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Cousin Don's Gratuitous Advice on Teaching--and on How to Enjoy It

This page began with an email conversation my cousin Tom and I have been having about teaching.  As it happens, we're both away from our home colleges this semester (fall 1997), he doing research in Beijing and I on sabbatical leave.

After writing one particularly long reply to him--and before sending it--I decided to try it out first on a colleague, Phyllis, who had been a student in several of my classes 13 or 14 years ago, and who probably knows what I was trying to say better than I do myself.  (Phyllis earned three degrees from the community college where we teach, two bachelor's degrees from a prestigious university, and a master's from another university--all with straight A's.)

Among Phyllis's suggestions was that I shouild move several things from near the end to the beginning.  Normally, I'd do that; this time, however, I decided to leave them where I thought of them while I was writing the first draft to Tom, and instead to collect those ideas and some others on a page of their own.  That page and this one say most of the same things, but in two different modes--sort-of-exposition and sort-of-conversation, respectively.  This is messy, of course; but I'm interested in exploring the process of thinking or conversing or whatever it is that we're doing here.  And I'm leery of making clear-looking pronouncements about a subject that isn't clear at all.  Maybe you'd like to look at that other page right now.

Although mixing three voices together complicates the reading, I think you'll find the conversation clear enough.

Phyllis's responses are in green,Tom's in red,and mine in shades of blue--navy to Tom andlighter blue where I'm responding to Phyllis.  I'll use these dark blue italics for other comments.

The conversation began when Tom wrote--

Maybe some day this fall I will miss teaching.
Oh-oh. Tom's very bright and thoughtful, and he's not a complainer.  But he's been saying things like that for a couple of years, now.  When he finished his Ph.D. and began teaching at a high-pressure university a few years ago his talk was very  different--excited, upbeat, optimistic.  The photo on the right shows how he looked back then--a clip from a group picture taken after our favorite aunt's funeral.  But something's been weighing him down lately, so I decided to take a chance and shoot him some gratuitous advice, and see what his reaction would be.

Yeah.  I used to say things like that, too, until I learned a few things about teaching, viz., Try never to ask a question you already know the answer to, and Don't grade individual pieces of students' work.  A few others, too, but those are the biggies, and probably the hardest for most people to get their minds around.  (Not to sound too self-righteous, though.  I LOVE  being on sabbatical.)

Fortunately, that didn't seem to offend him--or maybe he just decided to humor old cousin Don.  Here's how old cousin Don looked in the same post-funeral photo with Tom. (We don't look a quarter-century apart in age, do we?)  At any rate, here's what he wrote back:

Now I have a question about what you said about teaching.  How do you avoid grading individual student's work?  Perhaps you have so many students that it is prohibitive, but that is definitely one of the things that makes [Tom's university] so busy.  We are constantly grading their work.  We average 60-62 students a semester, but it gets very busy with 3 exams and at least one paper.  What do you do with students who are so committed that they want you to read a draft.  I am not saying teach me how to be the iron instructor, but rather how can you accomplish things in the course without the grading?  Any advice would be appreciated.  We are drowning and it is one of the main reasons that I don't miss it yet.  I have had virtually no time for research during the term, but I am expected to do it.  I also struggle to balance my feeling of responsibility to the students with time constraints.  I think that is getting closer to what you are talking about.  Any advice would be much appreciated.
Well, so what if he is humoring me.  I can't resist an invitation like that.  And this is where Phyllis came into the conversation; what follows is the email she sent back to me.  Her remarks and editing are in green.
Hum.  Well, okay, I'll give it a try.  At the risk of cancelling everything else I can say on the subject, I'll point out that you mis-quoted me slightly.  I said "Don't grade individual pieces of students' work, " but you copied it as "avoid grading individual student's work." (Don, I pointed out the difference here because the terminology used by each of you seems to demonstrate a different philosophy about teaching and learning right from the start.  It seems to me that your "Don't grade" indicates that grading is not part of the process.  And Tom's "avoid grading" indicates that "grading" is part of the process, but he wants to know how to avoid it while incorporating it at the same time.  That may not make much sense without an analogy.  I'll use your journey idea; it often comes in handy as a teacher.  You are setting out on a journey and grading is not a consideration for your trip because it has no place in or on the journey.  Tom, on the other hand, is setting out on the same journey, and he is trying to figure out how he can avoid grading while incorporating the same outcomes that he would have if he clearly incorporates grading as part of the teaching/learning process.  He is not looking at the "big picture"; he is stuck on the graded journey rather than the journey itself.   I hope I have made sense here.  If not, then ignore it and move on.)  Maybe this answers your question already, in which case you can just delete this long, windy message.  But pointing it out may also make you feel bad--which I guess will demonstrate painfully something I'll say below about the unintended effects of negative feedback.  Sorry!  (I'd prefer not to grade AT ALL, by the way.)
(Don, you have a paragraph further down your response in which you talk about grading and not grading.  I think it might fit better here.  What do you think? )   I think you're right.  But I also think that moving it would screw up the flow of the whole letter--the unnoticed or osmotic effect--so instead I've tried adding a preface that lists the main points.  This is a lot easier that re-writing the whole thing, and I think it's okay because as a teaching "method" (which it isn't at all) it's all one.  when people try to separate out discreet elements, they miss everything.

Your situation is probably not unlike that of most English teachers, who study literature in college and then find they have to teach comp to earn a living--and hate it because it's labor-intensive.  My first reaction is to say that exams aimed at showing how a student is progressing probably don't require a teacher's attention.  Let other students or a computer provide that kind of feedback. (I think the last two sentences will confuse and aggravate him before he gets any further and might set up negative assumptions that will cause him to misinterpret some other things that you say later.  I might say:  My first reaction is to say that exams airmed at showing how a student is progressing require the student's attention rather than the teacher's.  It has been my experience that such exams require very little attention from me.  And the reason for that is that I am looking at the student's thinking process rather than looking for specific answers.)   (And at this point I would not elaborate any further.)  Right again.  But what you wrote is important, so I won't cut out the reason for it.

But that's probably too simple.  All right, then, here's a longer--though less specific and more complex and much messier--answer:(I don't think I would say any of this because you are telling him that the above answer is simple and then you give him another answer.  So if he doesn't understand the simple answer, he is going to be sure that he does not understand what follows.  I think you could set up a negative mindset with this.  Or he could think that you are just being plain arrogant.) (I don't think you need to introduce what follows, but then what do I know?)  Same as above.

Remember, I said I try not to ask questions I already know the answers to. That's probably the most important thing, because it means that (I think I'd remove this part because the evidence you give that follows supports the last part of the sentence about the student's work appearing new and fresh to you.  Besides, I think the idea of "catechist or gatekeeper" sounds judgmental rather than helpful, whereas the idea of the student's work appearing "new and fresh" is exciting and inviting at the same time.  In other words, the last part of the sentence sets up positive expectations rather than judging the teacher. Hm.  Well, I think it's important to identify the problem, even if that's painful.  Here's a case for hypertext, I guess--just put it off by itself, with a link to it if he wants to read it.  I'm not acting as catechist or gatekeeper, and that) every student's work is likely to appear new and fresh to me.  If I asked, for example, What's the plot of "Hamlet?" I'd soon get bored with the answers.  If I asked What does so-and-so say about the character Hamlet's weakensses? I'd get just as bored, and probably sooner.  If I asked, on the other hand, Who do you think is the hero of "Hamlet"?--well, then, I'm going to have a much better time reading what people think about that, because there's no right or wrong answer.  I don't even have a single, clear answer of my own.  What's going to be so interesting is how each student explains what they think and what I'm going to learn from them.  Unfortunately, most teachers seem to think they don't DARE ask questions they don't know the answers to--because they're focused on the answer, rather than on the thinking process.  But the truth is, the answers don't survive most courses; only the thinking process does.(This is an excellent point!)

All right, that's a start.  (I don't think I would put in that first sentence because it sounds too instructional.) Along with trying not to ask questions I already know the answers to, I also try never to let on to colleagues and rarely to administrators what I actually do in my classes.  It's not that I'm trying to hide anything, but--as with this (grating) grading question--letting out any partial information is much more dangerous than keeping mum; and almost no one is likely to wait around for the WHOLE thing before deciding I'm nuts.  Holding out for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is hard on everyone. (Don, I think I'd stop with "mum" because the last part of that sentence might scare him into thinking that if he should take your advice he will be considered "nuts" or that only a "nutty professor" would try such an idea.  Yes, that's probably so.  I meant only to point out that the danger in breaking your silence is that colleagues are likely to attack you.  This is a Big Danger.  It's bad enough if they understand you perfectly, but disagree.  It's much worse if they get only parts, because they'll refulte those they don't like and pervert those they DO like.   And, as for the last sentence, I think you might be misunderstood because he might get the impression that you are saying that you are the one with the "truth.")  Well, thats the rub, isn't it.  I didn't mean it like that at all--and yet I AM writing this.

I'm aware, by the way, that this may include you.  So if you find that my answer starts getting on your nerves, the best thing will be for you to stop reading immediately and delete this message, and we'll stick to safer topics--like religion and politics. That won't break my heart. (I think I would delete this whole paragraph because again it puts him on the defensive before he has had a chance to hear you out.)  You're right again.  I wanted to give him an out without straining the "blood is thicker than water" principle.

The big problem is that almost no one working as a teacher is prepared really to examine the fundamentals of the job--so their assumptions about it are flawed, and they're blinded by the treatment they themselves received as students.  It's like parenting:  Despite clear evidence that spanking children is destructive, almost everyone in America believes that spanking is necessary, whether they LIKE doing it, or not..  Why is that?  I suppose it's because most people were spanked when they were children. (I really don't know if I would use this paragraph or not.  It bothers me because "spanking children" is a topic that causes an emotional response that detracts the reader from the topic at hand; it causes the reader to stop and examine or re-examine his own philosophical beliefs, and maybe he doesn't agree with you.  You've thrown out a "big idea" in the midst of a small paragraph that calls for a "big response."  I think I'd just move right into the next paragraph.)   Well, it's an anology to teaching that I like a lot.  It probably ought to be separated from the "you," though, to keep Tom from feeling defensive if he does spank his kid or ever has through conditioned response.

I'm pretty much convinced that it's almost impossible to change the basic assumptions of most teachers.  So I'm not confident that reform efforts will be very successful, certainly not in the short run.   But rather than write a long and tedious dissertation here, I'll just give you the URL of an essay I wrote for a bunch of well-meaning (I'd remove this.but well-spanked ) academics connected with an NEH project we were working on.  The nominal subject is freshman comp, and some of the thinking is out of date, but if you read it you'll get the general idea.  The address is:


Well, okay, with that cautionary preface, here's a specific answer to your grading question.

One of my aims in any course is that the students master the subject, and most subjects I teach are not limited to right and wrong answers.  Instead, they're about thinking in certain ways, usually (but not always) new to the student, about certain subjects.  So in other words, what really matters to me is not how well someone answers any specific question in my course, but instead how well they're going to be able to use the course LATER ON, after it's over.  For that aim, it doesn't matter whether someone gets the stuff of the course slowly or quickly.  Some students may be new to the subject; others may already have a lot of experience in it.  (This complicates things somewhat, as I want the course to be just as "deep" for the latter as for the former, but I won't go into the specifics of that now.)  What matters is how well a student is able to do the stuff of the course, whatever it is, AT THE END (or even AFTER the end).

I also believe that students ought to take the responsibility for their own education.  They learn, with the help of--or sometimes despite--their teachers.  The teacher ought not be in the position of gatekeeper--should instead act as a coach.

Yeah, yeah, so how do I grade students. (If you take the earlier statement about this out, then you'd have to remove this too.I warned you about the whole truth. )

In most courses I ask (the students them)to turn in ALL of their work for the course (including work that I haven't assigned but that they believe is relevant), along with their own assessment of their work and progress and their recommendation of what grade they should get.  This works ONLY  if (the students are they're ) thoroughly aware of their colleague-students' work; otherwise they have no referent for their self-assessment.  Therefore, (What is the it's here? it's intimately related to the instruction methods I use (the part I omitted in the "deep" part, above), and REQUIRES COOPERATION, rather than competition, among the students and me. (Don, you are assumming that Tom understands the students' responsibilities in all of this, but you haven't made that clear, instead you just pick up with what your responsibilities are.)  Ah! Thanks!  I'll add that at the beginning.[On another page. Read it now.] I read their self-assessments, look at their other work (their supporting evidence), and decide whether I agree with their grade recommendation.  In most classes over the past 17 years, I've agreed with about 85% of all students' grade recommendations.  When I've overruled students, I've raised about as many grades as I've lowered.

This method might not work quite the same way in a course that has external constraints on proficiency, such as a departmental exam or a national standardized test.  But in these courses, the grading can be simplified by relating it to external exam performance. For example, how?  Good question.  I suppose it depends on what the teacher thinks of the particular external exam.  The big problem here, of course, is that the teacher might disagree profoundly with the philosophy behind that particular external exam.  (When that happens, it may be best to look for employment elsewhere.) I think those last two sentences again set up negative assumptions that only interfere with the reader understanding what you are saying.  They cause me to get caught up thinking about other things than what you are "really" saying. Yeah, right again.  It's another danger, though.  If I were going to remove your suggestions, I'd take this out, too.

Doesn't it take a long time to evaluate students' work at the end of the course?  (Yes, I know the answer; it's a rhetorical question only.)  Yes, it does.  But not as long as one might think, as I'm already familiar with most of their work, so I mostly just have to refresh my memory of it and see it FOR THE FIRST TIME AS AN EVALUATOR.

That "first time" business is also related to method.  When I'm grading an individual piece of work, my responses to it are necessarily justifications for the grade I've assigned it.  But when I'm NOT grading (truly, whole-heartedly not grading), my responses are ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.  They're genuine, and they're aimed at pointing out what the student has done WELL and at improvement, rather than at pointing out errors and at demonstrating how much more knowledgeable I am than the student is.  Most teachers employ negative feedback in order to control and limit student behavior.  (Few teachers are aware of that, but it's obvious to any objective observer.)  I use positive feedback to encourage students to extend and expand themselves beyond the limits of my control. (Don, wouldn't this be more helpful if it were at the beginning where you write about how he reworded what you had said about not grading?)  Maybe so.  I wanted just to remind him of it here, now that I've said all this other stuff in between, and go right on.

When I figured this out 22 years ago and started learning how to do it, I stopped hating my job.
(If you move the previous paragaph, then you'd need to move this one too.)  Yes, this is really the main thing, and logically it belongs at the beginning.  But it's a variant of what Tom said to get us started, so maybe it's okay here, instead.  Sometimes we get too logical.

Well, I could go on about the details, but that's probably more than enough for now (even if you're still reading and aren't too apoplectic).  If you (reader-coach) let me know which things you have questions about or objections to, I'll try to come up with remedies.

Before stopping, though, (I like this example, and I think I would also move it to the front of the essay following where you talk about grading and not grading.  I like how your example demonstrates rather than says.  If used at the beginning of your response, it would set up a simple real world context without a judgmental or misunderstood response being a problem.  It makes sense in a real life context.)  In my original email,  it was at the beginning.  Then I moved it here sort of as an antidote to all the opinions I've been pumping out.  I should say that the most effective school I've ever studied in was in the army--Field Radio Repair, which at the time was the army's longest and most difficult school.  There was a proficiency test every Friday.  If you passed it you went on to the next week's study.  If not, you repeated that week's study.  This is really important:  the aim of the school was to produce technicians who could fix broken commo equipment and keep their colleagues alive and fighting. Grades were irrelevant because mastery was all that mattered.  Anyone who, after repeating a week several times, was unable to master that week's stuff was transferred to the next-most demanding school, so that what he HAD learned would not be wasted.  That was probably somewhat hard on the soldier's ego, but was certainly easier to take than being flunked out altogether.

Now, learning to work as an electronics technician in the army is not learning to think profoundly about life's deepest secrets--or even about literature or history.  It's certainly not a line of work in which everything is yes-or-no, but it IS  a lot more craft than art.  Nevertheless, what's important is that the aim of the instruction was clear and was in no way related to the instructors' egos.  (Except, of course, that instructors who had many successful students got a few kudos and eventually got to train future instructors.) (Of course, if you move the previous paragraph, then you will have to move this one too.)

Nothing, including a teaching method,  is perfect. of course.  I'll stop now.


  I hope these comments help.  Actually, I hope I have made sense in my responses.  I can tell you from personal experience that I have tried both methods and lots of places in between, and I have come right back to where you are talking about.  I am amazed at how my mindset about "coaching" rather than "grading" makes a difference in how I respond to the students and in how they respond to me.  They always try so much harder when I point out positive things about their responses.  I might point out too that I think in terms of "responses" rather than "answers."  Answers lock us in and there is no other place to go; development is over.  However, responses leave us open to learn and to learn and to learn and to change and to change and to change, and so on.

By the way, you didn't directly respond to that part about what do you do about the student who wants you to read a draft. I'd read it, of course.  But eliminate the grade and there'll be fewer of those desperate requests for help and approval, and the reading will be fun.  Well, I know you did, but not directly.  Well, I guess you did too, but only if he understands that you did.  So if he figures that out and doesn't have to ask you for a direct response, then he has understood the rest of what you have said.  Right?  I kept thinking all along that he wanted a direct answer--didn't try to come up with one because it'd just be my answer.  I can say what I do in my courses; but he needs to find his own answer, just as he needs to find his own course and method and teacher-self.

I enjoyed reading this partly because it interested me to see how you verbalize your teaching philosophy.  It is interesting for me sitting at a different viewpoint from the one I was in as a student.  I am challenged to think both as a student and as a teacher and to reconcile my position based on what I know about being both.  But then so are you.


Phyllis's response was especially interesting to me because it was the student critiquing the teacher's work for a change.  Also, she wrote in green--the color I usually use in writing to my students.  (Green, it seems to me, is the "GO" color--and the direct opposite of the traditional grading-teacher color, STOP red.)  Here's my reply and hers to me--only, she switched from green to medium blue.

Don Maxwell wrote:

    I'm trying now to figure out whether to rewrite my draft or send him the version you returned to me.  Or both.  Or something else.  One thing I will do--unless you object very strongly--is post your response in a web page or a set of pages on this subject.
I don't mind at all, but I did notice that I made some typing errors in the wee hours of this morning, so if you use those parts, clean them up.  I think I remember seeing where I had typed "couldn't" when it should have been "could," and where I mistyped "arrogant."  I think I fixed them--but I'm glad she wasn't worried before about inconsequential error-lets.
It was just slightly disconcerting--but amusing--to be the recipient of a teacher's green writng.
Yeah, I wondered how you would react to that, and I almost didn't use green, but I just could not resist.  I must tell you it felt really weird commenting on something that you had written, and if I really thought about it, I kept erasing everything I wrote.  So finally I just responded to what I saw on the page and forgot about the fact that you ... had written what I was reading and to which I was responding..  Still, I worried for a while on the way to work this morning that I had written something stupid, but I only thought that way when I thought about you as the teacher.  Isn't that interesting?  Besides how many people ever get the opportunity to respond to something one of their former writing teachers has written.  Again, it really did feel weird--almost forbidden.  That's why I had to block you as the teacher and correspond with you as a writer who had asked for "A little help...."

Well, I think it's time to send this to Tom and see if he's interested in responding to it.

Aw, that's as far as we got.  Phyllis had a health problem, Tom came back to his teaching job in the USA, and I turned my sabbatical into flying lessons. 

All the same, maybe you've found things in our conversation that you'd like to talk about--I hope so!  Please post your response in this forum:  A Conversation About Teaching.

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