Confessions: Things I do Wrong in the Classroom

This is the part of my blog where I give a knowing nod to my students, and confess my sins. Below are a list of things I still do wrong as a teacher and why, despite being aware that these things are issues, I just can’t seem to stop. If anyone out there – especially university students who have stumbled onto this blog – has any advice, I’d love to hear it. So, without further ado, here’s what I do wrong:

1. I talk too fast

Ask my students about my greatest flaw as a teacher and they will tell you that I talk too fast. I have tried all sorts of things to slow myself down. I draw lines in my lecture notes to remind myself to take breaks. I try to remember to take long breaths between sentences. I periodically ask if people have any questions. Hell, I even ask for 3 student volunteers on the first day who will agree to come regularly and hold up their pens sideways  if I start going too fast (if you’re wondering why sideways, it’s because plenty of students put their hands up to ask questions while holding a pen normally, so I want to be able to differentiate). Sadly, the pen trick never seems to work because said students are typing too furiously to be able to take the time to raise their hands.


[Finding the right pace continues to be a problem for me]

I just can’t quite seem to slow down for two reasons: one is legitimate, the other one not so much. Let’s start with the bullshit reason. Basically, this boils down to the fact that I’m a fast talker, especially when I get excited. And in the classroom, where I have a tendency to feed off the energy of my students, I can get hilariously “into” talking about history. And so… I go a mile a minute with what seems like little regard for the plight of my students (really guys, I am trying to slow down – I’m just failing). But I do have a legitimate reason too, and that has to do with pace. I am painfully aware that there is a fine line between too fast and too slow, and so I’m still practicing my tightrope walking routine. Go too fast and you end up with a classroom full of grumpy students with sore wrists and cramped fingers. Go too slow, however, and you end up with scads of students who are either bored to tears or, in some cases, who actually fall asleep. At least they have good notes?

2. I seem to have favourites, even if I don’t really

This has come up in my teacher reviews on several occasions because once I learn the names of my students, I use them – and let’s face it, it’s easier to learn the names of students who you’ve taught before or who talk a lot. I do this because despite the fact that there are 150 faces staring back at me from a sea of chairs in some dark, bland, cement lecture hall, I want to make the class a more personal experience for all of us.  Unfortunately, it gives the impression that I like these people more.

For the record, I don’t have favourites. And while some students can – and do – annoy me, I would still march up to the gates of hell to defend their best interests and/or to help them learn (yeah, ok, I have a little bit of a mama bear thing going on when it comes to my students). I am fully committed to helping anyone and everyone, even if it’s with something that’s only tangentially related to my course. I want to teach people how to think critically, because I want them to love learning and to possess an inquisitive mind for the rest of their lives. And I want them to know that I am willing to help them do this. Part of my shtick, then, is letting students know that I care about them as people and that they’re more than the sum of their grades in my marking spreadsheet. I’m willing to meet with them outside of class, to have productive email exchanges, or to teach them how to search databases. But I still haven’t mastered the art of making sure that people know I would do this for anyone, and not just the students in the front row.


[There is no doubt in my mind that my students sometimes feel this way]

3. Sometimes I ask too much of my students

Again, if you approach my students, they will likely tell you that the first time they looked at the syllabus or read their assignment sheets, they just about had a heart attack. I regularly ask first and second year students to think about hard problems – to try to understand the grand narrative, and to tear it apart all at once. I introduce them to seventeenth-century handwriting, or early modern pamphlets printed in a strange font and complete with the dreaded “long s” that they always take for an “f.” I even present the concept of historiography, and try to force them into a more genuine acceptance of the fact that history needs to balance the “real lived experience” with the postmodern realization that there is no such thing as “truth.” And yes, I make them read and write. A lot. And right from the start.

But once again, I can’t quite seem to stop doing this. I try to soften the blow by reminding them that I don’t expect them to do it right, I just expect them to try it. This way, when they get into those senior courses, they’ll have had the practice, and they’ll do it right when it counts. I assure them that I won’t mark their papers as if they were graduate students – or even 4th years – and I tell them that I know that reading scholarly writing can be both hard and boring, so they should just do their best and come to seminar willing to talk it out. Deep down, however, I know this doesn’t remove the anxiety and that there must be a better way to build towards the skills I want to teach. Part of the problem is that all of these things are second nature to me. I read, write, and analyze with almost as much ease as I walk, talk or even breath, so I don’t know how to teach these skills from the bottom up. I was also never taught to do these things myself, and was largely “thrown in the deep end and told to swim,” so I don’t have great models. They must be out there, I just haven’t found them yet.

4. I have a hard time dealing with silence

The fact that I write a weekly blog probably gave this away. I am comfortable talking, even in public forums. The corollary of this is that I am not so comfortable in those scenarios when everything goes quiet at the same time. It always feels like a vacuum to me, and nature abhors a void. Yeah… I know… not good. This leads to all sorts of problems, ranging from my inability pause and let students catch up with me in lectures, to my occasional tendency to provide insufficient time for them to just sit and think during seminars.

I don’t have a good reason for this. It’s just the way I am. It’s a flaw, and it’s something that I have struggled with all my life. I get better at it every year, and I’m increasingly conscious of what I take from others by constantly filling what could otherwise be a productive space, but I’d be lying if I said I had it under control. I need to shut up and listen, and this is one of those instances where I can learn more from my students than they can learn from me. I look forward to the challenge, but I doubt I’ll figure it out any time soon.


Learning to Write an Academic Paper — Guest Post

I am so grateful to the author of this piece (who wished to remain anonymous in this forum) for being willing to share. It’s so easy to forget how hard it is to learn to write in different styles. And with that, I’ll turn it over to her…

I am a 24 year old History graduate turned wine-industry member, non-for-profit society director and small business owner.  I work seasonally for a winery and vineyard on Salt Spring Island, BC.  In the fall and winter, I am the head coordinator of an intercultural society on my island, the Gulf Island Intercultural Society, while in the spring I am one of a three-person team which organizes and hosts Italy Off The Beaten Track, a two-week long Italian language and culture course which is held in Abruzzo, Italy.

When I was first asked to write this article, I was unsure how to separate it form my personal journey to find life/job/career satisfaction.  Now, having written it, I realize I can’t.  So I hope you are able to take something away from it which is useful, even though it is not just a story of learning to write for academia.  That being said, it took me years to feel comfortable forming an academic argument.  By the time I did feel comfortable, it took me exactly two academic papers to realize that I hate it.  It is a skill I have now, and one I will forever be grateful for because it is while learning about it that I learned about what I wanted from my schooling, what my goals were for a career and life, and where I was going in general.  It is, however, still my least favourite thing to do, and I am grateful everyday that I don’t do it for a living.

I think the hardest part was getting professors to understand that when I went to their office hours, asking what I was supposed to do for my assignments, I really was starting from square one.  Rewind to me at the end of high school.  I came from public school in BC where, sadly, my English teacher placed more emphasis on bizarre anecdotes about Latin America than learning the basics of forming a thesis or argument.  My history class was no better.  I ended up taking a gap year and then being accepted into a program to do my first year of university abroad in the UK.  When I asked for help, what I received was a lecture on time management and the need to use primary documentation.  Not how to use primary documentation, just that I needed to.

As for how to form an argument and thesis, well, we never even got that far.  It was like we were speaking a different language.  And we were.  But I expected a first year prof. to understand that I was struggling and help… sadly that didn’t happen.  Despite numerous meetings with the professor, I still had no idea what to do or how to go about doing it.  After a true (academic) disaster of a year, and for reasons which will forever be a mystery to me, I chose history as my major, and commenced year two.


[Though this became my mantra, anyone close to me could see how depressed I was about my performance at school.]

Here, we enter the big leagues.  In high school I was a keen, self-directed ‘A’ student, a golden example of a motivated, personable young person who wanted to learn.  I tried to continue this trend in university, being told I would be in the minority of students if I introduced myself to each professor at the beginning of the semester and told them I was interested in their class and looked forward to learning with and from them.  I couldn’t get enough of talking with professors after class and attending extra-curricular talks.  That being said, my grades in lecture classes with research paper assignments were… well, my motto became “C is for “cookie, and that’s good enough for me”.  Which it wasn’t, but I couldn’t seem to get a hold of anyone who understood that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I needed instruction from the very beginning and that, yes, I was that person who the system failed, and was thus asking dumb, basic questions like “how to I write a thesis?”  The only word to describe this  experience is devastating.  Without my identity as that ideal student, whom all the teachers know and love, I was just another body at the university, not, apparently, very bright, or heading for any kind of accomplishments.  It was also completely confusing, since I had positive experiences in person, it was just the papers which did me in.  As my self-confidence fell, so too did my desire to keep trying to get better.


[This is just how I felt each time I got a paper back with a C or B]

Thankfully, at this point I got lucky, and happened to get placed in a class with a PhD candidate as my instructor.  This was a seminar class, and now suddenly it was all about articles, comparing the arguments in them, and different interpretations of history.  Slowly, each week, I experienced revelations, big and small.  What do you mean there is no history?  Truth is negotiable?  Well, this was interesting, but my lecture classes were beyond painful and I nearly didn’t come back from Christmas break.  Except for this one thing – the feedback comments from my seminar professor.  She said I was improving, she could see I was trying and was engaged.  She also noted an improvement in my comments in class, and that my contributions were always bang on and/or interesting interpretations of our readings.  This was the light at the end of my tunnel.  I sought this instructor out – asked her questions, and found she actually meant it when she has told us to come to her with our questions, comments, concerns.

It is this class where I began to finally understand what was being asked of me when I was asked to write a paper.  When you read 3-4 academic articles a week, every week, for an 8-month course, and come together which other students and truly the best facilitator of discussion I have ever met, to summarize the contents of an article, look at its sources and then compare how it is done with the other readings for the week, you can’t help but begin to see the pattern of academic writing.  Then I was asked to write a paper for this class and got a chance to try out some of my new thoughts on how a paper should look. I received more feedback and learned more – don’t leave writing to the last week, you need to edit, and a fresh pair of eyes catches errors you never will.

Enter third year.  I was taking the one class I could with an instructor I connected with, but it wasn’t till the winter term.  So how could I keep progressing in my learning of academic writing?  Why, simple – I haunted her office hours, even though not a student of hers yet.  I practiced.  I wrote more papers for other classes, other topics, other professors.  Trial and error were my main methods for learning.  This was slow, and frustrating, but the only option open to me.  Oh, primary documents need to be used like this, not like that.  Keep the thesis to what you can prove, even if it feels stupidly simple – simple and well structured, well sourced, well edited, will serve you better than complicated and intricate when you are still feeling your way around this system you think you might just understand now, even if you can’t seem to emulate the writing in the hundreds of articles you have read.  What do you mean there is politics involved in grading?  Bell curve what?  TA’s hold your grades in their hands?  Really, it takes you the better part of a month to write one 10 page paper?  Finally I got to second term, the class with my golden instructor, great and interesting topic, and ok, open it up, show what you have learned.  And in the end, finally, an ‘A’.  The only one I have received, and perhaps the only I ever will at an academic institution.


[Yes, my laughter was just this maniacal when I got my A paper back from marking.]

By then I knew – yes, I can do this, and get the grades I want, but I am slow, and worse, I hate it.  I would feel my soul shrink into nothing as I began to plan another paper, no matter how interesting the class or topic.  And after speaking with my professor, who by this point was becoming my friend, I decided to graduate after 3 years, rather than putting myself through a 4th year of pain.  After a year of work (enter my non-for-profit position,) more soul searching and some more luck, I registered to learn about wine tourism and marketing.  I loved the course, and did well.  Really well!  I got a wine-related job even before I finished the year-long program and have work that fulfills me, work I love.

So, how did I learn to write an academic paper?  Practice.  Simple, slow, but eventually successful.  I’m afraid I don’t have a secret website which gave me insight into the machine of academia.  I learned from someone: a committed, brilliant, and kind instructor who was there for support, both to comment on structure and style as well as provide the emotional support I needed to get myself to class each week, to keep trying, even though I felt I was failing every test presented to me by academia for a solid three years. This person had learned the system already, and realized I was looking for the experience of learning, not the mark at the end of the course.

What’s Your Point?

As we get closer to September, I wanted to take a break from the reflective writing and get back to talking about some of the really practical tools I use when teaching. By the time students reach us at the college and/or university level, they have often stopped demanding: “why are we doing this?” But many of them continue to ponder that epic question: “what’s the point.” This is especially true if, like me, you teach about a period where the men pranced around wearing stockings, the vast majority of people had no say in the major political decisions of the day, and everyone was really interested in talking about religion all the time. Although the recent popularity of the The Tudors has, admittedly, increased student interest in this period, most of them come in wanting to learn about the salacious details of Henry VIII’s sex life, not to think about the contested nature of the British reformations. The result is that more than a few of them wonder why I teach what I teach, and why I don’t devote more time to court scandals.


[I imagine my students doing this whenever I get too esoteric]

Coming up against the “so what” is a central part of what we do as intellectuals. In my discipline, being able to answer that question is what separates the historians from the antiquarians. And yet, many of us forget this when faced with the daunting task of teaching a survey class. This is because these classes cover so much ground that even the instructor can lose sight of potential narrative threads or common themes, never mind their relevance. At the other end of the spectrum – specialized seminar courses, that is – instructors can forget that that the significance of the assigned reading material is not necessarily obvious to less experienced readers. This is why I want to talk a bit about why I think explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is so important.

Explaining ourselves in the classroom is particularly difficult because it is always a 2-tier process. Each lesson we teach begs the question of how the material is significant with respect to the course and the discipline. A good teacher, however, will also be approaching the material with an eye to teaching more generalized skills – things like critical analysis, argumentation, and attention to detail. These are skills which students will need regardless of what career they ultimately pursue. And while undergraduates might be bored by the issue of scholarly significance (especially if the subject matter doesn’t speak to them), many of them are extremely interested in developing career-relevant skills.

[Talking about practical, transferable skills, helps avoid this scenario]

When I meet a class for the first time, I am therefore completely open about the fact that 95% of my students will never need to know about Tudor/Stuart history ever again. But I’m also open about the fact that I don’t care, and there’s more to be learned in my classroom than names and dates. I promise to make the lectures interesting – and in the end, most of them end up thinking that 16th– and 17th-century British history is actually pretty great – but I also tell my students that I am much more concerned with teaching them to become critical thinkers and active citizens than I am in making sure they know the ins and outs of any given historical debate. As part of this process, I provide a rationale for every assignment that explains how the work will help them along the path to becoming historians, but which also outlines how the assignment will help develop broader skills that they can take with them wherever they end up.

Taking the time to provide a rationale also helps me. This is because it forces me to make sure that each assignment has a purpose, and clarifies how the lectures, assignments, and seminars are connected. So far, students have responded well to the inclusion of a rationale with all written work. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that it can help clarify the nature of the assignment, especially for those students who are in first year or new to the discipline. In other words, I have a hunch that if you tell some why they’re doing something, it helps explain what they’re supposed to be doing. At the moment, this all seems very abstract, so I think the best way to end this post is by providing some concrete examples. Below are the rationales that I appended to the research proposal and independent research essay that I assigned to my Modern European History class. As always, please tell me what you think in the comments below!

[Writing up a rationale helps you and your students reflect on the purpose of their work]

Rationale: Essay Proposal

This assignment is designed to teach you how to ask critical questions and engage with topics that might otherwise seem daunting. We live in a world where we are constantly presented with crises about which we are asked to form opinions and to which we are supposed to enact responses. But how do we begin? Whether the issue is climate change, tuition rates, or the War on Terror, it is impossible to have an informed response unless you ask the right questions and situate your answers/opinions/actions alongside what other people are saying and doing. The former is obvious if we wish to gain a deep understanding of a topic and come to our own conclusions instead of being told what to think. The latter is necessary because we do not engage with – or react to – our world in isolation.

Scholars use the same process when conducting research. Once a topic catches our attention, we then need to ask a question that will help us understand it more fully. After we have formulated that question, we need to answer it with reference to other scholarship. We cannot simply take what other people tell us as “fact.” We need to ask ourselves what “perspective” other scholars bring to the topic, and then decide if we agree, disagree, or partially agree with them.

Rationale: Independent Research Essay

Your research paper is the natural extension of your research proposal. It is the place where you must eloquently respond to the question you set yourself in your proposal. It is therefore an important part of learning how to actively engage with a topic. Not only does writing a paper demand that you perform a critical analysis of the information you have unearthed, but you must also convince your reader that your analysis is valid. This is the process that politicians, consultants, professors, journalists, etc… employ to present information and justify their conclusions, with the ultimate aim of winning over their audience.

Since you are doing all of this outside the confines of the classroom, research papers also provide practice at independent learning. You must gather, vet, and re-deploy sources on your own, communicating the results of this process in writing. This requires time management skills and self-discipline, as well as critical thinking and the ability to convey difficult ideas in an accessible way. More often than not – in any context – this is the way true learning occurs, and it is an essential skill for everyone to learn.

Why I Write This Blog

I recently had the opportunity to visit with some old friends who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. We met in the hullabaloo of downtown Montreal and we talked about the past. The city, my friend told me, had changed, and so had I. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad. But for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to hope that – like a good wine – my adopted city and I improve with age (*cough-wheeze-eherm*  yeah, right). Alongside this conversation, his wife and I chatted about our shared passion: teaching. This part of the afternoon was a rare treat, as my friends are both former teachers, who returned to the university to take their PhDs at the same time that I was starting mine. One is a historian, like me, and the other is in the education faculty, so you can imagine my delight at the conversation.


[Sad, but true: the Euro Deli is gone]


What is the point of this lengthy and seemingly random introduction, you ask? Well, it got me thinking about a few things. The emphasis on change reminded me how much we learn and how fast we adapt. And the conversation about teaching made me cognizant of the fact that learning, in many contexts, means shamelessly absconding with the brilliant ideas of others. I like to think that I have something of a knack for teaching, but I’m not formally trained as an educator. Rather, I’ve gotten where I am through trial and error, genuine interest in the challenges posed by higher education, and – apparently – by stealing ideas from those around me. During this particular conversation, I was planning on carrying off a few lessons about “think, pair, share.”

For those of you who don’t know the concept, “think, pair, share” involves presenting students with some material, and asking them a question about it. Then, after they’ve had a moment to think, letting them talk about the issue in pairs. Finally, when this is done, the class comes back together and students can share their thoughts with the large group if they feel comfortable doing so. I’ve done things similar in the past and one of the most successful of such activities was something I tried on the first day of my Modern European History class. Instead of just reading the syllabus, I gave the students excerpts from Francis Fukuyama and asked them: (1) what is history? And (2) can it end? They were given 20 minutes to read, then assigned to groups of five, after which they were given another 15 minutes to discuss. By the time we came back together as a class, people had made some new friends and were excited to share their ideas. I came back to this discussion on the very last day. So, I’m not entirely useless on my own. But sometimes I lack refinement.


[Getting the conversation going in a lecture setting is a constant challenge]


By talking with a trained educator, I realized that I lacked clarity and focus when it came to the nature of the exercise, and I started to see how I could play with the core principles so that one could use the activity more quickly, without having to siphon so much time away from lectures. I also started to see how I could use it as part of a chain of activities that built upon one another, or how the model could be transferred to an online setting. And I can take absolutely zero credit for any of these epiphanies.  Let’s face it folks, there are limits to our own expertise and creativity, and sometimes you just need to beg, borrow, and steal if you want to improve. In fact, now that I think about it, most of the things I do best as a teacher are modified versions of things that I’ve flagrantly ripped off from my friends, my mentors, or the all-knowing internet.


All of this links to another conversation I’ve been having with a different friend: teaching at the college or university level is kind of weird. The classroom itself is inherently collaborative; it takes a give-and-take exchange between the instructor and the students to make it work. And yet, much of the real work involved in imparting knowledge and skillsets – writing the lectures, drafting the assignments, marking – is done in isolation. We sit in our offices, under the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights, and fiddle with our syllabi, drinking coffee and glaring out into the hallway like trolls looking up from under a bridge (OK, so you may not do this, but I am totally that person). Until recently, this seemed normal enough. I am, after all, a historian, and we pride ourselves on our “Lone Ranger” approach to research.


[Ok, so it probably doesn’t look this shiny when we try it]


But you can’t be the Lone Ranger if you want to be a good teacher. Teaching is hard, even if you’re good at it… even if you love it as much as I do. I’d go so far as to say that it can be damn near impossible sometimes,  even if you’re lucky enough to have a Tonto – just ask my TAs, they have my back and I still turn into a snarling psycho-bitch on a semi-regular basis.  Teaching is time-consuming, demanding and sometimes thankless work. It forces you constantly to adapt because each new cohort has different cultural referents and different needs, and it will occasionally drain you of every last bit of mental energy if you’re doing it right. If you try to cope with this on your own, you’re going to fail. Period. The end. And the full experience of that failure will come with the added bonus of your students resenting you for being out of touch.  

The best way to avoid this scenario is to collaborate and to share ideas amongst one another. I think we need to be a little less worried about looking like we don’t know what we’re doing as teachers –professors are never trained as pedagogues, so why should we – and a little more open about asking for help. We need to form stronger communities and have more lively conversations about teaching – conversations more like the ones we have about research – and to stop assuming this is just an issue for early-career scholars. This will allow us to share our good ideas, and steal the even better ones put forward by our peers. There’s absolutely nothing to be lost by taking this approach, and everything to be gained. In a nutshell, then, this is why I’m writing this blog.

In the past I’ve discussed pedagogy and higher education informally with colleagues, one at a time, over coffee or beer. This blog is my modest attempt to contribute to the creation of a more sustained conversation that takes place in the public sphere. As always, I encourage you to leave you own thoughts in the comments below, and I look forward from learning more from you than I can possibly give back in return.