Instant feedback in the classroom, and in life

You never really know if you’re teaching the right thing. The best way to get closer that ideal is instant feedback.

When I’m teaching, I often ask simple, binary questions (“How many of you think you’d leave the body?” of Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home;” “How many of you checked Facebook at least once while you were writing your essays? More than once?” of Paul Graham’s “Disconnecting Distraction“) to gauge the classroom’s temperature. I also ask a lot of questions and ask students to write their answers in two to five minutes, so they have some kind of coherent response. The writing serves a second purpose: I can walk around, look over students’ shoulders or ask to see their answers, and get five to ten responses in less than a minute and change plans accordingly based on those responses.

A few days ago, for example, I asked open-ended questions about “Disconnecting Distraction” and found that about five of twenty students had read it. So a discussion about “Disconnecting Distraction” made no sense. Talking about what it meant that so few people had read “Disconnecting Distraction” made a lot of sense. So we did that instead.

I never know what’s going to happen when I walk in. I have some things planned if no one wants to start a discussion, as well as some ways of steering conversations toward close reading and ideas if the conversation meanders too much. But making hard-and-fast plans, then executing them regardless of the conditions on the ground, leads to sub-optimal class time.

I’ve been in plenty of classrooms like that, and my experiences have been every bit as dull and tedious as yours. Instead, I incorporate immediate feedback and establish the tightest loop I can between me and and students. If class doesn’t go as planned, I’m not going to take it personally: I’m going to ask “why?” and figure something out. Anything less can be done online, through a broadcast lecture (I’ve actually thought about getting a friend to record my classes, then putting the recordings on YouTube, but it’s a project that would take a fair amount of effort and deliver little immediate return to me. I might do it anyway).

These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere, and they’re linked to the larger intellectual climate. For example, innumerable Hacker News posts discuss how business plans don’t survive first contact with customers and how you have to listen to customers and iterate rapidly if you’re going to run a successful business—especially a successful startup. The “survive first contact” reference in the first sentence is adapted from the military’s idea that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. It’s easy to see how those ideas can be adapted for the classroom. See also this Atlantic article on great teachers:

Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing. . . .

For example, one way that great teachers ensure that kids are learning is to frequently check for understanding . . .

The kids have to do the math in their heads. All of them write their answers on their cards and thrust them up in the air. With a quick scan, Mr. Taylor can see if every child has written the right answer.

The article focuses on K – 12 teachers, but the same principles apply across the age spectrum: does the person you’re trying to reach understand what’s going on? Can they think on their feet (or, since they’re sitting, on their ass)? A week later, can you ask follow-up questions and see if students retain what they were doing? How about a month later?

These are questions I should be able to answer, and I should be able to get data on them quickly, without disrupting what else is happening. Granted, there’s near-zero institutional incentive at universities for grad students or even professors to think about this when they teach, but I do it anyway because I think teaching well is important and because I’ve sat through so many hours of idiotic, half-baked instruction and would like to avoid inflicting the same on my own students. To me, rapid measurement and change is part of “teaching with authenticity and authority.”

A couple other notes:

1) In some ways, teaching is a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger economy and what’s being rewarded right now: innovation, rapid responses to changing circumstances, attention to detail, and a willingness to do whatever is needed at a particular time, without resorting to tradition or past ideas that might have no authority in the present.

2) I’ve have witnessed numerous teachers and other quasi authority figures demanding “respect” or some equally dubious homage for their “position,” rather than because they’ve earned it. That sort of thing is bogus, has always been bogus, and always will be bogus, yet it continues anyway, and it’s the sort of thing I want to avoid.

3) Life decides whether what you’re doing is effective or not. So I’m not as worried about catching cheaters and so forth; their real judge is the market, and the market is infinitely harsher and infinitely more demanding than I am. If they can pass market tests without learning how to read and write, then that’s their affair. But by choosing to avoid, to the extent they can, knowledge, they’re going to make the market tests that much harder when those tests arrive, as they do for virtually everyone save those who are cosseted by such mammoth wealth they can lead lives of shocking indolence and, to my mind, tedium, which sounds like much greater punishment than I could possibly mete out, even were I inclined to do so. Sometimes I explicitly connect classes to the larger world. I’m not sure those connections are successful, but they are present.

Mid-February Links: Twitter, parking, protest and intellectualism, A Wrinkle in Time

* I started a Twitter account that basically doubles as an RSS feed. So if you prefer to be updated about new posts via Twitter, you’ve now got an easy way to do it.

* A Jew in the Northwest: Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon. I’m from Seattle, and my experience doesn’t match Deresiewicz’s. Malamud’s A New Life seemed like ancient history to me. I wonder if I have less focus on ethnicity than seemingly every other writer in the universe.

* “How to Fight The Man:”

For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke. [. . .]

Most professors would like their students to be more rebellious and argumentative. But rebellion without a rigorous alternative vision is just a feeble spasm.

The flipside of the “Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts” temperament is a lack of knowledge that leads to ineffectiveness. Balancing rigor and independence is tough.

* The French parenting style; one lesson might be to worry way less, since you can’t control your child’s outcome to nearly the extent you want to imagine you can. See further Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

* ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and Its Sci-Fi Heroine.

* This is a sign of progress, even if it isn’t pitched as such.

Movies, February: Contagion, The Usual Suspects, and Traffic

* Contagion: Incredibly intense and fast-moving; it’s reminiscent in that respect of The Social Network. I was never bored. It’s also scarier than any slasher movie and does an extraordinary job of putting large-scale social events like disease into a narrative context. The preceding sentence makes Contagion sound boring, but it’s not, and very few works of narrative art accomplish anything like this.

Contagion demonstrates that Hollywood can, in fact, make good, original movies, though they don’t come along all that frequently.

* The Usual Suspects: Holds up over time and still has impressive narrative complexity. Rewards re-watching mostly because, knowing the trick ending, one sees the lead-up.

Traffic: Extremely intense and socially aware. Both it and Contagion seem highly informed by economics in a way that’s rare for movies. Somewhat melodramatic, but not in an overly distracting way. I wish more movies were this intense. The script is “woven” together effectively.

Why I try not to be too hard on students:

I was going through some old boxes from my parents’ house and found papers and stories I’d written as a freshman and sophomore in college; while the papers weren’t bad, the stories were terrible. The kind of terrible that gets justifiably mocked in academic novels like Blue Angel. The kind that would make many instructors throw up their hands in dismay and their lunch thanks in nausea. The kind that make me wonder what the hell could’ve made me want to keep going. Actually, I don’t wonder, because the answer is probably ignorance—the sort of ignorance I’ve been trying to cure, probably futilely, ever since.

Reading Eileen Pollack’s “Flannery O’Connor and the New Criticism: A Response to Mark McGurl” reminded me of those early experiences (the article is behind a bullshit paywall, by the way):

The careless inclusion of random details or digressions or the unintentional revelation of aspects of one’s own character are precisely what gets beaten out of a student even in the nicest, most tactful workshop (let alone the considerably more venomous workshops that tend to be the norm at Iowa). Even if novice writers are not narcissists in the therapeutic sense, they have rarely had the experience of writing for a disinterested audience (i.e., readers other than their mothers and doting high school English teachers). This means that a story’s prose must be coherent, the plot comprehensible, the characters (and the world they live in) believable and consistent (even if the story isn’t meant to be realistic). Writers soon learn that their classmates do not want to read a 20-page digression about a character’s fight with her parents because they did not buy her a BMW for her sixteenth birthday, or the endless details of a championship high school football game, or an angry fantasy about raping and mutilating a beautiful woman who rejects the main character’s amorous advances, or a sermon against abortion or nuclear war. A student may never receive a lecture on craft or the tenets of the New Criticism, but by handing out drafts of a story and listening to detailed responses from readers of all sorts, he or she will learn how best to convey the ideas and emotions he or she intends to convey and not include anything that reveals aspects of his or her psyche or autobiography that are irrelevant and/or embarrassing.

I gave and got criticism that was designed to beat out the merely random, and the class’s response was certainly a useful, if “venomous” and vitriolic, way of imparting important messages about audience reaction. If I teach fiction writing classes, I might include Pollack’s paragraph in the syllabus, even if the experience of attempting to write about not receiving a BMW or football games will probably still be necessary for students to get the lesson.

Looking at that old work shows me that, if I didn’t have the particular problems Pollack enumerates, I still had one analogous to them. When I’m looking at student work, I should remember my own development at an equivalent age.

The academic papers, fortunately, were much better, and I’d see a couple of them relatively recently. As a first-year grad student, I split a two-bedroom apartment with another first-year, and one night we found and traded papers from when we were freshmen, mostly out of curiosity: would we have lived up to the standards we imposed on others? The answer, fortunately, was yes, but I wouldn’t rank the papers I wrote as a freshman as among the best that my students have written over the last three and a half years.

Beyond critiquing it, however, the writing is itself a window on the old person I used to be, who has become a stranger to me over time, kept alive only through the random bits of writing that he chose to commit to paper or hard drive and drag around.

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