2015-04-03

Skillful academic teaching

During this sabbatical of mine in this semester between March and June I've been trying to spend weekday evenings reading (and thinking) about topics that may have little or nothing to do directly with my research-shmesearch but can enhance my life, not only privately but sometimes even professionally. Every one or two weeks I have another topic. The one I chose and decided to read about this week was academic teaching.

We university lecturers are expected to have acquired skills in the the following four main academic activities: 1) teaching, 2) oral presentations in conferences, 3) writing articles and books, and 4) supervision of graduate students. I'm really sorry that I was taught none of them systematically when I was a graduate student and I had to learn them by myself by trial and error after I started working as a university lecturer.

Teaching is probably the one that takes more of our time and affects our emotions more significantly than the other three academic activities, at least during school terms. Being exempt from teaching because of the sabbatical, I can now reflect upon my academic teaching, especially in the last semester, more objectively, and think of ways to improve it.

While searching for guides to academic teaching, I stumbled upon the following two excellent ones: The Skillful Teacher (1st edition: 1990 / 3rd (latest) edition: 2015) by Stephen B. Brookfield and Teaching as Its Best (1st edition: 1998 / 3rd (latest) edition: 2010) by Linda B. Nilson. I simply devoured these twoo books. They are the kind of books I should have been recommended or even required to read at the start of my academic career, when the first edition of each of these books was already available. But better late than never. What especially appealed to me in these amazing guides are the chapters "What Students Value in Teachers" and "Preventing and Responding to Classroom Incivility" respectively.

Prof. Brookfield, the author of the first book, writes that a teacher must be perceived by his or her students to be credible and authentic in order to be valued by them. He goes on to define credibility and authenticity in this specific setting as follows:

  • Credibility is the perception that the teacher has something important to share and that whatever this "something" is (skills, knowledge, insight, wisdom, information), learning it will benefit the student. Credible teachers are seen as teachers who are worth sticking around because students might learn something valuable as a result.
  • Authenticity is the perception that the teacher is dealing with students in an open and honest way. Authentic teachers don't go behind students' backs, keep agend as private, or double-cross learners by reversing expectations midway through the semester. They are also regarded as flesh-and-blood human beings with passions, enthusiasms, frailties, and emotions.

Prof. Nilson, the author of the second book, gives a long list of what is considered as incivility by many university lecturers in the United States, including:

  • Talking in class
  • Noisily packing up early
  • Arriving late and leaving early
  • Cheating
  • Wasting class time a general category spanning being unprepared for class, dominating discussion, repeating questions, and asking for a review of the last class meeting
  • Showing general disrespect and poor manners toward the instructor and other students
  • Eating in class
  • Acting bored or apathetic
  • Making disapproving groans
  • Making sarcastic remarks or gestures
  • Sleeping in class
  • Not paying attention
  • Not answering a direct question
  • Using a computer in class for nonclass purposes
  • Letting cell phones and pagers go off in class
  • Cutting class
  • Dominating discussion
  • Demanding makeup exams, extensions, grade changes, or special favors
  • Taunting or belittling other students
  • Challenging the instructor's knowledge or credibility in class
  • Making harassing, hostile, or vulgar comments to the instructor in class
  • Making harassing, hostile, or vulgar comments or physical gestures to the instructor outside class
  • Sending the instructor inappropriate emails
  • Making threats of physical harm to the instructor

I've experienced some, if not all, of them. She proposes the following six solutions to prevent incivility, but I wonder if they can be applicable in the Israeli context:

  • Balancing authority and approachability
  • Showing that you care
  • Setting ground rules
  • Rewarding civil behavior
  • Modeling correct behavior
  • Commanding class attention

Anyway, I strongly recommend these two books to every university lecturer who, like myself, is emotionally highly sensitive and (or probably therefore) is perplexed about how to keep teaching and/or how to improve it. I wish you (and myself) good luck. ;-)