Teaching Newsletter: First Class, First Impressions, 8/24/2017

August 24, 2017

Getting Off on the Right Foot

Welcome to this week’s issue of The Chronicle’s new newsletter, Teaching. We hope it sparks some insights and ideas on teaching, learning, and curriculum. If you’ve been forwarded this e-mail and would like to sign up, please do so here.

It’s late August, and classes are getting started on many campuses. That means professors are preparing to meet a new batch of students.

John Lawry, a professor emeritus of psychology at Marymount College of Fordham University, wrote to tell us about how he's cultivated positive first impressions from his students. The idea struck him after he found himself profoundly moved when a student walked by his classroom, greeting him with a huge smile. Smiling, he realized, is a simple way to convey a powerful message.

He cites the work of Nalini Ambady, which is described in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Ambady, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who died in 2013, analyzed a phenomenon known as “thin slicing,” or the ability to find patterns or judge behavior on the basis of brief experiences. Ambady studied this concept as it relates to students' judgments of their high-school and college instructors. In an experiment, Ambady found that strangers observing an instructor’s nonverbal behavior — sometimes in a period lasting between just two and 10 seconds — "predicted with surprising accuracy the ratings by people who had substantial interactions with those teachers."

To Lawry, this means that his students are judging him the moment they walk in the door. That’s why he smiles and asks his students their names as they enter his classroom. Sometimes he shakes hands or waves. The idea is to convey, both verbally and nonverbally, a message of welcome. He wants to communicate that he’s open, receptive, and that "I love being a teacher and teaching what I teach," he says, "and since both are true it is not difficult."

Our newsletter a few weeks ago offered additional suggestions for the first day of class, including ways to turn the syllabus into a teaching opportunity. Elsewhere, Maryellen Weimer, of Faculty Focus, shares an introductory memo to her students.

Gathering evidence

Five colleges were the first honorees of the new Excellence in Assessment program, which is led by a group of higher-education associations. It seeks to recognize institutions that consistently gather evidence of learning and then use the results to guide their decisions. The winners were Bowling Green State University; James Madison University; Middlesex Community College; Rio Salado College; and Southern Connecticut State University.

More lessons from Charlottesville

Last week we shared the anguished story of the teacher who taught the man accused of fatally driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. He wondered if he should have been more confrontational. We asked, What is the proper role of civil discourse in times like these? Is dialogue always the best course of action?

Here are a few of your responses: Janna McLean, dean of arts and sciences at Bethel College, said that dialogue requires people to truly listen. But too often, she wrote, “the only purpose of talking is to convince the other person how wrong he is.” Persuasion is not about talking louder and longer. “We have to listen,” she wrote. “We have to come together and want to be in relationship with each other. Only then do we have a chance."

Natalie Dougall, a faculty consultant, wrote that "civil dialogue" can be fraught when it comes to race. "For many people, especially white people, any discussion of race feels uncivil," she wrote. "In order to have these conversations, discussions of white fragility needs to be trotted out first."

Michael B. Alexander, president of Lasell College, wrote that students are often most effective in persuading other students. "When I preached civility, I did not see much change," he wrote. But when students articulated a shared set of values, he said, "we saw a significant improvement in behavior, even while grappling with the most troublesome issues."

Let's talk … about failure

Recently The Chronicle ran a provocative essay by Jacques Berlinerblau, of Georgetown University, about how teaching awards and portrayals of the classroom in popular culture too often gloss over the messy work of teaching. "Good college teachers," he wrote, "endure semesters in which everything inexplicably and catastrophically goes wrong." So, tell us about the virtues of failure in your teaching. What was your most productive and instructive failure? What is something that went wrong in the classroom — and what did you learn from it? Send me your thoughts at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, and we might include them in a future issue of this newsletter.

— Dan and Beckie