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History professor has advice for new teachers

As students finish up final term papers, at least one professor will be sitting down at her computer to evaluate the course she taught this quarter.

"I write down, free form, all my thoughts and feelings about what happened during the quarter ­ intellectually, personally and pedagogically," says Estelle Freedman, professor of history and director of the Program in Feminist Studies. "It's a lengthy stream-of-consciousness debriefing."

When she's done, Freedman will tuck her observations away in a folder titled "Thoughts 97." She'll also include notes from her teaching assistants, who write down every question that is asked in class.

The next time Freedman puts together a syllabus for the same course, "Introduction to Feminist Studies," she'll retrieve the folder. She'll be reminded of the questions students had, readings she vowed never to assign again, and stories that were helpful in illustrating complex points.

"I don't wait to get course evaluations to do a self-evaluation," Freedman told an audience of more than 50 students and faculty who gathered for a noontime talk Nov. 20 sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning. "I need to know my experience of a course first."

In a wide-ranging talk titled "Learning from Teaching: What You Know, What You Don't Know and How to Teach," Freedman defined good teaching as a balance between thorough preparation and on-the-spot improvisation. Addressing both beginning and veteran teachers, she said her still evolving thoughts had emerged from years of conversations with graduating advisees who were about to launch their own teaching careers.

"Those farewell conversations are something between a pep talk and a survival skill course," she suggested. "The message is that teaching is a form of learning, not just for students but for teachers as well."

A feminist scholar who is a specialist in U.S. social history and women's history, Freedman has received both the Dinkelspiel Award and the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for excellence in teaching. But she said she still can recall the trepidation she felt in her early years in front of a class.

"I literally became ill on my way to my first lecture," she said. "I know how frightening it can be, and I only wish I had told myself then, 'You do know more than the students.'"

Freedman encouraged her listeners to acknowledge what they already know as they prepare to teach new courses. Going to libraries and bookstores, reading and re-reading, taking extensive notes and composing detailed outlines are all good preparation, she said, but another step is equally important.

"I want to suggest putting the brakes on knowledge consumption, holding back temporarily and thinking about what we already know about a subject," she said.

By reviewing notes from qualifying exams, conceptualizing new topics, subdividing subjects chronological or topically, and then identifying areas that need filling in, Freedman said, new teachers can be reminded of their strengths and encouraged to build on them. She also tells her advisees in history to talk through the concepts they're developing.

"Try to explain the basic issues for each topic to a non-historian," she said. "Ask a parent or a friend to listen to your ideas about what is historically significant, and see what needs to be explained further.

"Expect their questions to be on the minds of your students, and notice, too, what is boring your listeners. Then think about ways you could make connections that would engage them."

Noting that the style of graduate seminars can be "terrible training" because of the emphasis on specialized language and competitive discussion, Freedman urged new teachers to shift intellectual gears before facing a classroom of undergraduates. She said it helped to vary the style of presentations, and she encouraged her listeners to consider teaching a favorite book or article.

"Give a whole lecture on it," she said. "Tell students why you like it, what impresses you about it."

In addition to building on what they do know, Freedman said it is just as important for beginning teachers to acknowledge what they don't know. Listening carefully to the questions students ask in class can point to gaps in information and explanation, she said.

"We all know that the student statement, 'This may be a stupid question,' very often is followed by an inquiry that reminds us to make a basic fact or definition more clear," Freedman said. "And sometimes that statement is followed by the most sophisticated questions I have ever heard."

Freedman added that the "art" of teaching requires a balance between rehearsal ­ constant preparation, organizing, reading and re-reading for a course ­ and improvisation.

"Improvisation includes the vulnerability of opening ourselves up to questions that might lead to our saying, 'I don't know the answer.' It also includes the permission to speak personally in the classroom ­ something I was not comfortable doing earlier in my teaching career."

In the women's history survey course she teaches, for example, Freedman said she has drawn on stories from the oral history she conducted with her mother several years ago, and also has spoken about her own experience as a feminist in the 1970s and '80s.

Improvisation also can involve students, Freedman said. Stopping in a lecture to ask if there are questions or assigning students a one-minute essay to write in class can help to engage everyone in a large classroom.

"I want to suggest that our best teaching experiences come from trusting ourselves and trusting our students," Freedman said. "Trust your knowledge and build on it, and trust your students to let you know what you don't know."


By Diane Manuel

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