Teaching Assistants: Not Employees, but Apprentices

Let’s talk about Teaching Assistants. The structural importance of TAs is on the rise and, in Canada at least, mammoth introductory surveys require an army of graduate student labourers. This is because we are trying to ward off the crisis in the universities by exploiting not adjuncts (as they do in the United States), but TAs. We’ll just call that a Canadian cultural quirk. Actually, there’s a lot to say about the differences between Canadian and American Universities at the moment, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, I want to stick to the common ground and discuss the role and training of TAs, not how many are employed at any given university.


[The Simpsons’s take on TAs: graduate students being whipped by their supervisor for stealing crumbs at the park before their grading is done]

I’ve had all sorts of TAs: graduate students who have had completely different careers before entering the academy, MA students working in fields completely unrelated to the course to which they’ve been assigned, and senior Ph.D. students who study the relevant field. I’ve also had both men and women work under me in this capacity – though it’s been mostly men, I think because I tend to teach political history – and I have supervised TAs both before and after I completed my own doctoral degree. Some of my TAs have been brilliant, innovative, and natural teachers. Others have needed more guidance to get them on the right path. And then there were the ones which were total disasters, but who couldn’t be fired because their Teaching Assistantship was part of a funding package designed to finance their studies – thus highlighting the unconventional nature of this form of “employment.”

Now, the first time I had TAs I started out naively thinking that this was a relatively normal employer-employee situation, albeit complicated by the fact that I was used to interacting with these people in a non-hierarchical way (the first year I had TAs, I was still a Ph.D. student, and one of the gentlemen working for me had invited me to his house for a dinner party just before he was assigned to my course). I went over my expectations at the start of the semester, and even spent time workshopping how to grade papers, despite the departmental training they had all already received. But I thought that this was the extent of my obligation to my new assistants who were there, I assumed, to make my job easier. Go ahead, laugh! It’s undeniably funny. And if I could go back in time, I would slap past Sarah in the face and try to knock some sense into her because, in many ways, TAs made teaching a heck of a lot more difficult. Coordinating a team, trying to ensure grades were allocated fairly and consistently, and simply trying to make sure tasks were completed on time, all added stress to my already stressful life.

Part of the problem was that it had all seemed so clear-cut at the start. We were all getting paid to do a job. We all had contracts, and the TAs even got an hourly breakdown of their tasks, which implied this was a work situation where people were being paid to deploy skills which they already possessed. Ha! How wrong I was! And that’s when someone explained to me that “TAs are not helpful; they are an opportunity for mentorship.” As mean as that sounds – and if I’m being honest, these words were very much the product of exasperation and frustration – there was a useful paradigm shift embedded in that angry outburst.  One needs to remember that TAs are not there merely to work; they are there to learn how to teach and how to deploy the knowledge and skill sets amassed during their studies. It was only after I took this (albeit unintentional) advice on board that TAs became more helpful, and the entire situation more manageable. My more recent experiences with TAs have been significantly less problematic, and I firmly believe that this is because I now consider their position to be one which straddles the line between employee and student.

MA and Ph.D. students are not just apprentices to established researchers; they are teacher’s apprentices as well. And although there is a mentorship system in place that assigns academic supervisors to guide these men and women through the labyrinthine process of researching and writing, there is no formal equivalent to help graduate students with the equally difficult terrain of seminar leadership and grading. Instead, we ask them to figure it out on their own, because “they’re smart people.” After all, we all had to figure it out on our own. If we can do it, surely they can too, right? Wrong. And wrong for so many different reasons. Most obviously, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever really “figured it out.” In fact, I suspect I will spend the rest of my life trying to improve and to adapt my teaching to student needs – even if I’m further along in this process than my TAs. Moreover, anyone who believes that they knew how to lead a seminar or grade papers the first time they were faced with these tasks is either superhuman or creatively reimagining the past. I know I didn’t know how to do these things. And grading, in particular, caused me problems because I had always been a good student. I didn’t know what a B, let alone a C+ paper looked like, and I was a nasty, vicious, beast of a marker as a result. Finally, some solutions just aren’t intuitive, and we will save our students, our TAs and ourselves a lot of hassle if we impart what little wisdom we do possess from the outset instead of waiting for problems to arise later on.


[I thought this image captured my early approach to grading quite nicely]

TAs will be exposed to numerous pedagogical mentors throughout their time in higher education, and a fundamental part of their education is the observance of different styles, so you can’t expect that they’ll be carbon copies of your pedagogical approach. What you can do is give them the tools to complete the tasks which you assign them, and expose them to as many different opportunities as you can so that they can eventually develop their own style. Some of this is basic, and you can do things like provide classroom guidelines. My own guidelines come in written form and stipulate the minimum feedback I’d like to see my TAs provide on student assignments. They also provide a rough estimate of what the average paper grade should be, explain the timeframe in which assignments must be marked, and outline a code of conduct vis-à-vis the undergraduates. But this is all pretty obvious. We also need to help TAs develop seminar strategies (it can be hard to find the best questions or group activities to facilitate these sessions), and to offer them the opportunity to give guest lectures.

All of this does, unfortunately, take time. And I have now learned to leave space in my schedule for a variety of mentoring sessions: help with grading, strategizing about how to deal with exceptionally quiet or especially loud students in seminars, how to keep notes for oral participation grades, and preparation for or debriefing after guest lectures. But my TAs do a better job, learn more, and ultimately everyone is a lot less stressed. I’m also starting to suspect that by making time for mentorship, I have actually become more efficient. Now I that I am targeting my energies, I just feel more sane. I have also opened up a space in which I can learn from my TAs, who sometimes have very innovative solutions to difficult problems. Most importantly, I feel like we are functioning more cohesively as a team, and that each of us is developing important people skills, which will be necessary assets as more and more of us seek jobs outside the academy. I’m a big proponent of teaching my undergraduates transferrable skills, so it makes sense that my TAs and I pick up some new tricks along the way too – learning to lead, follow, and generally play well with others.

I’ve written this post from the perspective of course lecturers, who for better or worse, have been placed in a supervisorial position, but I would love to hear from TAs about how to improve this relationship. What is especially frustrating as you take up Teaching Assistantships, and how can we help?

Being a Young, Female Lecturer: Or, Why Age and Gender Still Matter

Let me start off this post by acknowledging that my research background and personality mean that I am not the most qualified individual to be tackling the trials and tribulations of female intellectuals. I study 17th-century political culture, which was the domain of a privileged, white, male elite. As for my personality, let’s just say that despite being straight, I don’t exactly fit the hetero-normative mold. I grew-up around men, and I’m more comfortable with them than I am with women. On top of this, the nature of my particular sub-field within the historical profession means that in order to survive, I’ve learned to defend my right to play in the sandbox. I’ve sometimes even beaten down those excessively polite and less aggressive scholars around me, seizing the best toys and determinedly clutching my prize. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve conquered some of the feminine arts too, and I even masqueraded as a domestic goddess and stereotypical wife until my partner and I divorced. But in the wake of my divorce, I’ve gone back to my old, much more masculine ways: swilling beer, watching Die Hard movies with an embarrassing frequency, and even taking up Muay Thai.

My outspoken confidence and willingness to scrap – traits that are often more readily ascribed to my male counterparts – have served me well. Despite the healthy dose of “No” that one gets in this profession, I’ve been fortunate enough to have all of my needs met. I’ve secured funding when I needed it, teaching when I wanted it, and published when it was required of me. So what then, if anything, do I have to offer on the topic of age and gender? Actually, a fair bit, so I somehow doubt this will be the last post on the subject. Despite my willingness to adopt a masculine demeanor, my baby-face and ample bust mean it’s also hard to forget that I’m not just an intellectual – I’m a young, female intellectual. That means that well before I had ever heard the term “mansplaining,” I was already used to being “now darling-ed” (a word of caution to my male colleagues: I wasn’t lying, I am taking Muay Thai, and I will kick you in the head if you keep doing this). Mansplaining is obnoxious enough at the best of times. It is almost unbearable in contexts like staff meetings or seminars where the social dynamic means that defending oneself would be counter-productive.


[If you haven’t seen the How to Deal with a Mansplainer gifs of Hilary Clinton, check them out]

The challenges of lecturing have emphasized the age and gender issue even more. This is because the first time I was put in charge of a class of almost 150 students, I didn’t even have my Ph.D. So there I was, painfully aware that if I hadn’t worn my big people clothes, I could have sat in the front row and they wouldn’t have known I was the instructor. And without my degree, I wasn’t even Dr. Waurechen. I was just Sarah. Right now, some of you are thinking that I’m over-reacting and that my perceived age isn’t a big deal. Tell that to the people who constantly comment on the fact that I’m “so young to be a professor,” or the student who angrily scrawled on my evaluation form that s/he was tired of hearing me talk about trying to teach them professional skills because: “You have maybe 5 years on us and that’s it.”

As for gender, being female wasn’t helping my case either. Not only does research suggest that students prefer female teachers who exhibit traditional nurturing/maternal qualities – you can imagine how well I live up to that expectation – studies have also shown that an instructor’s effectiveness is often rated as much on their physical appearance and body language as it is on what they say. In fact, it turns out that any number of factors, completely removed from intellect and pedagogy, can cause a student to dismiss an instructor as boring, passive, and ineffective. Unfortunately, as you might have suspected, ­­the non-verbal cues that students use to come to such conclusions are often slanted in favour of straight, white, men. A woman’s tone and comportment can therefore work against her, and I knew this going in. But my bull-headed determination meant that while I was fully aware I was going to lose some battles, I was determined to win the war.

This is where we come to my shoes. Those who know me have been waiting for this, as my shoe collection has apparently become the stuff of student lore, recounted during drunken, end-of-semester parties.  So, remember when I said students generally reacted better to women who exhibited maternal characteristics? I don’t have those. Or rather, I do, but I’m not ok with putting them on display. What I am much more willing to showcase are a bunch of those non-verbal cues that students usually respond well to in men: my hand gestures are moderate but emphatic, I speak loudly and clearly, and I carry myself with confidence and generally look relaxed. The problem is that these things tend not to work well for women, and while audiences often read such traits as signs of authority and legitimacy in men, they often assume that the same characteristics signal subversive behavior and untrustworthiness in a woman. But what does any of this have to do with my shoes, you ask? Shoes, among other things, are how I cheated this Kobayashi Maru.

If you can’t win under the existing rules, I say, change the rules. I had two choices, I could either walk into that 150-seater on my students’ terms, or I could set my own. And the only way I could do the latter was to unsettle students enough to force them to re-write their social expectations, hopefully on more amenable terms. Someone had once told me to wear whatever made me feel comfortable when lecturing, so I walked into that class – as I have every course since – wearing 4” super-spike stiletto boots.  Students are not used to seeing a prof in what can only be described as “shit-kicker” boots, and so it was not long before they noticed. I had shaken them enough to make them realize that they should be trying to figure me out as an individual, not as the latest fabrication of some professor-making machine, and they were somewhat terrified by the realization. Slowly but surely, with the aid of my shoes, and an admittedly exhausting determination, I convinced them that maybe they didn’t know what “women” were all about. Or, at the very least, what this woman was all about.


[These are, currently, my favourite pair of lecture shoes]

This didn’t convince them all, and I’m sure some of them just wrote me off as a harlot who’d tricked her way into a profession where she didn’t belong. I also still occasionally run into colleagues (strangely, it’s often women) who criticize my unorthodox attire because “you don’t want students thinking you’re a tramp.” There is a real fear that despite my baggy grey pants and carefully chosen, form-rejecting sweaters, that my shoes denote a dangerous sexuality, and that my popularity is the result of my sex appeal. First of all, good to know that you think I’m hot. But seriously, how is it that in 2013 I’m still so easily sexualized? And why do you find this externally-imposed sexuality so dangerous? Not my problem. I have enough barriers to overcome, and I’m going to get around them any way that I can. Fellow ladies out there – especially those who have the double handicap of being young as well – do whatever works for you. To feel comfortable, I need to be able to act like a man, and dress like a woman. And I need to be able to speak with an authority and confidence unbecoming of my youthful appearance. I don’t know what others need; but whatever it is, find ways of making it work, and never EVER apologize for it.

I was going to finish there, but upon further reflection I think it’s important to add one more thing. Women do have one unique resource that can help us navigate this difficult system: other women. There is a real sense in academe, and the professions more widely, that senior women want to lend a helping hand and mentor those coming up behind them. These women have extended their hands. Grab hold and let them help you! You won’t regret it. In the meantime, please consider sharing your own stories and tactics in the comments section below.

Teaching Evaluations

So today I’m getting topical and taking on teaching evaluations. It’s in the air, and over the past week my colleagues and I have poured over student feedback from our various classes. Unfortunately, not all of that feedback is always of the same caliber, and some comments are more helpful than others. Consider the following, which are actual transcriptions of comments that I’ve received over the years:

“She talks in a belittling manner in lecture to her students. Or maybe I just dislike her voice”

— Duly noted. I will look into voice modification software

“Screw more”

— How… I just… really…? Did you actually write that?

“What I cannot comprehend is why in this course, and the other one I took with you, while studying such interesting material you pick the most god-awful and brutally boring essay topics. Sorry for the harsh words, but it’s true”

— Apparently I have bad taste historical documents. Also noted.

“Great fashion sense”

— But great taste in clothes?

“I have no suggestions for improvement which I feel I am at liberty to make”

— This message will self-destruct in 30 seconds.

Let me start by saying I was horribly unsure if I should publish actual student comments when I began writing this post. This is not because I’m self-conscious about the criticisms; in fact, I have a horribly sarcastic (some would say twisted) sense of humour, and I find this sort of thing incredibly amusing. It’s because I have a deep respect for each and every one of my students and I never want them to feel like they are stuck in some sort of unhealthy relationship and can’t approach me with concerns, or make mistakes without being made fun of. In the end, however, I decided this post was about mocking myself and not about mocking them, so it was ok. I also decided that it might be good for students to run across this post because they can sometimes forget that professors are mere mortals as well. If the situation were reversed, and a professor said something like that to a student, said student would be horrified. Not all my colleagues, after all, share my snarky sense of humour when it comes to evals, and I’ve seen more than one evaluation-induced fit of self-doubt prompted by these “helpful observations.”

And yet, bizarre comments like the ones I listed above are actually the ones which are easier to deal with! You might be temporarily shocked when a student declares that you should be taken out behind the shed and shot to put the rest of humanity out of its misery, or temporarily elated when you receive that marriage proposal, but everyone knows that such hyperbole is best ignored. Leaving aside the gendered nature of a lot of these comments (that’s a separate issue for another day), the really troubling problem is that for every student who says “great Powerpoint slides,” you get another one who says “I thought these were the worst slides I’d ever seen.” Likewise, half your students will love the readings and think they’re the right length, the other half will hate them and think the workload is excessive. Some will want more weight on exams, while the rest (and this one never ceases to amaze me) want you to increase the number or value of tests. Really, I swear, they actually say this. I could not make this stuff up.

Begin rant (apologies to those readers who disapprove of my superhuman capacity for rage – SHEHULK SMASH). While preparing this post, I decided to do a little research, and see what sorts of resources were already available to people stymied by their teaching evaluations.  In the process, I discovered that McGill – the institution with which I am currently affiliated – has a 40-page guide to interpreting evaluations. FORTY PAGES! In what universe is this helpful?!?! And believe it or not, it actually gets even more delicious. They provide the following chart to help professors sort through their comments:


Now, I had 29 typed pages of student comments this year. Do they really think I’m going to tally everything up and fill out a chart!??! It took me a week just to find the time to read them all. Not to mention their categories had me in stitches. That’s right, dear reader, I actually LOL-ed. Here’s why. Sample positive comment: “This is the best course ever!!! I love the Prof so much!” Sample Negative Comment: “Her voice annoys me and she’s a disorganized cow.” Right about now, you’re realizing why I’m annoyed.  Not only do I not have time to count all these things in the first place, but there are shades of positive and negative comments, some more helpful than others. Is “the lectures were clearly organized” really in the same category as “this was the most amazing class ever”? What about “the course was better than most, but I found that the professors spoke too quickly at times”? For that matter, does that last one go in the negative or the positive count? What does my esteemed institution have to say about this problem, you ask? Not a whole heck of a lot.

I do need to acknowledge that in several places throughout the weighty tome, McGill does state that some comments can be exuberant and some are even hurtful, and they encourage you to talk it out with a “trusted colleague.” Presumably, this will help to avoid destructive patterns of self-loathing and to salvage any useful criticism from the dungheap, but the specifics of the procedure remain unclear. The document also provides helpful stats for determining if enough of your students actually filled out the evaluation to give you a useful sampling. This is because at McGill, like many other North American institutions, we’ve gone to online evaluations, making it harder to coax students into filling them out because they are time consuming and are usually done outside of class. If your class is under 30 students, McGill therefore suggests you should aim for a 40% response rate. If you class is 150 students (like mine), you should aim for a 30% response rate. That’s right, 30%! Aim high people. On the bright side, this explains why they think I have the time and inclination to fill out the chart.

OK, rant done, I promise. Now for the constructive part. If you’re not going to read this absolutely gripping 40-page manual, here are some more accessible tips from yours truly. First of all, perhaps I’m just a perfectionist, but I’d aim for a higher than 30% response rate. This is mostly for those of you also struggling with online evals, but it does pertain to some extent to the old paper system as well. Get your response rate up by announcing to students, in advance, when the online evaluation period begins. Better yet, since students now generally have laptops, and most classrooms are wifi-enabled, give them time in class to fill out the survey – this works even better if you give them enough time for those without a computer to share with a friend. Also, use class list-serves to circulate the link to the evaluation site and to advertise an in-class evaluation day. Finally, make it clear that you actually care, and will actually read and consider the feedback – especially the comments. These type of tactics will dramatically improve your response rate; I had 75% of my class take the time to fill out the survey, and many of them left comments. This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies. I know profs who give bonus marks to the class for every 5% the response rate is over the 70% mark, and I even have a colleague who drinks a shot of espresso for every 5% they make it up the response-rate scale at the end of the course. Personally, I no longer have the intestinal tract for the 14 espressos he consumed this year, but it seems to work for him.

As for interpreting the data, let’s start with comments.  The first thing you need to do is jettison the outliers. Your greatest fans and those who would happily dance on your grave both need to go, unless they appear in such overwhelming numbers that you can actually see a pattern. Even then, I’d be leery. What you’re left with, should be a much more grounded sampling of the pros and cons of your course. Respond to these as best you can. For example, my biggest flaw is that I talk too fast, and my greatest strength seems to be organization. I keep working on slowing it down, but these things are easier said than done. I am making some progress through, as the frantic tone discernible in early-career evaluations has now lessened to the annoyed but largely blasé concern about pace which I encountered in my most recent feedback.

Other comments, however, are harder to respond to. This is especially true of those things which I do that my students don’t like, but which I feel are important and necessary. By this I mean those pedagogically sound but somewhat distasteful things we all do that students just don’t appreciate. In my classes, this often has to do with the value at which I weight seminars. I feel it’s absolutely fundamental to have a high participation mark, while student think it’s absurd, tyrannical, and even unethical. This is something I am strongly committed to and so, instead of changing it, I have responded to the issue by having a conversation with new classes about why I weight seminars the way that I do, the value that they have for a person’s education, and the fact that it levels the playing field because not all students do well in exams. So to sum up, I either adapt, or explain.

Moving on to the numeric portion. The McGill handbook says that when you look at your numeric results, if the breakdown in each section is polarized as opposed to sloped, then you have a problem. I’m not entirely convinced this is always the case. For some categories, like “overall, this is an excellent course,” that may be true. But if your institution has a numerically evaluated section for something like “the readings were interesting,” it’s much more likely to be split. I have no good evidence for this, or theoretical justification. It’s merely been my observation when I’ve polled smaller classes informally that the answer to “what is your favourite book” and “what was your least favourite book” tend to turn up the same damn book. Which brings me to my last useful suggestion: if you work at an institution that doesn’t leave space for comments, or you want feedback before the course is over, offer an informal evaluation at the appropriate time (early if you’re unsure about how to progress, later if you just want more extensive feedback). This has to be voluntary and anonymous, but I’ve found that it can be extremely helpful, and there are various guides online to help you draft it. Many universities and colleges also have a teaching center that will guide you through the process.

I’ll end off, then, with some of the more helpful links that I turned up while researching for this post. Since several of my students have suggested I try out a faux British accent, pretend I have a thick Scottish lilt or perhaps that I’m dressed as Eliza Doolittle, while reading out the following information:



Striking a Balance in Seminars

So What’s My Beef?

Since I began my undergraduate degree back in 2000, students, professors, and teaching assistants have collectively decried the rising size of seminars – alternatively known as tutorials or conferences, depending on the institution. These people disagree on what that magical, ideal number of participants is; a perfect moderator-to-student ratio seems to exist as an ideal type (if not a reality), and it inspires hope that the right balance will facilitate the perfect salon-style conversation. Regardless of what that sought-after ratio is, I think everyone would be comfortable saying that 20+ students when there is only one moderator is not it. Unfortunately, the problem of increased class size (seminars included) refuses to go away, and so I’ve had to come up with strategies for dealing with it instead of just venting my spleen to whoever will listen. Don’t get me wrong, dear reader, as this blog continues I will demonstrate a marked tendency towards vocalizing my displeasure about various systemic issues. However, I’m also a firm believer in picking your battles, and I’ve decided that this is just one of those fights that I’m not going to win.

I’ve now taught a variety of seminars, none of which have ever dipped below the 20-student mark. This has proven exceptionally challenging on a number of levels, because as a good friend of mine likes to point out: “It’s easy to teach a seminar, but is really freak’n hard to teach a seminar well.” This statement is not just true in terms of preparation time. It also applies to meeting each and every one of those 20+ students at the level at which they are capable of engaging. This essentially means that you turn yourself into a pretzel trying to accommodate students with special needs, senior students vs. junior students, and those who have a background in the subject material vs. those who don’t.

Problem 1: The Quiet Kids

This is even more of a hurdle for me than for many of my colleagues because I emphasize seminar participation, weighting it anywhere from 20-30% of the value of a student’s overall grade in the course, depending on the course in question. This means that those students with anxiety about speaking in public feel disadvantaged by my courses. I have two thoughts about this. Firstly, I refuse to change the weighting because I really and sincerely think it’s important for students to engage with both primary and secondary readings in a conversational setting – to be able to work through problems in a group, and learn to offer half-baked thoughts up to the group for criticism and improvement. Second, I also fundamentally believe that one student’s anxiety about public speaking is no more or less important than another student’s exam anxiety. So what do you do?  Even if you offer supplementary written work, the students seem disinclined to take this offer seriously, and by evaluation time, everyone is tired and disenchanted.

Problem 2: The Readings

In all likelihood, your seminar is either 50 minutes, 110 minutes, or 3 hours. The more time you have, the more material you get to cover, right? Except these are undergraduates! They’re all taking 5 courses. How are you going to get them to read enough material to keep conversation going, especially for those 3-hour senior seminars? How about to contextualize the topic at hand significantly enough that novices can engage with it critically while experienced students don’t get bored?  Even more problematic, how are you going to get those first years to read enough material to keep them busy for a 1.5 Thursday tutorial? If you don’t strike the balance just right, everyone in the room ends up hating their lives.

Problem 3: Balancing Discussion 

For each one of those quiet kids, you are likely to have another who is extremely eager and will dominate the discussion if not reminded that there are other students in the room (Confession time: I used to be this student, so I sympathize, I really do). So the last question is, then, how do you make sure that the eager students and the shy students get equal time in the spotlight and that no one feels either pressured or left out? The only way to describe this problem is as some sort of elaborate balancing act, and it’s matched in difficulty only by the question of how to balance time between documents. Personally, I always assign at least 1 secondary source (for students to start to think critically about scholarly methodologies and develop preferences that they can then apply to their own analytic work) and several primary sources (so that students can meet the past without a filter). Some prefer the former and hate the latter, while some are the opposite, and the rest – well, they’re those people that have already started to hate their lives. On top of all this, you still have to worry about how to cope with the reality that at least of few of those students aren’t going to do the readings at all.

So What Have I Been Doing About All This?

First of all, 9 times out of 10, I have found less reading is better. If you reduce the page numbers by choosing your readings more strategically, and you choose readings that are both illuminating and engaging, your odds immediately improve. This year I have therefore elected for roughly 50 pages of reading per seminar in my Modern Europe survey (in which there were 150 students in winter term). At my institution, we don’t have the resources to run seminars weekly, so I also space them 2 weeks apart so that students have more than enough time to do the readings. If the course in question is a full-fledged seminar, with no lecture component, then I raise the bar while still trying to keep it reasonable for their level. I try not to go over about 90 pages for 200-levels, 110 for 300-levels, and 150-200 pages for 400-levels. This has paid off, and in every case I have had students tell me that – much to their own surprise – they have done and enjoyed the readings for my course.

Managing time and student interactions without crushing the discussion has proved more difficult, but I think I’m finally starting to make some progress. The first step was organization. Sadly, I learned quickly and painfully that I couldn’t just go in there and completely let discussion guide itself. Sometimes this happens, but you have to be prepared for low-energy days, student confusion about the meaning of documents, and any number of other speed bumps in the seminar process. So I now always build a complete set of questions that cover all the salient points in the documents, just in case. If you do have to use these, the trick seems to be moving in the right order. Depending on the document set, this means going from broad thematic questions, to more detail-specific issues, or vice-versa.

Most effective, however, has been a shift to small-group activities, even within already-reduced seminar setting. At 20+ students, I have found this absolutely indispensable as a model. And it has the merit of naturally balancing out shy students and overly-active participants since students tend to self-regulate better when they’re talking in groups of less than five. I try to repeat my activities as infrequently as possible, although I have a few staples I like to go back to. Two particularly effective ones are debates, and group leadership of discussion. Debates require a team-leader to moderate who on each team gets to speak and when. This can be useful either to keep the over-zealous in check, or to provide a structured leadership role to shy students who want to practice working with the group. Debates do require giving students roughly 20 minutes of class time to prepare as a group, and they also tend to look absolutely absurd to the outside observer. That said, students consistently tell me it is their favourite part of the seminar. Group leadership of discussion is my favourite though. Here, I break students into as many groups as there are documents. Instead of asking them to become “specialists” in the document, who the group can touch-base with if discussion falters (another standard tactic), I ask them to generate the questions they think should be asked of their peers in order to properly understand the source material. This forces them to think even more critically than normal, because they have to work backwards and start thinking about how to get their peers thinking as well.

Finally, I also give out mid-point feedback on how students are doing in conferences. This consists not just of a tentative grade, but of a paragraph explaining how they’re doing and how they can improve. It’s a way of warning those super shy students that they do need to either participate more or do some written work (and they do tend to come out of the woodwork once they get this evaluation) and of gently reminding keen students that they need to leave space for their peers. It’s also a great place to reiterate what defines quality participation and to demonstrate to students that you do indeed take seminar participation seriously enough to justify assigning a weighty participation mark. This seems to be the most important part from the student perspective, and there is often a direct correlation between how much effort and care I put into a seminar, and how much my students take away from it. My friend is right. Unfortunately, you really can’t mess about. Seminars are fickle creatures at the best of times, so it’s best to give them your full attention.