Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Teaching, sitting, standing

For a long time I fell into the habit when teaching of sitting on the edge of the "teacher's desk" at the front of the classroom. Last semester I decided to make a change -- to honor, in a modest way, the memory of the best teacher I ever had. Twenty-odd years ago, when I was an M.A. student and graduate assistant, Jim Doyle, whom I've written about elsewhere on this blog, asked if I'd like to teach one of his classes (on "Lycidas"). I sat behind a very large and very wooden desk with Douglas Bush's edition of Milton and a cup of coffee and somehow talked about the poem. "It was very good," Jim said afterwards, but he advised me to stand: "Some people do better sitting; some people do better standing. You would do better standing." I can still hear these words as very likely exact. In "Spring" 2006 (that is, January 2006), I started standing while teaching. With the exception of a small seminar, during which I almost always sat, I've been standing while teaching ever since.

Thinking about Jim Doyle's words makes me recall how little useful guidance I received when I began teaching. The only institutional effort to address the graduate assistant's role as instructor came in the form of a workshop on teaching writing that devolved into an arch discussion among professors of what color ink to use when "marking" (that oddly primitive word) papers. One professor's suggestion was to switch colors from paper to paper, to keep students guessing -- a pretty clear indication of how seriously he took this whole business of thinking about how to teach writing. With no clear model of what I was supposed to be doing, I resolved simply to give my students their money's worth and mark their essays as fully as possible. I would mark everything, and thereby really help them with their writing. I cringe when I think of it. My students recognized, at least, my dedication.

Back in the day, I was quite grateful for Jim's plain, pragmatic advice. I'm not sure when I moved away from it and began sitting on desks. That casual-looking posture is less comfortable than it might appear -- getting down to write words on the blackboard (which is still black, not green or white) or reaching across the desk for a supplementary book can be slightly ungainly, the desktop being almost as great an impediment to easy movement as the stools upon which folksingers once perched.

So I'm standing again, with notes (which I only occasionally use) on a lectern and a book in hand, sometimes behind the lectern, sometimes moving around the front of the room. It occurs to me that instead of falling into a habit, I've made my posture when teaching intentional. Standing when I'm teaching makes me think of Jim Doyle -- not a bad idea for anyone who teaches.

comments: 5

JuliaR said...

I teach at a community college, which has an entirely different ethic when it comes to what the students learn. Of course, what we are teaching is also different - much more the practicalities of life than the theory. But they also teach the teachers and I have learned a lot about teaching from college. I never had a teacher anywhere near as good as I am, in all my three degrees that I acquired while younger. In fact, I would bet money that not a single one of my profs had ever taken a course in how to teach. If I ever get the chance to teach at a university (a degree program course), I will use the techniques, care and compassion that I have learned teaching at college. But it sounds like you care, which is also more than I ever had from any of the profs in my three degrees.

Michael Leddy said...

As much as I dislike the jargon of "pedagogy," I think it's entirely to the good that graduate students now have, in at least many programs, required coursework in teaching. Having an inspiring professor or two, though, would be much better. As for the uninspiring profs (the ones of whom students say "S/he doesn't want to be there"), I suppose that one can at least resolve not to be like them. Thanks for the comment, Julia.

everythings jake said...

Hi, Julia and Michael,

The best teachers I ever had didn't have courses in education but they had something that Julia probably has and Michael definitely has. A love of learning and a love of teaching. The best teachers want to be in the classroom, want to talk to students, want to find out what they think and what they know.

The bad teachers I had all were pretty much the same: they didn't want to connect with the people in the class. These teachers just wanted to show up, do their 50 minutes and go home. If they spoke to anybody in class, it was by way of an accident. I sometimes wonder what they thought they were doing. It would be fun to ask them what they think education is.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the kind words, John, and right back atcha.

willie mink said...

Thanks Michael, this was a thought-provoking post. I like to mix it up in my lit and writing classes. I was especially inspired to do so by a student evaluation that said, "Class could've been more lively. Do we have to sit in a circle EVERY day? Mix it up!" Now I stand at the lectern on days when I have more content of my own that I want to get across, and I join them in a circle on days when the material at hand could be handled just as well by all of us together. Standing at the lectern all of the time would be too much "Sage on the Stage," rather than "Guide on the Side," I think. As for sitting on the desk that faces them in their old-fashioned, "banking system" rows, or behind it, well, I just don't see the point. . .