Written by Jennifer Mather
In the Spring of 2007, I was on sabbatical, so that means I was not teaching courses, but I had been teaching…a non-course. This is a reflection on that experience.
Why teach a course when I didn’t have to? Well, I commonly have several students who do the work-academic combination of individualized Applied Study courses. As Christmas and my sabbatical drew closer, I could see that two students, each of whom was working towards graduate training in Speech and Hearing Disorders and both of whom were working with populations at risk for speech problems, would benefit from individualized instruction on language. At that time, no professor in Psychology knew much about or taught a class connected to linguistics. My research background of ethology, the observational approach to animal and human behaviour, meant that I could show them a view into understanding speech, particularly in conversation. So we agreed to do a non-course. We met once a week, and I took them from a list of defects they might encounter through sentence construction, cognitive difficulties and non-verbal expression to the massive complexity of multi-way conversation.
I found the experience stimulating and yet restful. They were eager to learn, as this was a foundation for their future work. We bounced ideas off each other, some coming from their other classes, some from me and some that we built together. Between our weekly meetings they completed assignments. Why restful? There were no papers to mark, no hassle about grades. I didn’t evaluate them at all, ironically since they worked extremely well.
What did the students say when I asked them for feedback at the end of the semester? One commented that she had given up telling her friends about it, they would ask why she was working when she wasn’t getting any course credit. What a comment on our system! Both of them loved the focus on themselves and what they wanted to know, but admitted a bit of a yearning for structure, for extrinsic as well as intrinsic rewards. Again, what a comment on our system, but I too expect no extrinsic reward. I’m on sabbatical, I’m not supposed to be teaching.
If I were an Oxford-style Don, this is how I would teach. I would love it. Working with students to help them educate themselves, what could be better? I admit it’s probably not cost efficient, though what is the cost efficiency of teaching a whole lot of students something they don’t really want to know, in order that they can promptly forget it? One of the students commented wisely that something would be missing in a whole university career of learning in this style. She said, in indirect praise of our General Liberal Education requirement, that things came up in classrooms or through courses that you didn’t necessarily want to take that nevertheless surprised and enriched you. So maybe I couldn’t be an individualized tutor for all of my teaching, maybe only some of it…but what a rich reward that would be.