Teaching Midlife Crisis
The summary of the last academic year for me has been crisis. I have never felt so frustrated and it has turned me into someone I don’t want to be. I am restless. I am grumpy. I am tired.
I came to academia with fresh hope but also fear. Fear that I didn’t know enough or have enough training to correctly determine what and how to teach. That fear drove me to pursue excellence. I have spent the last 12 years learning my new areas of content expertise, pouring over literature to make sure I provide to my students with the most accurate information. Meanwhile, I have really tried to learn how to teach well. Attending conferences and workshops to push me to develop skills in creating examinations, assignments, course structure that hopefully improve student learning. I haven’t been unsuccessful in being able to share my enthusiasm for learning, and student feedback and ratings on average, have been great. I often get feedback from students who tell me they love my teaching and find me engaging, and I have been able to convey to them that I actually do care about their learning….and that is all great…. BUT problem. This has all been about my development. I have learned a lot, I have become a content expert in topics of human physiology and rarely is there a question that I can’t answer, or can’t provide a suggestion for what may be correct. I love my areas of expertise. How about my students? Did they develop? Have they actually learned? Did they become active participants in their education?? Sadly, I don’t know anymore if that is true for most of the students I am responsible for. What good am I as their teacher, if all they can appreciate is that I know a lot, and that I like what I teach, but they truly do not know the content or have appreciated the material. Have they been inspired to learn? Are they learning? Really truly developing the skills to learn material deeply?
I teach in super large classes of 400+ students in human physiology. At the introductory level and also at the senior levels. I teach in courses that are team taught and me and my colleagues have been given the task of teaching the content, which we do. We also record our lectures in the senior course, but students have stopped coming to class. I find this incredibly frustrating, because I know for the most part, the students who aren’t in attendance are certainly not listening to these lectures right away. They wait until the week or two before the exam to barrel through the vast amounts of information that they are just hearing for the first time. For the students who actually did come to my lectures, I have been on the receiving end of unsolicited feedback to suggest how I can make my students lives easier. But I felt that I have provided them with too much already, and they have not been forced to work (ie. learn). We don’t have assigned readings, we provided the lecture recordings, so there isn’t anything outside the lecture for them to learn ahead of time, and I have become the only conduit of the necessary information.
It is not working. I truly believed that if I developed lectures that were clear, precise and engaging, that students would take the time right away to learn the material. I deliver, they receive and then they are motivated to work on that information to ensure that they understand. That isn’t happening. Instead, I hear complaints. I speak too fast, I speak too slow, they want a lecture transcript, they want less words, they want more words, they don’t like that I only have a few power point slides, they want the PDFs with white backgrounds, there should be more images, there should be less images, they don’t think they should have a cumulative final exam….
I feel that it is akin to serving a five course meal to attendees that don’t appreciate and criticize the waitress. Meanwhile, I have done the shopping, cooking, serving and cleaning and they don’t appreciate the meal. I have done the work. Most don’t begin to work until they are in purely cram mode and then they panic when they realize that there is so much content they can’t take the time to try and understand it and memorize out of survival mode.
Can I blame them for doing this? I haven’t asked them to think. I have assumed that they would want to. I haven’t asked them to find and create, join in the process of making the meal. They sit with forks and knives, begrudgingly at the table because it’s too early in the morning. They haven’t been asked to participate, and then they don’t appreciate what has been selected for them. They have recordings, they are incredibly smart, so they memorize and shove the information in their brains. Not enjoying the meal and muttering all the way.
Is this my fault? Yes and no. I learned differently, and I have expected they all would be like me. Wanting to learn because it was satisfying, and being motivated to master material delivered because it made them feel accomplished. To love to learn. But they aren’t me. Some maybe are, but most see their education in survival mode. Do I keep doing what I am doing? Some would say it is the students choice and their fault for not taking the time to learn from a traditional lecture style course. But that doesn’t sit well with me. There are so many studies published that tackle this very issue. Data to show that student motivation to learn is related to how the course is taught.
The easy route would be to stay the course and keep providing lectures like I have. I am good at it, I get good ratings and I get teaching awards. The problem is that I can’t stand it. I would continue to be frustrated at them, at myself, at the emails, at the questions, at the lack of engagement. I just can’t do this anymore like this.
Over this last year, I have considered maybe this isn’t the career for me in the depths of my frustrations. A serious career midlife crisis. Maybe I need to move on to something else. However, I am not in that much crisis mode (yet). But I am in the mood to turn the table over, throw out dinner and begin from scratch. I realize that this will create a large amount of work this summer, which I actually don’t have time for considering other large projects which have to happen. But I am making the changes and it will likely be ugly. My experimentation in changing my teaching practice will be hard to do well the first time, and I am sure, I will not have happy students when they find out I am not just going to tell them all they need to know. But I expect that making these changes will be worth the effort for me, and for my future students. I pray that it does.