Saturday, August 08, 2009

Developing as an Undergraduate Teacher

I am up for a promotion this year and I have been working on my portfolio to present to the University. Basically I have to convince them why they should promote me. Here I reflect over my development as an undergraduate teacher at North Park. Perhaps you can relate or learn from my mistakes.

Over the course of the last three years, as I begin now my fourth year at North Park University, I have developed and improved my teaching effectiveness with each semester. I will be the first to admit that I committed all of the sins of a “freshly minted-Ph.D.” teacher. My first classes will attest that I had far too high of expectations for my undergrads. In that first semester for one of my classes I must have submitted over 4 syllabus revisions as I was undergoing “on-the-job-training”. Those early classes of students were so accommodating, as I would again announce a syllabus change. Many of those students have since graduated and we laugh together over the memory and to my gratitude they tell me they learned a good deal notwithstanding. Funny they never complained as I was eliminating assignments.

Admittedly I had much to learn in spite of some prior teaching experience and my passion for the subject and for students. One of my strengths, which is also a weakness as it was in this case, is my stubbornness and drive when I feel passionately about something. The end result of such a character is the proverbial truth of “learning the hard way”. This was evident in the way I went about teaching the Paul course at first. My colleagues, especially Scot McKnight, advised me that a certain methodology that I was quite sure was essential had proved ineffective for him in teaching undergrads at earlier stage of his teaching career and I should abandon it. Stubborn as I was, I thought to myself, “I can do this!” I will passionately communicate the importance of the practice and they will learn to love it as they make discoveries for themselves. Invariably, Scot was right; he usually is. Although there were a number of students who benefited from the approach, most were left frustrated and disinterested. I found myself constantly needing to coach and inspire in the use of method instead of teaching the Pauline ideas.

My initial reaction to the circumstance was to try harder. I attempted to use even more convincing rhetoric, better materials, and enlisted tutors to give further assistance outside of class. When this too did not work, then I became bitter toward my students: “They just weren’t trying hard enough” was the kind of thought I had.

Soon I awoke to the harsh reality. My approach wasn’t working. The problem was not the students or a lack of effort on my part; it was simply the wrong approach for the situational context of my teaching. While I would still strongly advocate the methodology I was attempting to incorporate in my class for biblical interpretation, I had yet to fully grasp the context of my teaching: to appreciate the appropriateness within the unique context of NPU. I did not adequately comprehended “the whom” of my teaching. What’s more, I had not fully inculcated the role I was to be playing in the larger University GE curriculum.

Over the course of the last year these two realizations have functioned significantly in revising my course strategies and intended outcomes. While I believed that I was approaching the students holistically, I have realized I had not fully comprehended the situation within which I was teaching. In other words, it has taken me three years to grapple fully with the context of my teaching. Last semester I performed a significant overhaul of two of my GE courses in response to these realizations. As the student evaluations attest, this has greatly increased my teaching effectiveness. To put it bluntly and somewhat embarrassingly, I think for the first two years I was teaching toward only a small percentage of our undergrad population. Now my courses, while still quite rigorous, are much more widely accessible.

Do you want to know the methodology? Sentence Diagramming and Discourse Analysis Scott Hafemann style.


mbrankatelli said...

I believe this was the same method you taught at Moody with. Do you think the difference in your student context made it more valuable there or less?

Joel Willitts said...

Hey Blaise! Yes, I think Moody was a proper context for that method given the students are at least hypothetically Bible students.

Patrick George McCullough said...

Joel, Thanks so much for a forthright self-evaluation of your teaching. I love reading stuff like this.


srunge said...

Have you posted the notes on discourse analysis anywhere? I have heard a bit about Hafemann, but have yet to see what his approach entails. I would appreciate seeing what you have.

Andrew Cowan said...


You may be interested in the website

It has a free video tutorial explaining a method called arcing. This is basically equivalent to Hafemann's discourse analysis approach. It is the method passed on from Dan Fuller to John Piper to Scott Hafemann. Hafemann has adjusted it slightly,so there are minor differences between arcing and his discourse analysis, but the basic concepts can be easily learned from, which has adapted its material from a booklet produced by Piper. I would recommend that you check it out. I have found it to be a very helpful way of studying the Bible.

Allen said...

Having just finished up a Mark class with Dr. Hafemann last Spring (here at GCTS), I can attest to both the method's difficulty and effectiveness. The system is challenging for seminary students... I would imagine even more so for undergrads.

Anna M Blanch said...

Thanks for sharing your self reflections on your learning curve. It is always encouraging to read how someone has developed as a teacher.

Eutychus said...

Funny - as I was reading your post, I kept thinking, "I bet the method he abandoned was sentence diagramming." I still try to teach diagramming to my second-year Greek / exegesis students, but every year I consider abandoning it even for them.

Thanks for sharing this post - I'm sure it matches the experiences of many of us!