I have never been lucky. I never win contests, sweepstakes, the lottery, the one-armed bandit in Vegas, or even a BINGO game. In fact, every time I enter a game of chance, I immediately begin belting out En Vogue’s 1992 classic “No, You’re Never Going to Get It”. However, I did “win” a door prize once. In a former life, the equivalent of our CTLE was giving away prizes for anyone brave enough to attend a presentation called “Make Life Easier Using Excel’s Concatenate to Combine Text Strings”. As you can imagine, faculty would rather attend an exciting department meeting than attend that smash hit. I was the only one who showed up. I won the door prize. Although I remember absolutely nothing about the concatenate function, I do still refer to my door prize frequently and keep it by my bedside just as some might keep their daily devotions, Vanity Fair, or a glass of warm milk with a shot of brandy. My prize that day was 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors (1990) compiled and edited by Robert Magnan.
If you think this is life changing book that fortifies our call to teach. You would be wrong. This is a brief 61-page glorified pamphlet that provides short, to-the-point tips that make a professors’ life easier and helps differentiate experienced faculty from novices. The tips are brief. The tips are practical. The tips should be common sense. The tips range from the simplicity of erasing white boards to the complexity of drawing up a strategic plan to improve teaching and learning to benefit every class and every student. It would be unthinkable to believe that I could incorporate all 147 tips into my teaching, but my goal is to evaluate each one and determine which are feasible and which will make the classroom a more rewarding experience for the students. The practical tip I am presenting now is one Magnan calls “Meet the Teacher”. Let me begin by stating that I do not like to talk about myself. In an online class, it is easy. I post my bio and, Boom!, I am done. In a face-to-face class, I tell the students how to pronounce my name and that is pretty much the extent of our bonding. And even that does not work because my name continues to be butchered all semester long. Magnan suggests that the semester should start with a teacher introduction and a Q&A session. Yah, I do that. I review the syllabus and ask for questions. As you can imagine, there are hardly ever any questions.
Magnan suggests a slightly different approach. He suggests that all handouts and the syllabus be distributed to the students with ample enough time to read. Then the students should form small groups and decide to collectively which questions to ask regarding the course. Give the students free rein in their questions. They can ask anything that will inform them about the class or the teacher—either professional or personal. This approach will likely result in more questions than traditionally asked. If the questions are about items that should be obvious from the syllabus like grading, expectations, assignments, or attendance, Magnan suggests revising the syllabus if the questions arrive from lack of information or ambiguity in the materials.
The questions about the less obvious are those that may be of greater importance. Why did you choose to teach? What are your qualifications? What have you done outside of academia? What do you like or dislike about his course? Magnan encourages instructors to be human. Answer the questions. By answering the questions, the instructor gets to interact with the students in a personal way.
This tip/approach is not simply an opinion by the author. Back in the late 80s, Chickering and Gamson (1987) presented seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. These principles have been rigorously researched and have provided enough evidence to indicate that they work. The suggestion by Magnan to interact with students reinforces one of these principles—contact between faculty and students (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).
Magnan also suggests answering any questions posed by students openly and frankly, but not in excess. As an instructor who hesitates to share personally with students, I agree. I want to share enough to let students know I am human, but not so much that I cross a line. My modification to Magnan’s tip is to provide several questions that are fair game and then allow students to choose the questions they wanted answered. This modification will still allow faculty/student interaction without crossing a line that may invalidate the respect and authority needed to manage the classroom.