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TEP Resource Guide: Blog

Soul-Forming Education and the Liberal Arts

Rob Kugler, Paul S. Wright Professor of Christian Studies, Lewis and Clark College

May 05, 2021

A recent column by Cornel West in the Washington Post regretting Howard University’s decision to dissolve its Classics Department stirred some thoughts on the importance not only of that discipline for the liberal arts (but see now also a column in the New York Times that serves as a useful rejoinder to West and food for yet more thought.), but also on what it is to teach in a liberal arts college and at Lewis & Clark in particular.

A colleague noted in view of West’s handwringing essay, even if with a certain edge in his tone, that Lewis & Clark is to be commended for having no plans to end Classics. To which I replied, “And in times of concern for return-on-investment, why would we?”

Our 100-level Classics course fills annually, our Classics 200- and 300-level courses likewise fill or nearly so, and courses offered by ancillary departments (Art, English, History, Philosophy, Religious Studies) also enroll well. Staffed at the bare minimum, we serve a significant number of students. There’s some bang-for-the buck.

And notably, the students in these courses are majors in a wide range of departments in the college—in fact the minority are Classics majors.

It was in answering the question, “Why do these courses enroll so well?” that I came to my thoughts on West’s column as it relates more broadly to liberal arts education and teaching, and particularly the shape of and those endeavors at Lewis & Clark.

These courses enroll well at least in part because the College still attracts students who value what West refers to as “soul-forming education” (aka “the liberal arts”). They appreciate that to be liberally educated is, in West’s words, more than mere “schooling.” As West goes on to say, it is, “more than the acquisition of skills, the acquisition of labels and the acquisition of jargon. Schooling is not education. Education draws out the uniqueness of people to be all that they can be in the light of their irreducible singularity. It is the maturation and cultivation of spiritually intact and morally equipped human beings.”

In view of this, West writes: “[W]e, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian schooling at the expense of soul-forming education. To end this spiritual catastrophe, we must restore true education, mobilizing all of the intellectual and moral resources we can to create human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue.”

While I have little hope that some of our peers who have turned away from soul-forming education to mere schooling will “restore true education” as West wishes, I do believe Lewis & Clark can easily preserve it.

And again, why not?

Indeed, we have a faculty that is uniquely well positioned to deliver better than virtually all of our peers the soul-forming education West yearns for.

How is that true? Think of it this way.

A soul-forming education—the liberal arts—is the art of cultivating in people an appreciation of multiple, critically-examined frames of reference, ways of seeing the world. In times of enormous social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental challenges this appreciation is essential to personal and communal flourishing; it is when we have the capacity to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes and the challenges which we face from a variety of perspectives that we can be the “human beings of courage, vision and civic virtue” today’s world needs.

Here at Lewis & Clark we are unusually well equipped to provide this kind of education for our students. We have a faculty which ensures in a manner many of our peers cannot student access to a super-charged diversity of critically examined ways of seeing, explaining, and interpreting the world.

Not only do we offer the range of departments and disciplines that make that sort of education possible; we also have, by happenstance and historical circumstance, remarkable intellectual diversity within the disciplines represented in the College’s departments.

As a consequence, students who have the wisdom to resist hitching their wagon to any one of our perspectives and to delve instead as deeply as possible into the many frames of reference available here—those students can leave Lewis & Clark with an abnormally rich breadth of vision, a bag stuffed full of different glasses through which to see the world and its problems critically and constructively, and in empathy with their neighbors and peers. That’s a soul well formed.

And yes, to come full circle, that, I think, explains the abiding appeal of Classics—and of English, History, Religious Studies, Sociology, Biology, Physics, and all the rest. Many students come here because they know they can get that increasingly rare soul-forming education; a few of them even understand before arriving that this place is especially strong in providing that; and the best who leave here degree in hand appreciate that they have had a rare privilege in getting that education from such a richly diverse faculty as the one at Lewis & Clark. That’s a soul formed well for courage, vision, and civic virtue in a time sorely in need of all three qualities.

So, for my money, the College should aggressively market the promise of that education as we raise friends, funds, and enrollment for the college. Such a strategy won’t solve all of the challenges the College faces today and in coming years, but it will certainly go a long way toward meeting many of them. Cornel West might even think to point in our direction for an example of what he so eloquently yearns for in American education today.

And one last word. I hope my colleagues at Lewis & Clark understand what this means for them: If I’m right about our appeal and how we can use it to draw students to the College even as enrollment challenges intensify, what we are asked to do to ensure the College flourishes into the future is essentially what we have all trained and prepared ourselves to do—share our passion for the ideas we live and breathe day by day, engage our students with them in our teaching, conversations, and mentoring, and find ways to bring them to bear in new ways that meet our students’ needs as they face their challenging and complex futures.

How To Teach The Day After Election Day?

Molly Robinson Kelly, Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

November 3, 2020

As we sit at home, awaiting election results, those of us who teach may be wondering with some trepidation how we will teach our classes tomorrow. As I begin writing this post at 7:30pm, the outcome of the election is anything but certain, as is the timeline for certainty. We do not know whether we and our students will be elated, despondent, or still caught in the anxiety of waiting tomorrow. How then to approach the task of stepping into our classes? How to take on the role of leader when both we and our students are in the grip of powerful emotion?

I can’t claim to have great answers to these questions. But here are some guiding principles to keep in mind as you look to your teaching tomorrow:

  • No one expects you to make things all right.
  • It’s OK to show your students that you are human too, with your own feelings and reactions.
  • What you can do is show up, and simply be there. We can do what we’ve been doing all throughout this unruly year of 2020: we can show up for each other. We can get through it together, better than we could get through it alone.
  • Make space for what happened, for what is happening, whatever it is. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. If you don’t know how, consider saying just that: “I want to make space for this, and I’m not sure how. What would be helpful to you?”
  • Make space for silence and be OK with it. Ask your students, how are you doing? And then wait for a response. Let the response be silence for a while without rushing in to fill it. Make eye contact. Rest in your connection. There is nothing wrong with sitting in silence together.  
  • Make space for the appreciation of being together, being there for and with each other. Give voice to your appreciation of this simple reality.
  • Remember you are modeling. Always. Tomorrow, you will be modeling grace in victory, resilience in defeat, or calm in uncertainty. Get ready for it. You can do it.
  • Consider bringing a poem or photo of a favorite work of art to share.
  • If your class seems to feel up to it, consider some hopeful questions oriented to future positive action, such as: Among the many challenges our country faces, what issues matter most to you? What role do you think colleges and universities play in solving these challenges? How can organizations help solve these challenges with or without the help of the federal government?
  • If your class doesn’t seem to feel up to constructive discussion, that’s OK. After you’ve made space, and let the silence be silence for a little while, feel free to move on to your content of the day.
  • Plan to rely less on your students’ participation than you normally would. As a literature teacher, I’m telling myself, it’s OK for you to ramble on longer than usual about that particular passage of Flaubert tomorrow, or about why literature is important, or how art will save us in the end. I suspect it may be very comforting to your students to listen to you ramble on enthusiastically about your interests tomorrow, so if you’re up to it, go for it. A little or a lot of lecture will take the pressure off of them, and even you, and remind everyone that there are still many other things in this world to wonder at.

Teaching During COVID-19: What Matters?

Molly Robinson Kelly, Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

April 20, 2020

In a recent blog post in Chronicle Vitae, Rob Jenkins argued that as we reluctantly adapt to the new, temporary “COVID-19 normal” of conducting our courses online, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or indeed, the good be the enemy of the good enough. Most of all, he writes, we must aim for teaching that is “good enough that when we look back on this crisis three months or six months or a year from now, we’ll be able to say that we did the best we could for our students, under the circumstances.”

Jenkins’ words, and recent listserv conversations about how we are to evaluate our teaching during this strange semester, have me asking this question: what is good enough? What really matters, as we adjust within a matter of weeks to a mode of teaching and learning many faculty and students have never attempted before?

I am still very much discovering my answers to these questions, but here are some things I do know.

  • It matters that we know our role. In any classroom, in-person or online, as teachers we are the authority in the room. We are in charge of what happens and doesn’t happen there. Students will hope for guidance, leadership, and reassurance from us. They will look to us to know what attitude to take about all this. Now more than ever, we must remember that we are modeling for them how one can be confronted with great change and disturbance and move through it with courage, openness, and humor.
  • It matters that we show up. Even though the tools at our disposal seem more limited than before, there are still many ways to carry on with our teaching. I’ve been amazed at the variety of creative ways we have found as a community to continue to show up for each other and our students. We may feel successful at times, and like dismal failures at others. Among all the different methods we are using to deliver our content and connect with our students, there is a common thread: we’re still here. We’re adjusting, we’re trying, learning new skills, and so are our students. We don’t have to be polished or perfect. We don’t have to be brilliant or inspiring, we just have to stay connected. We just have to be good enough, and good enough means, we show up with our knowledge and humanity, and we do our best.   
  • It matters that we put our best effort into figuring out what’s essential, and what’s not. I know we began the semester wanting to read certain texts, discuss certain ideas, achieve certain goals. Some of those are essential. Some are being replaced by the other things we and our students are learning through all this. We don’t know yet what they are, but they will be deep, momentous, and lasting. Essential means: my students will need to know this by the time they finish this class or they absolutely will not be able to manage the next class in the sequence. That is all. Everything else – the texts, the concepts, the terms, the assignments – is non-essential. Everything else can happen later. Let’s think carefully about which non-essentials could be trimmed or adapted in order to make this semester’s ending less of a strain for them and for us.
  • It matters that we show up. Oh, did I say that already? Good. Because that is what I know matters more than anything else. Students have told me over and over: their classes matter to them, now more than ever. As awkward and green and insecure as it may make us feel to teach live classes on Zoom, they want to see us. They want to see their classmates. They want the sense of normality, structure, and social connectedness classes bring. So, if the constraints of your discipline or life circumstances have kept you from holding classes live over Zoom, I encourage you to considering connecting with your classes synchronously once or twice before the semester ends, even if just to say hello.  

Because in five years, ten years, fifty years, most of our students will not remember the detailed content of what we taught them during this or any other semester. Here is what they will remember when they look back on these extraordinary times: they will remember us, disoriented and perhaps disgruntled, showing up anyway, doing our best. They will remember our novice fumbling with the Zoom controls, our squinting into the screen and saying “How do you do this again?”, our kids and pets walking around behind us, our distraction and our carrying on anyway.

With every passing year, as they build lives with jobs and pets and homes and children, they will understand with increasing depth the enormity and the difficulty of our showing up during this time. They will remember our smiles, our faces peering back at them from the screen, our discouragement, our encouragement. They will remember that we walked this path with them, offering our presence and humanity.

And to me at least, that seems good enough.

TEP Blog: Remembering Equity in Online Instruction

Daena Goldsmith, Associate Dean of the College, and Molly Robinson Kelly, Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

April 6, 2020

Over the past few weeks, faculty at Lewis and Clark have been called upon to make radical changes to their teaching. Nearly all of us have designed our courses for in-person, traditional classroom meetings; but now, we must move them to an entirely online format, and fast. For some of us, including some students, these changes may feel uncomfortable, and even disturbing. Even those who feel comfortable with online tools have had to adjust to using those tools exclusively. We are all learning together what technologies can serve our learning objectives and match our teaching style and we are trying to become versant with them. This is all good, and necessary.

However, as many of us have begun to realize, the use of technology for teaching and learning requires that we and our students have access to technology in the first place. Our campus is set up to offer that access to all of our students and faculty, but when teaching is removed from campus and dispersed to locations far and wide, we no longer know what kind of access our students, or even our faculty, have to technology. Some may live in households without wifi. The public places where free wifi is available (libraries, coffee houses, restaurants) are for the most part closed. Some may have cellular plans with limited data; some may have no data at all and limit their phone use to locations with wifi. In addition, some students and faculty alike may be working in environments where interruptions and distractions (from children, pets, ambient noise, etc.) are unavoidable.

As we move forward with our planning, therefore, we need to remember this fundamental reality: the use of technology is premised on access to technology, and that access should not be assumed or taken for granted. We have included below some ideas and recommendations that we hope will be useful. However, the first and most crucial element in addressing the potential problem of access is to be aware of it, and to communicate this awareness to your students. For reasons of equity, students need to hear from us that we don’t assume that everyone has the same access to technology in this situation, and that we stand ready to assist them in finding solutions to their challenges.

Here are a few ideas about how to keep equity and inclusion in mind as we transition to delivering our curriculum online:

  • If you do nothing else, ask your students if they have access to technology that will allow them to use video conferencing, check email and course websites, and anything else you will be asking them to do online. Several service providers are offering free or reduced subscriptions (see additional information about Learning Remotely compiled by our Office of Information Technology). In your asking, strive to normalize the possibility that access may be challenging to some. If they do let you know of some challenges, get the details you need to help them find solutions. If you don’t know what the solutions are, call upon our many wonderful resource people on campus or consult the Digital Resilience resources that have been compiled by our Office of Information Technology. Chances are, we can find a solution.
  • Now more than ever, think about transparency. Consider what you assume students know—about assignments, technology, expectations—and add clarification. This is especially important for big assignments that carry a lot of weight in the course grade. For those, it’s worth thinking through some of the issues in this template for transparent assignments.
  • Identify the most important learning objective(s) for assignments and consider if you can accomplish your goal(s) by using a variety of modalities. For example, if you had planned to assign presentations, what is your main goal for the assignment (oral performance, conveying information, making an argument, incorporating audience perspectives)? Different goals will allow for different modalities: in addition to presenting by video conference, perhaps a video or audio recording, or even a written script could meet your objectives.
  • Incorporate some asynchronous assignments to give students flexibility to adapt—to time zones, to shared internet, to limited access to a quiet work space. Likewise, think about how you might capture live interactions. If you decide to record class discussions, please be mindful of FERPA guidelines for ensuring that any recording that could identify a student as a member of your class is only available to other members of that class (you can find more details at the CAS FAQ under lnstruction/Faculty Resources). A “record” of class discussion can take many forms: for example, you could have students create a written summary that not only crystalizes key ideas for them, but also makes a record available to those who are in transit or have to miss something that happens in real time.
  • When possible, give students options. This can give them a sense of control, which is especially important now. For those students for whom access or work environment are challenging, having various options to accomplish their work will help them feel included.
  • Open up a line of communication with students and encourage them to let you know of limitations or problems they are experiencing with access. Be mindful of student privacy. Explicitly invite them to let you know privately of any issues, instead of, or in addition to, simply querying the large group verbally (i.e., “Is everyone OK with this?”). Reassure them that you care and want to know how they are coping.
  • Review student accommodations. Students with disabilities and cognitive differences may have distinctive challenges in accessing online instruction. Now is a good time to retrieve the notifications of accommodations you received earlier in the semester (and Student Support Services can help you retrieve this information if you need assistance). For example, as you think about options for online exams, don’t forget to factor in students who get extra time or who take exams in a distraction free testing space.
  • Consider using some low-tech solutions that can meet your learning objectives. Instead of holding all discussions in video-conferencing, mix it up. Some possibilities: 
    • Hold some discussions live but hold some in a forum or chat space.
    • Break students into small groups, ask them to decide on their best modality for interacting, give them a task, and ask them to post to a forum the results of their discussion.
    • Create a written assignment that involves a pro-con paper or scripting a discussion that represents multiple points of view.
  • We may discover that the principles of Universal Design for Learning apply here as well: we create low-tech solutions for reasons of equity, but then discover that there are many benefits to adding variability to our activities (for example, giving ourselves a break from video-conferencing!).

Finally, it may be comforting to remember that a move to online instruction affects access and equity in complex and multi-faceted ways. While the change may raise challenges for some students and faculty, it may actually help others with challenges that they experience in the traditional classroom. (For example, students who feel anxious about “on the spot” participation might benefit from the multifaceted ways of participating that technology brings.) In other words, this transition will change how equity plays out in our teaching, in ways both challenging and beneficial. Who knows? We may even learn some new skills that will serve us well—students and faculty alike—in our future classrooms.

TEP Blog: Four Teaching Ideas for the Beginning of the Semester

Molly Robinson Kelly, Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

January 15, 2020

The other evening, I was having a conversation with two recent L&C alumni. I asked them to tell me what concrete things their professors had done in their classrooms that they most appreciated. Their answers were surprisingly consistent. I developed the following four recommendations based on what they shared.
1. Create a STRUCTURE and stick with it.
For most of us, the structure we create for our classes is contained in the syllabus. Ideally, a syllabus contains basic information about course objectives, readings, expectations, and the schedule. For the students I spoke with, the schedule / calendar was by far the most essential of these elements. They said that regardless of what actually happened in class, professors who provided a predictable, reliable schedule were highly appreciated.
I recommend focusing on the following key elements of course structure as you design or revise your syllabi and course plans:
Reading choice and length. Resist the temptation to assign overly long readings. A good rule of thumb: assign readings of a length you yourself would be willing and able to read in the time allotted to your students. If you want them to do the reading and do it well, make sure the reading length and difficulty level make this expectation realistic.
Evaluation points. After you’ve decided on the material you plan to cover, consider when and how you will assess your students’ learning of that material. Build a schedule for papers, tests, and other major assignments that makes sense to you. As you go through the semester, do your best to respect that schedule. If a test or paper day is coming and you haven’t covered all the material you had hoped to cover by that time, seriously consider whether you can omit some material from the assignment instead of changing the schedule.
Homework: predictable accountability. Make sure your students know their homework for next time by the end of class. Then, be sure to use that homework in class in some way. If you assign homework but fail to make students accountable for it, it will not be long before your students stop doing their homework. You can avoid a host of teaching problems by making homework important and useful IN CLASS.
Have a lesson plan. Your lesson plan can be as detailed or as open and flexible as suits you. As you make it, two questions are essential: what do I want my students to learn during this class? How will I help them learn it?
Begin and end class on time, and intentionally if possible. “When professors begin and end on time, it feels like they value our time and understand we have other things to do besides their class,” my former students reported. Remember, in the 10 minutes between classes, students often need to wait in lines to use the bathroom, grab a bite to eat, etc. They are rushed as it is. Don’t make it harder by ending late.
2. Manage your feedback.
Take the timeliness of your feedback to students seriously. Very, very seriously. Arguably, nothing will undermine your goals for your students’ learning more than asking them to do work on which they receive feedback very late or never.
Here is one method that has worked for me: after I’ve created my course calendar, I copy and paste it into a new document, and add to it my own grading deadlines. These are the dates by which I aim to return grades and feedback on assignments to my students. I print this document out and tape it to the wall alongside my computer, and check things off as I go. Find a system and timing that work for you. Make it happen.
3. Create belonging.
Consider your class a place in which belonging can happen for your students. They are at an age when social relations with their peers are still extremely important – perhaps even more formative and influential for them than their relationship with you. Plan for this. Reflect on what kind of environment you want to have in your class and how you want them to relate to you, to each other, and to their own learning. Then, think about how you and they can help make this happen.
But don’t just think about what you want for them – say it. Tell them you want them to feel like they belong here. Tell them they will learn better that way. Encourage them to tell you, in whatever way they feel able, if something in class is falling short of this goal. Tell them you always want to know if something isn’t right. We can’t always think of all the ways in which someone might feel like an outsider in our classes. But we can make sure they know we want them to feel like they belong, and that we always want to know if they don’t.
4. Aim to grow… just a little.
Sometimes, we can be too ambitious in how we think about “improving our teaching,” and forget that small changes can make a big difference. Why not aim to try one small, new thing in your teaching this semester, with the simple aim of experimenting and keeping it fresh? Maybe this means attending just one TEP event this semester, or trying a new kind of assignment, or choosing one of the ideas on the “TEP Active Learning Toolkit” handout I’ve attached here and trying it a few times.
Finally, remember this: just by showing up day by day for your teaching, as best you can on that given day, you are growing and learning as a teacher. Each day of teaching will bring new circumstances and challenges, some joyful and some unpleasant. As we rise to meet them, again and again, we are adding to our “bank” of teaching experiences and skills.
In other words: show up and be you. And don’t forget to notice and celebrate the ways you will grow as a teacher this semester, whether big or small.
Have a great semester.

TEP Blog: Teaching First-Year College Students

Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

November 14, 2019

For two semesters in a row, I have taught in Lewis and Clark’s first-year core course, Exploration and Discovery (which we L&C people refer to as E&D). Before that, I hadn’t taught E&D for many years. Faculty participation in E&D is voluntary, and the reasons for my long absence from this course, which is required of all first-year students, were many. Mainly, increased administrative duties had me administering more and teaching less, and I needed to devote the courses I did teach to my home department of French Studies. However, let’s face it: I didn’t mind too much, because E&D, as a writing-intensive course, involves a good deal more grading than other courses. Not to mention that the first time I taught E&D, my student course evaluations for it, although not terrible, were considerably less gratifying than I was used to in my French courses.

But last spring, I steeled my courage and stepped back into the first-year classroom with a course entitled “Insiders / Outsiders.” And discovered very quickly that I loved it. As in really, really loved it. I went to that class every day with a sense of… well, joy. So much did I enjoy teaching my first-years that I quickly rearranged my schedule for this fall to teach E&D again. And I’m loving it just as much. This has prompted me to ask myself: why do I love teaching first-year students so much? What is it about this experience that distinguishes it from my teaching in French Studies (which I enjoy very much too, just to be clear)?

I have realized that what I value so much about teaching first-year students falls into three basic categories: the kind of teacher it allows me to be, the kind of learners it allows my students to be, and the kinds of place it allows Lewis and Clark to be.

1. The Kind of Teacher it Allows me to be.

  • Freedom of content. I had near-total freedom to design this course to align with my interests of today. Not my expertise, not my scholarly background, but my interests. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about (and, if I’m honest, bothered a lot by) the ways we humans create in-groups and out-groups, especially when it comes to who exercises power in society. Teaching a first-year seminar allowed me to read the books I’ve been wanting to read without ever finding the time, and talk with others about questions I’ve been grappling with. I was just as intellectually stimulated by the course as my students, and our mutual enthusiasm felt infectious and invigorating.
  • Freedom of form. Teaching first-years, especially first-semester first-years as I am now, I felt authorized to go “off script” in ways I had not before. The same reality that can be daunting (“Good heavens, they need everything from me!”) can be liberating (“But on the other hand… they need everything from me!”). When a student mentions with frustration or confusion something that came up for them on campus, it seems reasonable to me, knowing there are only first-years in the class, to dive right in and address it. In my classes, we’ve discussed a wide variety of useful things unrelated to our course content: what to do at an advising appointment; how to take a nap that doesn’t make you feel more tired; whether pre-requisites are really pre-requisites; whether to eat before or after a test; how to manage homesickness; how to address noise disturbances in the dorm; why we read / write / discuss so much in college. I can go off script spontaneously and still figure I’m doing my job, as a teacher of first-year students. I love the freedom this gives me to talk about what they need to talk about.
  • Influence. It is no secret that the first year of college can be instrumental in either setting students up for success or failure at college. I like knowing that I can make a real difference in my students’ college careers.

2. The Kind of Learner it Allows my Students to be.

  • Newbies. Taking class in a group made only of first-year peers and a teacher who volunteered to be there lets students relax and admit the things they don’t know more comfortably. No one needs to pretend they get it when they don’t.
  • Not-yet-belongers. Everyone arrives at college needing to find people and places where they can belong. It doesn’t happen overnight. Students in first-year-only classes can look around them and know that everyone else is in the same boat. And as teachers, we can know that the energy we put into creating a sense of belonging in the classroom really matters.
  • Students learning to be students. Most first-year students realize that they don’t yet know how to do college, and they are open to learning. They can invest time and effort now learning to read well, write well, and communicate effectively with their teachers, and know it will pay off for the next four years.
  • Excited about college. First-year students still feel the newness of being at college: the autonomy, the greater social openness and acceptance, the sense of wildly increased intellectual stimulation. Being able to witness all this up close reminds me over and over what is wonderful about my job.

3. The Kind of Place it Allows my Institution to be.

  • More than in any other year, it’s in the first year of college that the institution gets to show its students what it cares about, what it expects, what kind of people you can meet there, what kind of learning you can do there. In other words, it’s fertile ground for what we could call “institutional self care.” If institutions swing and miss in this endeavor (or never swing in the first place), they will never have quite such a golden opportunity again. But if they can hit the ball out of the park in the first year, they will reap benefits for years to come.

TEP Blog: Some Thoughts on Bodies and Teaching

Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

October 16, 2019

“You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Ta Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me

The other day when I arrived in my classroom, I found several of my students sitting in the back corner of the room. This was unusual. Ever since the first day of class, we had been arranging our desks in a small circle close to the front of the class, near the whiteboard. They often moved the desks into place before I arrived. When I saw my students grouped in the back corner, I felt oddly disoriented by their changed position and quickly asked, “Is everything OK?” They laughed, perhaps a bit sheepish at my unexpected reaction. They explained that they had done it to be silly, curious what would happen if they moved from our usual geography.

Another day, some time ago, a student met me outside the classroom just as the midterm was about to begin. She said she was struggling that day with terrible anxiety and asked if she could take the midterm another day. As she spoke, I noticed that her hands were shaking noticeably.

A colleague of mine mentioned to me recently that she had not known what to do when one of her students showed up in class, visibly high.

Finally, a couple weeks ago, in the middle of teaching a 3-hour stretch of classes, I suddenly felt terribly hungry. I gave my students an activity to do and returned quickly to my office in search of a Kind bar. I ran back to class and resumed teaching, not wanting to waste any more time. Then, realizing that I still needed to eat, I opened the Kind bar while I taught, but felt embarrassed by the spectacle that was my eating: the loud crinkle of the wrapper; the crunch of my teeth on the bar; the difficulty of talking with the bar’s stickiness in my mouth; the possibility that pieces of food might be stuck in my teeth.

What do all these stories have in common? They reminded me that I have a body, that my students have bodies, and that the movements, needs, and troubles of these bodies can have significant impact in the classroom.

This may seem a rather obvious point. It IS an obvious point.

And yet, somehow, this notion—that teaching and learning are embodied phenomena—has stayed with me over the past weeks. I’ve been thinking about the many ways in which our bodies interact with us, interfere with us, and just plain make themselves known to us as we go about the business of teaching. As Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “In this here place, we flesh.”

Our bodies impose themselves in spaces of learning in so many modes: through ailments and afflictions like illness, disability, hunger; but also through the many ways they carry our identities and articulate our sense of ourselves in the world. By entering the classroom with our bodies, and not just our minds, we and our students lug with us, like middle schoolers toting backpacks half their size, an enormous number of valances and signifiers. Every single one of us enters the classroom with our gender, our race, our ethnicity, our size, our body type, our accent, our hairstyle, our clothing choices, and our voice. Our bodies are out there for everyone to see, to notice, to wonder about. We can’t escape them, just as we can’t escape the various bodily ailments, visible and invisible, that affect our ability to teach and to learn: a vision or hearing impairment, a bad cold or a headache, a neurological difference, or simply stress, anxiety, hunger, or fatigue.

The classroom is a space of the mind—a cerebral place. Unless our discipline lends itself to it, we professors do not think of ourselves as people dealing with bodies. We professors do truck with minds, and we can forget to make room for the body in our teaching. But sometimes, the body gives us little choice in the matter.

There is benefit to gaining awareness about bodies in our classrooms. Our bodies, and theirs. Following are just a few ways in which this might happen:

  1. We could become more mindful and intentional about how the classroom set-up and geography – the positioning of our bodies – lend themselves to better (or worse) learning.
  2. We could find more mercy for ourselves and our students by embracing the reality of our bodies. Some days, we are tired, or sick. Other days, they are. When class goes badly, it may not mean that you were inept that day. Maybe your students were simply exhausted, or fighting off the latest epidemic to afflict the dorms.
  3. We could open ourselves more intentionally and with greater generosity to the ways in which students’ bodies impact their sense of themselves and their place in the world. They, like all of us, cannot get away from their race, ethnicity, gender identity, size, economic access to “the right” clothes, style, etc. We forget how tenderly one feels about one’s body and appearance when one is young. We can be better teachers and mentors if we remember.
  4. We could use our body’s positioning to include and empower, rather than exclude and disempower. For example, one of the most powerful things we can do for our students is to make eye contact with each and every one of them during class. It is surprising how easy it is to exclude someone from the environment, simply by not including them with your eyes. 

Other easy but essential tips:

  • Don’t turn your back to the class and talk (for example while writing on the board or looking at the screen). Any hearing-impaired students will not be able to read your lips, and everyone will have a harder time hearing you.
  • Write clearly on the board, in letters large enough to be seen from the most distant chair.
  • Make sure no student occupies a seat that keeps them looking at your back.
  • Make sure no student occupies a seat removed from the rest of the group.

Consider implementing practices that cater to the body. Some ideas:

  • For long classes, or those happening at night, consider creating a “snack calendar” and asking students to take responsibility for bringing snacks to at least some of the classes.
  • Give students a brief break if the class lasts longer than an hour.
  • My colleague Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell asks her students to take responsibility for a 3-minute “health break” during longer classes. Students take turns leading a short activity of their choice, with the only requirement being that it contributes to a sense of health and well-being. Jerusha reports that these activities, ranging from yoga, to meditation, to listening to music, to watching a cute cat video, have proven quite popular with her students.
  • Devise activities that allow students to move their bodies during class: working at the board, regularly changing small groups or discussion partners, standing and circulating around the class to interact with different classmates.

TEP Blog: Imparters and Relaters: How your Teaching Style Affects your Teaching Development

Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

February 28, 2019

Any teaching development program at a college or university, like Lewis & Clark’s Teaching Excellence Program, aims to generate strong faculty participation. But faculty are busy people, especially mid-semester. Too often, when papers, tests, advising appointments, and administrative projects of all sorts start building up, our availability for “extras” like our own research or teaching development dwindles severely. Still and nevertheless, there are many faculty who regularly say yes to opportunities to grow in the art and craft of teaching in the company of others by attending TEP events – just as there are many who do not. In other words, when that email announcing an enticing new possibility for working on our teaching comes across our screens, some of us think, “Well, hello hot stuff!” and swipe right, and some of us mutter, “Ain’t gonna happen” and swipe left. (And let’s face it, some of us really want to swipe right but simply can’t, due to conflicting class or meeting times, or the urgent need to prepare for a class that begins 5 minutes after the event ends.)

Why is it that some of us find the prospect of talking about teaching with others so appealing, while others of us flatly resist it? I am convinced it has nothing to do with teaching ability or accomplishment. There are teachers of excellent reputation who attend every pedagogy lunch and workshop, and others, just as respected, who have never attended. To be sure, one can be a perfectly good teacher without participating in pedagogy workshops. And yet, for those of us who attend regularly and have experienced how invigorating, how helpful, and how comforting it can be to talk about teaching with other teachers, we wonder, why doesn’t everyone want to do this?

As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve developed a theory about how one’s vision of teaching might influence one’s views on pedagogical development. It seems to me that there are two basic ways in which one can view the role of teacher, especially the college-level teacher, who represents the highest levels of disciplinary knowledge and accomplishment. 

On the one hand, one could consider that the teacher is responsible for passing the methods and content of a discipline on to students. From this perspective, the teacher is an “imparter” of knowledge s/he has spent years mastering at the highest levels possible (thus the term, “terminal degree”). “Imparter” teachers see their primary responsibility as being to the content and discipline they represent. They strive above all to ensure that their students understand the content and become as skilled as possible at putting it to use. Over the years, they develop and perfect their own unique approaches to imparting this material that, they believe, do not apply widely to other teachers in different disciplines. 

On the other hand, one could consider that the teacher’s most essential role is to establish a certain kind of relationship with students. Once built, this relationship will provide an environment in which content learning can happen most effectively. “Relater” teachers consider their primary responsibility as being to the health and well being of the learning relationship. They strive above all to create an environment in which their students can do their best learning. 

Of course, as with most dichotomies, few of us are pure imparter, or pure relater. Most of us fall somewhere in a blended middle, a little more this, or a little more that. “Relater” teachers feel responsible for imparting content, and “imparter” teachers know that having a positive relationship with their students is crucial to learning. Still, this dichotomy can be useful for understanding oneself as a teacher, and one’s vision of teaching development. 

For I suspect that, when it comes to participating in pedagogical development opportunities, relaters might occupy more seats than imparters. The possible reasons for this are multiple, and complex. On the most basic level, relaters place a premium on relating, so the prospect of getting together with others to talk about teaching might appeal more to them than to imparters. Moreover, by nature, campus-wide events focused on pedagogical development need to apply across disciplines. As a result, they do not usually relate to the specific content towards which imparters naturally gravitate in their teaching. Instead, they cover topics deemed to be useful for teachers in all disciplines – topics like inclusive pedagogy, universal design, transparent assignments, etc. Perhaps, imparters perceive that teaching development will not be of much use to them, because for them, teaching is about sharing specific content. So they stay away, leaving the relaters to talk about teaching without them, thus making it more likely that teaching development programs at the college level come to emphasize relationships over content, simply because relaters are the main participants, and in this way drive the agenda. Yet in truth, pedagogical development opportunities offer much that is relevant for all of us, relaters and imparters alike, precisely because the real work of teaching asks us to work across the spectrum of imparting and relating. We would all benefit from having more teaching styles represented in the room when we talk teaching.

In conclusion, from this “mainly relater” to you “mainly imparters” out there: please join us! If you find yourself thinking that TEP doesn’t relate to the kind of teaching you do, think again, and give it a chance. Talking about teaching with others not only introduces us to new techniques and perspectives that re-invigorate our teaching, it reminds us how amazingly cool it is, this job we get to do. That’s something all of us need, especially veteran teachers.

TEP Blog: When Silence is not Golden: Teaching the Reticent Student

Molly Robinson Kelly, Teaching Excellence Program, Lewis and Clark College

November 8, 2018


“Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?” 

― Lawrence Durrell, Justine


Many wise proverbs, as well as wise people, place a high value on silence. One has only to do a quick online search for quotes on silence to realize that a majority of them extol silence as of great benefit to humanity. As scholars and intellectuals, many of us probably enjoy and even need the silent, meditative spaces that are so conducive to deep thought. Yet as teachers, silence – specifically, the silence of our students – can be discomfiting, even terrifying. Who has not stood in front of a classroom and asked a thought-provoking question we felt sure would generate vibrant discussion, only to encounter a silence as awkward as it is resolute? Who has not asked for a volunteer to solve a problem or share an answer, only to find themselves in front of a classroom of stubbornly downcast eyes? There are few things that can destroy a teacher’s confidence as quickly as their students’ silence, especially in the smaller classrooms of a liberal arts college, where lively discussions are thought to be the hallmark of a productive class.

Things get even more uncomfortable when a particular student’s silence takes on the quality of rock: hard, unchanging, immovable. In my own classrooms, as well as in classrooms I have observed, I have seen students enter and leave class without removing their backpacks or uttering a single word. I have seen them taking up a seat at the far edges of a classroom or as near to the door as they can manage. I have seen them sit for an entire class period, their eyes riveted on the floor or, occasionally, on their phones. I once saw a student pull her hoodie strings so tightly around her face that only her eyes showed. As her classmates engaged in stimulating discussion with the professor and each other, she sat, never looking up, repeatedly tying and untying the strings in a bow. These were classrooms in which a majority of students were having a satisfactory educational experience; in which only a student or two sat literally on the margins, disengaged and thoroughly non-participatory. Everything in the body language of such students says, don’t call on me, don’t speak to me. In many cases, we comply with their unspoken request. We focus, quite understandably, on the students who make us feel successful as teachers. Sometimes, it’s easier to let our most reticent students remain in the seats on the edge or in the back row, literally and figuratively outside our line of vision.

Yet, we don’t feel good about it. None of us want our students to feel excluded or marginalized, yet the reticent student’s behavior seems to indicate that this is exactly what they are feeling. We want our classrooms to be inclusive, yet sometimes, despite our best efforts, not everyone seems to feel included. What to do about this situation? I have no easy answers, but I have a few ideas that might be worth testing if you have a reticent student in your class.

  • Notice. No matter what, notice. If there is a student in your class who rarely if ever participates; who always sits on the edge or in the back or somewhere you can barely see them; who doesn’t talk to fellow classmates; whose eyes are glued to a phone or computer screen: NOTICE THIS. Refuse to gloss over this situation for yourself. It’s important.
  • Acknowledge it: they feel marginalized. In your class. Whether or not you intend it, they do. And feeling marginalized is painful and not conducive to learning. For the most part, our students are young, and not yet fully equipped to manage the life experiences that may have made them feel like perpetual outsiders. They would almost certainly prefer that things be otherwise. If they knew what to do to feel included, they would do it. Arguably, it’s your job to show them the way.
  • Make eye contact. At the very least, include them with your eyes. Look at them often throughout class, in your best attempt at a friendly, welcoming gaze. Think of your eyes as the first portal of entry to inclusion. Your eyes alone can tell them they belong.
  • Realize there may be many reasons for why they are this way, and most of them are NOT YOU. Among them:
    • Their race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, or other life situation has made them feel like outsiders many times. If you teach on a very “white” campus, these feelings of not belonging will likely be exacerbated. Your reticent student may be grappling with feelings of exclusion you cannot fully understand.
    • They are experiencing stereotype threat. They may believe that others will see them as not good at this, because they belong to a group historically thought to not to be good at this.
    • They are dealing with imposture syndrome, hindered by the belief that they are not as good as their peers and that their deficiency will be discovered at any moment.
    • They are shy, reserved, or introverted and less comfortable speaking in front of a group than others. Maybe they like to think everything through and feel confident before they speak.
    • They (and possibly you and their classmates) have made a habit of them not speaking or participating. Now, many weeks into the semester, the mere act of speaking may feel like breaking an unwritten law.
  • Realize it could be you. Do a careful self-examination to see if there are ways in which you are making some students feel more or less valued / capable / interesting / appealing to you than others. We all have blind spots. Try to find where yours show up in the classroom.
  • Don’t miss an opportunity for positive reinforcement. If a reticent student speaks or shows engagement of any kind, make sure it becomes a pleasant and rewarding experience for them. If they have a good day in class, make the most of it. Let them know you noticed, by validating their contribution in class and maybe even telling them after class how much you loved hearing from them.
  • Communicate. If the student is reticent, it is not a good idea to call attention to it in class. Instead, show them they matter to you by emailing them or reaching out in some way outside of class. Let them know that you SEE them. You want them to believe that they are an important member of the class and that you want to know what they have to say.
  • Tell your class often, without singling anyone out or making it personal, that everyone’s voice is important. Say it, and mean it. But also, and lastly:
  • Consider redefining participation. Open your mind to the possibility that people may have other ways of being engaged with your teaching than what is traditionally defined as “participation.”

Your reticent student may have prepared the material and have much to contribute, but may feel uncomfortable sharing their as-yet unformed thoughts and questions verbally in front of a group of strangers. (Especially if they suspect deep down that those strangers are smarter than them.) Instead of insisting that they talk, give all of your students – not just the reticent ones – a chance to show their engagement in a variety of ways. People learn and process information differently: through speaking, yes, but also through writing, drawing, questioning of others, and even simple, attentive listening. Silence is not always empty of meaning or thought. It probably wouldn’t hurt our teaching or our students’ learning for us to grow a little more comfortable with it.

TEP Blog: “Launching” the Reading: Tools for Active Learning in the Reading-Based Class

Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

October 10, 2018

“The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind, in my opinion, is discussion.

I find it sweeter than any other action of our life.”


Michel de Montaigne (trans. Donald Frame)


Readings have long been a mainstay of the college classroom. How could it be otherwise? Written texts represent our best means of communicating facts, ideas, and experiences over time and space. Reading is integral to learning. As faculty, we put considerable thought and effort into creating the reading list for our courses. To me, my reading list feels like the beating heart of my syllabus: the “oxygen” of my course flows from it, and when the fuel provided by one reading dwindles, we return to the reading list for new sustenance. If the reading list falls short somehow, my course will surely fall short as well.

Yet reading alone is not enough. College is at its best – especially a small liberal arts college – when students have the opportunity to engage in vibrant discussions, most often about what they are reading. It’s when we discuss a reading that the magic happens: the magic of full-on engagement, in collaboration with a group of peers, with the work, thoughts, imagination, and discoveries of another, often from lands and eras distant from our own. Through discussion, we grapple with the material. We poke and prod at it from the different perspectives and positions we each occupy; we help each other think of questions that hadn’t occurred to us; we make each other see things we never would have seen on our own. As Montaigne notes, good discussion forces us to reckon with diversity and discord in ways that “launch” our learning, and make things more enjoyable along the way: “Discussion teaches and exercises us at the same time. If I discuss with a strong mind and a stiff jouster, he presses on my flanks, prods me right and left; his ideas launch mine,” he writes, adding, “Unison is an altogether boring quality in discussion.”

As academics, most of us have experienced the alchemy that happens when we engage so fully with the person we encounter through reading, discussion and writing, that his or her ideas become part of our own mental landscape. As teachers of reading-based classes, we have the opportunity to give our students this same experience. But as anyone who has assigned a beloved reading fully anticipating a lively in-class discussion of it, only to encounter what I like to call “asymmetrical enthusiasm” and the stubborn silence that accompanies it, discussion doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes we need tools that go beyond simple questions to get our students to engage with, process, and learn from the readings. The harder the reading, the more this is true. Following are some tools I’ve found that encourage active and participatory reading, discussion, and learning, whether or not your students love the text.


  • No-pressure quiz. Start class with some kind of quiz. It can be serious (verifying important details, ensuring the reading was done), or fun (top three moments, favorite terms, “boredom rating,” etc.)


  • Response paper. Have students write a non-graded, one-page paper in which they write about an aspect of the reading that they found compelling. If you have a big class, you can assign just a few students to do this for each class. As they share their papers, you note their main ideas on the board and refer back to them as discussion proceeds.


  • Bring a MIP (most intriguing passage). Have everyone come to class ready to share their MIP and explain why they chose it.


  • Spontaneous writing. At the beginning or at any point of the class, ask students to write for 5 minutes about any aspect of the text they’d like, then share their thoughts in small groups or with the entire class. Like the response paper, this gives the more introverted student the opportunity to prepare their thoughts before speaking.


  • Note key words. No matter the exercise, take note on the board of what students are saying as they speak. It doesn’t have to be in great detail: a few words suffice. This tool is multi-valent: it validates the student’s participation, makes them feel that what they are saying is worthy of note, helps you to structure further discussion, and allows you to return to their thoughts later and make proper attribution if you do so. Students have consistently said that they felt validated when I “took notes” of what they were saying on the board.


  • Designate class experts. At the beginning of a semester in which you know that your readings will touch on certain key topics, you can list these topics (e.g., gender, self-consciousness, positionality, race, art, history, environment, scale, etc.) and designate a group of students to be “class experts” on this topic. For every reading, these students have an explicit responsibility to be extra attentive to that topic, and to report back on it during class. (You can also devote some class time to giving these working groups a chance to meet and share ideas with each other.)


  • “Cover the reading” without tedium. Here are some techniques:

  1. Begin with the “basics”: have students work together to uncover / discover what the reading says and how it is structured. For fiction, this may be the basic plot; for non-fiction, the reading’s order and organization. Possible questions: what does the reading say, and in what order? Why does the author do it this way? Does the order itself signify something? Could s/he have done it differently? How?
  2. Once these “basics” are uncovered, do a deeper dive into the text. There are many options for how to do this. Some of my mainstays are:
    • If I have time, I prepare discussion questions that I post on the projector. Almost always, I have pairs or small groups wrestle with them first and come up with an answer they agree on. Later, they share it with the group.

    • If I don’t have time, I ask them to generate discussion questions. You can assign to each group a particular part, theme, or character of the text. Ask them to find a question they’d like to discuss with the large group, and write it on the board.

    • Ask them to make a visual representation of the topic or reading on the board. Some topics and readings lend themselves well to concept maps, flow charts, diagrams, and even drawings. They can work alone or together; try different approaches on different days. This technique gets a lethargic class moving and embraces the possibility of different learning styles. I especially like to do this when they’ve just turned a paper in: I ask them to create a visual representation of their paper on the board and explain what it means to the class. I’ve been amazed by the creativity that emerges with this approach.

    • Whether or not I have time to prepare questions in advance, I always make sure I have an idea of 2-3 “essentials” I feel we MUST discuss from the reading. If the students bring them up, that’s great! I elaborate on it and they feel they’ve contributed. If the students don’t, then I make sure we get there somehow.


  • End class intentionally. We all know the feeling of trying to race through 20 minutes of material in the last 5 minutes of class. Whenever possible, give yourself room to end your class intentionally. Here are some possibilities for summing up:

    • Muddy point “flash paper”: Have them write for 5 minutes about something that is still “muddy” for them about what you covered that day. You can touch on these at the beginning of class next time.

    • “What stands out?” flash paper: Ask them to write about what stood out most for them in that class. You can use this to understand the “reception” of class material.

    • Look forward: Where appropriate, announce the topic for next week’s class and get the juices flowing by asking how they imagine this topic connecting with what they’ve already learned; or what they already know about this topic; or what their biases and expectations are.

    • Mini check-in: Every so often (I like to do it every 3 weeks), give them a half-sheet of paper with 3 questions: What’s going well for you in class? What is not going well? Anything I should know? Tell them they can write their name on the sheet or not; if they write their name, write a quick note on the back of the sheet responding to what they shared and hand it back next time. This will give you regular, low-pressure feedback on how they are doing both in and outside of class, and allow you to incorporate small correctives as you go.


For a printable handout summarizing the ideas contained in this post, see the L&C TEP Active Learning Toolkit.


TEP Blog: Controlling what you Can: Teaching Fundamentals for the New Year

Molly Robinson Kelly, Associate Director of the Lewis & Clark College Teaching Excellence Program

August 21, 2018

The time has come that we academics anticipate with a mixture of exhilaration and dread: back-to-teaching time. This is the time we hesitate to complain about to friends and family, knowing that they may not sympathize with our plight of having at last to return to work, following a three-month period of near-total freedom. We wistfully take our last camping trips, and watch meetings and orientation events appear on our Google calendars. The latecomers among us begin frantically perusing potential course readings with a mounting sense of what I call “syllabus panic.” Yes, alas: it is the time for us academics to start preparing our teaching for the fall. I know, some of you may have just thought indignantly, “I’ve been preparing my teaching since last spring!” or “I prepare all my syllabi and lesson plans before I start my summer vacation!” or “I’m good – all I have to do is change the dates on the syllabi I’ve been using since I got tenure in 2005. Thank goodness for the oldies but goodies!” If you are one of these people, good for you. If you are not – or if the third category I evoked made you feel a little sheepish, as it does me – read on.

      Teaching is a complex and beautiful thing, a thing of mystery. To enter our classroom for the first time is to embark on an adventure that is messy and unpredictable. There is no way to know what our students’ needs, personalities, and level of preparation will be; no way to predict what events of the world will barge in to disturb our plans; no way to foresee the social dynamics (pre-existing or yet to be discovered) among our students. So many factors will enter into our teaching that we cannot control, and we will need to improvise and adapt our way through these uncontrollables. The random and chaotic elements of teaching cannot be avoided.

    It is precisely because so much of teaching is by nature unpredictable that we must be ruthlessly vigilant with ourselves about the elements of teaching that we can predict and control. These are what I call “teaching fundamentals”: the things we can do, and should do, to give our students a solid and reliable framework from which to learn. They will need a stable foundation in order to feel safe enough to take the risks all good learning requires. When we systematically, faithfully tend to our teaching fundamentals, we allow them to relax, and focus their energy where it matters most: on learning the skills and content we want to share with them.  The best teaching incorporates both stability and disruption, predictability and spontaneity. The teaching fundamentals I will describe below relate to the stability part of teaching. I see them as a sort of sturdy skeleton or frame upon which the rest of our course is built. If we implement them consistently and diligently, both we and our students will feel we are standing on something secure; but if we neglect them, our teaching will always feel at least a little wobbly.


  1. Give yourself the gift of a finished syllabus. There are many ideas about what to include or not include in a syllabus: various blurbs, descriptions, rules, and warnings that you may find useful, or not. As far as these things go, do what seems right to you. As I see it, the main benefits of a syllabus, for both faculty and students, reside primarily in three things: the reading list, the grading schema, and the calendar. If you can begin the semester knowing what you will read, what work (reading, written, oral, etc.) the students will be expected to produce, how much this work will count, and exactly when you will do all these things, you are well on your way to a solid semester. A good syllabus gives both faculty and students a sense of direction and order. Yes, it’s a lot of work, especially for the first time. But believe me, it’s easier to edit a syllabus you’ve already written than to create one on the fly once the semester has started. (If you have time, read Steve Volk’s “The Dual Life of a Syllabus” for inspiration… but don’t let it be a form of productive procrastination that distracts you from finishing your syllabus!)

  2. Make a lesson plan for every class. I know, it’s basic. The lesson plan can be as thorough or as loose as you like. Everyone needs something different in a lesson plan: make it your own. If you need ideas, take a look at Billie Harra’s “Lesson Planning for the University Classroom.” To me, a lesson plan should at least include the following: an idea for beginning the class, an idea for ending it, and a plan that makes students grapple with course concepts in a variety of ways. Go into class with a few things – I recommend no more than 3 or 4 – you absolutely want to get across in that class. They are your sine qua nons. Know these things. Write them down.  Proclaim them to your students. Make sure they are connected to the homework they did for class. (There’s no faster way of signaling to your students that they don’t have to do their homework than never using it in class.) I also recommend changing types of activity every 15 minutes or so, and having several templates for lesson plans. Don’t always do the same thing every class. Variety is the spice of life, and teaching is no exception.

  3. Make next time’s homework the first thing you do on your lesson plan. Go into class knowing EXACTLY what you will assign as homework for the next class. If you have 10 minutes until class and no lesson plan, and you have to walk into class clutching a sheet of paper with only the homework plan on it, so be it. Everything else can be improvised if need be. Do not say you will send them the homework later. Do not send them the homework at midnight the day before class. If you want them to do their homework, they have to know what it is, with plenty of lead time. Period.

  4. Hand back graded work on time. This is without a doubt the hardest task for most people. Give yourself a schedule for grading, and follow it religiously. I like to put deadlines for the turning back of graded work into my calendar. Try not to let more than one week pass between when they hand it in and when you give it back. Maybe two weeks for big classes. The point is, give yourself a deadline. (And possibly a rubric, if it can help you go faster; see Jessica Greenfield’s “Rubrics: A Best Friend for Teachers & Students” for some ideas.) Not giving students timely feedback on their work undermines every learning goal you have for the class. Believe it.

  5. Change your syllabus if you have to, not much. Teaching requires both structure and flexibility. We sometimes need to change things in our syllabus along the way. But know that it will frustrate your students every time. The most organized students will have made far-reaching plans according to your syllabus. I’ve had students who had made master calendars showing every assignment for every class of the semester, and who sighed deeply every time I moved a due date. Make changes if you must, and when you do, always proclaim and explain.

  6. Be clear, with yourself and them. We are not here to be perfect. Your students can learn as much, if not more, from how you address your mistakes as from your brilliant, spot-on, teacher-of-the-year moments. In order for this to happen though, you will have to be clear about things, in a way that requires honesty and sometimes even courage. Be clear with yourself and with them. Make it your goal to ensure that everyone in your class knows what is happening and why. You most of all.


What it boils down to is this: when things get unpredictable and unclear in a class, or when students don’t know whether the work they are doing meets your expectations, they get stressed out. The fancy word for this stress is “cognitive load.” The greater the stress or cognitive load, the harder it is to learn. (For more ways to reduce cognitive load for your students, check out Jennifer Randall Crosby’s “Reducing Cognitive Load: Keep it Simple.”) Taking control over the controllable aspects of teaching – consistently and reliably making sure your students know what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how they are doing in the class – is surprisingly powerful, because it keeps your students’ energies focused on learning, instead of on trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. If you do nothing else, finish your syllabus, enter class with a basic lesson plan, assign and grade homework in a timely manner, minimize changes, and be as clear and transparent as you possibly can at all times. This will be a present to yourself that will support you in becoming your awesome self as a teacher.