Sunday, April 27, 2014

Things I didn't know before becoming a professor: #1 How to Teach

In order to be a professor* you need a PhD.  The two responsibilities you have as a professor are to do good research and to teach well.

To get a PhD, you need to do good research, so you're well equipped to handle this.

To get my PhD, I did not have to teach.  I had TA'd a few times.  But I had put in 10 years in college/grad school.  I had taken countless classes, some with great teachers, some less great.  So I figured no big deal; I can teach.

I've seen good movies.  I've got a good story.  I can make a good movie.

These are some things I didn't know about teaching before becoming a professor.

You are television.
I learned this from Michael Cirino in a very different context.

For the time that you are in front of students, you are television.  You are putting on a show. If your students don't engage with you, your students won't learn anything beyond what they get in a book.     That's not to say that you're entertainment, but you are performing.

My act isn't strong yet, but it's getting better.

Don't skimp on the basics.
In an early version of a Machine Learning class, I decided that I wanted a lecture on spectral clustering. It was a topic I was interested in, but didn't have a ton of experience with. I read a lot. I worked out math.  By the time I had a lecture ready, I was feeling good about it.  I went to class, delivered my A material....blank stares.  It was a total dud.

It wasn't that the lecture was bad, but I hadn't earned it.  Because I wanted to get to a topic that was exciting to me, I had rushed through or omitted a lot of background material.  I had completely set myself up for failure.  When I went back to figure out where I had went wrong, I realized it was months earlier, when I was planning the syllabus.

Every time I teach a new class, I tell myself that I'm going to have half a dozen or so lectures ready to go by the first day of class.  Sometimes I hit this number, usually I don't.  But I've come to realize that lectures are a lot easier if you have a clear structure ready for the class.  Lately, I've become less concerned about having complete lectures prepared.  Instead of writing a few complete lectures, I try to have a fairly detailed outline of every class.  This helps me focus on the big picture.

When I have a clear direction for how the pieces fit together, the course is better.  Even if that means I don't get to the most exciting material, or have an excuse to learn something new. 

Preparing a lecture takes an unbelievable amount of time.
Truly unbelievable.  In my first semester, it took 8-10 hours to prepare each 75 minute lecture.  Add in writing assignments and exams, grading, office hours, and 2.5 hours in front of students.  Thankfully, I was only teaching one class.  But at CUNY a full load is 3 classes in a semester.  

Most of your time is spent with students who are struggling.
"Do you learn from your students?" No. I teach them.  "Are you inspired by your students?"

My PhD students are great.  They bring some exciting ideas and papers, and there's a collaborative learning that happens there.  They inspire me and drive me.  Absolutely.

Students in class, I have a very limited and lopsided relationship with.  I don't think I've ever had an office hours meeting with a student that took material from class and took it a step further.  It's almost always something to the effect of going over material from the previous lecture or exercise in more detail.  There's immense satisfaction from guiding someone to understanding challenging material, but it takes a lot of time.

Students cheat.  A lot.
I have had a student cheat in almost every course I've taught.  (This isn't unique to CUNY. Ask around.)

The cheating meeting is the most emotional human experience, I've had with anyone other than a family member or romantic partner.

The student usually cries.

The student usually tries to negotiate out of the repercussions.

Denial?  Not so much.  Most people own up to it pretty quickly.  Forceful denial is a red flag for me. Be open to the possibility that you made a mistake. Maybe one party knew about the cheating and the other didn't.  Maybe the similarities between two assignments really were random.

I've had over a dozen of these conversations.  Here's my best advice:  Be prepared. Be able to clearly explain how you know cheating happened.  Be able to point to your syllabus and university student handbook about the penalties for cheating. Absolutely document everything you can about the exchange.  Send the student an email after the fact, recapping the major points.   Expect that the student will scramble for an out -- some way to lessen the impact -- don't let them.  At this point, I have a loose script. It's almost as formulaic as a five-paragraph essay.

A. It's clear to me that you cheated on this assignment/exam.

B. Here's how I know.  (it's about here where they usually admit to it.)

C. Because of this you will be getting a zero on the assignment/failing the class/getting expelled, and I will be send a letter with this information to the department.  (Or whatever your policy is.)

Put it in writing.  Get it in writing.
Almost all I knew about teaching I learned from a video (VHS!) I was shown while at Columbia.  This was an impromptu sharing, it seemed like it was a tape that was passed around the CS department and shown by professors to their grad students.  It was a lecture by John Kender called something like "How to Teach".  It was fantastic.  It's similar to this video on iTunes.  Before you teach, watch it.

The most significant lesson I remember from this lecture was that a syllabus is a contract, an assignment is a contract, an exam is a contract.  It is your responsibility to outline the terms of this contract as clearly as you can.  This is what you will learn from this class. This is what to expect from this course, assignment, exam.  If you do this, you will get this grade.

Most of the difficulty I have had with students and disputes can be traced back to not being rock solid in the language used in a syllabus, or on an assignment, or (and this was a surprise) not putting things that were discussed in a meeting, in writing.

If you make an arrangement outside your syllabus with a student around any element of your course, shoot them an email after the meeting recapping what was discussed.  I didn't know this before teaching, but wish I had.

What now?
I've definitely become a better teacher over the last five years. I've made a lot of mistakes and I still do.

Each time I repeat a course, I toy with its structure. My boiler plate syllabus has gotten tighter.

The broader point is when I started, I was starting cold.

There must be ways, programs, seminars, etc. that aim to teach people how to teach.  I was barely exposed to any as a graduate student; I know many of my peers weren't either.  Very little was available before I was in front of students for the first time.

It's easy to gripe about a system that left me unprepared, but now i'm on the other side of the equation. I have graduate students, some of whom will go on to be professors.  What can I (and my institution) do to make sure they have the skills to be good teachers when they land tenure-track jobs (which of course they all will).

Practice. Practice. Practice.
For me, becoming a better teacher has taken practice.  I think that's the only way to learn how you are going to teach.  And there aren't enough opportunities to practice this.  (I've taught Algorithms 4 times, and Machine Learning 3.  That may sound like a lot, but it's only 2 or 3 opportunities to revise structure, lectures and graded material.)

At CUNY, graduate students teach a lot**, so many of my students will have experience in front of students.  The downside to this is 1) teaching takes a lot of time.  This means that they're not focusing on their research.  and 2) Often they're not given the responsibility/opportunity to design the class themselves.  Instead they teach a section of a larger course with a fixed set of assignments and exams.  This leaves students with plenty of experience lecturing, and leading discussions, but less experience with the mechanics of running a course (which is where your teaching lives or dies).

I think one solution might be to have graduate students prepare and teach mini-courses, complete with syllabus, and graded assignments.  These should be short, maybe 6 or fewer meetings over a month or so.  This keeps the workload more manageable compared to teaching a full course.  But it would allow students to practice structuring material, and writing homeworks and exams.  They shouldn't be offered during regular course periods, but in summer or between terms.

I think the best approach would be for this mini-course to be on the student's dissertation topic.  First of all, they'll already know a ton about it.  Second, if they go on to a tenure-track job, chances are they'll have an opportunity to reuse some of these lectures, either in a(nother) course of their own or at a conference tutorial.  Third, lecturing on a topic, and fielding questions can bring to light all the things you don't know or are unsure of.  But the practice would be useful even if it was on some other topic.

The biggest problem I see with this idea is getting the incentives right.  To teach something like this takes a lot of work, and there's little reward.  Moreover, there's little incentive for other students to take one of these mini-courses (and to do the homeworks/assignments).   MIT has a thriving IAP program with a ton of activities and minicourses ranging from the technical (some for credit) to the slightly absurd to one of my favorite things.  The IAP is well established in the MIT culture.  Can something similar be started up elsewhere?

There's no way to do this through the university registrar without a lot of bureaucracy.  However, if a department, or division, were to unofficially "bless" this kind of activity by 1) including a list of course offerings, 2) document who taught what when, and 3) conferring completion "certificates" (and 4) finding teaching space), the publicity of a program like this could encourage students to participate on both sides.

There are a lot of reasons that a program like this would fail to get off the ground, but if there were a mechanism for graduate students to get practice running courses in a relatively low-risk environment, I am confident that they would be better prepared for tenure-track positions.

I would have been.


* tenure-track
** maybe too much, but that's a different discussion
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