your delivery in pace, pitch, and tone? Or do you usually talk too fast or mostly in a monotone? Is your expression sprinkled with "uums" and "uuhs" or valley-speak crutches of "like" and "you know"? Not sure how you sound? Audiotape yourself talking for 20 minutes about your research or something you know well and then listen carefully. (2) Are you a good listener? By that I mean a focused, interested, activist listener who reassures the speaker that you are involved in the conversation? Or are you sometimes easily distracted, disengaged, or impatient? (3) How would you characterize the outward appearance you present to others? What sort of a countenance do you typically sport—pleasant, serious, varied? What type of body language—use of hands, facial expression, movement—do you display? Do you naturally show animation, open enthusiasm, even a bit of passion—all of which will serve you well in the classroom? Not sure how you look or act? Videotape yourself giving a mock lecture or making a presentation about your research, and review your performance with a critical eye. (4) Are you generally good at thinking on your feet? At least quietly self-confident? Does your comfort level in front of an audience depend heavily on your degree of familiarity with the material? (5) How would you evaluate your organizational skills—are you a list-maker, outliner, planner? Like enthusiasm, organization ranks high with students. In sum, what kind of first, second, and lasting impressions do you believe you can leave?
This close, introspective examination is not intended to strip you of your individuality and eccentricities and force you to reinvent yourself, but rather to stimulate thinking about how to highlight and utilize your strengths and prompt work on areas where you sense you could improve. Just as there are differing learning styles for students, so are there diverse teaching styles—refine yours through regular reappraisal.
2. Read some pedagogy
We are by nature and vocation bibliophiles—we read widely and constantly inside and outside our broad areas of professional interest. Doesn't it stand to reason, then, that we should read at least a little about teaching philosophies and methods if we plan to teach? But despite good journals such as Teaching History and The History Teacher, by and large we read little if any pedagogy because no one in graduate school encouraged us to do so, partially because of time constraints and some lingering adherence to the absurd notion that good teachers are born not made.
Purchase a book on teaching techniques, put your name in it, and indulge. Still quite helpful is Wilbert McKeachie (and nine other contributors), Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (2002), a frequently updated classic now in its 11th edition. But if your budget will only allow one book, I strongly recommend Barbara Gross Davis, Tools for Teaching (1993), which has its origins in the handbook provided for graduate instructors at the University of California at Berkeley. Particularly useful for beginning teachers, this nearly exhaustive, 400-page compendium offers tersely annotated strategies and tips ranging from first thoughts about class design to writing letters of recommendation. With your appetite thus whetted, browse in other recommended readings scattered throughout this forum and the extensive bibliographical notes in my AHA pamphlet, "We Shall Gladly Teach": Preparing History Graduate Students for the Classroom (1999).
3. Begin to develop a repertoire of classroom tactics and techniques
While you peruse methods of stimulating class interactivity in Davis and other sources and think about the most effective practices of your past teachers, pose two sets of questions: (1) Does the tactic fit me? Would I be comfortable using this method? (2) Does the approach fit the material? Does it seem to have potential as an effective way of pulling students into problems and issues?
As you develop an understanding of four or five approaches, start to match method with material. Begin with traditional questioning and problem-posing techniques. Good questions lie at the heart of our discipline, and while we may know how to question ourselves and our colleagues, most of us could benefit from reading and ruminating about differing ways of formulating questions for various levels of students. Consider, for example, ways of creating and reshaping good questions to stimulate and sustain discussion by getting students to talk to each other, how to structure analytical, "developmental" discussion—working from the particular to the profound or vice-versa, and techniques of tying questions to something in the students' common experience—often easily done in areas of gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, value systems, popular culture, politics/ideology, international relations, and the like. Many of your best discussions will flow from an experiential, emotional link between the student and the material.
From here, expand out and explore a broad range of other active learning methods including group work, issue and problem panels, role playing, case studies, and out-of-class collaborative learning tasks that might be effectively applied in certain situations. And do not neglect the learning retention potential of routinely integrating a variety of daily writing assignments into your discussion class: one-page summaries of three key points in the readings, one-minute essays on a particular point covered or to be covered in discussion, three-minute entry essays on the topic of discussion, five-minute exit essays, and the like. If in practice a method effective with one cluster of students fails to work as well with another, despair not. You will steadily develop the ability to modify tactics on the spot.
As you prepare, take heart in McKeachie's old saw: "Teaching skillfully may be less time consuming than teaching badly."1 Why endure the distracting misery of teaching poorly and dreading the classroom? Self-assurance, satisfaction, and an accelerated learning curve flow from thinking about teaching methods and from careful preparation in the material. Most immediately, you can enter your first classroom with confidence, even as 25 pairs of eyes watch your every move. A good start will positively shape their critical first impressions of you, now the teacher.
Terry Seip teaches—among other courses—about teaching methods at the University of Southern California, where he is an associate professor of history. He is the author of the AHA pamphlet, "We Shall Gladly Teach": Preparing History Graduate Students for the Classroom (1999).