getting to your good enough

[I was asked to make some remarks at the UH New Faculty Orientation on 8/15/17, and this is a summary of my talk]

Congratulations! You’ve arrived at this job after too many challenges, and you’ve demonstrated your academic excellence in an extraordinarily competitive environment. Now comes the hard part.

What I mean by this is, your challenges up until now were structured around the problem of getting a job.  Chances are, that was a process that took up years of yours lives. Those challenges, however, will soon extend, deepen, and proliferate. In the coming years, the demands of your job will grow more complex, the time-frame will stretch out, and your experience of the classroom itself will become recursive.

In other words, from this point forward, you will be teaching in your discipline repeatedly and regularly, with opportunities for comparing present with past performances. Did that lecture work the way that it did last semester? Do I need to update this syllabus? Or tweak this approach to discussion? As a newly hired faculty member, you now have far greater opportunities to learn from your mistakes.  You may also discover new ways to fail. And all of this will be “mid-stream,” accomplished in the midst of all the other things you are doing.  Reflection, conscious improvement, self-direction are all far more possible now, if you are so inclined. But will you be?

This brings me to the title of this talk: “getting to your good enough.” On its face, getting to the “good enough” seems like a pretty depressing concept, just a way to set expectations as low as possible to avoid judgment. “Yes, I aspire to adequacy.”

But in fact your sense of the “good enough” is the voice of your professional conscience and identity: it is your internal monitor, your quality control, your bullshit detector, your ability to detect and address problems as they emerge. Your sense of “good enough” is at the core of your identity as a professional. You are about to become the most important person assessing your teaching on a day-to-day basis. So how good are you at evaluating your own effectiveness as a teacher?

To develop a more reliable sense of “good enough,” however, you will need to have some curiosity about your students’ learning process, and some evidence of what they are or are not learning and why.

So my first question is, “how do you know when your students are really getting it?” What kinds of information do you need to feel confident about them really mastering a concept or a problem or skill? What kinds of body language, what kinds of questions or answers, what kinds of responses signal to you that you’re succeeding?

And my next question is, “how do you know when a lecture or a presentation is going badly?” (This may be a little easier to figure out) What kinds of body language or verbal cues broadcast widespread confusion or resistance among your students? And what should you do then?

Finally, what do you do when you’re not sure at all how a class is going? From my experience, this might be the hardest scenario of all, because the signals are ambiguous enough that no obvious solution appears to you.

Because this type of uncertainty can result in a lost semester for you and your students, one of the most important things to learn is the mid-course correction. So I’m going to offer you a strategy that I’ve used, called the Midterm Survey. Whenever you feel that your teaching is not connecting, and you’re not sure why, I recommend that around mid-term time you ask your students to answer these three questions in writing, anonymously.

  1. How is the class going?
  2. What can I do to help you learn better?
  3. What can you do to help you learn better?

Collect the answers, note the most prevalent responses, and discuss these with the class at your next meeting. Tell the class what aspects of the class you will change as a result of their feedback, and which aspects you will keep and why. My experience has been that students will generally appreciate any changes you make to help them learn. My students, for example, always tell me to slow down. And I promise them that I will try to be more organized and systematic in my presentation of the material.

There are lots of other ways to assess their learning mid-stream, including low-stakes writing, quizzes, etc., but the point of all this is to get an idea of what they’ve made of the material before they do the high stakes, graded assignments that determine their final grades. That will enable you to direct your teaching towards the most difficult areas and give them the practice or supplementary information that they need.

You should also remember that there are plenty of ways to get support for your teaching on this campus, including the UH’s own FED, your departmental colleagues and peers and trusted senior faculty members, but many people both in- or outside your department may have insights to offer. Any or all of them can help provide you with a reality check when you encounter problems. So take advantage of your colleagues’ knowledge, because no one has ever arrived on this campus and known exactly what to do when they first arrived in the classroom. Every one of us has leaned on our colleagues at certain points in our teaching careers, in the moments when a class goes badly and we’ve got no clue about how to fix it. So most faculty will try to offer whatever knowledge they can to help you figure it out. Don’t hesitate to ask others if you’re unsure of what’s going on or what you should do. I’m here because of the generosity and patience of more people than I could name. And before you know it, you’ll be offering your own advice to incoming faculty.

Thank you.

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