Next Week In My Classes: Who, Me? Intimidating?

Teaching evaluations (or “Student Ratings of Instruction” as we apparently call them these days) are a notoriously … imperfectguide for future conduct. Probably because we all spent many, many years being graded, professors nonetheless read them obsessively compulsively carefully and fret about freak out pay special attention to the most negative ones, because at the end of the day, or the term, we want everyone to like us want to get an A hope to improve our pedagogy.

I haven’t seen my evaluations from last term yet, though I’m sure they’ll arrive in my inbox any day now (we’ve recently switched to online evaluations, which has added a new layer of complications and made the results even less robust than before). I have seen last year’s, however, and they were the usual blend of enthusiasm and disdain, gratitude and offense. Also as usual the balance tipped in the right direction, assuming that it is preferable to have more happy than discontented students. And, again as usual, what I’ve tried to focus on in them is not the outliers (good or bad) but any pattern of feedback (I so hate to think of these as “ratings,” as if I’m one option in a giant Cineplex) that teaches me something about how I teach — or at least about how I taught last year.

I did find one, and it was something I hadn’t seen before: a number of comments from students in my section of our first-year “Introduction to Literature” class who felt I was “intimidating.” It wasn’t by any means a unanimous perspective, but enough students used that very word to give me food for thought.

Now, I should say that I don’t consider it an altogether bad thing that some of my students found me or my course intimidating. To a certain extent, that was the effect I was going for, at least at the start of term. This is because I have run into enough Intro students who are taking English only to meet a requirement and fully expect it to be their “bird” course, or at any rate who are strongly inclined to make it a lower priority than their “hard” courses or the ones they see as more important (often, their science courses). There are also a lot of students in first year, including some  who consider themselves prospective English majors, who are more used to “expressing themselves” in English classes than learning specialized vocabulary and using it for well-reasoned critical analysis — who are surprised, that is, to find themselves faced with intellectually strenuous tasks and high standards. There are also, of course, students whose previous preparation — or just whose attitude and expectations — make them quite prepared to work and think hard, but they are typically outnumbered.

As a result, I usually start out emphasizing the stringency of the course. The tone I aim for is cheerful but uncompromising, about the logistics of the course (requirements, deadlines, policies, etc.) but also, and more importantly, about the skills and content it aims to teach. The message I seek to convey is quite simple: It is possible to do a better or a worse job of literary analysis. The goal of this class is to help you do a better job, which means both reading better (a matter of both knowledge and skills) and writing better (again, a matter of both knowledge and skills). It’s hard work, but it’s also fun and creative and important work (because the classroom is far from the only place we read, or write). I take it seriously, and so should you. I am passionate and enthusiastic about it, and I hope you will be too, but at the end of the day it’s not about what you like, it’s about what you learn.

In other words, I want them to take the class seriously and understand that they will have to work to get good results. It’s meant to be aspirational: I hope they will be motivated to rise to the challenge. But it’s also meant to be cautionary: don’t think you can phone it in, don’t blow me off. I mix in some inspiration too (some discussion about the value and beauty of literature), but to open the term, it’s the perspiration I usually emphasize, so that they’ll be ready to put in the work that enables us to have good, serious discussions about literature and criticism as we move through the term.

My first question, then, is: since I have always run the class more or less the same way, why was last year the first time I’m aware of that the intimidation factor persisted and became inhibiting? I was aware that the group was not (collectively) very relaxed: I fretted quite a lot last year about the low level of participation, for instance. It wasn’t a disaster — it ebbed and flowed — but compared to other sections of intro that I’ve taught, this was far from the most lively. And my second question is, how much, if anything, should I change?

I have a theory about the first question, which is that last year was the smallest section of intro I’ve ever taught at Dalhousie. Until recently, all of our first-year sections were capped at 55 and taught with one instructor and one TA. Now we have a range of class sizes, including one giant section (360, with multiple TAs), some in the middle, and some “baby” sections at 30 with just the instructor (our Writing Requirement rules mandate a maximum ratio of 30:1). I had a baby section last year that settled down at around 27 students. You’d think that would mean rainbows and lollipops and all good things, and it certainly felt luxurious in some respects, but my standard strategies evolved for bigger rooms and bigger numbers. In a group of nearly 60, the critical mass of both unmotivated and talkative students is bigger, so more students need the chastening “listen up!” approach while more students are present who are willing to join in a class discussion. My professorial presence is also more diffuse (if that makes sense) in a bigger room: in our smaller room, I may have seemed to be more “in your face.” And while in some ways it can be harder to put your hand up with more people around, in other ways you don’t stand out as much, so it can feel like the stakes are lower. I may be way off in these speculations, of course, but my guess is that I need to approach the smaller section (which is what I have again this term) aware that it’s a more intimate group and setting and thus requires a somewhat softer touch. What I don’t want to change is the overall message: that this is not a course to be taken lightly; that it requires attention and studying and commitment, not just showing up; that grades in English are not just a matter of opinion but of expertise and judgment.

So! With all this turning around in my head, as you can imagine I am both excited and anxious about our first meeting on Monday. I have been revising my notes, and I’m making plans for an ice-breaker exercise, nothing too fancy but something to get them talking to each other a bit on the first day, rather than mostly just listening or talking to me. Something I tell all of my classes is that literary criticism is something you get better at by doing — which includes class discussion (at some point I usually explain the concept of “coduction“) as well as both informal and formal writing. I hope that if they all hear their own voices in the classroom on the first day, in a nonthreatening context, it will ease them into the more important conversations to come. And I hope that if I set myself up initially as both professor and facilitator, they will find me less (but not un-) intimidating.

Do you have thoughts or experiences about being either intimidating or intimidated in class? I certainly remember professors I found intimidating, but I didn’t see that as their failing but rather as mine. Often, they were the ones I most admired and hoped to impress. I find it hard to imagine myself as intimidating (I often think of that wonderful line in Middlemarch about our “poor little eyes” behind the “big mask and the speaking-trumpet”) … but I realize we don’t always know how we strike other people, and I have occasionally had other indications that I seem harder, or harsher, than I knew. (I remember one of my own professors saying to me – quite out of the blue, it seemed! – “I always wonder what you’re thinking when you look at me that way.” Perhaps the natural cast of my face is just judgmental?)

10 Comments to Next Week In My Classes: Who, Me? Intimidating?

  1. January 4, 2014 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    I think your points about adjusting your persona for a smaller group are good ones, but I’d also say, as someone who regularly teaches writing courses capped at 25, that in a smaller group (especially of intro-level students) it seems easier to have a fluke section that develops a strong personality of its own regardless of what you do. With so few students, it doesn’t take big numbers to get a critical mass of non-participants that drags down the energy of everyone’s discussion–as the handful of people trying to participate get tired of carrying a bigger load; in the same way, a handful of great contributors can raise the level of the whole class.

    In a 25-person section you’re more likely to get a grade range that skews higher or lower than typical than you will with bigger numbers. The same thing happens with classroom atmosphere. Our students get priority registration based on things like GPA, so if you’re teaching at a “hot” time you can end up with a stronger section of students than someone in an unpopular slot. So, as you know, it’s good to reflect, but it’s not necessarily about you.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      January 4, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      That’s a really good point about the mysterious alchemy of “class personality.” Sometimes there’s just no predicting or changing the dynamics. I had a very quiet group last term in what has usually been one of my more lively courses, and then an unusually energetic group in my biggest class, where sometimes the numbers (90-ish) make people reluctant to participate. So I try not to sweat that kind of thing too much or take it too personally.

  2. January 4, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I always think student evaluations means: evaluate how you felt in your class with the added bonus of being able to blame someone else for that. I think your theory about being in a smaller group sounds perfectly plausible – students feel the burden of greater responsibility and greater attention on them individually and hence they feel more intimidated by that. I honestly think there is nothing you can do about appearing ‘intimidating’ because the sheer fact you are up front of class teaching will be enough to intimidate the more self-conscious student. Students I’ve taught have in the past admitted they found me intimidating to begin with, which underlines if nothing else the sheer nonsense of these judgement – university profs don’t come any fluffier than me! A synonym for intimidating in student speak is ‘intelligent’, so my only advice would be to read that word in its place!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      January 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      “The burden of greater responsibility” is a really good way to put it — and it can oppress the keen participants as well, as they realize that it’s going to be up to them. I like your idea about substituting “intelligent.” :-)

  3. RT's Gravatar RT
    January 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Intimidating? Really? My memories of being a student include becoming a better student because of intimidating professors. Now that I on the other side of classroom, behind the podium, I think being intimidating is a good thing. I am not there to be a friend. I am not there to be an equal. I am there to “motivate” learning. By modeling the “joys of learning” and by being intimidating — demanding excellence and not settling for laziness — I think I have been effective. And as for those student evaluations, even though we do not know the identities of the evaluators, isn’t it funny how we know that the poor students say the most damning things about us, but the better students tend to have something more useful and objective to say. Well, the bottom line is this: you should take pride in being intimidating.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      January 4, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      One of the best pieces of advice I got as I was starting out in this line of work was “be friendly but not their friend” — I agree that it’s important to recognize both boundaries and the reason I am behind the podium (figuratively, if not literally), not sitting among them. Expertise matters and ought to be respected. But that said, I do want engaged participation and risk-taking, both of which are essential to learning.

  4. January 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more about the need to be friendly but not their friend. I probably had the advantage here in coming into University education from the primary classroom where one of the worst things you can do is try to be the children’s friend. They need more stability from you than that. Where first year literary groups are concerned with my smaller groups I would build the course in such a way as to make time in the first session for them all to talk about how they saw themselves as readers. I would start to make it quite clear that it it was perfectly acceptable to spend some of your time reading fantasy or crime fiction and I expected all of them to make a contribution. Then, although there were set texts that we were studying if I could make a point later in the course with reference to something they had read I would do so. I found that really helped to promote discussion.

  5. January 5, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    With small classes, it’s pure luck as to what students you get. In some of the classes I teach (ESL for prospective uni students, both UG and PG – capped at 18), you can get a great class one semester and a weak one next time around. As for intimidating, well, speaking softly and carrying a big stick has always worked for me ;)

  6. January 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    I like how you used the strikeout feature in this post. Very playful, and it made me laugh. Thanks for that. I’m always interested in your posts about teaching. I’ve never been a teacher, but I have been a student, and I spent most of my student years feeling intimidated by my professors as well as by other students. Feeling intimidated seemed to mean something along the lines of . . . “god, this person knows so much, and I know so little. How could anything I have to say sound like anything to her/him?” I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t even know I had any thoughts. I now believe that this feeling had more to do with me than with the prof or anything she/he intended me to feel. I do regret all those wasted opportunities.

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