On Methods of Professorship and the Tao of Teaching / by Cliff McCormick

     The questions we lead students to ask matters.


     Particularly if a student takes those questions seriously.

     For instance, I took a class once, where the mid-term and final were known from day one of the class. You had all semester to ruminate and formulate and plan and then hopefully pontificate.

     We were asked to discuss what happened during a roughly 500 year span of time through the “lens” of economics, politics, or art. These are questions of tremendous scope. As such I do not believe such questions should be asked lightly.

     Because that is a serious undertaking; to educate yourself well enough, to even begin the task of formulating a narrative and perspective of sufficient magnitude; commensurate to the prompt. This requires a tremendous deal of effort, consideration and time.

     Be that as it may, as a student, I did not begrudge these questions too much. For while they were dauntingly large questions, the expectations were sufficiently defined, and our time and intelligence was respected. We were afforded time and the Professor’s consideration of the difficulty of the undertaking was evident, and given due credence as cases warranted. Further, we were afforded excellent materials and texts; instruction and lecture; it was fair.

     --This style…has obvious downsides. The “eggs in one basket” deal. The fact that if it doesn’t click..if the question does daunt…if one can’t begin…its..the majority of the grade. In this case, these large essays were the mid-term and the final exam. So while I think it affords a student a very fair opportunity to “prove their merit/learning/effort” it is also a considerable challenge.

     Another approach is to be more varied and fluid, and to assign numerous and varying assignments. Which, depending on the subject and intention of the class, also be effective. Particularly for those students who begin the course only peripherally engaged.

     Though if improperly conducted, this approach can condition a sort of, “drudgery response,” a, “check the box, get it done and move on,” a feeling of jumping through a series of trivial hoops, if the assignment is not paired with a sense of meritorious inquiry and excitement. I believe this, to be the work of the Professor. To communicate the “why’s” of the subject and field. What has excited you? Excitement is an enticement to self-motivated learning.

     The huge up side to more assignments is the more definite path to success, provided the grading criteria and standards reflect the standard and quality of the questions students are asked to begin with. Poor questions often yield poor work; though sometimes they can inspire better questions and good work – this largely depends on the qualities of the individual student.

     Would it not be an absolute absurdity to ask someone to learn and synthesize 500 years of history over a weekend in an essay? I’d say so. It is a disrespectful question.

     I once took a course in US History I, which spanned the early colonial period up to the civil war. The Professor would come to class, notes in hand (that is important, the notes in hand) and proceed to lecture for an hour and a half on material that was generally at least tangentially relevant to the material being covered in the corresponding chapter in the text. Rinse and repeat…then the mid-term and final.

     As with the Western Civ. Professor I mentioned earlier, the mid-term and final were these “all the marbles” style essays, however, we had to write them within two hours, in class, longhand, at 8:30AM.

     …I won’t begin to detail the seemingly obvious flaws with this approach, but again, the “whys’’ matter; the “whys” of a Professor matter greatly. Does one adopt the position for the authority; the assuagement of ego? Or is it the opportunity to impart an excitement for the cultivation of gnosis?

     One remark however on the second Professor’s approach. Given that this Professor required an entire semester, in addition to several pages of notes, each lecture to impart the material to the students. I contend that any student would could successfully synthesize the span of material that was covered in the course, into a handwritten essay, in two hours, early in the morning – should immediately assume the Professorship of that course. Because they have so obviously surpassed the Professor, who required weeks and weeks and pages of notes. – Poor questions are an insult to both student and subject. That kind of in-class mid-term seems somewhat arbitrary, undertaken largely as a metric for culling; with a predetermined expectation of x percent of passes, x percent of failures, stratified, and made to fit, like so, and so, and so. I really dislike this approach. It’s a bit too common.

     Whereas – a student who is given a well-defined task, and afforded the necessary material and time to complete it, has a more equitable and meaningful opportunity to acquit themselves well in demonstrating their mastery of the course content and their ability to adapt and synthesize their learning in their essay. In addition, I would venture to suppose that the actual content of these essays, and therefore the academic achievement that they represent, is likely of much higher quality as well, when afforded proper time, preparation and latitude.

     On the other hand if I was assigned 5 essays of similar length on similar theme it may begin to beg either repetition and repeated form..OR…it may ignite creativity out of fruitful rebellion. There is merit perhaps in this approach, and I would relish the opportunity to argue in its favor, in a “Saturday at the pub” style debate, along with a few rum and cokes with friends.

     I also understand the thought of “playing to the middle” …though I don’t know if it is the best philosophy or not. I ask myself, why not teach via beacon? Teach via excitement?

     If there is merit in it for you, if it excites you, and invigorates you, and inspires you, why can that not be shared? Why can that not be the structure around which a class is formed?

     What if there was a “guided portfolio” option and a “self-study” portfolio option.

     Where the student can either do the selected assignments if they are not confident enough to write a piece on their own…

     But if the point is to get students to engage and write; submit work that conveys “considered thoughts, opinions and supported positions,” that are either relevant to the course…OR…exhibit nuanced care and attention to detail, cultured learning, refinement; beyond a cursory familiarity, paired with creativity and novel perspective, insight, care, excitement – that I think may hold resonant value.

     If it is well written, as in, communicates the author’s intention, and is of substance. I would consider it valid coursework.

     Because there is an obvious difference between something that shows intelligence and perspective and thought and time, and something that either, isn’t, or, is rushed and poorly done or attempted. (As adjudged on a case by case basis.)

     The well-written word is becoming a rarity, in part, because people are not inspired.

      If the student does not care, or is not excited; is not helped to understand the gift and power of an education, and assisted in knowing the truth of “Scientia Potentia Est” by experience, and of “standing on the shoulders of giants,” then it is no wonder that these things should pass.

     But then, I’ve never taught an English class. *grin*

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     I think you do an excellent job. You are engaging. You care. You communicate. You are there. You inspire question. And..my god…the…freedom..the honest and true spirit of academic inquiry .. it is alive in your class room in a way that is unfortunately rare.

     I appreciate you. And I value the experience of having taken your class, and of having met you. I am grateful to have done so. Thank you.

     Keep doing what you are doing. Inviting curiosity, and expression and exploration and assisting in the cultivation of synthesis and the development of the critical faculty. 

    Well done Professor.