I’ve put together a lot of bibliographies in my day. They’re more like resource collections than comprehensive listings of relevant published work, which are pretty much impossible when it comes to teaching and learning where the literature spreads across our disciplines and in disciplines devoted to its study. I favor well-designed research studies with practical implications, thoughtful analysis of instructional strategies, articles with content applicable across many disciplines, and material that’s well-written. My latest collection, available for download at the end of this article, pushes that envelope just a bit.
[dropcap]I’ve[/dropcap] put together a lot of bibliographies in my day. They’re more like resource collections than comprehensive listings of relevant published work, which are pretty much impossible when it comes to teaching and learning where the literature spreads across our disciplines and in disciplines devoted to its study. I favor well-designed research studies with practical implications, thoughtful analysis of instructional strategies, articles with content applicable across many disciplines, and material that’s well-written. My latest collection, available for download at the end of this article, pushes that envelope just a bit.
It contains published pieces that describe instructional errors, mistakes, misunderstandings, problem assignments, and courses that did not go well. Also included are articles that recount those struggles with teaching that causes us to question what we are doing and why. As you might suspect, it’s not a huge collection. Who wants their list of publications to contain an article that begins, “I have a confession to make. I was a bad teacher.” (Cohan, p. 32)
It takes courage to confront an instructional failure or admit to ongoing struggles. It’s tough enough to admit that to yourself, let alone announce it to the world, “I had a problem. I saw it in my students every day. Their faces, their postures, and their incessant checking of electronic devices all told me that they wanted to be somewhere other than in my class. . .” (Gonzalez, p. 33) Most of us do not handle our teaching troubles with this kind of maturity. I, for one, responded to a class that went badly by refusing to teach it again, and I did so without apology or explanation despite being a seasoned veteran who regularly helped others with their teaching.
Most of the time what ends up in the literature and in our conversations are glowing accounts of instructional successes. Those do merit accolades and celebration—they are accomplishments that others can learn from—but there’s more to be learned from what doesn’t work. Exploring those events takes us deep into the nooks and crannies of teaching and learning. We are confronted with questions and challenged to figure out what happened. It’s rarely pleasant but once we’ve got it sorted out, we leave with learning that’s tightly wedged in our memories.
What does it mean to learn from a mistake? Usually it means, “that’s not something I’ll ever try again,” but that’s a narrow, negative takeaway. The more important learning involves figuring out what you’ll do instead the next time, and good decisions aren’t likely if you run away from what went awry.
Why are these failures and struggles so hard to admit? In our hearts, we all know the truth. Teaching doesn’t always go well. We all have those days when the clear explanation escapes us, when students aren’t learning, and when motivation is nowhere to be found. Ours is not an easy profession; perfection evades all of us. Part of what I love about the articles in this collection is how they confirm that I’m not alone in miscalculating student response, in misunderstanding the implications of a policy, in feeling angry, frustrated, disappointed, and sometimes even deeply discouraged. If others can make these admissions in a public venue, I am moved to acknowledge mine, even if only in private.
There’s something else I love about these pieces. Each one redeems the failure, puts it under the lights, examines it, learns from it, and then moves on. That doesn’t mean they all have happy endings. but every author finds the exploration fruitful and benefits from sharing their story—and we are right there with them, learning from their learning. Amy Mulnix writes in her piece, “College educators need to tell more stories about their own learning experiences, not just to their students but also to other faculty. Personal stories that describe learning are rare in my experience, yet I think they have real potential to help faculty intellectually grab hold of the new realities in teaching and learning.” (p. 8)
Literature like this merits recognition and belongs in the lexicon of pedagogical scholarship. It encourages us to consider those aspects of teaching that make it an intensely human endeavor; to acknowledge the failures and struggles, and to learn from them. Isn’t that one of most important lessons we teach our students? As lifelong learners, shouldn’t it apply to us, too?
[perfectpullquote align="full" bordertop="false" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size="20"]Hear from faculty as they recount less-than-perfect classroom experiences and what they learned from them. Download the resource collection now »[/perfectpullquote]
Cohan, M. “Bad Apple: The Social Production and Subsequent Reeducation of a Bad Teacher. Change, 2009, (November/December), 32-36.
Gonzalez, J. J., (2013). My journey with inquiry-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (2), 33-50.
Mulnix, A. B. (2016). What my cadaver dog taught me about teaching and learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27 (1), 5-21.