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Elizabeth Peterson: “Teaching is a two-way street – it takes participation on both sides”

It’s safe to say that most of us students struggle to concentrate in class at least from time to time, and don’t always stick to whatever we should be doing. Both students and teachers have varying opinions on their rights and responsibilities in class, but it’s also safe to say we don’t always realize the effect our attitude can have on the class as a whole. We recorded our conversation with Elizabeth Peterson, a sociolinguist and a university lecturer in the English philology unit, about her views on course and classroom management: motivating students, group dynamics, and teacher-student relationships. Here is part of our discussion.

Photos by Maija Huitu

When planning classes, what things do you take into account to help your students stay focused in class? In this respect, how does planning lectures differ from planning small group sessions?

In a lecture course it’s harder to strategize than in a smaller group, but I always try to make sure that there’s a good variety of activity types: reading, listening, group discussions. I like to keep it unpredictable as much as possible, maybe throw them some surprises. It depends on the class, of course – this is more difficult to achieve in a lecture course with a hundred students. This semester I only teach one lecture course, ‘Global and Regional Varieties of English’, so there I try to invite guest speakers who represent different dialects or areas of expertise. I think it’s good for the students to hear from someone else other than me every now and again. I try to give them audio samples, and even videos if they’re appropriate. But of course you have to give them instructions on what to listen or watch for. Also, I certainly try not to over-rely on PowerPoint. Of course visual aids are important, but I try to keep my slides interesting and the text to the minimum, and I always tell the students that the slides are not detailed; they need to come in and take notes. Whether or not they do is a different story.

In class, what do you do when you see some students are starting to lose focus?

Sometimes I realize they’re getting sick of the sound of my voice, so I just shut up, ask them a question, let them talk for a while. Maybe surprise them, try to wake them up. You have to abandon your pride, because I think students respond well if their teachers act human and are willing to make fun of themselves.

In terms of interest, do you believe that an “interesting topic” (i.e. one that students generally find interesting) ever speaks for itself, or does the students’ interest always depend on how the topic is dealt with?

I think it always depends on how the topic is dealt with. In linguistics in particular, it has the potential to be so mundane. I don’t know, maybe I believe in fairies, too, but I think the role of a good teacher is to make anything potentially interesting, and I think the way to do that is to make it somehow personal and immediate to the student. You have to find a way that they can somehow relate it to themselves personally – through examples, or a story, anything that can trigger a memory, and make it stick. I don’t think anything is inherently interesting – I think it’s our job [as teachers] to make it interesting.

What about when you see students using their phones in class? Do you think of it as a matter of (not) learning, or a matter of behavior (respect for the teacher)?

It depends, but often I get really annoyed about phones, and tell students to put them away. It’s probably a combination of two factors: one is probably the respect issue, which I have to admit it is the ego. But another factor is, “how can I possibly teach you anything, if you’re disengaged – if you’ve got something better to do, go do it.” Very often I feel like students don’t realize how much power they have. The group dynamic means everything; if there’s one student with a bad attitude, especially if it’s a small group, you can’t believe how it drains the energy out of the rest of the group. Eye contact, being alert, that means a lot to a lecturer, I think – that means a lot to me, anyway. Often students think they’re just part of an invisible mass, but they’re not. I don’t believe in passive learning; it’s not going to happen to the students unless they’re open and alert, and the thought-process is active. People think they can multitask, but I think we all know by now that that’s not true. I maybe take it more personally than I should, because I really care about the content of what I’m teaching, and it sounds corny, but it’s something very passionate to me. I find that if I have a good connection with the students, it’s a continuous cycle – it gives energy back. But it’s hard to control the use of phones now: if you for example discuss an article in class, of course the students are going to have it on their phones, because we don’t print anymore. So there are all these fuzzy issues.

What about when you see students talking to each other (when they shouldn’t be)?

When I see students talking to each other, I always tell them to be quiet. I usually say that’s out of respect for the students around them, so that those students can hear, too, but it’s also for me, because I lose my concentration. As a lecturer, when I look into a big audience and see people are engaged in other activities, I can’t cope. One thing I do that probably drives students crazy is I ask: “What are you talking about?” because if it’s something good and relevant, they can share it with the class, and it can lead to a whole new discussion. And if it’s not, they can save it.

Some people criticize the way others (e.g. students themselves or their parents) seem to think of teachers as entertainers rather than authorities and experts. How much responsibility do you think university teachers have when it comes to their students’ ability to concentrate?

I know some of my colleagues have talked about really resenting being forced into that position, because we aren’t here because of our entertainment skills, we’re here because we’re kind of nerdy – you know, intellectuals. I think that if we’re able to spin our content in the right way, so that we can enable students to focus, it certainly helps. It’s kind of a tightrope that I feel like I’m walking all the time: you don’t want to make it seem too superficial, or too much like a show, because then you risk students not taking you seriously enough and not thinking of you as an expert, when obviously you are. So there’s this really delicate balance, how to make it loose enough, exciting enough, and still keep it really grounded in academia. It’s a really tough balance, because you’re always trying to second-guess who your audience is, and how the message will be received.

But do you think that students should be able to concentrate regardless of what their teachers do?

Yes, they’re grown-ups; they should pull themselves together. I think it’s kind of obvious actually. If they happen to have a teacher who can entertain them at the same time, that’s just a bonus, but they shouldn’t expect that – it’s a university. But it’s tough now, because we are very well aware that issues like attention span and the ability to focus are two elements of the human condition, at least in our society, that are changing, and changing very quickly due to all the input and all the fragmented sound bites and all the different forms of media, and so on. I think we see real consequences of that in the classroom. People are used to being entertained, end of story, even if it’s a university. Students should be able to concentrate, but it’s not the reality.

As to course management, what do you do to keep your students motivated with regard to the course as a whole?

I think it’s good to be very goal-oriented. That’s what we’re told to do by the university, too, but I think I would do it even if it wasn’t part of the package here, because I’m a very goal-oriented person. I think it helps the students to let them know what they can expect. In many courses I also like to remind the students of what they have learned all along the way, because I want them to have a sense of accomplishment. I think it’s really helpful to be explicit about what they have learned, because otherwise that might not hit home – I want to remind them why they are taking the course.

Do you find it hard to decide how strict you should be with deadlines and absences?

Yes, I find it really tough. But the most important principle to me is that is has to be fair to the other students. When students ask me to consider their case, I literally say the words: “Out of fairness to the other students, I don’t like to make exceptions. So tell me your story, and then we’ll decide if you’re requiring me to make an exception for you”. But it’s hard to know where to draw the line, because students do have all kinds of real life problems, and trying to decide how to navigate that and be fair can be pretty tough. Every case is different, and it’s sometimes hard to know how to maintain the right relationship with students; you want to be supportive, but at the same time you don’t want to get too close. Personally I try to maintain as much distance as I can, because I don’t want to overstep my bounds – and we don’t have training in psychology, that’s for sure.

What do you find to be the most rewarding and frustrating things about teacher-student relationships?

The most frustrating thing for me is, when there’s a student who for whatever reason I just can’t seem to reach. Then I just have to remind myself that it’s nothing personal. But I think many students don’t realize teaching is a two-way street, and it takes participation on both sides. The best thing is when you can actually see the light go on, especially when it’s something really complicated and meaningful that you’re trying to convey. It’s great, it’s a total high.

Check out our interview on the balance of societal and political issues in the classroom with English lecturer Nely Keinänen here

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