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To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching Paperback – August 18, 2016
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Excerpted From Inside Higher Ed
There's no shortage of books on how to become better college instructor, but surprisingly few take student perspectives into account. Not so for a new book from Michigan State University. The product of a journalism class, To My Professor: Students Voices for Great College Teaching (Read the Spirit Books) distills thousands of student comments and bits of advice into a cleverly organized, timely read. It should appeal to anyone interested in improving instruction or simply knowing what students think, beyond the seeming randomness of teacher rating websites or the targeted feedback in student evaluations of teaching.
"What makes this book unique is the fact that it is written by students," said Meaghan Markey, an advertising major at Michigan State who wrote or helped write sections on student parents, Hmong students and online classes. "What we wrote isn't just theory, it's things we as students have actually experienced. Our goal with To My Professor is to give students a voice and for professors to hear us."
Markey and her journalism classmates began writing the book in January. The original idea -- as in previous iterations of the course -- was to write a cultural competency guide for the university classroom. But it soon evolved into something bigger: a book on contemporary teaching informed and written largely by students. Classmates started with a simple prompt -- "To my professor..." -- which yielded thousands of comments through social media and other websites, along with in-person interviews and focus groups. About half the comments came from students at Michigan State, and half came from those elsewhere. The authors divided that feedback into recurrent themes, eventually coming up with chapters on topics from course structures and syllabi, student engagement and technology to inclusion of students of all races, cultures and abilities.
Each chapter and subsection starts with original student comments, scrubbed for anonymity. The chapter on racial inclusion, for example, starts with quotes including "Just because I'm black I cannot speak for all my 'people'" and "When your professor is so biased toward Latinas and undermines the hardships that Asians have to go through in this society."
"Racial tensions can arise abruptly in the classroom," the book reads, summarizing student comments and relevant research. "Sometimes, the tension is due to something an instructor says: the wrong word, an awkward attempt at humor or a stereotype laid bare. And sometimes, students argue about racial issues. Whatever the case, professors are responsible for handling these conflicts. They cannot just be ignored."
In a separate section on grades and feedback, Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, recommends that professors move the focus from grades to feedback, to alleviate anxiety and even complaints. Duckworth says that college students are relatively starved for feedback, because they received it daily or weekly in a high school, and says professors should tell students how they're doing much more frequently. ...
From the Author
As educators, we know learning and change can be uncomfortable. Some "To My Professor" statements in this book should make us feel uneasy. Some may seem harsh, one-sided or unfair. Faculty who saw some of the students' statements as the book was being written reacted: "No, that did not happen!" "They got upset about that?" "They don't understand." "That's the exception." Denial is a defense response hard-wired into all of us since well before Confucius and Plato. We don't like to feel attacked.
When you opened this book, you showed that you want to know what students think, no matter what. And you will find some hero stories among the horror stories.
As college instructors, we have many channels for telling students what to do and how to do it. We lecture, we assign, we email, we test, we check, we grade and we meet with them one-on-one. We write the syllabi. We make the rules. When we want to send students a message, we professors communicate through fire hoses. In contrast, students have only squirt guns to fire back at us. This project gives students another channel. But we did not just want you to get a little wet. So, we added strategies from other professors. In the end, most college students and instructors all want great teaching, and we all respect the power of dialogue. So here it is.
When we go into our classrooms and lecture halls, we do so with clear objectives and noble intentions. We have our students' best interests at heart. We want to teach our best and send our students off onto successful journeys. But there are bumps in teaching road: limited time, growing class sizes, student readiness and every kind of technology. There are a thousand demands and distractions, and students see their college experience through millions of different lenses.
Sometimes, it seems that the longer we teach, the more we put into our teaching and the better we get at it, the harder teaching becomes.
Campuses, temples of free thought and speech, are increasingly places where some teachers and students feel they must walk on eggshells. In 2016, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released its 50th annual survey of first-year college students. The study included 141,189 full-time students attending about 200 four-year universities around the country. About 71 percent of the students said they agreed "colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus," the highest rate ever for silencing speech. Asked whether "colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus" 43 percent of the students agreed, about twice what it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when many of today's professors were students. Racist, sexist and extreme speech was not defined in the study, but students seem more ready than ever to shut it down. In contrast, students said in the survey, and have shown on campuses, that they are more willing than they have been in years to demonstrate about their grievances.
A number of our colleagues have reacted in the press that students want to be coddled or feel they have a right to be free from being offended. Some have said that honest teaching means that students should be offended, because the stimulus provokes them to think and question and prepares them for the real world after college.
Instructors are at the fulcrum of this tippy balance between free speech and respectful dialogue. Once-innocent words have new, sinister meanings. Jokes meant to lighten lessons have become leaden storm clouds. To provoke, in the best sense, has become the worst kind of incitement. Our students have a wider range of perspectives and expectations than ever. The embrace of inclusion is growing wider all the time. Yet financial pressures and technology seem to discourage individualized teaching. As hard as we try and as much as we prepare, sometimes, we just screw up. In the moment when the milk is spilled and dozens of students are watching to see how we are going to clean it up, we goof. A comment that would surely help one student is surely wrong for others. Sometimes, when we know we should de-escalate a situation we watch ourselves elevate it. In college classrooms, issues play out on a stage where they are magnified and scrutinized in full view of an audience equipped to record and broadcast the events. No, it is not easy to be a professor, instructor or teaching assistant.
But we hope the articles and resources in this book will help you teach the way you and your students want. Be open to voices you seldom get to hear and that may not actually be directed at you. You won't get many chances to hear what you'll find in "To My Professor."
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Reading student comments about instructors who didn't know their names made me recall the fall semester, my second year of teaching long ago, when I implemented the task of learning all of my students names within 2 weeks. I had over 100 students, 60+ of them in a human biology course.
My method required students to visit my office and tell me their name and something they wanted me to know about them until when they appeared at my office door, I greeted them by name. It worked every year, and I repeated it each spring too for the new crowd of 60+ human biology students (because all of my other students had taken fall courses from me).
Now I teach online, and I have to be more creative in getting students to feel connected to me. That's a work in progress ☺.
To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching
Simply put: I would have been deeply grateful to have this resource when I taught graduate courses at Marymount University and Wesley Theological Seminary. This book would have guided me in areas of my uncertainty in the midst of our ever-changing landscape. Among many issues it gives guidance in syllabi, student safety, academic fraud, getting names right; technology (email etiquette and digital distraction); life state issues (older students, veterans, commuter issues), health and wellness issues, racial inclusion, religious inclusion, gender and identity issues, and financial
The effectiveness of this book is not only its coverage of a broad array of key issues, but its useful format. Each issue is illustrated by a student voice offering praise or criticism. The issue is then amplified and explored for clarity. Then a clear Strategy for confronting or correcting the deficit is offered by an authority on the subject. As if this is not enough, a Resource section adds a comprehensive listing of books, papers and videos to reinforce a strategy for change.
One limitation of this book: The title, To My Professor: Student Voices for Great College Teaching, hones the audience to college professors. This is most unfortunate! This is a brilliant resource for all teachers from elementary to graduate level, for business and industry teachers and, especially, for all administrators. Read it AND have it readily available in your resource library. You will return to it often.
Dr. Benjamin Pratt