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Faculty Bulldog Days Review

It’s all over but the reflection for the professors and for the CTL organizing staff, and I have finished sitting in on three classes during Faculty Bulldog Days* for spring 2015. Here are some thoughts about that.

Before I talk about the teaching, I can’t thank enough the professors who volunteered to have someone come observe their class. We don’t have a strong and pervasive culture of openness at Yale, so I thank the professors for standing up and making their teaching work more visible. In the same breath, I want to thank the students in the classes for having a stranger (two, in one of the classes I attended) in their midst. The largest of the class sessions I attended maxed out at 20 students, making interlopers noticeable. Naturally, the five-student class had discussed opening up beforehand, but even the others accommodated visitors seamlessly.

So what about that teaching? Because the sign-up form didn’t have a box on it to check for “Yes, I would like any minor mistake or idiosyncrasy made in my class to be splashed across a low-traffic instructional technology blog”, I’ll only mention things I noticed and liked. (Try not to chafe too much at the vagaries, because even revealing the discipline of a class would pull back the curtain a little too much.)

  • A particularly nice technique I saw was using an un-articulated motif in the class but then at some point in the session raising the motif to a conscious level. If activating prior knowledge contributes to learning, working with this idea at varying scales of “prior” — even within one class — makes sense.
  • Another teacher, in an effort that seemed effective, very noticeably phased in participation over the course of the class. Students engaged in heavier lifting at the beginning, with the professor only nudging along; as the discussion got denser and more challenge-laden (in a good academic way, I thought), the professor increasingly helped portage.
  • In a final example, and at the risk of being banal, one teacher engaged very personally with the work under discussion. Fortunately, the work was comedic, so laughter demonstrated their** engagement, but that personal commitment can make the difference for some students.

Taking on affective filters is a fine line, of course: Are you giving students a glimpse into personal meaning or risking scaring them off something they don’t connect with in the same way? My bias is for not hiding how you feel about what you’re teaching, for not pretending that scholars hold absolutely everything at arm’s-length. By the same token, of course, you have to model critical engagement with the topic and critical engagement with how you feel about it.

I pepper my thoughts with conditionals and hedging, because this was drive-by observation. Some classes gave me prep work, some didn’t. Even so, all the people involved in these classes had worked with and through scores of ideas, hundreds of pages of reading, and hours of lecture and/or discussion before I got there and without which I can’t form any strong conclusions. This highlights one of the difficulties in mounting this sort of event. While there’s no explicit pressure to participate, the implicit social expectations don’t go away. If you’re an untenured faculty member teaching in front of a high-ranking admin, who may be from a radically different field’s teaching traditions, how do you keep it together? There’s enough potential benefit (and actual benefit for me) in this event that I hope we do it again, but I hope we never stop trying to make sure it’s a scaffolding exercise for the participating faculty rather than an unrewarding chore.

* Honestly, I wish we’d called it something like Classroom Open House or Sharing Our Teaching, or similar, as I don’t make the same associations with a prospective student event that I do with this. I do hope, though, that prospective faculty hires are indeed able to sit in on a class or three, and not just in their department of recruitment, during their visits here.

** Gender-obscuring pronouns. Live it, love it.

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