Saturday, February 01, 2014

"either you die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain" ..

i think i give good lectures.

there's enough evidence that points to this, in the form of student evaluations and comments over the years and from different universities .. and even from a few different countries.

apparently i have the ability to be very clear, which is fine.

what i've been struggling with is:
i can give the best lectures that i can .. that i care to give.

when i do, then i feel expert and in my full powers. many of my students would look up to me and i receive their esteem. simply put, it makes me feel good.

it will probably impress the students, put me in a good light, and continue to give me good evaluations. it will be good for my career if i keep doing this, and only make stronger my case for tenure.

the question is whether that really matters.

if my students don't get anything out of the clearest, most intuitive lectures that anyone can give, then really: what's the point?
some of my colleagues may argue that if the student is committed, then s/he will put in the effort to get what they can from our lectures and the course in general.

i would rather say that if the student is committed, aware, and well-trained..
awareness, i believe, is not only a personality trait; with time, it can be learned. the awareness that is relevant to a student in my course is being aware of what problems are hard, why they are hard, and what steps are needed to overcome these difficulties. the point of the clarity in my lectures is so that my students can cope with the more difficult aspects of the course, by means of a few basic but useful principles.

study habits are precisely their namesake: they are habits, and they can be learned too. some students never learn these habits to do well at the university level [1], which means that it is up to me and other university instructors to promote these habits. in particular, it means convincing students to change their ways, which often means that they should do things that they are not comfortable doing or simply don't want to do, like ..

.. reading the textbook ..

.. asking questions, answering questions ..

.. "showing enough work to demonstrate understanding of the problem, the solution, and related concepts to them" [2] ..

that said, commitment is a two-way street. who in their right mind would commit to responsibilities that offer no reward, tangible or otherwise?
so it's not clear to me:

when i'm teaching, should the lesson be so clear that the students don't realise the underlying difficulty, and fail to pay it adequate attention? if the students don't struggle with the material on their own, then will they really learn it as well as i'd like?

i have played a hero before, been given a stage to strut;
should i, for the greater good, play a villain instead?

[1] habits form due to need and from reinforcement. i've seen plenty of students with the 'wrong' study habits, if only because they've been rewarded by their previous teachers for skills that i would not reward. high school mathematics in the united states can be taught rather formulaically, and some students have been taught to do nothing more than operate a sophisticated calculator. the point is to replace old habits with new ones .. which can be an even more daunting task for the educator!

[2] i always put this policy on the cover page for my exams. sometimes i even pass out printouts of this cover page, a week or two before the exam, and explain what it means.

a former colleague of mine once referred to a syllabus as a list of threats and promises; s/he's not that far off ..!

on an unrelated note: since my (unexpected) fall hiatus from blogging, it's become less easy to return to the habit and have things to share with you readers.

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