In my time in graduate school (which is only weeks away from being over), I’ve had spectacular instructors and incredibly poor instructors. I’ve learned something from every one of them—if not content or pedagogy, then the general sense of who I want (or do not want) to be as an instructor in my own right. As part of my training in pedagogy—and I’ve been lucky to have more than a few classes—I’ve learned numerous ways for training and enabling students to think and write critically, to synthesize and express their mastery of a topic, and to ask questions along the way.
But somewhere along the way I forgot that I was still a student too—not only because yes, technically I am still a graduate student, but because everyone should continue to learn and ask questions as we move forward (if we want to move forward).
I know some people see asking questions as a sign of weakness or insecurity (and believe others will view them that way), and that asking questions can produce answers we don’t want to hear. Both of those possible results pale in comparison to the potential good that just sitting down and asking questions can produce.
Here at ProfHacker, Billie has written about reflexive pedagogy, in which the self-reflexive professor evaluates teaching as she’s teaching. Also here at ProfHacker, Natalie has written about taking stock of what is working and what isn’t—this is slightly different than the reflexivity that Billie discusses. Natalie writes:
All too often, the things we’re not doing weigh more heavily on our minds than the things we are doing, just as the class that goes badly stands out more in your memory than the ones that went well. Sometimes you can use that as impetus for change or “doing better next time”; but sometimes you just wind up feeling overwhelmed. (Particularly if it’s week 6 or 7.)
How true. Sometimes, as in my case, you reach week 11 and find that somewhere between weeks 6 and week 10 a portion of your class has turned on you—partially because of the content you’re teaching, partially because of their performance on an exam, partially because whatever was previously working in the classroom wasn’t working anymore.
And sometimes you just have to get over it and flat out ask someone else for help. I did that, and it was one of the greatest productivity tools I’ve ever encountered.
In this case, I started talking with the director of the program about this particular class since the moment things started to go badly [note: we also talked a lot about the class before things went badly, but always about the positives!]. Immediately I learned that when he taught the same class a few years earlier, he had the same response while teaching the same sort of content. If I hadn’t gotten over my fear/insecurity of appearing as less than a capable instructor, I wouldn’t have told him about my problems, and then I wouldn’t have learned of his—and we wouldn’t have been able to compare notes and figure out a way to move forward. Learning of his problems allowed me to shove those overwhelming “is it me?!?!” questions aside and focus on fixing what when awry.
After a few weeks of maintaining the status quo, hostility by a subset of students reared its ugly head again. Unsurprisingly, this happened after they received grades and comments on an exam and realized that what might have been working for them in lower-division classes wasn’t going to fly in upper-division classes (at least not an upper-division capstone course in their major). It was at this point that I really asked for help, and this time it had nothing to do with making me feel better. Instead, it had everything to do with having their major advisor repeat the same things that I was saying about expectations and their work, so that if they stopped listening to me (which some of them had), at least they might listen to him and learn what they needed to learn.
Even when I realized that the best thing for the class—for those not “hearing” me, at least—was to ask for help in a major way, I still left that e-mail sitting in my outbox for several hours. Even then the subject line was “I think I need your help,” not “please help me.” Obviously, I was still struggling with the concept.
But I sent the message, and I asked the director of the program to come speak to my class—I wasn’t just asking for behind the scenes help. I was risking whatever position I had left in that class so that the important concepts I was trying to get across to the students were reinforced by someone whose position was already settled in (most) of their minds.
Because this fellow is one of the Good Ones, he made sure that I’d thought through all the possibilities, such as “you’re a woman and I’m a man and what if people think you can’t handle this because you’re a woman” (no matter that I could take him down in any street fight) and even just “what if they say ‘wow, he explained it so much better—I wish he taught this class’?” What it came down to was that I didn’t care about either of those outcomes. I just wanted that group of students to get something really important through their heads, and it didn’t much matter to me how it got there, at that point.
When I asked Jason for help, it freed up an enormous amount of mental energy that I had been spending on what-if scenarios and other scenarios driven by fear and insecurities. If you’ve been trained not to ask for help, untrain yourself—especially if you’re a graduate student. What’s worse: 45 students failing to grasp a concept, or one momentary blip (neither positive or negative in the long run) on your teaching record?
Ask for help. It has been this year’s best productivity tool, for me.