I'm involved with AU's Greenberg Seminar program; have been for several years. (Actually, in the interest of getting new blood involved, this will be my last year of formal involvement with it, which is in some ways too bad because I love doing it.) The Greenberg Seminars are about training Ph.D. students to teach, largely by holding sessions where we can actually talk about teaching (bizarre that we have to go out of our way to make time for conversations like that on a university campus, but there you are), as well as providing opportunities for those of us who have been doing this for a little while to share some tips and advice with those just starting out. All in all, it's a good time.

One of the issues that came up during this Saturday's session involved the careful balance that one has to strike in a classroom -- or when designing the syllabus that will shape the expectations of what will go on in that classroom -- between establishing/maintaining authority, and giving students in the class the freedom to develop their own ways of engaging with the material. Over the years I've become much more convinced that it is better to establish all of the hard-and-fast rules and expectations up front, both by writing them in the syllabus and by reinforcing them in person during the first few class sessions. I'm primarily talking about things like "I don't accept late papers unless you have a documented family or medical emergency" or "this is a discussion-oriented class, and if you just sit back and listen for the whole semester you shouldn't expect to do very well." But noting things like "we have an Academic Integrity Code and you're not supposed to violate it" seem to me to fall into that category as well; stating such things up front simply makes sure that everyone in the class, students and professor alike, start off on the same page about what the rules are.

After the session ended, a couple of people told me that they were a bit concerned that putting all of those expectations up front looked and sounded "defensive." This was also, I think, because we had a discussion about maintaining order in the classroom: how to react if students behaved inappropriately, made derogatory comments, or otherwise impeded the educational process. During that discussion my position was pretty clear: I always reserve the right to do whatever is necessary to propel the educational process along, even up to asking people to leave if they are being disruptive and counterproductive. And when push comes to shove I am still the authority-figure in the class; the fact that I usually don't choose to exercise that authority in ways that I don't think are all that appropriate for a classroom environment does not detract from the fact that at the end of the day I am the one who gets to decide how far to let things go.

Most of my classes are discussion-oriented classes, which means that most days are spent trying to hash out issues collectively. We range all over the map, and I am very lenient in my management of discussions -- wherever people want to go is fine with me, I have no pre-set agenda: it's just "here are some texts, here are some issues, here are some ideas, go." In order for that to work, everyone in the room has to be on board with the style and the agenda (such as it is); if they aren't, for example if they drop out of the main discussion and just have a side-conversation with the person sitting next to them, I regard it to be my duty to intervene and try to draw them back into the central exchange. Indeed, that's my job in a discussion: push, prod, challenge, press -- not direct, shape, manage, or other such things. I facilitate; students do the conversational work.

For me, stating expectations up front is the best way to set up the classroom environment. There are some picky things, like when assignments are due and what I expect everyone to do for those assignments; on those I brook virtually no compromise. But those firm borders are what permit the generally wild and uncontrolled flow of the daily discussions in my classes. Everybody has to know that they should play hard; as long as everyone agrees to that, the kind of learning I am after can take place. There is a bit of an irony here, in that I need to establish ground rules and thus my own authority in order to divest myself of it as the semester proceeds, but who ever said that this process was supposed to be completely rational?

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