The Literarian

A Contrast and Comparison of Teaching Methodology

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                “And remember, drafts are due on Wednesday.”

                Jason Gallagher stands before his class, outlining his expectations for the upcoming student conferences.  He moves comfortably in the front of the classroom, as though he has been teaching freshmen for years.  A student raises a hand, and Jason spies it quickly, calling on the student by name, deftly answering the question and providing further clarification.

                As I sit in the back of the room, observing the instructor’s interaction with his class, I am pleased to note the good rapport he has with the students, all eyes directed on Jason as he elaborates one point or another.  The class is attentive and quiet during his subsequent presentation as every now again, students raise their hands, and Jason calls on people by name – a nice touch.  His students seem more involved in the process, and as I take notes, I cannot help but wonder exactly what it is that makes this class more responsive than my own. 

                There are several factors that I observe which I, too, try to implement in my own classroom.  For instance, Jason is familiar with the faces seated around me, and he is obviously very prepared; he knows the reading assignment by heart and integrates concepts found in the current text with previous assignment they have read.  He poses good, engaging questions that spark the class’s interest, and he utilizes the whiteboard liberally to explicate different points.   Yet I do notice, however, that it seems to be his ability to relate the text to the student’s current cultural experience and understanding that seems most effective at keeping the students active and alert.

                “That’s a very good question,” the instructor points out.  “Can anyone tell us what the generational gap between professors and their students means for you?”  After a few moments of thoughtful silence, hands begin to rise.

                “That some of our experiences are different?” a student answers.

                “Good answer,” Jason responds, probing deeper for concrete examples of such differences. 

                I am somewhat envious of the rapport Jason has built with his class.  It differs from the rapport that I have constructed with my own class, not necessarily in degree but in kind.  Jason is much closer to the ages of his students, and his appearance garners him some measure of identification with the freshmen.  He appears as much a student as he does an instructor, and even his language communicates this identification with his students as when he says “our generation” when speaking with the class. He has this aura of being an “outsider” in academia while still standing at the front of the room.  It is a social and interpersonal balancing act that I admire.  It is certainly part of who Jason is as a teaching assistant.   This, I believe, garners a certain level of camaraderie and familiarity that I do not have with my class.

                In fact, my class refers to me as “Mr. Williams” even after I have invited them to call me “A.J.”  Their e-mail communications are equally formal, and I surmise that my own difference in age classifies me as an “elder,” someone older than some of their parents.  I enjoy this relationship because there is little chance for a “blurring of boundaries” that may pose a problem for other, younger instructors.  Still, there can certainly be an advantage to having a natural youthful identification with students although age does have its own advantages, too.

                “Right, right,” Jason nods, affirming the student’s remark.  “That’s exactly what they’re saying.”  He continues his line of open-ended questioning which spurs further thought and more questions and responses among the students. 

                More than lecturing, Jason introduces a Socratic-like methodology to his instruction that feels more second-nature than it is learned.  The paper that he holds in his right hand, a cheat sheet of sorts, allows him to guide the discussion along smoothly, with rarely a pause to struggle for material.  It is apparent to me that he has planned his lesson and presentation quite thoroughly, yet it seems that when something, a question or a comment, is thrown his way which deviates from his prepared notes, he “talks out” the issue and seeks confirmation from the students as to whether they agree or not with their classmate.  I like this.

                In fact, I see a great opportunity to introduce a more pointed use of rhetoric and answering questions with a question in my own classroom.  There is a lively cadence to his speech that makes the 50 minutes seem more like fifteen.  I have since tried to implement more of Jason’s style into my questioning with the class, yet I have found that outside of the mere crafting of words themselves, our styles will likely remain different.

                I tend to walk up and down among my student’s desks and often turn a chair around to sit among them.  I know that several of my students have already commented on their preference for direct interaction with faculty and instructors, so I try to be sensitive to this need.  When I do sit among them, I make strong eye contact and present my own questions as I glance around the room, their eyes following mine.  When peer reviews begin, I make certain I devote an equal amount of time with each small group, addressing their concerns and prompting my students for their questions, comments, or concerns. 

                Also, my conference times are considerably longer than Jason’s, almost half an hour long, and I praise them wherever I can, whether in the classroom or one-on-one.  I think that Jason and I both garner the respect of the students but on different terms.  Jason is an engaging, well-spoken, and strong lecturer, inducing the class to feel it is they who lead the discussion and not him!  This is a very good trait, one that I have admired in professors in our department such as Dr. Darcy and Dr. Bacon.  To guide a discussion by making the class feel they are leading it is a measure of good facilitation. 

My own students have to endure my constant upbeat attitude, whether it is Monday or Friday, and I find myself heaping praise on them when I see so much potential – which I always see.   Jason possesses this trait, too, as when he praises or affirms a comment or question in class.  I believe that Jason and I, for all of our slight differences, approach the classroom environment with one attitude: to encourage growth and learning however we can. 

Still, even more than garnering identification with his students, Jason also gains their respect.  A few times while he is speaking, Jason is inadvertently interrupted by a student wishing to express an opinion or question without waiting to be called upon.  Yet Jason simply stops speaking and allows the student to talk, with no visible trace of irritation or reticence on his part.  In fact, it appears to me that Jason relishes this opportunity for spontaneous dialogue and discussion.  His honest, open disposition makes for a “safe” and comfortable environment in which his students seem ready to share ideas and questions.

                It would have been interesting to see his class’s reaction in conferences or in peer review.  I would have loved to see more interaction so as to compare and contrast with my own, absorbing things I liked and noting others that make us different.  Sitting in on one session was informative; sitting in on two or three consecutive presentations may have been even more illuminating. 

                Taking all of this into perspective, I believe that I can better appreciate both the differences and similarities among our teaching styles and adapt a little of what I witnessed into my own repertoire.  It is encouraging to see others have success, too, and I believe that there is a lot of talent, energy, and enthusiasm which people like Jason bring to UNO and the graduate English department. 

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