July 2008

Barbara J. King

features

James Lang's On Course: College Teaching and the Hall of Mirrors

There we were in Paris, armed with American guidebooks and my high school French. My goal for the single Sunday of our vacation last month was to show off to my family a place I’d been as a teenager, the over-the-top, gold-gilded, chandelier-studded Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, playground of Louis Quatorze, Marie Antoinette, and other ancient royals.  

Fueled by the previous night’s religieuse chocolat (eating it was a sacred experience), I set out to follow what seemed to be elementary instructions in the guidebook: Take the train from Gare de Montparnasse to Versailles; disembark, walk to the Chateau (or Palace); feast your eyes. With a husband in recovery from knee surgery and a teenage daughter not overly pedestrian-prone as traveling companions, I was keen to take the most direct route possible. This, supposedly, was it.   

Hours later, riding sweaty and fatigued on the Metro back to our apartment, I mentally ticked off a shortlist of Versailles-Day surprises: the truly impressive (and unscripted) distance between Montparnasse’s metro stop and its train station; the time lost to seeking, once inside the station, the local-train ticket-seller; my spectacular fall, during this quest, onto hard cement, causing me to land not only on my knee (oh! spousal empathy!) but also in a puddle of what my daughter swore was Parisian pee; riding the train only to rumble up to a disembarkation point considerably more distant from the Chateau than the guidebook promised; the 90 minutes under a broiling sun endured in order to purchase entry to the Chateau; and most stunning of all, the fearsome tide of tourists that propelled us along from room to royal room, all of us high on the fumes from our collective sweat. When we popped out the other end like a cork from a bottle, parched, we envisioned a cool drink and a stroll in the immense gardens, but -- tant pis! -- the guidebook’s assurance of free flora brought us only a snort from the guards. It was back to the ticket-sellers, or to the train, for us.           

That the Hall of Mirrors was as splendid as I’d remembered, and that I’m enough of a traveler to take most surprises in stride, couldn’t stem our anguished cries ringing out into the French dusk: How come travel guidebooks never tell you this stuff? (OK, my conscience recognizes that I can’t blame my knee-cracking tumble on the guidebook…)  

That evening, while nursing the guidebook grumps -- and my bruises and blisters -- I got to thinking about the book open on my night-table back home: James Lang’s On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Sure, I was an ocean, and mental light-years, away from my classroom. Too, September will mark my 20th, not my first, year of full-time college teaching. But how-to-teach books are irresistible to me. I wondered if Lang’s book would succumb, as do too many others of its ilk, to the travel-guidebook phenomenon: heavy on basic mechanics and polite abstractions, light on strategies that anticipate the contingencies of daily life.  

Venn-diagramed, the challenges of teaching overlap with those of travel. Both require a self-immersion in a dynamic, unpredictable environment, and setting in motion genuine communication with the locals. Yes, for college teachers, it’s important to acquire the equivalent of a good Metro map, the how-to’s of syllabus construction, lecture writing, and goosing a flaccid discussion. But it’s the thornier aspects of campus life, like the hairier aspects of travel, that most tax the ingenuity and the stamina. How to talk with the student who comes to an office hour not just troubled, but in full-blown psychosis? Or the student whose blatant cheating sends you to the Honor Council, at which point she deluges you with drink-induced hate email? How to respond upon discovering that all those convivial faculty faces from your on-campus interview now utter astonishing antipathies about your colleagues, all the while trying to recruit you to their side, the side of the just and true? How do you keep your sanity while juggling multiple first-time courses and negotiating campus-culture shock?   

Extra credit to Lang for surprising me, in the most positive of ways. Briskly moving through the basics, he tackles the hard questions, including versions of the ones I posed above, with humor and insight. And he mentions sanity-maintenance twice before the bottom of page one! That’s fodder for street cred, in my book. Lang, whose field is English literature, assistant-directed for three years a university center for teaching excellence; he knows the pedagogy literature cold. For me, though, his (serious) credibility derives largely from his successful teaching of seven courses a year. Seven! That makes my four-a-year deal seem like a piece of fine Parisian cake.

The book’s “central conceit” is that its chapters track the weeks of a first-ever teaching semester. It begins with the syllabus, moves to “first days of class,” and on into technology, lectures, discussions, and so on. By chapter three, Lang unmasks “the principle that underpins every page of this book: Vary your teaching methods.” Over and over, Lang presents ideas and anecdotes for how to make that principle work in the classroom, even for large lecture classes.     

Let’s get right to the litmus test. How does Lang handle some of the dynamic unpredictable stuff?   

Cheating. Here’s a genuine academic universal, to judge from the statistics. Odds are that new faculty will experience early on the “most awful and vexing moments” of their career, those that accompany the discovery of a student cheater. Lang explains how to cut students’ temptation (for essays, create unique assignments that can’t be paper-milled) and how to handle the inevitable when it does occur (follow your college’s procedures, don’t get creative). I benefited most from his insistence that faculty open their eyes to how confused students are. Out of ignorance more often than lack of character, students embrace “cut and paste plagiarism,” which means they use “a sentence or two (or more) from different sources on the Internet and weav[e] this information together into a paper without appropriate citation.” For faculty who live and breathe academia’s code of honor, it’s a useful reminder that we must spell out cleanly, even at the college level, what not to do, and why.
 
Common Problems. I’d subtitle this chapter Feel the urge if you must, but do nothing. On faculty politics, Lang nails it: “One person complaining about another person, including a faculty member who complains about the chair, does not tell you anything you can trust about either of them… Smile and nod, but don’t express an opinion about anything until you figure out what’s really going on.”

Another problem may not be common exactly, but happens once in a blue moon even to the best of us. There you are, in office hours, diligently explaining the differences between apes and monkeys, and the next thing, you’re tumbling down the rabbit hole, your chemical self at keen attention, your brain whirring with Whoa, this student really has my attention (and not just because he’s remarkably mature and intellectually engaging…). The thing to do is not panic, and follow Lang’s advice to the letter: Indulge none of these feelings, not even to the slightest degree, not even if the student is not in your class and never will be. “So,” Lang sums up, “steer very clear of acting on any sexual impulses you have for your students; sublimate those feelings into wholesome activities like painting Civil War figurines or learning to play the recorder.” 

Students as People. As obvious as it seems, in the throes of an intense and challenging class, it’s easy to forget: “We see only the tiniest slices of our students’ lives, and those tiny slices rarely reveal to us what matters to them most, or what major events or people are shaping their lives right now.” Over the years, I’ve taught in a state of sorrow, of joy, and of exhaustion, without discussing why; on these rare occasions I’ve wanted badly to be elsewhere but rooted myself to a good teaching effort by sheer willpower. Surely the students experience parallel states of distraction and upset. What happens when students’ serious personal issues sneak into the classroom or an advising session?

Lang says: stick compassionately to your standards; listen, but don’t counsel; know your campus; and protect yourself. In other words, turf the tough cases to where they can be helped. This quartet of strategies is meant to ensure fairness and help for the students, and to shield faculty from inadvertently making a bad situation (and thus their career) worse.

I wished for Lang’s substantive take on Facebook. As a Facebook neonate, I am struggling with professor-student etiquette. My rule is never to friend-request a student -- it seems just a tad creepy. This way, when I approve a student’s own friend-request to me, I know she has made the choice herself to let me a little ways (I hope just a little ways) into her personal life. And I’m scrupulous about the professionalism of my own profile.

Now and again, I wanted to show up at Lang’s office hours and argue with him. In the chapter on grading, he caps all manner of sensible advice with a wrong turn. “If teachers write too many comments, students tend to be overwhelmed,” he says. “You should not add a dozen grammatical corrections to the two or three elements that you are trying to guide them into correcting.”  Pet peeve alert! Sure, this approach will “help save you time by limiting the quantity of your comments” (and to be fair, Lang’s logic is learning-based, not time-based) but it’s the last thing we need when so many kids, even at top schools, write poorly.

On Course is a vital resource for educators, even those who don’t fit the first-year college-teaching market. My copy is dotted with notes about new ideas to try out in my lecture class this fall. Happily though, I took away from Lang’s guidebook much more than techniques. Reading it, I realized that to teach semester after semester, year after year, becomes a Hall of Mirrors of its own, a path to self-study and reflection. What sort of teacher have I been, and what sort of teacher do I want to be? As Lang writes, “If you are in the classroom as a necessary evil that enables you to pursue your research and get paid for it, you are likely to keep your persona an impersonal one; if you are here because you love inspiring young minds, your persona may be a warmer and more open one.”

I teach at one of the country’s finest undergraduate institutions. When I’m with students, I hope that I project an attitude that Lang gets exactly right -- it’s neither too sugary nor too hyped to say that it’s all about inspiring young minds. Thanks to Lang for inspiring my older one.

-- Barbara J. King wonders if they give out chocolate bars for 20 years of teaching.