Tip 16: Teach to your strengths

An old song says “Do what you do, do well, girl.” I’d say, “What you do well, do.”

Sometimes we have to work with what we are given, but we can still find what we do well in that area and teach with it in mind.

Example from composition and literature
In comp and literature, the adjuncts at one of my colleges are allowed to pick a novel from a list of ten that the full-time teachers have chosen. We are not allowed to pick any other novels. So, from that list of ten, I picked the one I thought I could teach the best.

I chose Frankenstein, which is now one of my favorite novels, because it was short and because the students would have some familiarity with it because of the movies. I didn’t know anything about it other than that.

But, when I began preparing for my class, I went looking for the things I care about and the ways the book fit my interests.

I love genre issues, which Frankenstein clearly fits. Is it a science fiction novel? a fantasy? a romantic novel, since it was written during the Romantic period? a gothic novel?

I’m a strong proponent of biographical and historical criticism.

Frankenstein is perfect for this. Mary Shelley put a lot of the scientific and literary knowledge of the day into her novel. There are jokes that we don’t get without historical criticism, such as Columbus and the egg, that add to the reading. There are references to the Ovid and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The novel has also been a fruitful field for biographical criticism in areas delving particularly into Shelley’s childhood experience of motherlessness and paternal indifference.

I have a lot of modern friends who are Goth, so I even delved into the gothic-ness of the novel. The exotic settings, the gloomy weather, and the scary supernatural (the living creation) are all part of the goth experience.

I went looking for those aspects of the work to introduce in class. And, because I did, my introduction to the book is strong. I am using my strengths (in this case my interests) to teach the book.

The critical articles in the class edition didn’t deal with the things that interested me, but I still pulled those things in anyway, using them as I do the textbooks- to hit the high points as an introduction. The students can go back to the works later if they are interested. Also the critical articles give the students a fast (but inaccurate) view of what is out there on the novel. That’s good since they have to write a research paper over the literary criticism of the novel.

Example from business writing
Another example is from business writing. I love stories. I like to hear stories and I like to tell stories. I think people can learn a lot from stories. In business, we call them case studies, but they are still stories. I collect stories that relate to points I want to teach and when I am teaching, I use those stories.

These include stories about the Challenger explosion and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. They are things that catch the students attention. Sometimes it shocks them. (We had a nuclear accident in the US?)

Example from freshman composition
I use stories in all my classes.

When I give students their narrative assignment, I tell them not to confess any crimes. (They usually laugh.) Then I tell them about a teacher in Illinois, who spoke at a conference I was at, who was given a process paper in which the student described how he murdered and buried someone. I tell my students that she spent days wondering what she should do. “I won’t. I’ll call 9-1-1 as soon as I start reading your paper.”

They are very caught up by this story. It makes the narrative more real to them.

What if my strengths aren’t supported in the text?

The texts I’ve usually taught from do not have case studies. That’s okay. I find them and supplement the text that way.

These stories make my teaching stronger because I am using my strengths to help my teaching.

I don’t know what your strengths are, but I am sure you have them. Use them in your classroom.

You can’t always ignore something because it isn’t your strength though.

I have found that the best thing for me to do is use the text or supplementary material to shore up my weaknesses.

There may be things that are done well in the text that you don’t do as well in on your own. Use the text to help.

When I am talking about controversial issues, I don’t always remember what the best arguments are for both sides. But one of the texts I was required to use had readings that were in pairs: one for, one against. We would read those essays and, using them, begin a classroom discussion of the pros and cons of the issue.

It was a good use of the text (Tip 8 ) and it helped me do well at something that is one of my weaknesses.

Tip 3 also has a discussion on doing what you love.

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