Monday, February 23, 2015

Response Ability

I'm taking a break from my series Everybody Teaches to get at a crucial issue that underlies the idea of "high touch teaching," which is at the core of that proposal.  The issue concerns good response to ideas articulated by students.  What does good response mean?  How does an instructor learn to provide good response?  If the instructor is earnest but unable to provide good response, I'm afraid that the effort at high touch teaching will fail.  So the issue is whether any instructor can learn to provide good response and in a reasonable amount of time (say in a short course taken over the summer) or if it is a matter of expertise subject to the 10,000 hours rule (meaning it is a skill cultivated over a lifetime).

I took such a short course in spring 1996, in the WAC faculty workshop led by Gail Hawisher and Paul Prior.  (WAC stands for Writing Across the Curriculum.)   While I don't recall the specific pieces we read and discussed, response was at the heart of the matter, both what to say to a piece of student writing and how to manage the time commitment so it doesn't become unbearable to read the student work and provide the response. Thinking about teaching as response was enormously helpful to me at the time.  That workshop stands out in my memory as the best exposure to pedagogy I ever participated in. 

Yet, after a little reflection, it is plain that I didn't come to that workshop as a blank slate.  At a professional academic level, one gives response to a paper presented at a seminar by offering up comments and questions as a member of the audience.  (Also by discussing the paper with the author one-on-one in an office visit.)  I had a reputation in the department for being good at seminars.  One also gives response to papers by writing a referee report.  Over the years I learned to write a referee report that was helpful to both the author and the editor.  So I had plenty of practice ahead of time.  It's just that until that workshop I hadn't used that practice in undergraduate teaching.  And the truth is that then I was teaching a high enrollment class, where I relied on undergraduate TAs to respond to student queries.  It wasn't until many years later when I started to teach with blogs in a small seminar class that I really began to respond to student writing. 

Soon after starting to teach that class I wrote a post called Personal Learning Coaches for College Students.  The first paragraph from that piece is reproduced below.

One of the things that is jumping out at me as I teach a seminar class for Honors students is that students need their thinking critiqued and that if they feel the person providing the critique is earnest and sensitive to their needs, while also being critical where appropriate, then the student very much wants the coaching. I hadn't planned to serve in the role of learning coach before the course started. After a week or so into the semester, it seemed like a necessary thing for some of the students. In one case it appeared that the student was making intellectual errors of a certain sort. The student needs extensive practice with a different approach to remedy the problem. In a couple of other cases it was more a matter of confidence. The students were under performing and needed feedback and reassurance that they were ok, while at the same time getting a critique of their early work, which was not up to par. 

So at a broad strokes level the response must be earnest and sensitive to the student's needs.  How does one do that at a  drill down level?  And should it be done in a conversation or in writing?  Or does that matter?

I'm better at giving written response to students, so for me at least some of this should not be conversation.  Further, purely from a scheduling point of view, to have an in depth conversation with each student on a regular basis is a difficult matter.  It might be easier to do with groups of students, but responding to a group is not the same as coaching the individual.

One thing I try to do is bring out into the open tacit assumptions that underlie what the student is writing about.  The student may be unaware that those assumptions are present, so making them explicit raises student awareness.  Another thing I try for is to get at some of the implications that would seem to follow from what the student said but which the student does not bring up.  Sometimes I will introduce a related fact and then ask how the story the student told would have to be modified to accommodate that fact.  Then, on rare occasion, I'll tell a personal anecdote to commiserate with the student.  Finally, if the student says something that I don't fully understand I will say so and try to indicate why I'm confused.

This gives a variety of things the instructor might try in response.  When this is done with student blogs, the response appears as a comment to the post.  I require that the student then responds to my comment with a comment of her own.

I try not to correct grammar, though if there are quite a few typos I might urge the student to proofread her own writing before submitting it and to use a spell checker.  If there is misuse of the same word repeatedly throughout the document, then I might include a comment specifically about that word and its proper usage. 

Since I don't have any records of that WAC seminar from 1996, and my memory is not that good,  I'm not sure how much of the previous two paragraphs were suggestions I first heard there.  I'm pretty sure that most of what I do I got from somewhere else but there is still the matter of exactly how to respond to a specific piece of writing.  I do not go through a checklist, that is for sure.  Typically when I read something where the student appears earnest in the writing, some piece of what the student says strikes me as the thing to focus on in my response.  So, I believe, one has to ask first what is the gist of what the student says.  Good response requires being an effective enough reader to be able to make that sort of determination. 

If a person has those reading skills, the rest seems to me to be teachable, though there is no doubt that practice is required to be competent in giving good response. At issue, then, is whether an instructor who has spent most of his career lecturing to students wants to reorient himself, now that his career is winding down and he has more time on his hands to do so.   I wonder how many instructors in that situation would be willing to give it a try. 

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