At last week’s Bok Center Fall Teaching Conference, five rising juniors and seniors participated in a panel discussion about teaching at Harvard. We’ve already shared one revelation that came out of the panel. Among the many other insightful gems they offered were several that fall under the following rubric:
Be clear. What are your standards for evaluating papers? How do you define “participation” in your class? What is the purpose of your office hours? How should students prepare for discussion? Many aspects of course design and pedagogy remain unnecessarily vague (too many, according to the panelists). If you value a strong thesis and argument above all else in a paper, tell your students – and help them practice formulating strong theses. If “participation” means saying one valuable thing once every few classes rather than rambling constantly in every class, say so. (These students also recommended expanding the definition of “participation” to include small-group format conversations, email communications, one-on-one meetings with the teacher, and particularly impressive work on weekly assignments, since many students feel self-conscious about speaking in front of their peers.)
One TF attending the panel discussion asked specifically about office hours: how do students conceive of them, and why don’t students ever go? The panelists were quite reasonable in pointing out that the purpose of office hours was often unclear to them. Are they supposed to want to discuss work that has already been graded, or drafts of future assignments? Do they need to come prepared with questions? Does the TF just want to hang out? Rather than leave these questions up in the air, they suggested that TFs clarify their conception of office hours at the beginning of the semester. And perhaps more importantly, TFs should schedule office hours at a time and place conducive to student attendance.
In other words, take some time to think about what you expect of your students, how you want their work to look, and what you want your relationship with them to be – and then talk about each of these issues (and any others you think relevant) with your students. They’ll thank you for it – they promise.