Feed on

In the days when teaching evaluations involved filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil on the last day of class, evaluation response rates were entirely dependent on who showed up to class on a given day. Now, Notre Dame and many other colleges and universities collect student feedback online, meaning response rates are no longer based on attendance, but on whether students are motivated to complete the online surveys. Online surveys have many benefits – a streamlined process, easier-to-interpret results, flexibility to add your own questions, and reduced paper use, to name a few – but raise concerns for some about reduced response rates. Evaluations are one of the primary means to get feedback on one’s teaching and are also valuable for career development, so generating an appropriate response rate is an important task, and one which instructors have some control over too! Administration of online Course Instructor Feedback (CIFs) at Notre Dame begins soon (April 25th – May 7th for Spring 2017), so now is a good time to consider implementing a strategy to increase CIF response rates. Whether you are teaching at Notre Dame or elsewhere, try mixing several of the following techniques to ensure an adequate response rate:

  • Demonstrate the importance of evaluations. The number one thing instructors can do to increase response rates and ensure students take evaluations seriously is to communicate (and demonstrate) to students that they personally value the feedback, intend to use it, and that it is important to their career.
    • Create a feedback-oriented environment. If you seek feedback from students throughout the semester, such as by administering an informal early-semester feedback form, it signals that you value student opinions and are willing to change elements of your course based on the feedback you receive. Building a general rapport with students also encourages them to care about you and the course.
    • Discuss previous evaluations. Mention to students something you have altered in the course based on previous semesters’ evaluations, or discuss something that previous students have commented on as being valuable (like a difficult assignment that turned out to be especially fruitful).
    • Add your own questions (and tell students you did). Encourage student participation by actively gauging opinions on something that is important to you. To reap the full benefits, be sure to tell students ahead of time that you are specifically asking for their help with these questions.
    • Tell students how evaluations are used. Academic hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions are a mysterious process even to some in the world of academia, and even more so to students. Explain to students that administrators weigh student evaluations in personnel matters and that they will be seen and taken seriously by others too – not just the instructor. Remind them too that they are completely anonymous and not tied to their grades in the course.
  • Give frequent reminders or include CIFs in your course design. Students are busy people, and even if they intend to fill out evaluations, the activities and stress of the end of the semester may move CIFs to the low end of the priority list. By personally reminding students on top of the reminders they receive from the university, it will be less likely that forgetfulness will be the cause of low response rates. Even better, consider building CIF completion into your course.
    • In-class reminders, email reminders, personal reminders… As long as done within reason, any type of personal reminder will signal to students that you take evaluations seriously. If only 1/3 of the class have completed their evaluations halfway through the CIF administration period, thank the 1/3 and kindly ask the remaining 2/3 to fill them out.
    • Note it on your syllabus. Place the dates of CIF administration on the syllabus, or even list CIF completion as an “assignment.” For example, make the last problem on the homework assignment to fill out CIFs and provide instructions on how to do so.
    • Devote class time to completing CIFs. Just like the old days of #2 pencils and paper evaluations, set aside the first 10 minutes of class to go to a computer lab and have students fill out their evaluations. (Doing so at the start of class instead of the end ensures that you have their full attention.) For privacy, be sure to step out of the room as they fill them out.
  • Explain the benefits…or provide additional ones. Evaluations can benefit a number of people: the students themselves (expressing their opinion, seeing grades earlier), future students (seeing basic info on the instructor, improving their class experience), the instructor (improving teaching, using evaluations for job advancement), and the university (ensuring instructors are doing their jobs effectively). Remind students of these benefits, and consider whether you are willing to provide additional nominal benefits for completing CIFs.
    • Offer additional benefits. The most controversial method of increasing response rates is to offer students additional incentive to fill out evaluations, either individually (by having students print confirmation of their evaluation submission) or collectively (if a certain percentage of the class completes their CIFs). These nominal benefits might include a bonus extra credit point on a homework assignment, the ability to use an index card with notes on the final exam, or doughnuts on the last day of class. If you are concerned about walking the fine line between incentive and bribery, you might also tell students they will receive a personal thank-you note if they confirm that they filled out their evaluations (as an added signal that you care about their thoughts on the class).

Students can tell throughout the whole semester whether instructors value their opinion, and one need not wait until the last minute to frantically email students encouraging them to evaluate their teaching. Look for ways to signal that you value feedback, to demystify the evaluation process, and to explain to students why evaluations are important. Once you have received the results of your CIFs, check out our resources on interpreting your scores, or make an appointment to stop by and discuss them with a Kaneb Center staff member.

For Further Reading:

The Kaneb Center fully encourages thinking of your class sessions and course schedules in terms of digestible blocks that employ diverse engaged learning exercises and techniques and are transparently connected to course goals. However, in practice it is sometimes difficult to ensure that each separate block of content throughout the semester connects not only to course goals but also directly to each other. In his 2016 book, Small Teaching, James Lang uses the term interleaving to demonstrate how one might best put these smaller chunks of information disseminated throughout the semester in constant conversation with one another so that students experience a consistent flow of information and better understand how each piece of the class fits together.

Interleaving is most easily understandable in the context of courses or situations that require memorization of a large body of knowledge.  Lang successfully introduces the concept of interleaving through a personal anecdote about learning Spanish. He underscores that he did not truly start learning Spanish until he abandoned the linear model of trudging forward toward more advanced vocabulary terms and grammatical concepts and replaced it with a method that combined this forward progression with consistent review of older material. Doing so meant that he moved much more slowly through new material but ensured that he retained the information he was learning. Lang defines such a learning method as interleaved learning and suggests that implementing this mixture of review based and new concept based learning will dramatically increase student retention of material.

Since interleaving necessitates constant reinforcement , there may be some anxiety about it taking time away from learning new content. That said, more complex ideas or information are not necessarily valuable if it is not properly understood.  Many of us are guilty of trying to cover as much new material as possible, sometimes at the expense of remembering to provide proper context. Perhaps we are already implementing best practices such as previewing material at the beginning of class, using different teaching methods throughout class-time, and spending time on a direct review of class material. But do we spend enough time reinforcing previously-taught material in later class periods, or do we just expect students to have a handle on it thanks to our excellent scaffolding of the material when we taught it? Lang argues that “If you want them to learn content or skills that stretch across the entire semester, and even beyond the confines of your course, interleave” (56). Retention is increased because students are able to directly make connections between each part of the course. If, per Lang, we increase the scaffolding to include frequent review of older material, we might have to spend less time on each individual concept because students will be able to activate their prior knowledge and directly apply it to new information and ideas.

Interleaving can even work in a course that is not linearly constructed, such as a humanities class that might focus on process more than product and may not necessarily require a direct progression of ideas in the same way a math or science course might. In a more process based class, one may revisit frameworks for thinking about issues or specific discussions that uncovered faulty assumptions about course material. I normally frame my courses with a chapter from Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress that develops a theory of performative and transgressive pedagogy that emphasizes student engagement and encourages students to think more deeply about their agency in the classroom. When reading future texts, we continually return to an interpretation of Hooks’ work that functions as a lens through which to contextualize our conversations and interactions and therefore leverage student participation. The result is that students feel more involved in the work as they are continually encountering Hooks’ pedagogy as a frame for interpreting and interacting with texts and one another. As I hope my experience demonstrates, interleaving does not just benefit information consumption but also “mastery of complex skills like writing, speaking, and problemsolving”, as students are asked to make connections across units of the course and synthesize their thoughts throughout the semester (56).

For those of you who would like to hear Lang speak in person, please check the Kaneb Center website or join our mailing list for updates on his upcoming (rescheduled) appearance this spring at Notre Dame.

Further Reading:

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

Lang, James. Small Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

James Lang’s Blog

It’s virtually guaranteed that, no matter how energized a discussion facilitator you are, or how exciting the material you’re covering is, you will have a few silent students in your classroom. This can be demoralizing, especially for a new teacher, since it often appears that students who don’t respond aren’t as interested in the subject matter. Additionally, it can be hard to gauge how well those particular students are following your lecture or the classroom discussion. Here are some tips on how to engage students who are habitually quiet in class:

  • As is so often the case, planning ahead can save you trouble later. A simple way to learn about your class is to have every student fill out a note card at the beginning of the year with their name, background, reasons that they’re taking your class, as well as anything else you may wish to know about them.  Include an open-ended question like “What else would you like your instructor to know about you?” This will still give students a chance to communicate with you and let you know more about what they are looking for.


  • Since part of the challenge with quiet students is getting to know them and their needs as a student, if your class size allows it, consider asking everyone in class to drop by your office hours at the beginning of the semester. This gives you an opportunity to ask about their interests and relevant background; knowing the makeup of the classroom in this way is always helpful for class preparation.


  • Try to avoid calling on quiet students when they aren’t expecting it, even in a well-intentioned effort to hear their input. If you have students who are quiet because they are shy or unused to speaking in front of others, forcing them to speak extemporaneously will probably only reinforce their discomfort.


  • If you do establish a policy of calling on students unprompted, make sure to do so only after 1) giving fair warning that this will happen and 2) giving students a chance to think and write about their responses before they are asked to share them with the class.  You may give all students 2 minutes to consider a prompt or tackle a problem before calling on someone to share their answer.  You may even give them a chance to discuss their answer with a neighbor before asking anyone to speak to the whole class. These techniques allow all students, and particularly the quieter ones, to gather and consider their thoughts before being put on the spot.


  • Calling on students after giving time to write and even discuss answers with neighbors can work particularly well if you ask questions that are don’t require a strict right or wrong answer. If the question is sufficiently broad, you can incorporate the wide variety of answers into something productive for the whole class. The benefit for your quiet students is that it introduces a positive environment where all responses are taken seriously and drawn into the main theme of the class. If a student’s answer does need some correction, make sure to include positive feedback as well; the main point is for your students to see that there should be nothing to fear in venturing their opinion.


  • Finally, a good way to ensure that you are hearing the thoughts of your quietest students is through writing assignments. Whether reacting to the reading before class or reflecting on the discussion after class; short, low-stakes writing assignments allow quiet students time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answers away from the pressure of the classroom, and allow the instructor insight into those students’ thoughts and progress in the course.


Students are quiet for all kinds of reasons, from their personalities to their educational or cultural backgrounds. Your job is not to change them into talkative people, but to build a classroom environment conducive to the learning of all students.

Additional Resources:



As instructors, we play critical roles in promoting a supportive and motivational learning environment for our students.  Below is a survey of strategies suggested by recent research for promoting a positive classroom environment:


Building rapport with students

In a study of students’ perceptions of their rapport with their instructors, the strength of this perceived relationship appeared to be most important for students’ motivation and satisfaction, outweighing their attitudes toward the course content or recommended course behaviors (Myers & Bryant 2002). These results suggest that even if your students are unenthusiastic about your subject, you can promote positive experiences in the classroom by personally empowering and motivating them.


Improving attitudes toward diversity

A study on student attitudes toward diversity found that even a basic intervention had lasting effects. A senior white male faculty member gave a presentation on diversity to a group of white, male engineering students. In comparison to the control group who received no diversity presentation, the students who listened to the presentation expressed stronger positive attitudes toward diversity in engineering.  The message, delivered at the beginning of the semester, had a measurable effect three months later, which underscores importance of setting the tone for respect and civility at the beginning of the semester (Bennett & Sekaquaptewa 2014). The study also suggests that even if you are not part of a marginalized group, you can effectively deliver messages of inclusivity to your students.


Dealing with difficult situations

A survey of teachers’ and students’ responses to microaggressions found that instructors report a greater willingness to ignore incidents, but students feel it is important that their teachers address these situations. In this study, microaggressions took the form of statements or actions that conveyed subtle or unintentional racism in the classroom. Students rated all possible interventions as more effective than instructors, including strategies such as privately addressing the issue outside of class, holding a class discussion, and immediately addressing the unacceptability of the behavior (Boysen 2012). If you find yourself in a difficult situation in the classroom, do not let your uncertainty about the perfect response be the enemy of the good.  Whatever thoughtful and genuine intervention you make is better than no response and likely will be more effective than you imagine.


The Take-away

As the instructor, you probably have more power than you give yourself credit for to positively influence students’ attitudes and experiences in your classroom.  Take opportunities to connect to your students, develop an inclusive atmosphere early in the term, and use teachable moments throughout the semester to make your classroom a more welcoming environment.



Bennett, J. E., & D. Sekaquaptewa (2014). Setting an egalitarian social norm in the classroom: improving attitudes towards diversity among male engineering students. Social Psychology of Education, 17, 343-355.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms. College Teaching, 60 (3), 122-129.

Myers, S. A., & Bryant, L. E. (2002). Perceived Understanding, Interaction Involvement, and College Student Outcomes.  Communication Research Reports, 19 (2), 146-155.

In our Faculty Feature series, the Kaneb Center interviews teachers around campus to learn about what motivates them, discuss techniques they use in their classrooms, and share bits of wisdom with others in the Notre Dame community and beyond! This edition, we feature Amanda Hummon from the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a Researcher at the Harper Cancer Research Institute. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and fell in love with chemistry as a high school student. I loved the simplicity and universality of the periodic table. I studied chemistry in college and graduate school. After I finished my Ph.D., I decided to apply my chemistry background to cancer research. I spent four years as a post-doctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute before coming to Notre Dame in 2009.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I really enjoy interacting with students. As a graduate student, I mentored undergraduates in the lab. Then as a post-doc, I mentored graduate and medical students. In all these cases, I found that I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the project. It is incredibly rewarding to help someone else understand a difficult concept. I also find that teaching others is one of the best ways to determine whether or not you really understand a topic.

In what ways do you find teaching rewarding or meaningful?

Chemistry is a subject that gets a bad rap. It can be perceived as difficult and unapproachable. In my classes, and in particular, in my Chem 10101 class, I aim to make chemistry approachable and enjoyable. It is such a central, important science but many people are intimidated by it. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to have a student tell me that they anticipated disliking my class but actually found it instructive/meaningful/enjoyable.

Describe one teaching technique you like to use in your classes.

I use a lot of chemical demonstrations and YouTube videos. The availability of wonderful demos is a huge advantage for chemistry teachers. In my Chem 10101 class, I do a demo in every lecture. For example, when we discuss the periodic table, I explain how adding one more electron can make a huge difference in chemical reactivity. We discuss the difference between Hydrogen (1 electron) and Helium (2 electrons). We then watch a YouTube video of the Hindenburg exploding. The Hindenburg was supposed to be filled with inert helium, but because of a global helium shortage, it was filled with reactive hydrogen, with deadly consequences. After we watch the YouTube video, everyone dons earplugs and I put on Personal Protective Equipment. Then, with the students a safe distance away, I light balloons on fire. While the helium balloon sounds like a regular air-filled balloon exploding, the hydrogen balloon produced a huge boom and a substantial fireball. There is nothing like a fireball in class to help students remember a key concept.

What advice would you give to a new teacher?

You have to be respectful with your students. Treat them fairly and explain why your class policies are the way they are. Also, don’t feel that you need to cram a ton of material into a lecture. I find that less is more when it comes to teaching. I tend to emphasize one or two major concepts in a lecture. Asking your students to absorb a ton of information is unrealistic and does not promote retention of the material.

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

Great teachers are invested in their students. They do their job because they enjoy it and they want to pass their love of learning on to others. They are also willing to invest time and energy into their students.

Thanks, Amanda!


Collaborative and cooperative learning, often commonly known as “group work,” is growing in favor among professors as an effective active learning tool. Aside from the benefits of getting students involved in the education process, another reason for the expanded role for group work in the classroom is the demand from students (and their future employers) for opportunities to develop teamwork and interpersonal communication skills. Others have highlighted the ways in which group work promotes critical thinking and cross-cultural competencies. While most are also familiar with common complaints about group work, when done well, activities like the think-pair-share, in-class debates, or group projects can all help students understand the content and develop the skills they need to be successful.

For group work to be effective, however, it requires careful planning: choosing an assessment that matches your lesson plan and goals, assigning a task at the correct challenge level, and deciding how you will select groups for the activity. For many, it is the formation of groups that receives the least amount of attention. And though group work can be sufficient with many different group arrangements, a group that is strategically designed with learning in mind can elevate group work to the next level. Here are just a few options for forming student groups, along with some brief advantages and disadvantages to each:

  • Proximity-based. This is perhaps the most common way to form groups: get into a group with one or two students sitting near you and discuss the question on the board. It is the least time-consuming method, requires little movement around the classroom, and allows students to (hopefully) get right down to business. However, since students tend to sit in the same position, near people they know, it limits the number of students one partners with for group work.
  • Student-selected. If proximity-based selection models are the most common, student-selected groups are a close second. Forming groups is simple when we ask students to take charge. Furthermore, this method gives students freedom to take ownership over the activity and work with people they feel comfortable with. As above, however, this may limit discussion to those individuals who students are already communicating with. It may also mean that all of the “talkers” or “hard-workers” are in a single group, or that some students may be left out when forming groups.
  • Student-selected with limitations. To limit the problems associated with student-formed groups, you may consider placing certain requirements on who students work with in group activities. For example, ask students to find a person they have not worked with yet during the semester, that one student majoring in the subject work with a non-major, or that they work with someone sitting in a different section of the classroom. Though this may open up the discussion more, it also reduces student choice in the matter and will likely take more time.
  • Assigned roles. If your project includes multiple roles for students, such as note-takers, presenters, or multiple sections that can be completed by one or more students, another way to divide students up is to first assign (or let them select) these roles and then ask them to form complete groups based on division of labor. This allows students to work on a particular skill and potentially with a potentially different group than they otherwise would have. If you use this method, be sure to give students a chance to perform most (if not all) of the roles throughout the semester.
  • Randomly assigned. Want your students to hear different perspectives and work with new people? Random assignment of groups might be the way to go. There are many ways you can do this, from entering names into a random number generator, drawing names out of a hat, or having students line up in order of their birthday. (Hint: try to avoid forming groups based on physical characteristics, like what a student is wearing or how tall they are; this may draw uncomfortable attention to students’ appearances.) Though it may be more time consuming and cause more commotion in the classroom, it is a fair way to form groups, ensures everyone is included, and breaks students out of the habit of talking to the same people. Plus, it raises opportunities for the formation of community (learning birthdays or favorite books) and can be good to get students moving around the classroom.
  • Assigned groups. Sometimes the best way to generate groups is to do it yourself! In particular, if you want to balance student personalities, abilities, or the sociodemographic characteristics of the group, assigning groups can be an effective, if somewhat time-consuming, method. If you assign groups for graded work, consider reducing the point value of the assessment, otherwise you need to be confident that your assigned groups will work out.

In choosing which method to use to form groups, consider the limitations of your classroom space, time, and the goals of the activity. For a quick think-pair-share, perhaps proximity-based groups are the way to go. For in-class debates, you may want students to prepare both sides of an argument before randomly assigning them a team in class. For longer group projects, students may feel more comfortable choosing their own groups. Try to match your selection method with your goals for the activity. Throughout the semester, mix it up and try a couple of these group formation options! Being thoughtful about your preparations should put you on the path towards an effective assignment or class activity.

Additional Reading

In anticipation of the upcoming book talk being hosted by the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning (James Lang, discussing his book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, on April 7th, 2017), this spring break we challenge you to plan one “small teaching” activity for a course you are teaching or plan to teach in the future. Small teaching, which Lang describes as “small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices” (2), are learning activities that take 5-10 minutes, one-time interventions in a course, or small changes to course design or communication with students. Here are a just a few suggested activities:

  • Opening Questions. As you begin class, consider asking students to recap the previous class, the main theories covered by the course to that point, or other relevant material from earlier in the semester, either orally or in writing. The more practice students have retrieving what they’ve learned from the course materials, the more likely they are to be able to do so successfully in the future. This also helps students contextualize new material, form connections with old material, and follow the logical flow of the course.
  • Minute Thesis. On the board, write the names of materials read in the course in one column and major themes from the course in a second column. Have a volunteer circle a theme and draw lines to the materials. Then, have students think of a thesis for how the materials connect to that major theme. Repeat as necessary to give students practice with developing a thesis and drawing out connections across the different units of the course.
  • Tell a Story. Human brains have a knack for understanding and remembering stories, and students often find them more interesting and motivating than regular lectures. Furthermore, stories bring student emotions into the classroom, allowing for a more holistic learning experience. If you want students to remember a major concept, try communicating it through story! For more on storytelling in the classroom, check out this previous blog post or review the materials from our workshop on storytelling.

An added benefit of small teaching activities: they are designed to be low-stakes exercises so you can try lots of them and determine what works best for you. There are plenty of other small teaching activities to experiment with; for more ideas, check out James Lang’s Small Teaching book, read his series of articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education, and attend the book talk in a few weeks. As always, the Kaneb Center is happy to help you with all of your teaching questions or concerns, big or small. Stop on by soon!

Have students reflect on the work they have done thus far in the semester 

You can solicit this information in a survey format at the end of class or allocate time to have a class discussion (or both!) This is an efficient way to gauge what students feel they have learned, what lessons or activities they felt worked best, and what gaps still exist in their knowledge. This information will help you structure or reframe the next half of the semester during the break. As always, make it clear to students that you are listening to their feedback and be transparent when you alter the class based upon their reflections.

Tip: if you feel crunched for time right before the break, you can always do this activity online either before or over the break.

Tip: Having students complete self-reflections multiple times during the course of the semester will help you better gauge student progress at more regular intervals.

Sample self-reflection questions:

  • What was the most important thing you have learned this semester? Explain your reasoning.
  • What do you expect to learn after the midterm break? Make sure to explain the reasoning that led you to this prediction.
  • What are one or two things that you wish could have been explained more clearly to you during the first half of the semester? Please be as specific as possible so that I can better address your concerns going forward.
  • Evaluate your work thus far in the semester. What specifically might you do to improve in the future?
  • What is an assumption you had before the course started that this class has helped you think more deeply and more nuanced about? Please full explain how your thought process has evolved.

Give students a meaningful assignment over spring break

Most of the time, the second half of the semester will be devoted to a larger project. Think about the specific learning goals of this project and ascertain what knowledge or skills students will need to begin and complete this project. You do not necessarily have to introduce the entire project to them before the break but should assign an exercise, reading, etc., that will prepare them for the challenges of the project once introduced. If you are in the middle of a big project, use student reflections to gauge what information they might need to continue the project and assign reading or assignments designed to clarify or extend their knowledge and skill sets so that you can build on them together after the break.

Further Reading

Ken Bain. What the Best College Teachers Do.

In our Faculty Feature series, the Kaneb Center interviews teachers around campus to learn about what motivates them, discuss techniques they use in their classrooms, and share bits of wisdom with others in the Notre Dame community and beyond! This edition, we feature Joyelle McSweeney from the English Department.


Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a poet who writes stories, plays, novels, and lyric essays in addition to poem-shaped poems. I think it’s all poetry! I also Direct the Creative Writing Program and teach creative writing at every level, from Introduction to Poetry Writing up to Graduate Poetry Workshop. With Johannes Göransson (also a poet in the English Department), I also co-run a translation press, Action Books, which publishes aesthetically engaged, politically urgent poetry from all over the world.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I love poetry and think it has a bad reputation in the U.S.; many Americans think of poetry as something archaic, locked away, ineffectual, or hard to get. But everybody loves something about language—loves humor, slang, song lyrics, sports lingo, prayer-like intensity, something. Starting from that passion and growing a joyous, rambunctious youthful poetry is something I try to model in the undergrad classroom. I’m a “hype man” for poetry.

In what ways do you find teaching rewarding or meaningful?

See above! I like undoing the notion that poetry is irrelevant or useless, that it’s boring or hard to get. Unlocking in both novice and experienced students that desire to play, show-off, go further or speak against the grain and to follow what’s idiosyncratic or unexpected (even to them) in their poetry makes teaching worthwhile.

Describe one teaching technique you like to use in your classes.

I always teach a translation unit in my undergrad classes. This can be daunting at first, as many of the students don’t know a second language. But that’s one subtext of the lesson—the common American habit of monolingualism is actually a disadvantage, in response to which we should work hard to generate solutions. So part of the assignment is about ‘solving’ the problem of monolingualism—admitting a deficiency, finding a partner, properly crediting collaborative work, etc.  The other part of the lesson is of course translation itself: what kinds of choices do literary translators make? What makes a translation ‘good’? How do issues of presentation (i.e. facing translations, footnotes, prefaces, etc.) change our sense of the translation? We read through and argue over enough examples for students to begin to develop their own sense of translation techniques and ethics which they then apply to their translation project. The final project requires three elements. Students must design a project which presents: 1) the original poem in its original language 2) their new translation, and 3) a third poem of their own, inspired by the translation process, growing from the translation ‘zone’.  This third element shows how translation is a transforming aesthetic experience for the translator, and how it generates art.

What advice would you give to a new teacher?

Teach from your passion, but don’t expect students to automatically share that passion! Reverse engineer that feeling of discovery you have when you encounter something new in your scholarship or creative activity. How can you get students to put aside their apprehension/inertia/self-consciousness and approach the subject matter with that sense of discovery which makes them want to go further? What’s really at stake?

In your opinion, what makes a great teacher?

Sharing passion, and giving the students the tool to keep pursuing their passions outside the framework of the course.

Thanks, Joyelle!



Beginning and sustaining an engaged class discussion is a notoriously difficult enterprise for new teachers and if you are teaching a contentious topic, passionate outbursts and heated debates can create even more challenges. Like many other aspects of teaching, preparation is critical for establishing a welcoming but ordered environment for students to participate in debate and deliberation.

Over time, experience will help you recognize the difference between a possibility for fruitful debate and a situation that should be defused quickly so you can guide the class back to the topic at hand. But as you begin your teaching career, here are some ideas to consider in order best to cultivate that much needed experience.

  • At the beginning of the semester, give your class guidelines for polite discussion, so they know what to expect. It can also be helpful for the students themselves to participate in constructing a list of rules for debate; this can help to underscore the importance of those rules and develop a sense of shared responsibility in the class.


  • As the instructor, you are the one who paces the discussion, including who has the floor at a given time and when to move from one topic to another. Students expect you to set boundaries and to enforce the rules, so have confidence in your position. Lead by example, listening to students’ contributions and affirming or qualifying them respectfully.


  • Cultivate friendship and camaraderie within the classroom through group activities that allow the students to get to know one another and better sympathize with each other’s assumptions and backgrounds. You can’t control what happens outside the classroom, but to some extent you can help relationships to develop during class time. This can be achieved through various paired or small group activities that fit your current materials.


  • You might plan your classes carefully, but be flexible with your time. If a particular topic is raising more discussion than you expected, consider accommodating the students’ interests instead of moving on to stay on schedule. If you feel unprepared to deal with a topic at the moment, make a note to come back to it at the next class period. Be transparent with your students; you can admit, “I’m not sure about this, let me do some research and we’ll return to it next time.”



  • If you are about to cover a contentious topic, give your students time to gather their thoughts with an in class writing assignment or short reflection before class. This individual approach will help the quiet students who are reluctant to speak up in tense situations to work through their opinions. Ask them to consider why this topic is so divisive or difficult to discuss. You might ask them to submit their responses to you anonymously or reassure them that their answers will stay with you and won’t be shared with the group. Making time for them to formulate their reactions and ideas will also give you a sense of the diversity of opinion present in your class.


  • Even when a debate isn’t particularly heated, you can help to reformulate unintentionally offensive comments both for the sake of the offended and the offender. Because it can be difficult to understand the repercussions of one’s own views if they have never been challenged before, some students will not understand why their comments come across as inflammatory to others. You can depersonalize such a comment by acknowledging that such a view is widely held but also quickly explain why others might disagree or respond differently.


  • Always connect student comments to course materials and goals for the class. You don’t just want to keep a heated exchange from spiraling out of control; you want these arguments to be an opportunity for the students to learn. Re-framing different assertions and responses within the context of the course helps to accomplish both those goals.

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