Thursday, October 25, 2012

Learning to Teach--Teaching to Learn


I received the Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Southern State College, now Southern Arkansas University, in June of 1967 and immediately moved to Alabama to do graduate work at Auburn, where I eventually earned the Doctor of Philosophy. My wife, also a recent college graduate, got a job in the Textile Engineering department there and my teaching assistantship started in the fall semester. I will never forget first walking into my assigned Freshman English class. I had no teaching experience at all and I am introverted and shy. But I knew I wanted a career as a college English professor, so I studied the Freshman English books with vigor, backed my ears, opened my mouth and taught.

By the second week I had learned that my talent for drawing came in very handy to gain and retain attention. I could illustrate poems such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” on the old chalk board while explaining the poet’s intentions. Drawing a sprawling cartoon of the dramatic situation behind Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was a real crowd-pleaser, bringing robust laughter even from the thick-necked Southeastern Conference football champs. So, I got the hang of entertaining as I sought to impart insights into the material at hand.

Entertainment and enlightenment go hand in hand in all teaching, speaking and writing. Professors who are as dry as dust never learn this. It is as if they are so eager to get the subject matter across that they bore their audiences to tears. But there is another side to the issue as well. During the years when I was an academic dean, I had to bring subtle correction to several faculty members whose desire to entertain classes resulted in loss of credibility often culminating in loss of control. As the wise Roman Horace admonished, we must keep entertainment and enlightenment in balance with each other. Otherwise, we run the risk of being obtuse on the one hand or frivolous on the other.

During that first semester of teaching at Auburn, I learned some other things that have helped me through almost a half a century in the profession. As a general rule, college students lose more points from failure to follow instructions than from anything else. If the instructions say, “Discuss two of the following topics in a brief essay,” it is wrong to discuss one in great detail or three scantily. If the instructions say, “Answer the following questions in complete sentences,” responding in phrases will be incorrect. If the professor marks the phrase wrong, the student may counter, “But I obviously understood the material.” Unfortunately, however, the student didn’t understand the question. Another thing I have learned is that students who come to a professor’s office frustrated are seldom looking for a solution. Instead, they are looking for a listener. Very often, when students know you are listening intently, they verbalize a solution to their own problem.

The most important thing I learned in my first college class was that if I treated students with respect, I received respect in return. Even when recording an “F” on an essay, one should give written encouragement as to how to improve. People whose English is non-standard are not thereby bad people. Our linguistic skills have nothing to do with character.

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