The Teaching Statement

It’s job application season again! And along with application letters and CVs comes the dreaded teaching statement. Many people struggle with these things and here’s why: there are never any instructions regarding what it should look like; we’re used to focusing primarily on our research as opposed to the issues surrounding teaching and pedagogy; and, it’s unclear how to make such a document stand out from the hundreds of other letters that also make claims about passionate teaching. Add to this the general fatigue caused by application season – not to mention the burning desire to write “just give me the f@&!ing job – and it’s pretty easy to see why people get frustrated.

There’s already lots of great advice online about how to write a teaching statement, and I’ve attached a few links at the bottom. But here’s my own take on how to get it done as well.

1. It should be short.
My regular readers will know by now that my general mantra is that shorter is better. No matter who your audience is, they’re more likely to read to the end if you’ve written a memo and not a tome. This is especially important when writing anything related to job (or grant) applications. Committees are wading through 150+ applications, and while you might think that thorough is better, the people reading your stuff are more likely to be wooed by something that is short and sweet.

 For a teaching statement, you want to be in the area of 1-2 pages, single spaced. Some people are adamant that you must keep it to a single page, but I don’t think that’s it’s a deal breaker if you go onto page 2. I think the real trick is never to fill up the entire second page, and I always stop somewhere between the 1.25 and 1.5 page mark.  

2.  It should be rooted in your discipline.
I’m a historian, so I always start by explaining why it is that I’m so passionate about that particular discipline. Currently, my opening line is “History is unique as a discipline because it includes something for everyone, from stories of intrigue and adventure, to philosophical and methodological inquiries into how we, as intellectuals, tell those stories.”

You don’t necessarily need something as generic as this, but you do need to be attuned to the particular questions and methodologies of your discipline. You need to know what, exactly, is different about your subject before you can explain how you teach it. Are you working in a field dominated by qualitative research, quantitative research, or one that is evenly split? Who or what are the objects of inquiry, and what types of methods or theories govern your research? Once you’ve sorted all this out, write a teaching statement that responds to the concerns of your discipline. Teaching sociology is going to be fundamentally different from teaching art history, and vice-versa, and your letter should reflect this.

 3. It should be written like an essay.
Always remember that, like your application letter, your teaching statement is a writing sample. As such, it should be written like a mini essay. You need an introduction, a main argument, evidence to support your claims, and a concluding statement. If you don’t have all of these things, start again.

Many of the teaching statements that I have edited for friends are either too abstract, or they are directionless and dominated by particular examples. When the problem is abstraction, the text will talk about broad pedagogical imperatives without ever giving an example of how these ideals are implemented in the classroom. This gives the impression that the applicant is all talk and no action. If it’s the latter problem, and the teaching statement is dominated by examples, it looks like the applicant is groping around in the dark – as if he or she is doing a lot, but doesn’t really know why they are doing any of it.

If you think of the teaching statement like an essay, you will avoid both potential pitfalls. You will remember to state your thesis (a description of what principles inform your pedagogy), and then you will provide evidence to prove your thesis (examples of how you implement these principles on the ground). And since we all know how to write essays, this will help get your head in the right place.

4. It should include the right examples.
Ok, so now you know that you need to include evidence of your brilliance in the classroom, but which examples do you choose? It’s not necessarily bad to mention that you tick all the right boxes – that you use power point, integrate small group discussions, etc.. But this should be done in passing. What you really want to highlight is anything unique that you do, and that your peers do not. Maybe you take your seminar-sized classes to museums, or you somehow integrate interactive activities into large lectures. These are the kinds of things that you really want to flag. Some professors have students perform plays, or do discipline-specific workshops that prepare their students for research. Whatever it is, explain how incredibly cool it is in and of itself, and then link it back to the pedagogical principles that govern everything you do.

 5. It should address your approach to teaching a variety of classes: large, small, undergraduate, and graduate.
This is the thing I screwed up when I first started writing teaching statements. I intuitively knew that I needed to talk about large versus small classrooms, but I completely ignored the issue of undergraduate versus graduate teaching. And some of the jobs I was applying for specifically stipulated that I would be teaching graduate courses as well.

Therefore, if you are applying for a liberal arts gig, it’s fine to talk generally about what you do in the classroom – although you still need to explain what you teach in 1st year versus 4th year. This is because, for the most part, your classes will be small to medium size and they will all be aimed at undergraduates. However, if you’re applying to a larger school/research institution, you need to remember to address the issue of how you will handle classes of vastly different sizes and those at the graduate level.

6. Explain how this relates back to your research
When you’re doing all of this, try to remember to also link it back to your research.  Personally, what I find liberating about teaching is that it allows me to expand beyond the confines of my usual subject matter and methodologies and experiment with new material. But that doesn’t mean it’s totally removed from my own work. In all likelihood, similar questions inform your work in both venues. Make sure you tell your reader what these are and how this works. Teaching and research often seem separate, but they’re both coming out of the same place: you.

 

That’s really all I have to say, but as promised, here are a few links to other sites that offer guidance.  And, as always, please add your own 2 cents in the comments below!

Princeton’s version of how to write a teaching statement:
http://www.princeton.edu/mcgraw/library/for-grad-students/teaching-statement/

Columbia:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/tat/pdfs/teaching%20statement.pdf

The Professor Is In:
http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/09/16/thedreadedteachingstatement/

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Making Space for “Quiet Students”

I think the first thing that should be said about dealing with “quiet students” is that we need to stop thinking of them as just quiet or shy, and then assuming that this behavior can and should be “fixed.” Not all quiet students are simply shy. Some of them have anxiety disorders. Others are autistic. And many more have medical conditions that interfere with their ability to concentrate and strip them of the energy required for them to feel comfortable engaging in a debate – in many cases, it might not even be the condition itself that is causing problems, but the medication the student has been prescribed to treat it.

Moreover – and I’ve written elsewhere about how my views on this subject have recently changed –collectively, we need to be more understanding of the contemplative space that some students require. Confidence can be great, but we need to be careful not to encourage modes of behavior that allow one individual to flourish at the expense of others.  The babbly folk (and I am totally guilty of being this person myself) need to learn to shut up and listen from time to time just as much as the quiet people have to learn to speak up. By exerting our authority at any given moment, we lay claim to an abstract space in a way that implicitly undermines the ability of others to make similar claims. Thus, it is important that we emphasize learning how to really listen, and how to share these abstract spaces, and not stop blindly encouraging our students to raise their voices.

Creating the right atmosphere for a really stimulating and inclusive intellectual discussion is therefore really hard, and it’s something I’m still working through. Of course, I use a few obvious tools in order to make students feel more comfortable. These include icebreakers on the first day, think-pair-share exercises, the opportunity to produce written work if talking really is just too intimidating, and my ceaseless demand for a respectful environment. But there’s also a few other things I do in order to make space for students who otherwise cannot bring themselves to speak. Here are a few of my favourites.

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[Take the time to type up some written feedback]

 

1.  Providing Written Feedback
Students will be the first to tell you that participation grades are highly subjective and thus unfair. So I provide written feedback halfway through the semester – complete with a tentative grade – partly to make sure that we’re on the same page and to provide students with the opportunity to complain before all is said and done.  However, doing this also has the merit of encouraging students who are floundering to do something about it. Those who receive poor participation grades are invited to come and see me and/or take advantage of my offer that they can do written work and to turn their grade around. Many of them do indeed come to my office hours as a result, and that’s when students volunteer information about their particular needs. Some are desperately trying to overcome their fears and want my help. A few, for whatever reason, simply can’t. And the vast majority of them are somewhere in between: they are willing to experiment but haven’t yet made up their minds about this whole public speaking thing.

2. Offer to Call on them Instead of Asking them to Raise their Hands
For some students who have difficulty speaking in front of a group, the problem is one of confidence. These students will never raise their hands, even if they know the answer, because they assume that they are wrong. Thus, it can sometimes be useful to call on students instead of waiting for them to volunteer. That said, for the love of all that’s holy, please, please, please check with students that this is OK before doing it! Otherwise it can seem like you’re picking on a particular demographic and trying to make them look stupid in front of their peers.

I make a habit of doing this in my seminars, and so I start every course I teach off with a speech about how I do this in order to invite people to participate, and I’m not trying to call anyone out. If someone is uncomfortable answering, they always have the option of just saying “pass.” After I’ve explained myself in this way, I just go right ahead and randomly call on different students from time to time. I also occasionally pose difficult questions about divisive subject matter, and then go around the room letting everyone offer their opinion. This is a great introduction to difficult topics, and usually primes the group for a good discussion.

3.  Script an Exchange
For those students who really want to learn to speak in public, or those who are still open minded about giving it a try, this can be a great option. I simply tell them to pick something about the reading that they’re really interested in and email me about it in advance. We then set up a question about that material which we both agree on. And then on game day, when the time comes, that student feels more comfortable because they’ve prepared what they’re going to say. Furthermore, they have had their thoughts “vetted” in advance by the instructor, and this removes a lot of anxiety about looking stupid. Finally, it allows the student in question to act as a specialist in one area, and then step back.

This may seem problematic because it discourages public engagement with the rest of the material. But it has been my experience that students who choose this option read all the assigned material quite thoroughly in order to be able to discern what passages best align with their interests. Thus, even if they aren’t showing it on the day of the seminar, these students have invested quite a lot of time and energy considering the material, and it is easy to get a sense of how much through the private conversations one has while writing the “script.”

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[I know, it seems cheesy, but it works]

 

 4.  Offer a Variety of Different Formats
A lot of students find seminars where the whole group sits around a table talking to be the most difficult – especially as seminar size continues to increase. They do better when you break them into pairs, small groups, or even teams. And since everyone has different skills, each student will respond to these activities differently, which is why I try to mix it up as much as possible. I try to have an equal number of days where they work in pairs, small groups, and teams. In each case, they come back to the large table at the end, but I assess their participation based on their work in smaller groups as well. Whether I ask students to answer a question, create questions, or debate an issue, the time away from the large table gives many of them space to speak more freely because the stakes are lower.

When you do this, try to think outside the box! One of the most interesting revelations I had last year was that there is a particular subset of quiet students for whom team leadership is actually a great role. These are people who would never claim authority themselves, but when it’s delegated to them, they flourish. Since their role is one of facilitation, they are not being asked to showcase their own ideas, but rather to help consolidate and organize ideas the ideas produced by others. It’s a very specific kind of quiet person who will like this role, but you do occasionally find them.

 

As I said, this is hardly a comprehensive list, but it does include my favourite strategies. As always, I’m curious to know what my readers would add, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Responding to Book Proposal Reviews: A Co-Authored Piece

Hi Guys! Although I normally stick pretty closely to pedagogical issues, I wrote the following piece with a wonderful scholar who I met in the Twitterverse while talking about all things related to higher education. His name is Kean Birch, and he’s an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University. You can find his take on research, teaching, publishing and presenting at http://www.keanbirch.net/! Anyway, the two of us agreed that the internet could use a resource about how to respond to an early review of your book manuscript. Thus, without further ado, here it is on my blog too!


Kean will start us off …

1. Who do I address the letter to and how long should it be?
 Like every good little academic, I want to begin with a caveat … I don’t have significant experience when it comes to responding to referee comments on book proposals. So far, in fact, it has amounted to one such response to the publishers Zed Books – shameless plug for my co-edited volume here! My suggestions should, therefore, be taken with a pinch or two of salt and maybe some other spices and condiments thrown in the mix too! 
 
To start with, if you receive a request to respond to referee comments – which should, hopefully, include a separate editorial letter distinct from the referee comments – then you are already well ahead of the curve. Many of us don’t even get to this stage as we come up against outright rejection – see here for the gory details of another (this time rejected) book proposal I sent to Zed. What such editorial requests indicate is that the commissioning editor is interested, although they may need convincing of the academic suitability or possible readership interest in the proposed book.
 
As a starting point then, I think it’s important you address any response letter directly to the commissioning editor(s) or commissioning editorial board; you are not responding to referees directly, so keep that in mind. This means you have to think about how to convince the editor(s) / editorial board that your book is worthwhile in light of the referee and probably editorial comments.
 
My limited experience – which was with an edited volume – involved responding directly to a series of questions / issues raised by the commissioning editor, ranging from requests to change the title through removing certain chapters to dropping one of the editors. I want to emphasize that all these requests made the final book a much stronger and, in my mind at least, a better contribution to scholarship. These requests were laid out in bullet format and so were quite easy to respond to; we simply addressed each in turn. Our responses were not particularly long, we basically responded in kind by using bullet points etc. to emphasize what we would do to make the book a better “package”.
 
In terms of word or page length for this letter, if there is no explicit request then I think it depends on how long the editorial letter is. If the letter is well laid-out (e.g. bulleted) then it shouldn’t be too difficult to respond in kind. I would recommend – as with any response letter – not going into detail about how the new theoretical approach you’ve adopted has enabled you to blah-de-blah-de-blah … Just say what you will do, or ask the contributors to do; say how this addresses the points raised; and whether you think it’s helpful.
 
2. What type of tone should the letter have?
 There is a fine line to any response letter, which I find myself tip-toeing along every time I write one. I have a 24-hour rule when it comes to responding to any editorial decision, which I’ve mentioned before in a blog post and think is important for maintaining cordial relations with our academic peers – see here.
 
The tone should always be clear and un-grouchy when responding to referee /editorial letters. My preference is to simply respond to each comment in turn, directly below the comment in a different typeface, bold or whatever.
 
Personally, I would keep the response simple, clear and concise. As someone who helps edit a journal, one of the most frustrating things I have to do is read someone’s four-page response letter in which they explain everything they’re trying to do in the paper – but which they then fail to put in the paper itself! Anyway, that is my two and a half cents worth…
 
3. Is it ok if I don’t like all the reviewer(s)’ suggestions, or do I need to take them all on board?
What you have to remember is that editors have already put some effort into the book proposal once they have written an editorial letter. They don’t want it to ‘fail’ necessarily, but they want to be convinced that you know what you’re doing or are a reasonable person to work with – well, that’s my guess! It’s important to be polite and to spell out what it is you will do and, if relevant, what you don’t agree with. I was once told that you should ALWAYS disagree with one thing in a referee /editorial letter to show that you know better (i.e. you’re the expert). I’m not sure whether this is a good idea necessarily, but it’s perfectly reasonable – in my mind at least – to say something when you disagree with something. You’ll be the one writing the book after all.
 
Now my turn …
 
Since Kean, by his own admission, has limited experience responding to these things, this is where I’m going to step in and offer my two cents as well. Like Kean, I’ve only written one response letter, but two heads is at least marginally better than one, right? In my case, I was responding to an early review of my monograph project. The reviewer had seen 4 out of 7 chapters and was excited, but had a few suggestions about how to clean the book up a little. As of yet, I haven’t secured the contract – I’m waiting to hear back from the advisory board – but I did make it past the editors, so I consider my letter have been successful, and I’m hoping to have a plug for you in short order too!
 
I’m not sure if I would suggest always quibbling over one thing all the time either. Sometimes, all the suggestions might make sense. At other moments, you might be too close to the material, and acknowledge that you need to trust someone else. In these situations being generally conciliatory can’t hurt. But if I’m being honest, I did push back. I was very careful about doing it, and I didn’t phrase it as a “no,” but I did offer some resistance. The reviewer was asking me to add material back in that I had already made the decision to cut, so I asked for “further editorial guidance” on the subject after laying out my case. But here’s the rule I followed when doing this: phrase any such resistance as a negotiation, and not as if it’s the hill to die on, unless of course the request fundamentally alters the nature/argument of your book.
 
4. How do I format the letter?
 Again, Kean and I had slightly different approaches here. I was asked to write a very short response (800-1000 words) to a very long review (9 pages). My instructions also asked that I be “thorough,” so you can imagine my initial dismay, since this seemed like a gigantic contradiction in terms. Kean’s Q&A format was clearly not going to work. After mulling it over for a few days – I know, I know, I broke one of his golden rules – I decided that the only way to slay the dragon was to organize the critiques into 4 categories: “thematic continuity,” “precision,” “restructuring,” and “additional material.” After a paragraph-long explanation of my general approach to each issue, I offered 1 or 2 specific examples of how the book would change.
 
I think the key here is respecting the editor’s wishes. Like Kean, I believe that shorter is better. The people reading these things are reading countless emails, proposals, and sample chapters and they don’t need you making their lives any more miserable by adding an extra 10 pages of text that doesn’t need to be there. Be direct; tell them what you are going to do and what you want from them in return. But if the editor simply asks you to respond to “everything,” and doesn’t give you a word/page limit, then you probably should address everything. Again, do it in a concise way, but answer all the queries. Sadly, there is no template for what one of these response letters looks like. Much like when you’re designing a syllabus, the content and presentation are left in your capable hands. The key is to be effective, and you’re the only one who can work out what that means in any given situation, so trust your gut.
 
Clearly Kean and I both have very limited experience with this process, but hopefully this has helped you get a sense of what a response to a manuscript review should look like. While no one I’ve talked to has been able to provide me with hard and fast rules for success, the consensus was that such responses should be generally conciliatory, be addressed to the editor(s), and respect any formatting guidance that you do receive.  Be confident, concise, and answer the questions – after that, it’s just a matter of waiting for the results!

Talking to Your Students about Grad School

I don’t know about you, but I regularly get students coming to see me, wanting advice about whether or not they should go to grad school. And I’m not talking about the “are my grades good enough” conversation. I’m talking about the “I’ve heard mixed things about it, and I was hoping you could tell me about your experience” conversation. My internal monologue is usually akin to one of those angry op-eds in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how grad school is a meat grinder and then everyone ends up as an adjunct on food stamps anyway. But you can’t say that to an intellectually eager undergrad. Or rather, you can say that – and many people do – but it’s not particularly productive. People aren’t usually going to listen to something that polemical, and even if they could be convinced to steer clear of grad school, bright minds should probably be encouraged to explore their potential. So instead of railing about how bad an idea it is, I try to go over the pros and cons, and end with a little advice. Here’s what I tell my students:

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[If I went with my gut reaction, I would send this meme to any students who were graduate-school bound]

Pros:
You get the intellectual freedom to ask questions that you would never otherwise get to ask, and the time with which to answer those questions in fascinating detail.
I stole this from a colleague who welcomed me to Queen’s, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. No other experience will allow you to ask the types of questions you’re going to ask in grad school and then attempt to answer them.  I say attempt, because one of the first things you learn doing a graduate degree, is that there are no completely right answers. You’re ideas are merely a series of revisions, and you’re doing it right if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Even if you do come to a conclusion that you are satisfied with, others are still going to challenge you, but it’s worth it nonetheless, and you will have amassed a wealth of factual and theoretical knowledge that few others possess.

You see the world and meet some great people.
This is less true of M.A. students, but definitely applies to doctoral candidates. Since your job is to think, you do eventually need to share those thoughts through publication and conference presentations. This means that once you wet you’re feet, you’ll often go to one international conference a year. Different fields hold their conferences in different places – unfortunately, as a North American scholar of British history, mine are usually somewhere in the US or the UK and never anywhere tropical or exotic – but there will always be an element of travel.  The first time you do this, you will feel like the new kid at school, but you’ll quickly develop networks and meet some of the greatest minds in your field. Some of these people will be horrible human beings, but the others will be the most amazing individuals you will ever come across. And conference experiences are nothing compared to the places you will go and the people you will meet while doing your research.

Cons:
There are almost no professorial jobs. No, really, I mean that.
I know that everyone theoretically knows this, but I’m going to say it again. And I’m going to do so because you need to understand that you will not be the exception, and you will not beat the odds. I know it’s tempting to fall into a mindset that conjures up the American dream, where if you’re good enough and you work hard enough, it will all pay off. But that’s just not true. The professorial job market is a lottery, and you should approach it as you approach gambling. Imagine that you are walking into a casino. If you are there to have a good time, and you walk in with limited expectations and behavioral boundaries, you may well have the time of your life. But if you think you’re the one who’s going to win big and are willing to risk it all in order to do so, very bad things likely await you in the future.

It’s isolating and it will be one of the hardest things you ever do.
Again, this is more applicable to doing a PhD, but it’s one of the things most students don’t realize. Up until graduate school, you spend a lot of time in classes, and this provides a natural support structure. But in grad school, even if you do have classes, they are probably only once a week. And once you finish your course work, you’re on your own.  At that point, it’s up to you to create networks that will get you through 4-7 years in grad school (the kind of networks that serve both a social and intellectual function). You will read more than you ever thought possible, but you will seldom have someone to discuss that reading with. And when something goes wrong in your private life, there is no one who sees you on a daily basis and who is going to notice that you aren’t yourself and step in on their own. You are going to need to ask for help when you need it.  It’s true, you will have a supervisor, but this person will not always be there regularly – every supervisor is different, and some will be extremely involved while others will be entirely absent. And don’t forget, you have to travel. As I said, there are some really great things about doing this, but it will also remove you from your friends, family, and spouse for what can sometimes be an extended period of time. You therefore need to consider if this is a sacrifice that you’re willing to make.

mainsplain
[Yes, you will have this problem in grad school too]

It still matters if you’re a woman.
I hate that I have to say this, but I do. And again, I preface my remarks with the caveat that your experience will be highly dependent on your field. Some fields, like English, have a lot of women in them; others, like Philosophy, are notorious for being old boy’s clubs. I’m a historian, and we have a pretty good gender balance as a discipline, but the women are still concentrated in gender and culture studies. Thus, as someone who studies a topic with a political bent, I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice that when I walk into a panel at a conference, I’m usually one of about 3 women in a room full of 40 dudes.  So yeah, if you’re a girl, you need to be aware that you might find the experience a little alienating. And even if you are surrounded by other women, you’re still going to notice that the hours demanded of you aren’t conducive to having a family. While some of your male counterparts will struggle with the same issues, in general, this hits women harder and grad school will delay your ability to have a family and/or having a family will make extra demands of you in grad school. As a profession, we’re working on this. But the battle is hardly won.

Advice:
Treat it like a 4-7 year job, after which you will do something else.
This is some very good advice that I pilfered from my best friend. Nowadays very few people have a single career anymore anyway, so it’s probably best if you approach grad school as something that you’re going to do for the next 4-7 years, and not the preface to a professorial career. This is important for several reasons. Most obviously, it will help you avoid falling into the trap of feeling like a failure if you can’t get (or don’t want) a tenure-track job when you’re done. But equally important, it will make you smarter about how you approach grad school in the first place. If you know that this is just something you’re going to be doing for a little while, you’ll make sure that you don’t take on a heavy debt load in order to do it, and you’ll come out the other end in a better financial state (if still slightly impoverished). You will also be more receptive to pursuing  other interests while you’re there, and your life will be more balanced as a result. And I’m not just talking about romance – I’m talking about seizing opportunities to edit journals, organize conferences, blog, etc… There are healthy ways of getting through grad school, but you need to go in with your eyes open. If you can’t do that, then no, don’t go.

Teaching Mature Students

Several people have asked me recently if I have any strategies for teaching mature students. Often, the people asking this question are young, female, and painfully aware of age and gender dynamics that could play against them. Those who already have their PhD are somewhat less concerned because their title creates a buffer, but the anxiety doesn’t entirely go away. And as more and more graduate students are asked to teach their own courses before completing their degrees, many people don’t yet have that talismanic title of “doctor.”

This is an issue I have more than a little experience with since I didn’t take any breaks between my degrees, have something of a baby face, and started teaching about half way through the PhD. This meant that I had to come up with various strategies for teaching students my own age – and oftentimes much older. In several cases, I had to do this within the context of large lecture courses, where I needed to maintain authority over 150 students who all got to call me Sarah. And for the record, yes, it was extremely difficult, stressful, and tiring!

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[For those who don’t know me, this is me]

Even if you aren’t in this situation –you’re a little older and not worried about ageism, you’re extremely confident in all scenarios, etc… – mature students can be difficult. They bring invaluable real world experience and fought their way back into the educational system because they’re truly hungry to learn. This often causes financial strain, and unsurprisingly, they expect you to deliver something worth their time, money and effort. If your teaching style or the course content don’t live up to their expectations, chances are they will be pretty vocal about it, and that can be intimidating. It can also wreak havoc on your ability to maintain control over your classroom more generally.

Mature students therefore bring some really wonderful assets to the table. Some of them are bilingual, or even multilingual. Many of them have read much more widely than your average student. And as I said, they’re usually really eager. But those very characteristics can also get both you and them into trouble if they’re not properly harnessed and directed. These people have had time to formulate their view of the world, and they have the life experience to back that view up. But the whole point of humanities courses is to challenge the way people see and interact with their world: to make them more critical of social structures and more skeptical of so-called objective truth. Not all mature students are going to find this process easy.

Teaching any student to engage critically with human culture is difficult, but regular students are still in the process of formulating their opinions. It’s true. Many already have opinions passed down to them from their family or their immediate community, and they have never thought to question these positions or are loath to step away from. But they are usually discovering and examining things for the first time – experimenting, if you will. Mature students tend to be re-discovering and re-examining, and this is even harder.  Your classes are often asking them to challenge assumptions that have guided them throughout their entire lives, and that’s going to make them uncomfortable.

Mature students have my undying respect for having the courage to try, but this doesn’t mean they can’t also be a handful. Their social position and life-experience means that more than a few have pushed back when I am teaching newer, and often highly critical historiography. Others have been more content to let me prattle on, but then appeared in my office to explain that they were utterly and hopelessly lost because I was asking them to think about things in a completely foreign way. Not to mention, I then wanted them to write about these things and it had been an awful long time since they’ve written an essay.

So what do you do to make this process easier on yourself and your mature students? First of all, even if you don’t yet have your PhD, you need both to welcome criticism and to be confident in your response to it. The people you are talking to have many reasons for holding the opinions that they do, and if you waiver too much when they challenge you, they are likely to think that you really do just lack life experience and need a little more “seasoning” before you understand how the world really works. Remember, the majority of people tend to extrapolate from their own experience and to assume that everyone else’s life will be similar to their own. This is why people frequently deny that systemic inequality exists; if they made it, so can you. Likewise, many of these older students assume that everyone will come to think like them… eventually. If you do not, it is because you are young and naïve – or, if you’re older, that you’ve lived a sheltered life, insulated by the university. You therefore need to make it clear that you have indeed explored numerous vantage points, and that you still feel the need to ask some probing questions and teach the lessons that you do.

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[We might joke about this, but this scenario is legitimately terrifying if you teach history]

And that brings me to point number 2: ask the right questions! Again, the most frequent problem that mature students have to overcome is the tendency to make assumptions. They will not make progress in this regard if you simply tell them they’re wrong. You need to invite them to reflect (whether as part of your lecture, or during seminars) and to guide them back to a place where one can’t assume anything. Personally, I’ve found that abstract questions are most useful here. Things like: “why do we need to pay attention to what type of words a person is using?” Or “what matters more to understanding the past: what people actually did, or how they talked about it?” Since these are often the types of questions they have not been asked to think about before, they are less predisposed to a particular answer. But you can also get more specific, and ask them to discuss a particular text with a group, comparing their responses. I also have a tendency to lay out several different approaches to the same topic when I lecture and then to ask my students to tell me which one they find most convincing and why. This process won’t solve all your problems, but I’ll take a good question over the best answer any day.

Finally, and I’ve said this a million times, but I’ll say it again. Treat these people with the respect they deserve, and chances are they’ll reciprocate. What they are doing is hard. Period. And for that, I applaud each and every one of them. So even if they do need a little more help with their writing, or a little more work approaching sources with a critical eye, we as teachers need to help them through that. In most cases, even if their progress is slow at first, they will find their way, drawing upon the same unbounded energy that drove them back to school in the first place. Some will even begin the climb towards a graduate degree. But whether or not they are ultimately successful in your course, they will appreciate that you see value in their struggles.

As I said, I don’t personally know what it’s like to go back to school after several years away, so I’d love to hear from people who have made this choice. Whether you’re a mature student doing your undergrad right now, or someone who went back after several years only to become a professor yourself, I would love to see your thoughts in the comments below.