As a new semester dawns, thousands of instructors are preparing to exit a calling and re-enter a job. For many of us, winter break is a time to spend extended hours on all the work that teaching keeps us from doing — the research, writing, and thinking that we dream of having enough time to do during the semester. That phenomenon got me thinking about ways to fit the square peg of our more personal work into the round hole of our teaching. Can we bring into the classroom the research and writing that means so much to us?
When I think of professors teaching their own scholarship to undergraduates, two archetypes come to mind.
- Professor A doesn’t have to do much prep for his large introductory lecture course, having written the textbook for it some two decades earlier. He keeps the book open at the lectern and assiduously works his way through it, chapter by chapter, throughout the semester. Most students realize soon enough that they don’t have to attend class, especially because there’s a rumor going around that the final exam is made up of the “study questions” that follow each of the book’s chapters.
- Professor B is a superstar in her field, and advanced students take her class to breathe some of her rarefied air. She teaches her own journal articles because to not do so would be to do those students a disservice; understanding her research is essential to an understanding of the course’s subject.
But what about for the rest of us, who are neither as lazy as Professor A nor as important as Professor B? Is there justification for bringing our own research and writing into our classrooms? Can we teach our research in a way that actually serves our students?
Too many of us seem to fear that doing this will make us into some amalgam of those two archetypes — vainly showing off how brilliant we are while cutting corners on pedagogy. But there can be real value in using our scholarship inside the classroom, and I don’t think we need to have an inflated sense of our work’s importance to do so. In fact, reflecting in front of our students about our process in creating scholarly work can teach them valuable lessons, both about the course topic and about what it means to be a scholar.
I’ve written before about the benefits of modeling academic practices for students, using our authority as teachers to provide examples of the sort of approaches that students might take in their own assignments. I’ve also looked into the positive effects of “instructor self-disclosure” — the idea that, the more you reveal about yourself in class (within limits), the more seriously your students will take the course. The best ways to bring your own academic work into your classroom take advantage of those two factors, modeling the practices of scholarship while letting your students in on your own interests and pursuits.
Last semester, in my first-year rhetoric course, I used a piece of my own writing in a lesson on revision. After discussing the principles that underlie effective revision (clarity, concision, organization, etc.), I showed the students an early draft of one of my Vitae columns on the projector. I explained to them my intentions for the piece and my process of drafting, and then read through the draft. I explained that it was a first draft and that I didn’t think it was very good. I asked the students for their suggestions: How would they revise it? Then I began revising the draft in front of them, taking their suggestions into account, talking all the while about my reasoning behind each change. After 10 minutes or so of revising in front of them, I brought up the published version of the piece. I read through it and discussed further how the essay got from first draft to final draft, and how they might take a similar approach with their drafts.
Now, it certainly helps that my course was concerned with such foundational academic tasks as writing, reading, and critical thinking. But this lesson can really be applied to any discipline, provided you keep the focus on process, rather than product. By showing students how real scholarly work is created and walking them through your idiosyncratic approach to your subject, you offer them a path to solving their own intellectual problems (or, as I often conceive of such lessons to myself: “this is how someone who actually cares about writing revises an essay”).
You also show them that there’s a point to all this stuff that you’ve been discussing in class. There’s a world out there — your world — where the ideas expressed in their essays and exams matter, even if only to their boring professor. This is truer still if your scholarship is in the field in which you are teaching. In that case, you can model not only scholarly practice in general, but also the specific practices that apply in your field.
So look for ways this semester to bring to your classroom a recent project you’ve been working on: a journal article, an experiment, even a grant proposal. You don’t have to make your students care about your work. But if you can show them that you care about your work, maybe you can teach them to care about their own.