Pedagogical Thoughts from the Sickbed

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.



25 thoughts on “Pedagogical Thoughts from the Sickbed

  1. Even in the dead language world grammar-translation has begun to fall out of fashion in favor of reading-based approaches and a focus on context over syntax. Old Latin teachers often hate it, but not NEARLY so much as old Latin students. The best way to provoke a hissy fit from an incipient Classics major is to find one who went to an old-fashioned grammar-translation high school and put in him in a reading-based undergraduate course.


  2. Yes. And applicable to disciplines other than foreign languages. Grappling with anything real (as opposed to a tailored-for-a-textbook version of it) is hard and scary. Unfortunately, test-driven secondary ed increasingly teaches students to see education as a process of reproducing pretermined right answers. It’s really hard to convince them that they’re learning anything if there aren’t study guides and MC quizzes and (I swear to God) fill-in-the-blank exercises (with a word bank). I seem to spend a lot of time in office hours explaining that the fact that the student is finding the paper hard to write means that they’re doing it the right way.

    I pay most attention to evaluations when they confirm my own intuitions about what worked or didn’t in a class. Every once in a while, a student can articulate for me why some paper or activity fell flat or what they found valuable. But mostly they just evaluate their own comfort level, which is not that useful.


  3. Schuman, you need to get sick more often because this is an outstanding piece of writing.

    Of course, I don’t mean it, don’t get sick, get healthy soon! But this is absolutely brilliant and the best explanation of language teaching I have ever seen. I adore you, you are so the best. Get well soon!!!


  4. I can’t agree with you more about about the communicative approach. When I was in college (freshman-sophmore), I took five semesters of French and hated how I had to learn and respond exclusively in the language. I thought the class was going to be a harder version of high school, but taught in the same manner (with English and strict reliance on the book). I thought this was the only way that I could effectively learn. It wasn’t until I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Francophone-Africa that I realized the only way to truly learn the language was by taking English completely out of the equation and forcing yourself to speak in the language, no matter how stupid it sounded. I wish I had understood that better when I was 18.

    In terms of the student evaluations, I completely understand your frustration. Since coming back from Africa, I decided I wanted to go to medical school, but needed to take a post-baccalaureate program for the undergraduate prerequisites (I have a degree in political science). Taking undergraduate classes now, at 27, I forgot how inconsiderate 18 and 19 year-olds are, especially towards their professors (though I’m guessing I was probably somewhat similar at that age and the flow of a little time has enlightened my college transgressions). I am good friends with most of my professors (never was as a true undergraduate), and they tell me some of the things people say. Now that I’m a student again, I wonder: what gets professors like you past this? Do you ever feel like it affects how you do your work? Does it make you me jaded? I have always thought about pursing a more academic career path but, to be honest, reading this makes me worried I would end up hating the students.


    • It definitely doesn’t make you hate students, unless you are already prone to doing so. It helps you develop a tougher skin, and learn to see what the student was really upset about–if it’s a real issue with your teaching, then you work to change it; if it’s just a grade-grudge (or a student caught cheating, which happens often), then it does sting for awhile, but you get over it. I wish to holy heaven that all of my students were 27-year-old PeaceCorps volunteers, though!


      • One professor told me 9 out of every 10 students who show up at his office hours do so to exclusively argue grades, sometimes quite combatively. I’d imagine you would get a tough skin after a while. So kudos to you guys, and know those students, like me, appreciate your effort despite the bullshit of a few.


  5. This is great, I always wondered how language instruction had evolved over the years. In fact, I had a plan that somebody else should start a company called Linguatainment to spice up the materials a little bit. My own method of learning was the opposite of what you recommened, I memorized my small Langenscheidts grammar inside out and read lots of die Zeit, until I could pretty much read German fluently. Unfortunately, that means I still can’t speak the language, and my speaking is so stilted that a German once told me, after I used woruber in a sentence, that “your german is better than my english,” and not in a good way. These days I like to listen to Wir Sind Helden in the car, but I still can’t make out most of the words, even though I have no trouble reading most of my twitter feed in German, which is a painless way to keep current. In conclusion, I will never, ever learn the difference between ebenfalls and allenfalls, as long as I live.


  6. “Students–of any age, any background, any level–are not good at knowing what they actually need to learn.”

    Yes! I couldn’t agree more! And, as you also explain, they often don’t know what the best way is to learn what they need to learn, i.e., they don’t know anything about pedagogy or theories of SLA. Therefore, based on their own educational experiences, they think all classes and all disciplines should be taught in a lecture format.

    The bad thing about student course evaluations is that they have had a relatively negative impact on my own teaching. Because these evaluations are really the only thing that count toward teaching in terms of tenure and promotion–despite claims to the contrary by the university administration–I have felt the pressure to be less communicative-oriented in my teaching style in the classroom. Part of the problem is that at my school, the course evaluations are exactly the same, with the exact same questions, for every class and discipline. If we got rid of student course evaluations, I think my teaching would actually improve. Overall, my course evaluations have been very good, although I occasionally get the comment that I speak L2 too much in class. But I have NEVER received any useful feedback about my teaching on my course evaluations (whereas, believe it or not, I actually once got one useful comment about my teaching on


  7. This is such an important topic. I work in academe and I have these kind of discussion regularly with my colleagues, including faculty and administrators. SETs should just be one piece of the puzzle (not the end all be all–which on our campus they tend to be) when it comes to thinking about the efficacy of our own teaching–it’s how we use them and what we ask, etc.– that is one key. Actually decades of research on SETs can tell us a lot about how to use them.–and what not to assume about them. One summary on the research: ://
    Actually, I find well-crafted mid-semester feedback forms (and work with my colleagues in using them) to be–generally–more helpful then SETs at the end of the course.


  8. WORD, and +1 x infinity. “We didn’t do enough grammar” is my biggest complaint for language classes. As a person whose field is SLA, I just laugh when I see those. So, in order to please the masses, I will occasionally do a tiny bit of very brief grammar glossing in class.

    However, I have to say that there is some literature in favor of limited L1 use in the L2 classroom as support for students, especially in beginning courses.

    And I always, always use the L1 when doing administrative work in the classroom (room changes, changes to syllabus, exams, etc.) because I have found that students will use that to argue for a better grade. “But I didn’t understaaaaaaand what you said because you said it in X and not English!” Bullshit. But whatever. Cover Your Ass happens in more than just medicine, these days.


    • I always got around the administrative stuff by projecting it behind me on a PPT in English but speaking about it in German. I have never taught German 1 with full-immersion, but for the second year and beyond I think they snap to it VERY fast, and we always email/office hours in English (UNLESS they want extra credit, which they can get for conducting office hours in German).


      • Oh, I agree that they pick it up quickly. I speak my L2 at my normal rate, and my intermediate I students this semester have been doing “advanced” and “superior” listening activities on the ACTFL scale from native speakers, and they do just fine with it. But at my degree-granting institution, the students can be real assholes, and even with it up on a PPT I have STILL gotten comments that they didn’t know X, Y, Z because I didn’t explain it in English. For me, I just choose the path of least resistance on that particular issue, because I have other things I would rather worry about than some dickwad student trying to get special treatment for whatever reason.

        Jesus, that sounds bitter, huh? I’ve had a hellish year or two, I guess.


  9. I teach biology at a community college with a heterogeneous classroom when it comes to age. When I am lucky, I get them for three full quarters, and by the third one, they have finally realized that embracing the chaos teaches them more than trying to memorize things. It may take a year or more before I get a begrudging “Thank you” from some of my toughest nuts, usually post-bacs who think they know exactly how they learn best, and that they need the A from my podunk class to get into Physical Therapy school.

    I found that giving them several opportunities to provide me feedback to my questions about their learning gets me better feedback at the end of the class. If they get practice being self-reflective and metacognitive (yeah yeah, the popular edu-buzz words) then they realize how much more they learn. Maybe.

    I write my own SET that only I see (ah, the beauty of being a contracted faculty). But I still get resistance, in the form of a student who didn’t fill out anything but the last question, in which he/she wrote, “All these questions are biased.” Why yes, they are. I would like to know what worked for you in this class, not what you hated.


  10. As someone who is studying SLA in education and who is a butcherer of languages herself, I’m curious as to how you build up literacy skills in the languages you teach? I’ve noticed in my languages i’m able to speak far more than I can write. I have some theories but am always interested in what other teachers do.

    One other observation, i’ve noticed in both my credential and graduate program that teachers are poorly trained in how to handle students with LD’s in their language classes. Something i’m considering as i’m preparing to teach in the local HS. (btw, i’m married to a former UCR adjunct, hang in there, and great blog!)


    • Yes, it’s all about reading, reading, reading, but with a LOT of reading questions, that help students through the plot as they answer them.

      Then in writing assignments, you break up the grading so that grammar is only worth about 20-30% of the grade (other things are “communication,” appropriateness for assignment, arguments, use of whatever it is they should use, etc). That way you can “nail” them for grammar if they really eff it up, like give them a 15 out of 25 or whatever, so they know their grammar is technically D-level, etc, but their whole grade will be closer to a B+ or B, so they won’t lose enthusiasm or think they’re not doing anything worthwhile at all.


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