Lessons Learned

August 19, 2008 at 8:11 pm 1 comment

Lessons Learned

Drew does a post-op on his first solo class

For the past seven weeks, I have been teaching a course at Northeastern University, their survey course in American music for majors. Twenty-eight students and I met four times a week, for an hour and a half, in an effort to, as I wrote in my “course goals” document, “introduce students to the main repertoires and themes of American music, from colonial times to the present.” Such an experience was a big departure from my previous teaching experience, which was all as a teaching fellow at Harvard (best of all, my email address while teaching there was dr.massey@northeastern.edu. Lol.) Here is a redux of what I learned:

No such thing as overpreparation

One of the difficulties in planning the class was not having a feeling for the institutional culture prior to beginning the teaching. How well would the students handle analysis? What would their level be? Would they want to perform in class? Not knowing first hand, it was tricky to plan to far in advance beyond the first week. What, after all, would be the point of planning out a seven-week course, only to find that it was incompatible with the students’ learning styles?

So preparing the day-to-day classes became the major time investment for this course, and I realized that, not once in seventy-odd hours of instruction, did I feel that a single moment of preparation was wasted. I also realized, late in the semester, that adding “study guide” to a Google search for material could expedite my own work considerably (as in “West Side Story” “Study Guide” for one class).

Be clear, firm, and flexible

I once heard someone portray their undergraduate students as “linear.” In its original context, this had a faintly pejorative connotation of describing students who were preoccupied with what was on the exam. But on the other hand, if assessment is viewed as integral to the course (a not infrequently recommended “best practice”), there is really no offense in being completely explicit about what you think the students should take from the class. At the same time, since I was building the class out as I went along, often the defining take home that I imagined would change over the course of the week. So my solution was to circulate both a preliminary study guide on Monday, as well as a final one on Thursday. For the students who took the time to review these, it is clear that they sailed through the midterm and the final.

Use the textbook

Textbooks are somewhat anathema at Harvard (excepting ones written by the professor actually teaching the course), for reasons that are not hard to understand. Faculty want latitude to shape their course, and teaching without a textbook also establishes the professor as the overriding authority in the classroom. After all, without a textbook, no student can be confused when the course departs from it.

In this, my first solo flight, I decided to use Richard Crawford’s admirable textbook, which includes with it a three CD set of recordings and has a companion volume of primary source readings. For one thing, it expedites students’ studying, since there is a definitive text to work from. It also gave a clear shape to the lectures, so that I could focus on “adding value” in the classroom rather than merely delivering information.

Don’t use the textbook

As I became more comfortable with the pace of the class, though, I found my plans for each class meeting departing more and more from Crawford’s  shape. With musical theater, for example, I decided that students would be much better served by looking at two individual musicals (Oklahoma! and West Side Story) in more detail, rather than trying to cover numbers from several shows. Also, since students in this class were largely in the Music Industry program at Northeastern, they had a conversancy with contemporary popular music which I thought helpful to underscore the contingent nature of history books in general. Allowing students to “discover” that the textbook is only representative, not comprehensive, had to be managed carefully. Nevertheless, I felt that a number of them understood by the end of the course that a survey course like this necessarily skipped a lot. If that ignited their imagination to go and find out more, I feel I accomplished my job as their teacher.

The students get tired faster than the teacher does

This was more of a lesson that I learned about summer intensive classes, but I think that it is probably true for courses during a normal academic year, as well.  I realized by the fourth week or so that the level of energy of the students (as well as attendance) was beginning to fluctuate considerably. So I gave myself permission to “ease off the gas” some, since I realized that the students might be at exactly their saturation point. Having taken an intensive summer Italian course a few years ago, I know that by week four I had definitely checked out. So I gave myself permission to cover less, in more detail.

All in all, I felt like a learned a lot in this class, and, as I grade my students’ finals, I think that they did too. The format of intensive summer courses seems particularly well suited towards practice-oriented subjects (like speaking a foreign language).  Since teaching itself  is highly practical (and the classroom is where the most beautifully crafted plans can quickly disintegrate), I would highly recommend nabbing the opportunity to teach a summer intensive course to anyone who has the chance, both for the benefit of students who may not be able to take it during the academic year and as a crucible for your own teaching practice. Having just finished one though, I am ready for a nap.

Entry filed under: professional development. Tags: .

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1 Comment

  • 1. Rebecca  |  November 15, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Posted by Rebecca at 2008-08-20 16:28

    Congrats Drew! I’m sure it was rewarding for the students and it looks like you came away from it with good ideas.
    “One of the difficulties in planning the class was not having a feeling for the institutional culture prior to beginning the teaching.”

    Quite familiar with this, now on my third adjuncting gig. With any luck, the chair will give you an accurate sense of this (to the best of their knowledge), but I’ve found it is always best to expect the unexpected and let them tell you where they’re at the very first day. I have each student fill out an index card with their name, info, musical background, and anything else they feel they’d like to share (this gets some interesting responses!).

    This term I’m using Rich Crawford’s non-textbook (America’s Musical Life: A History) instead of the Intro book, but I’m pairing it with the CDs from the Intro book (they actually pair up quite well).

    “Nevertheless, I felt that a number of them understood by the end of the course that a survey course like this necessarily skipped a lot. If that ignited their imagination to go and find out more, I feel I accomplished my job as their teacher.”

    I can only hope to accomplish the same. Again, congrats on a job well done and for your review. I think we really help each other by talking about our teaching experiences.


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