A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Etiquette Guidelines for Instructors Interacting with Other Instructors

A few months ago, I wrote up a list titled “Etiquette Guidelines for Students Interacting with Instructors.” A friend of mine at the Duck of Minerva blog asked to post it, and after the post enjoyed some popularity, I decided to start my own blog and repost that list, with a few modifications and additions. With the better part of another semester under my belt, I figured it was time for a follow up, this time directed at my fellow instructors.

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but the academic job market is a bit rough (“rough” is a synonym for Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic hellscape, right?). One consequence of this is a general diminishing of collegiality among young instructors. In times of scarcity, collaboration can give way to competition without people even noticing it, and as I’ve reflected on interactions with my fellow graduate students and lecturers, I’ve come to be more sensitive to the various unconscious slights that characterize those interactions. I’ve been on both sides of these slights, sometimes at the same time, and I’ve seen firsthand how they undermine a collaborative learning environment.

An image from last year's MLA convention in Boston.

So, with a view to eliminating these slights, I’ve come up with a list of four simple tips:

Don’t assume there is only one successful teaching style.

When I teach Freshman writing, I use a thin volume titled They Say, I Say. I like it for a number of reasons. It’s a very basic introduction to the idea of dialectical analysis, and for students coming out of a high school curriculum emphasizing the five paragraph essay, that can be useful; its short chapters provide a nice scaffolding for a class that can be augmented with other readings; and it provides templates that make sophisticated rhetorical moves rather concrete. That said, it’s not for everyone. It works better for some genres of academic writing than others, and its templates can lead to stilted and logically flawed writing if you don’t make sure to correct for that in lessons. Now, say you aren’t a fan of the book, and I just told you I am. Taking a cue from the book, which of the following templates would you use to express your dislike?
The problem with They Say, I Say is ___________.
They Say, I Say doesn’t work for me because ___________.
The first assertion implicitly impugns me as a teacher by suggesting that there is an objective “problem” with the textbook, while the second assertion acknowledges that the difference is one of taste and style.

When a department is run well, it’s a wonderfully diverse place filled with people who are different kinds of thinkers from different backgrounds, and what fits one instructor’s personality might be a disaster for another instructor. I believe that fostering a successful classroom environment comes down to three rules: (1) be obviously smart, (2) teach the course students expect (corollary: write a very clear course description and syllabus), and (3) be yourself. If you're tough, don't try to be relaxed; if you're relaxed, don't try to be tough. If you’re a concrete thinker, don’t try to be abstract; if you’re abstract, don’t try to be concrete. Play to your strengths, and when talking to other instructors, don’t assume that you and they share the same strengths and weaknesses.

Ask questions freely.

We all suffer from impostor syndrome, but nobody wants to admit it. Because we don’t want to admit it, we are all gun-shy about asking for help. But one consequence of the intellectual diversity I mentioned above is we all have a font of knowledge about teaching techniques at our disposal at all times. This semester, I’m teaching two courses I’ve never taught before, and I’ve been a glutton for lesson ideas. I toss out a call for recommendations on Facebook on an almost weekly basis, and I stalk the halls of my department looking for people to chat with about how to approach a topic almost every day. I’m surprised others don’t do this as frequently. I am positive that having gotten into the habit of seeking out colleagues’ advice has made me a better teacher. Our fellow instructors are an available resource that we should all utilize often.

Answer questions readily.

And when colleagues do seek us out as resources, we should share ideas without hesitation. Great teaching isn’t a zero-sum game, but I’ve known instructors who were hesitant to share when asked about their teaching techniques. This isn’t the right attitude. That said…

Don’t volunteer unsolicited advice.

In the classic film, White Men Can’t Jump, Gloria (Rosie Perez) is lying in bed with Billy (Woody Harrelson), and the two have the following exchange (the scene is at 37:45):
Gloria: Honey? My mouth is dry. Honey. I’m thirsty.
Billy: Umm… [ Water Runs ] There you go. honey.
Gloria: When I said I was thirsty, it doesn’t mean I want a glass of water.
Billy: It doesn’t?
Gloria: You’re missing the whole point of me saying I’m thirsty. If I have a problem, you’re not supposed to solve it. Men always make the mistake of thinking they can solve a woman’s problem. It makes them feel omnipotent.
Billy: Omnipotent? Did you have a bad dream?
Gloria: It’s a way of controlling a woman.
Billy: Bringing them a glass of water?
Gloria: Yes. I read it in a magazine. See… if I’m thirsty…..I don’t want a glass of water. I want you to sympathize. I want you to say. “Gloria. I. TOO. Know what it feels like to be thirsty. I. TOO. Have had a dry mouth.” I want you to connect with me through the sharing and understanding the concept of dry mouthedness.
Billy:….This is all in the same magazine?
When I say, “Don’t volunteer unsolicited advice,” what I mean is, sometimes we’re Billy, but sometimes we’re Gloria, and all we want is sympathy, not problem-solving.

We’ve all tried out experimental lesson plans that failed. We’ve all taught while sleep deprived or sick with a bad head cold. We’ve all taught after a big football game where half our class is absent or hung over. We’ve all had simple bad luck. Long story short, we’ve all bombed, and most of the time, when we bomb, we know exactly why we bombed. We don't need to be told. And most of the time, when we bomb, we need to engage in some post-game bitching.

When we hear someone bitching, we want to problem-solve, but this can be counter-productive. If you hear someone complaining about how a class failed, here’s what you might be thinking: “Oh, my colleague’s class didn’t go well. I’ll tell them what I would have done, so they’ll have a better idea what do in the future.” If you then tell what you would have done, here’s what your colleague is most likely thinking: “My colleague thinks I’m an idiot.”

Language matters. How we use it and the contexts in which we use it tell people more than we often intend. Our language around our pedagogy has been shaped by the same culture of competitiveness that characterizes much of the academe these days. These sorts of unconscious slights are one consequence of this culture, but they aren’t an inevitable consequence. All we need to do to avoid them is to apply the same mindfulness and empathy to our interactions with each other that we apply to our teaching and scholarship.