Pedagogical Thoughts from the Sickbed

by Rebecca Schuman

Hello. I am sick. I would give this particular nondescript stomach bug about a 4-5 on the SGIS (Schuman General Infermity Scale), with a 1 being a bad night’s sleep, and a 10 being pneumonia–have I ever mentioned that I had pneumonia? OH, I HAVEN’T? (Just kidding.) Anyway, due to said infermity I lack the energy and wherewithal to formulate the following into a proper treatise for publication, so, you get this.

I had a feeling that my evaluation evaluation would resonate (not to be confused with my essay essay, or my powerpoint powerpoint–yes, I am trying to develop a collection, thanks for asking! Also, is it me or is GOB the voiceover guy of like EVERY television ad on earth now? What is the deal with that? See what I mean about being sick?). Anyway, boy did this piece resonate! Almost all reactions have been not only positive, but have involved sharing even more eval horror stories (and hugs to all).

I have also gotten a few complaints, some from educators (often, interestingly, white male educators) who think that evals have been valuable to their teaching. But most complaints have come from from a handful of irate undergraduates, highly incensed that I, in my infinite power and influence, wish to do away with anonymous student evals altogether. (And as we all know, what Rebecca Schuman wishes for higher ed HAPPENS IN HIGHER ED. Not.)

Anywho–and again, see what I mean about being sick?–my scorched-Earth approach is, as it was with the essay essay,  a product of the “This is why we can’t have nice things anymore” school of thought: You want your anonymous forum to make substantive comments about your professors’ teaching? Your friends should have fucking thought about that before the middle finger pics, the “bitches,” the “too early in the morning” bullshit. Too much nastiness has ruined evals, and I don’t give a fuck if that is outliers. The process, thanks to the online disinhibition effect and that effect’s effect on anonymous feedback in general, is dead. Grieve it.

BUT. OK. Here’s what’s interesting. Another reason I sort of see where students are coming from, but also don’t, is this: Students–of any age, any background, any level–are not good at knowing what they actually need to learn. They’re just not. They might know about their individual wants, and those individual wants may or may not actually help them learn. Thus, even “substantive” complaints about teacher effectiveness are often bullshit.

I’ll give you an example using the area of pedagogy in which I am trained: teachin’ a fern’ language. SLA (Second Language Acquisition) pedagogy has come a long way since the 50s, when the grammar-translation method was all the rage. Instruction was done entirely in the L1 (the native language of all or most of the class), with the focus being on sentence diagramming, grammar, vocab lists, noun inflections, and translating the L2 (or the “target language”) back into English. It’s still the method used to teach dead languages–but you can see why using it to teach a living language is lächerlich and muy estúpido, oui?


Since then, SLA has gone through many different vogues, each less objectionable than the last. These include…

the natural approach (where you treat SLL like first-language learning–sort of weird when you have adult learners, though)

…the audiolingual approach (SO MANY DRILLS–also, the approach I learned German with, and possibly why I was so bad at transitioning between “skills” and “content,” although that also could have been laziness)

the communicative approach, in which the communication of material, however it manages to be done (including “incorrect” speech with errors and code-switching) is prioritized, and SLL (second language learners) are treated from the beginning as “uneven bilinguals” and simply gain more fluency and accuracy through the use of positive reinforcement. This is a great method, because communicative language teachers try their god-damndest not to correct students directly while they’re talking (I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone Sprachpolizei you, but it’s enough to scare you out of ever talking again). Rather, communicative language teachers repeat the SLL’s utterance back to them in the correct way, one that both models how it’s “supposed” to be and helps discourage anxiety. The best part of the communicative approach, though, is that it connects language with meaningful content all the time. Students almost never do exercises for the sake of exercises, but rather their grammar or vocab-building is incorporated into the content units of the class.

So again, grammar-translation was sixty years and at least four methods ago, has been thoroughly ditched by all but the most ancient, decrepit and backwoods pedagogues, and is one of the least effective methods of SLA ever to exist. But for some dumb-ass reason, it is the method that most students think they are going to encounter when they take a FL class. Nein, nie, ne, nyet, non, no, nem. Noop.

Nowadays, damn near every L2 class on the globe uses some form of the communicative approach. This is because it works the best–for now. As we speak, SLA experts are coming up with new and interesting ways to help students learn foreign languages better, and have more fun doing it.

My own approach to teaching German was 90% communicative and 10% natural. That 10% was simply that I did not use English in the classroom–like, ever, not ever–and did not allow students to, either. However, if they had an “emergency,” they could always request a quick English sidebar in the hallway. So English itself wasn’t forbidden, it was just forbidden in that space.

The rest of my approach was communicative: What I cared about was that they had something to say, and felt safe to say it. Sure they all fucked up their grammar all the time, but who doesn’t? In whatever language? The “corrections” I did were cheerful, compassionate, and always mindful of what they wanted to communicate in the first place.

Most of my German students have loved my class, but my evals would often complain that we did not do enough isolated grammar exercises. One student even went so far as to say assigning the movie M (one of the greatest films of all time) was “useless,” and that instead they should have worked through “a vocabulary book.” What my German students often wanted–or thought they wanted–was lists of vocab words with their English equivalents or translations, and grammar tests that they could ace. What they did not realize is that neither lists of vocab words translated into English nor isolated, meaning-free grammar tests do jack fucking squat to help you when you get off the train in Leipzig.

Actual language learning is total chaos. Being an “uneven bilingual” of a foreign language is scary, uncertain, and often demoralizing. Actual fluency takes years in of immersion in the L2 environment, and simply can’t be gained in a foreign classroom. It just can’t. But the next best thing is to simulate that L2 environment as much as possible, and embrace and live in that chaos, and simply recognize that being “master” of a two-page quiz on the past modal subjunctive (SO MANY INFINITIVES!) does not mean you speak German. And I am trying to teach you German.

Once, before a semester began, I got an email from a wonderful student, who said: “I haven’t taken German in awhile, and I’m nervous about this class, because it’s advanced. What grammar and vocabulary exercises should I do before we start to catch up?” I emailed her back: “I can’t wait to see you in class! But until then, here’s what I’d recommend: Read a German story. Watch a German film. Check out the website and stream any number of amazing(ly awful) reality shows, free of charge. Sign up for a Skype-pal on a TANDEM website. Interact with actual German.”

She was intimidated, but she did it, and ended up doing wonderfully in class. But I hope you can understand why she didn’t want to do that: Plunging headlong into total chaos, being reminded at all times of your relative “ignorance” compared to native speakers, not being “master” of anything, possibly ever–that shit is scary.

Students left to their own devices aren’t going to want it. They’re going to want smaller, more manageable things they can control, like vocab lists and grammar quizzes. But those alone (in fact, those in too high a number at all) do not teach a foreign language. I don’t expect students to know this, but I hope that they will trust me that I know this, and that I know what I’m doing teaching them.

But this is why even the most industrious, conscientious and well-meaning student’s evaluation of pedagogy can be frighteningly off, and why they should have little to no bearing on tenure, promotion or job retention. Sure, let us see them just for our own “edification,” fine, whatever. No objection to that–my evals are the greatest ego-stroke of my life (most of my students come around to the communicative approach eventually, which is good, because it’s the one they get in literally every class beyond mine! BTW I mostly taught the dreaded “bridge” course between the beginning levels and the advanced levels, so I was generally the earliest incarnation of full-immersion AND content-based communicative SLA they ever got. Should have mentioned that sooner. HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I AM SICK?).

Phew. All right. So. I haven’t even had time to get into the squillions of other potential objections students have to teaching (calling on students cold, being a “mean” grader–always as a woman, etc).

In conclusion: I love students and value their feedback, but sometimes what they think is effective teaching isn’t. So, their feedback should always be taken with a parking-lot-sized grain of salt, and not figure in to personnel decisions at all, the end.