Stop giving me teaching advice -

Stop giving me teaching advice

Prof. Pettigrew on why teaching tips may be useless


Photo by Tulane Public Relations/Flickr

When you’ve been a prof as long as I have, you are bound to reach a point where you go from resenting other professors who won’t change their teaching strategies, to resenting all those professors trying to tell you how to do your job.

I crossed this threshold last week reading this article by Rick Sheridan in Faculty Focus. Sheridan provides five tips to get students to come to class. My mental responses were as follows: no, no, okay I guess but no, hell no, and no. Let’s look at each of Sheridan’s suggestions.

1. Prepare learning contracts for students to sign at the beginning of the semester so that students know what’s expected of them.

No. Because students already get a detailed description of what’s expected of them. It’s called a syllabus. What difference does it make if you get students to sign an unenforceable document agreeing to do what they’ve already agreed to do when they enrolled in the course?

2. Give unannounced quizzes to make sure students come to class with the reading done.

No. For one thing, students should do the reading because it’s the course reading. More practically, all these quizzes take up time. A week of university class time is only 150 minutes long. If I give a weekly quiz that takes, let’s say, 15 minutes to administer, I’ve given up 3.6 hours in a twelve week semester, over a full week of class time that could have been spent, you know, teaching.

3. Provide handouts in class, but do not post them on your course website.

Okay, I guess, but no. I don’t have a course website.

4. Collect contact information from students at the beginning of the semester, including their phone numbers and email addresses. Call or e-mail students who are frequently absent and encourage them to attend more often.

Hell, no. University students are adults, and I am not going to spend a single second trying to track down a student who hasn’t shown up. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved.

5. Think of ways to keep the morale high by learning student’s names, preparing interesting lessons, providing examples that students can relate to and so on.

No. I’m all for high morale, but in a large class there is little point in trying to memorize students’ names since the good students will make sure you know and the bad students will appreciate the anonymity. As for teaching so students can relate, I take just the opposite view. The aim should not be to make the subject matter relevant to students lives, but rather to show them how it already relevant to their lives, whether they knew it before or not.

None of this is meant to disparage Sheridan or his approaches. I’m sure they work for him, but I am equally sure they won’t work for me.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the whole genre of teaching tips is very useful at all.

Every teaching situation is unique: a particular prof teaching a particular course to a particular mix of students at a particular place. No set of heres-what-you-do instructions is likely to apply.

And maybe knowing that is the real value of having been a prof as long as I have.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Follow @toddpettigrew and @maconcampus on Twitter. Click here to like us on Facebook.


Stop giving me teaching advice

  1. Some people are adults at 17. Some are not. I feel sorry for the students who need a little extra help to make the bumpy transition from high school to university. They are not likely to get it from Professor Pettigrew who has no interest in knowing any of his students except the good ones who draw themselves to his attention. The rest are assumed to be “bad students” who desire “anonymity” instead of possibly the anxious and afraid. Professor Pettigrew had better be a superior lecturer to earn his comfortable stipend. Lord knows, his students are not going to get anything extra.

  2. Having recently gone back to university for a second degree, and being a professional pilot and flight instructor, the one change that I would like to see: professors should receive some training in how to effectively teach. The current approach is one of, well if they’re smart enough to have a Ph.D. they must be smart enough to teach.

    I agree with your article above, but think there is much room for improvement.

    • Adam,

      If you haven’t seen it, you might be interested in my earlier post on this issue. Many of the commenters there support your view.

  3. I agree with everything Professor Pettigrew says here. (But then I taught him twenty years ago, and even remember his name.)

  4. It may be the case that students aren’t adults at 17, but if they’re not adults (regardless of age), they shouldn’t be going to university. They should take a year to work, travel and grow up before investing in their future.
    University is not there to just get a degree. Students are supposed to actually learn something. If they’re only interested in the grade, and not the material, in the end they’ll learn nothing.

  5. Another example of a tenured, “entitled wannabe aristocrat”, who doesn’t need to improve his teaching strategies. Must be nice to know he’s perfect.