Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Teaching as popularity contest?

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I got this heartwarming email from a student this morning:

“how are you my friend and teacher?hope this find you well.you know i had a chance to attend the world forum in puerto rico and i been attending all the sessions about technology and with every session i keep saying ” rabana ykremk ya maha ” you know why because nothing of what they were saying knew to me and this is because of you i owe this and i thank you alot *_* “

I have had many great emails from students, but I have also been on the receiving end of some really angry, unhappy, or just unsatisfied students. Whether they don’t like me as a person, dislike my teaching style, or are unhappy about a particular incident… It happens.

I do a lot of assessments of other people’s teaching and have seen it all, or a lot of it, anyway.

I say all this because I want to comment on a recent post in the Guardian that suggests student feedback is not useful. The problem with that post as some friends commented on facebook (and many ppl commented in the comment section), is that the author seems to be taking a very negative attitude to the students themselves (as in “what would they know about learning and teaching?”, not the system by which their feedback is taken, e.g. Via standard institution-wide surveys that don’t account for context, or by the lack of responsiveness to student feedback altogether that makes students jaded about the process and its usefulness for them.

One of the most annoying parts of the article, to me, was one that at first glance does not seem to be an attack on students, but for me, is (btw the below is the author’s response to students’ unhappiness with what they perceived as overly feminist aspects of the course):

“The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion“

That is for me hugely problematic. The assumption that there is a particular canon of knowledge that needs to be taught, ignoring each instructor’s subjective selection, interpretation, and approach to presenting that content to students. Ignoring students’ need (right, even) to learn in a way that engages them, seems relevant to them… It seems to me that any good teacher should care if their students are unhappy with the content and try to find ways to help help them see its relevance/importance. Or at least address their feedback.

That particular course was one with a feminist focus (or so the author says). I have had similar issues trying to teach about gender issues: sometimes men don’t get it and feel it is biased. Um, well of course, it’s biased, to the views of about 50% of the world population who are women! The comment students made to that teacher about her bias should not (in my humble opinion) have triggered a defense of the quality of the content and research, but rather a trigger to open up discussions on bias, subjectivity, and how much of the world for many years has been perceived through men’s eyes only (which fits nicely with the course topics!). It was an opportunity to understand or to open up the issue in the classroom. But maybe that’s just me…

This all leads nicely into my upcoming blogpost (hopefully sometime this decade!) on process and critical approaches to curriculum… Coming soon..

But before I go: I am not ignoring the issue of how student feedback can be done poorly in universities to the extent of being neither helpful to students nor to teachers. I can write a longer post on that later. But I just wanted to respond to this particular post. Mine is a partial blogpost. Responding to a partial post 😉

Teaching should not be a popularity contest but often feels like one 🙂 But as someone said in the comments (this links to one of the best comments on the post), although teachers need not be entertaining, we should strive to make it at least engaging. My take on it: Our goal should not be to teach, it should be to help or facilitate student learning, and I don’t know why anyone would continue teaching if they did not feel it contributed to student learning in some way.

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