Summertime and the Livin's Easy... But Teaching is Not

May 15, 2014

Summer is approaching, graduation is at hand, and on a campus like Berkeley, faculty colleagues are understandably relieved and excited…very excited.  No class. No office hours. No professional time split amongst priorities. It is research time.

However, while summer affords a defined window of time to dedicate to your pipettes, beakers, fieldwork, library archives, data analyses, writing, cultural analyses, and so on, it should not necessarily be a time completely devoid of teaching. This span of ~3 months provides us with a rare chance to simply think about teaching—to reflect while not simultaneously embedded in the daily practice. It is sometimes hard to reflect while you are in something, and summer provides the time, space and distance to contemplate one’s teaching.

As summer kicks into full gear, take some time each week to ponder and plan your teaching for next year. Do not do so haphazardly. Instead, work your way through these three prompts to focus your thinking and add value to your pedagogy:

1. Consider any feedback you have received about your teaching and determine:

I. What is worth addressing? Then,
II. What can you do to address it?
III. What should you do to address it?
IV. How are you going to address it?

Do not feel obligated to act on it now and create detailed plans. The details of how you can address it can be specified later in the summer. For now, the goal is to formulate some conceptual approaches to address feedback (I.e., I need a way to review exams more interactively with students, I’m going to balance my 1hr lectures with 1-2 minute activities twice a class, I’m going to bring my own research into the classroom and give students more context-based learning experiences). Not getting enough feedback, or interested in more feedback? Check here for ideas.

2. Get outside the daily grind of teaching and ask yourself some tough, but important questions: Why do you teach the way you do now? How did you learn to teach this way? How did you learn the material you are teaching when you were a student? Does the way you learned it match up, or contradict, the way you teach it? Given no constraints, how would you like students to engage in learning experiences in your class?

3. Think big, practice simple: As you reflect on the feedback you have received, how your pedagogy may shift as a result, how you answered the questions about your teaching, and the implications for your pedagogy, try to identify one thing to put into practice this fall. When the fall approaches and you begin actual course planning, take that one thing and put it into practice in such a way that its impact is observable, measurable, or tangible in some way. And, do so simply. It is ok (in most circumstances) to think about introducing something new or revised in one class session, or one assignment, in order to look at its impact and determine if it worked or not, and why. In effect, this process would create your own iterative course re-design loop (teaching practice > student performance > evaluation > informs new/revised teaching practice).

Summertime is short and fleeting. Before you know it, it will be August. Students will be moving back into their dorms. The campus will be abuzz. Classes will be starting in a matter of days. Your summer research project will be finished (you’re welcome for the positive affirmation). Time itself is an elusive resource, and the three points (consider any feedback, ask yourself some tough, but important questions, and think big, practice simple) often do not top, or even make, the priority list for use of time during a semester. That time is spent coming up with lesson plans, lecture notes, assignment sheets, grading, and much much more. Summer offers the rare occasion to prioritize the big questions and issues around your teaching, and to not have to do so at the cost of sacrificing research time. These are the kinds of questions and reflections best pondered during a commute, while eating lunch, before bed – really anytime you are not actively engaged in other professional work. Do not let summer simply be a sustained time away from teaching. Use the time wisely, judiciously, and prudently to know yourself as a teacher and articulate how you want to better engage Berkeley students in the learning experience.