Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, weeks 7 and 8: my teaching is observed

In the midst of grading papers and working on cover letters and a book abstract, I didn’t post last week. This week I will (finally) discuss my teaching partnership, which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts.

It’s hard to get feedback on teaching. My end-of-semester evaluations have always been positive, both quantitatively and qualitatively, but as everyone knows they’re not generally that useful: the comments are either vague (“I liked the course”) or inconsistent (some students love discussion, some wish I would lecture). I always give a mid-semester evaluation, which has historically been helpful in guiding particular classes but isn’t always generalizable, and has the same drawbacks as the end-of-semester evals — students don’t always know what they want or need.

So when I got the chance to participate in a “reflective teaching partnership,” I jumped at it. I’ve done this kind of thing before: while at UVA I worked for the Teaching Resource Center, observing other instructors’ classes and consulting about teaching, and I went out of my way to get feedback on my own classes, even having one videotaped. But now I’m in a new position as a VAP, at a new institution, teaching new kinds of classes — I wanted some feedback.

The name “partnership” is somewhat of a misnomer (the program is run by an emerita professor) but captures the important idea that it is non-evaluative. So there was no real pressure on me — it was purely for my own benefit. Initially, I was most interested in getting feedback about my senior-level course, since I’d never taught this level before, and since the once-a-week class meeting is new to me. So the first observation was of my Dickens and Childhood class. Since that class is going so well, though (and that day was no exception), I asked that the second observation be of my survey course, which also meets once a week. That course hadn’t been going as smoothly, and I wanted to see if I could do anything differently. As it turns out, the day of the visit was probably the best of the semester. We were reading Frankenstein, a book I love and that I’ve found teaches very well, and Barbauld’s “Washing Day.” Students really got into the discussion, with a level of sophistication that I’d seen only rarely with that group. Subsequent classes have also been pretty good, and I think the syllabus change (as I discussed earlier, I cut down the reading load) helped a lot.

Partly because both discussions went well, the comments I received were unequivocally positive. Vague praise is unhelpful, but this praise was very specific, and took place over several conversations (we met for lunch before the first observation, for 20 minutes or so after each class, and again for breakfast a few weeks later). These conversations helped me articulate some of my goals as a teacher, and confirmed some things I had hoped were working, but wasn’t 100% sure. My most useful reflections:

  1. My teaching style involves giving a lot of time over to students. This can be risky, especially in a survey course, when we cover a lot of texts and many have particular roles to play in the syllabus: Frankenstein and “Washing Day,” for example, were intended to challenge the male-poet-focused view of Romanticism I had (deliberately) set up in the preceding weeks. After the observation, I’m more confident in my ability to guide a discussion toward particular goals, in a manner that is clear to an outside observer but doesn’t feel overbearing and still lets students’ voices determine the trajectory.
  2. Since, to paraphrase Shelley, students will learn from my example if not from my precepts, I try to demonstrate the skills I want them to use in discussion: tying comments to page numbers and (especially important in the survey) connecting the text to works we read earlier in the semester. This, too, is evidently visible to an observer — and, what’s more, my students are picking up on it. They’re getting very good at referring to specific page numbers, and are bringing back texts from earlier in the syllabus to inform discussions of later works.
  3. I always come to class with a few general themes, and the page numbers of passages I know we will probably want to talk about (I bring far more passages than we would ever get to). What this conveys, apparently, is mastery of the text, making students feel comfortable that, if they can’t find the textual support they need, I can help them out. That’s good to know, since sometimes I wonder if students notice all the work I put into preparing for class (my notes are in Word files, which means they’re saved — which means that I’m way ahead of the game when teaching texts I’ve taught before, something I’ve come to appreciate recently).

These are all things I work on, but I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to render them so explicitly until someone else pointed them out, and we were able to have a conversation about them. I came away feeling confident about these classes, and about my teaching.

Does anyone else have advice about getting feedback on teaching? Or about classroom observations in general?

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