“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
— George Bernard Shaw
I am passionate about teaching. This is why I was very happy to gain the 2022 teaching award that is given yearly to two lecturers/professors in my department. That, and the fact that I won very few things in my life (I’m still proud of an award I got in high school for a philosophy essay and a punch card for 10 swing dance lessons I won in Boulder).
To tell the truth, I am not the biggest fan of awards, especially in academia. I do not feel I am better or worse than my colleagues because I took the time to make a good portfolio and submit it, and I do believe that my department is full of exceptional educators. However, it seems that my portfolio was successful, so even if I cannot claim I am the best teacher in the world, at least I now have some self-confidence to say I have some good teaching strategies.
This is why I decided to share my teaching portfolio here.
Hopefully, this can be useful to some of you looking for teaching jobs (not that I am extremely successful in my career, but maybe other people can be).
What I’d like to add here, are some tips for effective teaching:
- Have a class blog. The idea is that students write posts (or create podcasts, or videos – I leave them a lot of freedom) commenting on news or current events. Then, they also have to post comments on their peers’ posts. This has two aims: first, it forces them to think critically about society, and connect what happens in the world with class material & academic theories; second, it helps them learn to write non-academic pieces, which is useful in a lot of jobs. A highlight for me, reading and grading blog posts can be pretty fun and interesting, and I’ve always had students writing fantastic pieces.
- Prepare some online activities. We all learned to use online tools during the pandemic (Hello, Padlet. Hello, Teams. Hello, Zoom breakout rooms). I taught many classes where students’ participation is part of the final grade. While it is great to have class discussions where everybody participates, there is always someone who might find it difficult to raise their hands – think about people who aren’t fluent in English, people who are very shy, etc etc. Therefore, I found it very useful to also have some participation activities that students do before class. These activities are very useful in online teaching, but I found them helpful also in a post-covid (if there is such a thing) academia. In the classroom, I ask students to bring a laptop or a smartphone and work on a Padlet or Googledoc or Jamboard, and then I show the results on the class screen. Examples of activities are:
- I make students prepare discussion questions on readings or class material, and write them on a discussion board. I then use the questions in class to prompt discussion.
- I ask students to come up with their own definition of something (e.g. “what is ‘identity’ for you”?) and write it down on a Padlet (or similar platform, such as Jamboard or Googledoc), either individually or in small groups. Then, when the Padlet is completed, I have a summary of all the answers, and I discuss them together and connect them to the class material (e.g. definition of “identity” according to sociologists)
- I have students do collective presentations using Jamboard or Googledocs. Ideally, students think about an example for a specific topic (e.g. “digital activism”) and each student or group prepares a slide. Then, they present each slide in class one after the other.
- Create a safe space for students. It’s no mystery that the last couple of years have been hard for many. They were especially shitty for me, too. So I learned to become more empathic, and tried to make students feel like they could be open about their struggles and discuss what prevents them from thriving. Some ways I tried to create a safe space:
- On the first day of classes, I give each student a card to write their name and some info. On the back of the card, if they want, they can write something they want me to know (including any type of illness/disability, any struggle they have in their academic career, or simply what works for them in the classroom), and this remains between us.
- For some courses where students need to write papers or theses, I create a “buddy system” where I pair students and they give each other feedback. Especially during the lockdown, but not only, this helps students with their writing. It also helps keep each other in check and make sure they come to class and can progress.
- In class discussions, I always make sure that every viewpoint is respected. I let all students express their ideas and discuss them with each other if they disagree. I usually do not intervene in any discussion as it is good to have people with different opinions, as long as everybody is respectful and does not defend or spread hateful topics.
- Give meaningful feedback. With many papers, exams and theses to grade, it is tempting to give students only a mark and no specific comments. However, assignments are not there to point out what students did wrong, but to make students improve. When I give feedback, I use the sandwich technique –point out something good, then do some criticism, and finish the feedback to something that can be further elaborated because it is interesting. I also try to give specific points of improvement: I try not to write “This paragraph is unclear”, but I write “I feel like this paragraph is quite long and generic, you can divide it in two parts and move it in the introduction.” I try not to write “There aren’t enough citations”, but I write “You can engage more with X theory. You can improve this thesis/paper by looking at Y and W aspects.” It takes longer and, truth be told, I’m not 100% sure all students look at feedback, but those who do, usually get much better quite fast.
It’s important to notice that I have small classes (usually 20 students) and I am expected to have several assignments per course, including participation. Of course, these tips can be less useful for people teaching in different settings, so if you have any other tips or ideas, feel free to comment or contact me.
So, was it useful for me to put together this portfolio? Yes, because it forced me to reflect on my teaching. Also, I got a gift card for my teaching award which I used to buy a playmat for my daughter, so she knows her mum does something meaningful with her teaching skills…