a fourth meditation on being a teacher, part 1

I spend a lot of my time thinking about teaching.  I’ve been teaching mathematics for 30 years, since I started graduate school in 1986, and aikido for 12 years.  But it’s the math teaching that most on my mind at the moment, having just finished teaching Graph Theory for the 4th time.

The more I teach, the more I become dissatisfied with how I teach.  I don’t think I’m a poor teacher; in fact, I think I teach well.  My own impression, and the evidence from the students’ end of semester questionnaire results, is that I’m entertaining at the front of the room (though my jokes are not particularly funny, but math jokes, what can you do, and one should never judge one’s own perceived level of being entertaining), that I structure and present the material clearly and explain things well, and I have developed the reputation that my examinations tend to be on the hard side.

But my overall impression is that my lecturing is standard.  I am a mathematician, somewhat old school, and I lecture like a mathematician, somewhat old school.  I stand at the board, go through the topics I need to go through on the day, answer questions from the floor, and do what things I can do to encourage participation.  For the past few years, for instance, I’ve used a hash tag and let the students tweet questions during the lectures.  For the relatively small class I’m teaching now, the students are willing to ask questions in lecture and so the volume of tweets is low, but that’s a story for another day.

So, the question that’s occupying me at the moment is, what can I do differently?  What can I do that’s unusual but nonetheless effective?  I’m already starting to think about things I can do to restructure the class for next year, and so I’m going to conduct an experiment.  Perhaps it’s an experiment that will end in abject failure, but let’s give it a try anyway.

I’m going to keep a record, at least in general terms, of what I’m doing to get Graph Theory 2016/17 ready for the students.  (And yes, I do have a reasonable level of certainty that I’ll be teaching Graph Theory again in 2016/17.)

One thing that I’ll be doing is to ensure that I have a complete set of printed notes available for the students on the first day of teaching.  I was writing the notes as I went along this year, but that didn’t go down well with the students, and so that I’ll change.

Some students seem to give printed notes an almost talismanic status, and I’ve been pondering why.  I’ve talked to a few students about this but those conversations haven’t given me any clarity.  Perhaps students think that having printed notes somehow delineates the scope of what’s being taught, that only the material inside the notes might then appear on the exam.  Perhaps.




~ by Jim Anderson on 30 January 2016.

5 Responses to “a fourth meditation on being a teacher, part 1”

  1. […] is the third of a series of indeterminate length.  In a fourth meditation on being a teacher, part 1, I set out my basic goal of keep tracking of what work I am doing to rework and redevelop my […]

  2. […] to reconstruct the teaching of my graph theory module for the current academic year, described here and here and here , a project that I didn’t complete but which is still very much on my […]

  3. […] around the teaching I was doing over the fall.  If you’re interested, these can be found in a fourth meditation on being a teacher, part 1 and a fourth meditation on being a teacher, part 2 and a fourth meditation on being a teacher, […]

  4. What makes you think students treat printed notes in a talismanic manner? Because printing seems anachronistic in this age of digital wonders? I think that your theory of delineation is a good one, although I would prefer to argue that printing allows for somewhat easier interpretation. Hard copies grant a user with maximum freedom to annotate and scribble; perhaps making lecture content more tangible (and memorable)…

    • I don’t think printing is anachronistic at all, and I am happy to accept the extent to which printing is one of the greatest, most flexible, most portable technologies of knowledge that we as humans have ever produced. The reason I refer to students viewing printed notes as talismanic is not the fact of the printed notes themselves, but how some students use them. And not just students. I have many books on my shelves that I have not yet read, and might never read.

      I take comfort in my books, and I suspect some students take comfort in having notes. Perhaps this is because this provides that delineation of a subject, of a module. Perhaps it is because I sometimes view books as talismanic objects, where having a book provides some comfort. If I have a book, I know that I can learn what’s in that book, even if I haven’t yet. Perhaps.

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