Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York
 


Managing a Course

 
Managing a Course
 
Teaching courses is not like assembling the same flat pack of furniture over and over again. Teaching courses is more like sailing a boat across a lake, and every time you do it, you're doing it with a different crew; only because you're teaching more than one course at the same time, it's more like sailing several boats, with several crews, similtaneously.
 


The importance of community
There are still faculty who take little interest in their students because, by the sailing analogy, the crew is interchangable from one voyage to the next. At Fordham it is one of the great strengths of the Jesuit tradition that faculty take an interest in the intellectual progress of their students, and in particular, the students they get to know, like their advisees and veteran students. This is especially useful in teaching because your veteran students know your teaching techniques and can be immensely helpful in demonstrating what you want to the rest of the class.

On the face of it, a crew can sail across a lake regardless of whether the captain knows them or they know one another. But your students are more likely to enjoy your course, and remember what they've learned, if they think you do know who they are, and if they also know their classmates. There are many ways to go about getting to know your students and engendering the kind of community that will make them care about more than their grade.


Who are these people? Getting to know your students
To get to know your students: you could go beyond the usual round of introductions during the first class and ask them to fill out an index card with a few introductory details you might find useful. For some ideas on what's useful, look at the standard course teacher evaluation and think how helpful some of that information would be if you knew it at the start of the semester. Alternatively, you could collect their introductory information by email.

There are no end of inventive ways to engender community: group projects, team presentations, and field trips get students to work together out of the classroom. One of the most important ways to engender community in a class is to put names to faces. A quick and easy way to do this, is take a photograph of the class early in the semester, print it, and then ask students to write their names over their heads. Take the photo to class every week and by the end of the semester you will be able to do the roster without reading the students' names. If you use a course web site, you could also have students make forum postings introducing themselves to one another.


The centrality of the classroom
The classroom is always the center of coursework, even if students do most of their work for the course in their own rooms or in the library, and even if you use a course web site to manage their assignments. The classroom is where the class actually meets, all together at the same time, once or twice a week, and where you do all the work necessary to set up the assignments.

It’s hard to grasp how important the classroom is for organizing coursework until you teach a completely virtual course and you suddenly have to motivate students entirely through the course web site and email. Then you find out how much harder it is to ignore what the professor is trying to communicate when you are standing in front of them. This is when you really come to appreciate the value of the announcements at the start of class when you can nag students about what they have and haven’t been doing.


Taking possession of the classroom
Since the classroom is so important to the work of the course, it helps to make it your own by taking possession when you enter. As much as they should, your predecessors are often too busy fielding students’ questions to tidy the room before they leave.

It’s up to you to open or close the blinds, clean the board, set up the computer and projector, even pick up trash and arrange the furniture into the formation you want to teach with. This is sometimes onerous, and you can always pressgang your students into helping, but it is worth the trouble because students see that you care about the environment in which the class does its work.


Writing on the board
In the same way that the classroom is still the center of the course, the stick of chalk and your blackboard are still the most important technology in the classroom. Students pay more attention to what you write on the board and very often they will copy it down in their notes.

You can also use a projector to display an outline of your lecture: but if you do, try not to get trapped behind the podium, and try to write on the board too, because the blackboard and the projector are not mutually exclusive; some uses, like displaying the New York Times home page, are only possible with the aid of the projector, while other uses, such as writing up the chapters for the next class lend themselves better to the blackboard. Remember setting up the DVD players can take a few moments, and using Youtube or Google Earth in class is subject to the performance of the Internet on campus at that time, so in either case, be patient and have a plan B in reserve.


Organizing your lecture
Never neglect the utility of the old army dictum about teaching: first you tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; then you tell ’em; then you tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. This timeless pearl of wisdom is applicable over many different scales: from today’s class, through this topic, and across the whole course.

Review is essential if students are ever to retain ideas and make connections between them. One way to get class started is to go over what you covered last time. Ask particular students what they have in their notes, and encourage them to explain the jist to the class. Sometimes just pointing to the part of the board where you wrote up the key concept in question is enough to jog someone’s memory.

Students might say they want fun but what really keeps them coming back for more is organization. Try simple lists of 3 to 5 points and be sure to be clear about where one points ends and the next one begins. Conventionally, professors put the 3 to 5 points on the board but you can also put them on a web page and have students print that page and take their own notes on your outline. This way they get the organization of the material you want to give them, but it’s up to them to note the salient details.

Rather than lecturing interminably, try breaking up the formal lecture with periods of discussion. A time-tested way to organize discussion is through boardwork, a big chart on the blackboard on which the professor notes the best student suggestions. Classroom discussion can be extended through an online forum.


Remain calm!
Be patient with students! There will always be disruptions. Speak firmly but politely to the offending parties during class, but make sure they know, after class or through email, that they are out of order, and you will not look kindly on further transgressions. There will always be stupid questions (it’s an uneradicable part of the human condition). Bite your tongue because chances there are another half dozen students in the class who weren’t listening either. There will always be lateness to class, and of course, late papers. Remember what life was like when you were an undergraduate? And you didn’t have Facebook, Youtube, and Google Earth to distract you!


Be comfortable in your own skin
All professors have bad days in the classroom no matter how much they enjoy teaching. One of the secrets to success as a teacher is to know how to bounce back again in the next class. Students will forgive a lot that didn’t quite work if they believe the professor is trying hard to do something different. This is why early iterations of a course, when you are figuring out how to make it work, often run better than mature iterations of the same course, when you are getting tired of the textbook and bored with the lectures.

The trick to keep teaching fresh is incremental innovation; find out what your strengths are, teach to those, but always be on the look out for an assignment that’s unique to your way of teaching and that students couldn’t get from anyone else. Ask your colleagues about their favorite assignments: chances are they’ll be far from the conventional in-class exam or term paper and will be something you never even thought of. Being comfortable in your own skin as a teacher is about being ready to try something new, and see if it works for you.

 

 

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