Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So, What's it Like Teaching a Hated Subject ?

When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them that I teach at Illinois State University. I always dread the follow-up question that I know is coming: "What do you teach?" As I sigh, I silently hope that the person I'm talking to doesn't run away screaming or, worse, fall down into the fetal position when I tell them the answer: I teach Economics. Often the conversation ends there (they're running away screaming, remember?), but for those in the fetal position, or, on the rare occasion where they actually remain standing in place and relatively sane, they'll often ask which courses I teach. Being a non-tenured lecturer/instructor, I get exposure to all sorts of classes. I start listing them:

Econ 103 - a gen ed micro course
Econ 105 - 4 hour Principles course...this is what I usually teach
Econ 138 - Econ Stats
Econ 215 - Money and Banking
Econ 220 - Law and Economics
Econ 239 - Managerial Economics

I haven't yet, but I could also likely teach Econ 238 (econometrics) and Econ 240 (intermediate Micro) without too much difficulty. At the local community college, I teach Principles in split classes (101...Micro and 102...Macro).

I then typically endure their war stories about how much they either loved or (usually) hated Principles, where they talk about being stuck in a lecture hall of tons of students and a boring teacher who has his back to the class for the majority of the class as he draws graphs incessantly on the chalkboard. I then inform them that I'm one of those instructors in the lecture halls.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump <--- the sound of them running away.

Okay, most of them realize that they're now trapped in a most uncomfortable situation and start sweating nervously (like they're expecting me to get mad, cry, or start drawing graphs for them). I often tell them that I know Economics isn't exactly the sexiest discipline out there (we're math geeks that look at the world in a completely weird way and are wrong 85% of the time yet still receive a's that for job security?!). I let them know that I'm still a student (in the 29th grade) and know what it's like to be stuck in a class with a boring teacher, so I try to keep it interesting, especially in the lecture halls. When they ask how many students I teach at a time, I'll get an audible gasp 50% of the time when I tell them that the Principles class has around 250 students, though I've taught 300 before. They always ask what it's like doing that (followed by something along the lines of, "I'd be absolutely terrified in front of that many people!").

It's not an easy thing to describe, this teaching a lot of people at one time. I try to compare it to what it's like teaching a 35 seat class (many of them still cringe even at the thought of 35 students...a LOT of people are not big on public speaking), but it's still hard to explain the experience. To give you an idea of what I see, I took a camera into class on the second day of class, set it on the "panorama" setting, and snapped a few pics in the hopes that I'd be able to stitch them together. I told them to not move and to NOT make any hand gestures. I didn't see any one-fingered salutes, and my first attempt at a panoramic shot actually didn't turn out too terribly bad:

Yeah, it IS a lot of people, but you get used to it. Unfortunately, it's a sea of faces at times, and, as much as I want to provide 1:1 interaction, the simple fact is that it's almost impossible. I'll usually remember a name, but I often can't connect a face with a name when I see someone walking across the quad saying "hi" to me.

Luckily, there's no chalkboard in here. If you look at the podium, you'll see 2 overhead projectors, a computer console (both PC and Mac is on there), a phone (never used unless someone dials a wrong number), the microphone, and a document viewer/Elmo. The technology is keeping up fairly's not top-of-the-line, but it definitely does what I need it to do...

...except the microphone. I don't know if the microphone works or not. Since the lecture halls have an increased chance of people falling asleep, I think I become more of a performer in the room, which means I'm moving around the front of the room all the time, which means I can't use the mic. This isn't too big of a problem; having attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where we went through essentially 9 months of basic training that first year we were there, I learned how to "sound off" and make the voice bellow out (I loved sneaking behind the upperclassmen and watching them jump a couple of feet by "greeting" them in a loud and thunderous voice). This movement and volume typically helps keep the class somewhat engaged in what I'm doing.

I also tend to use a lot of humor (or attempted humor, at times) in the room, and, as they are (hopefully) laughing, I slip in the theory or the application. When a joke or a story works in a class of that size, it's one of the neatest feelings. When a joke bombs, however, and all you hear are crickets chirping in the back, yeah, it's one of the loneliest feelings you can experience...all those eyes focusing on you, wondering what the Hell you were thinking trying that approach.

I try to set the stage early...on the first day of class, I get there and start fumbling around nervously, constantly checking the time and making sure I have everything in the exact proper place (usually purposely dropping things in the process). At the time the first class is supposed to start, I flip on the mic (the only time I use it) and very quietly say that I'm going to start a few minutes late so those still trying to find the room can get here.

Then I usually start with the bottled water that I bring. I nervously start drinking it, though I get my hand shaking so badly that some of it starts splashing out. Those in the front rows usually notice it and quietly start commenting on it to each other.

About 5 minutes past the actual start time, I lean into the mic and start talking really quietly, making my voice crack. I tell them that the person that was supposed to teach this course pause to look down at the name and struggle with the name Mushrush left for another position, and that I was asked at the last minute to fill in (I'm a grad student in ed admin...they picked me because I have a Master's in econ, though I don't have any teaching experience). As I do this, I'm acting like I'm nearing the fainting/hyperventilating stage and start letting on that I'm completely uncomfortable in front of everyone. Most of them start laughing until I ask them to stop and then ask them if any of them don't like public speaking. More water, with hands REALLY shaking now. I am looking down 75% of the time I'm talking, and the class starts wondering just how painful the semester is going to be. Some of them start shouting out words of encouragement or understanding as I stop and try to get the nerve to continue on. I can hear some students grumbling, expecting Mushrush for the teacher and getting "me" instead. A few hop online with their phones to see if any other Econ 105 sections have open seats.

Finally, I tell them that, expecting that it would be difficult for me the first 2-3 weeks, I was going to show them a short video on how I hoped to teach the course. I step back and try to get the system to show the video...and after 2-3 minutes of messing up the lights, getting everything EXCEPT the PC up on the projector, etc., I finally get the video up: a clip of Ben Stein teaching economics from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. As the video ends, I turn off the mic and let them know that I perhaps I won't plan on teaching like that and that perhaps I have taught this before. The class is (hopefully) dying from laughter at this time when they realize that it was all an act. I actually got a round of applause this semester when I did it last week for the first class.

The stage is now set. A lot of people come to class just to see what I'm going to do next. It's weird when I hear that former students sat in for a class or two right before they graduated because they liked the presentation method. Though it's weird to hear this, it lets me know that something seems to be working and that they actually want to be there. Now that I've got them coming to class, I keep them coming to class and get them to hopefully want to learn. Yes, sometimes I can tell that they expect to be entertained, and, despite my best efforts, when the material in a particular lesson just doesn't lend to humorous examples/anecdotes, I can see the class deflate a little. Still, I try to keep it energized as much as possible to keep the students interested in what's being taught. The biggest complaint that I hear about econ is that it's the most boring thing that they've ever experienced as well as being one of the hardest things to understand. While I understand that it can be boring and difficult, it doesn't have to be, and I do what I can to make it as interesting as possible. As things become more interesting, they tend to actually want to understand it, and the learning commences.

Still being somewhat younger than the average professor helps, too. I try to keep up with the current events and change my examples often. This semester, I used the health care reform debate as an example in the first lecture on tradeoffs, and I actually got a hilarious sarcastic response from someone in the sea of faces when I asked what the criticism of the reform was (response: "A death panel is trying to kill my Grandma!"). Being on MySpace, Facebook, AOL IM, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. hopefully lets the students know that I'm not too set in my ways and understand a lot of what they're going through. While I won't send out friend requests on any of these social networks (I think it would be a little creepy to have my teacher friend me up), I'll often accept student-initiated friend requests. While most wait until after the semester, I often have a few from the current semester link up. Doing all of this hopefully eliminates the "Ivory Tower" feel that sometimes can be felt from a teacher. It lets them know that, well what do you know...he's a normal person (more or less). Getting rid of that stigma hopefully allows the student to relax more in the class and participate. The result? Hopefully a more conducive learning environment.

So, what's it like teaching a hated subject? I'd say it's not too different from doing a one-man play or a stand-up routine, only in my case the audience can stop you and ask what the heck you meant when you said something. Once you have the confidence that you know the material fairly well (but aren't arrogant to the point of refusing to admit that you don't know something), you can focus on the presentation. Being fairly extroverted, I luckily have a comfort zone with larger classes. I can usually tell when I teach a decent course and when I'm terrible...I think it's based mostly on how comfortable I am with the material. My best courses? 103, 105 and 138 (though my students aren't too fond of 138...they expect the humor from 105, but there isn't much to work with because, well, it's STATS!). I consider myself okay with 239 (I make them work and don't hand out information if they don't make the effort), and I feel like I'm improving with 215 as I teach it more. I've only done 220 once, and I'll readily admit that I completely sucked teaching that one.

Now, take out your pencils and show me what happens to the equilibrium price and quantity of gasoline when the price of oil increases.

1 comment:

Mush said...

Bummer...the pic got cropped!