Monday, October 12, 2009

Is that my job?... are you sure?

I read PiT's post on the education debate and the comments are, of course, on different sides of the aisle.

The topic is a complicated one because it has many sides and there is also (at least in the US) money involved, and while I am sure it will take a long time to settle the matter, PiT's post comes not so long after I experience a situation related to education in the classroom. I find this time appropriate to tell you about it.

As a grad student I've had to TA for many different courses with many different professors. Some professors were bad, some were good, some were really bad but no one had been really good. I had never taken classes with them, I only had the professor-TA interaction until in my last TA job when I was assigned to a professor with whom I had taken a graduate class. The class I took with him was a special topic class in his area of expertise, and he made it very closely related to his research. I found the class to be very enjoyable, but most importantly useful since I thought I actually learned a lot from him. So, when I got my TA job I was very excited, this could be finally the time where I get to TA for a guy who the students might like (It is awkward to TA for a prof that the students hate and keep making bad comments about).

When the semester started I was a little thrown back because his choice of teaching style was different than the one he used in the class I took with him. I don't particularly like that style but supposedly it has been shown to work better and I wasn't going to tell him to teach it differently. At least not yet.

Everything was going "fine" until the first test came. It was a relatively difficult test and the grades were low. Lower than expected. Something was odd. We talked about it and that's when I said that maybe he should try other teaching styles. It might not be that the style is bad, just that it may not be for him. I knew he was not a bad teacher, I'd had him as one and he was very good. I was "sure" it was the use of a different style. It had to be, right?

Well, the reply was where I got a little disappointed. He wasn't going to change, because 1) when he was a TA that's the way he always did it and 2) changing to the traditional, or any other style, involves work that he didn't want or had no time to put it.

The two points have issues with them in my opinion. Having always done it that way doesn't mean it has always worked. Doesn't even mean that it has worked at all. And changing the style meaning more work, well sure it is a lot of work, but if you want the students to actually learn from you you need to find your style.

When you, as a student, are faced with situations like this, don't you deserve more? I understand that professors have a lot of other things to do that undergrads are usually not aware of, but if you took the job as a professor, with teaching load involved, why not try to be better at it?

You can certainly ask, when do you stop being better? when everyone passes? when you've tried 2 or 3 methods? Those are valid questions, and some for which I don't have an answer. I do think it is unrealistic for 100% of the students to pass a class with perfect grades. It is also unrealistic to try every single teaching method. I just think it is also the professor's responsibility to do his/her best before deciding that some students don't deserve to pass because they didn't work as hard as they should.

I want to make it clear that what I just told you is by no means proof that every professor out there is in that position. But, at least in my case, it did make me wonder how many profs think like that and now don't make an effort.

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