Someday, one of my students is going to call me “Professor Pogue” (or maybe someone who really hasn’t been paying attention will even call me “Doctor Pogue”), and I’ll say, “No, please, call me Mister Pogue. Professor Pogue is my father.”
I’ll be the only one who laughs at that, but I will find it hilarious.
As I mentioned before, my first week of classes probably felt like a wild success to my students, but I came out of there shocked and terrified about how I was going to fill seventy-five minutes with lecture every week.
And, of course, the answer I got repeatedly from seasoned professionals was, “Don’t.” Gail Nash recommended a short twenty-minute lecture to start the class, a half-hour in-class assignment, and then another twenty minutes at the end of class to discuss it. Dad recommended mini-lectures, no longer than fifteen minutes each, broken up with other activities and discussions.
One thing everyone told me, when I was panicking about how poorly that first class went, was that it would get easier once I got the students talking back to me. The problem I was running into was lecturing. It’s always difficult to deliver a message to a silent, unresponsive crowd, and especially so for somebody with no experience in public speaking whatsoever. One and all, they told me that if I could get the students to talk to me, it would be a breeze.
Getting Them Talking
Dad even told me how. Drawing on years of experience and a nuanced understanding of the student psyche, he said to start off your class by asking, “Okay, how do you guys feel about last week’s assignment (or lecture)? What didn’t you like about it?” That gets them talking, because everyone is more interested in complaining about something than in praising it. Give them a chance to vent (and provide what will be useful feedback to you as the teacher), and then follow up with, “Okay, and what did you like about it?” Then the students who had a positive experience with the assignment (or lecture) but otherwise would have remained quiet will chime in, partly because they’ve spent the last however many minutes listening to their classmates bash on it, and they feel a need to defend it. By that point, though, you’ve got everyone in your class talking, and comfortable with each other, and you can launch into new material and get good responses.
That advice struck me as so sound that it directly increased my confidence going into that class. I bragged about my dad’s genius to several people, for days before the class started. Then I showed up, put it into practice, and got…nothing. Not a word. No complaint, no praise. Nothing.
So I looked around the room, shook my head sadly, and said, “Guys, you’re going to have to talk to me. Otherwise it’s just me sitting up here at the front of the class, lecturing you about writing for seventy-five minutes. And you don’t want that. You know why? [Brief pause.] Because it’s seventy-five minutes.” That got a laugh, and it worked. After that, I got answers when I asked questions.
For their first assignment, they were to write me a Letter of Introduction, telling me a little bit about themselves and following the standard business letter format. To facilitate that, I prepared an online lecture (that ended up being just an illustrated tutorial, for technical reasons) going into detail on how to design a business letter.
So I started out the class lecture by talking to them about business letters, and why they’re useful. One of the things I discovered last week is that none of my students (not a one) has any intention of becoming a professional tech writer. That doesn’t bother me, but it means I’ve got to spend the semester demonstrating to them why this material matters to them.
For a first stab at that, I led off with three short stories, from my personal experience. I told them about the time I bought my first house, and along with it came the high pressure sales pitch to renew the security system that the previous owners had used. We’d initially agreed, but when we looked at our budget and saw how much they actually wanted per month, we called up to cancel it. The person on the other end of the line said, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to need that in writing.”
So I wrote a business letter.
Then, a few months after we moved to Tulsa, someone stole a bill for our Best Buy credit card out of our mail, and used it to ring up several thousand dollars in fraudulent claims. Freaking out, we called up Best Buy’s customer service and said, “Hey, someone’s stealing your stuff and trying to charge it to us, and you’ve got put a stop to it!” and the guy on the phone said, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to need that in writing.”
Then I told the students a little bit about the writing experience, the process of trying to make it as a novelist, and the unending string of query letters — every one an invitation for rejection. I told them about the importance of presenting the richness and beauty of a lovingly-crafted work of art in a sterile, one-page business letter. And then I told them how I’d finally landed a literary agent, and then had to fire her a year later, and when I contacted her to let her know I was no longer interested in working with her, she said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to need that in writing.”
That got a big laugh. I really think it got my point across well, too. I told them that in each of those situations, in different ways, I was stressed out, and needed to communicate specific information clearly and quickly. And already having a set format, an easy template that just required me to fill in the blanks, made it far easier for me to do exactly that, and save my energy for the other things I needed to be worrying about.
We talked briefly about our class schedule — my plans for Thursdays and Tuesdays, and how the individual documents they’re producing fit into the document packets that I’m going to be grading. In the process of that, I discovered my timetable doesn’t work at all. I stumbled over that a little bit, thinking out loud, and that got some laughs. I think that’s a good thing. I do need to get the details worked out before next class, though….
Next we moved into the in-class assignment. I said, “Okay, we’re going to work in groups now, and to divide up, I think we’ll use a method that I found to be very effective in grade school.” That got groans and chuckles, but they obediently counted off in threes, and then divided up into three groups per my instructions. Then I had everyone (for the first time) introduce themselves with name and major. Then I admitted why I’d had them count off in three — because my three English majors were all sitting right next to each other. As a result, I had three groups with each one consisting of four Computer Science or Information Science majors, and one English major. Or, in other words, four technical people and one writer person.
Not entirely fair to the English majors, but that’s how technical writing goes. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with another English major. I told them as much, and paused to double-check myself, and then nodded and said, “I’ve worked with a Journalism major, but never an English major. Don’t work with a Journalism major!” That got a laugh.
Their assignment was deliberately vague. Every student at OC is issued a laptop, so I told them, “You’ve got twenty minutes. I want you to write me step-by-step instructions for how to do something useful on your student laptops.”
Then something amazing happened. I’d guess that half of my students probably work with OC IT, and most of the rest of them are computer people. So in each of the three groups I heard the computer people tossing ideas out. “We could do this.” “We could do that.” And in each group, I heard the English major say, “Wait, what? What is that?” And then the computer people explained it to them.
And then the English majors wrote it down.
Or, in other words, Tech Writing happened. It was a thing of beauty.
Graded by the Ridicule of Their Peers
I did warn them, just after they’d divided up into groups, “We’re going to go over these once you’re done, so you’ll be graded by the ridicule of your peers.” That got a laugh (which was a very good thing), but we all followed through on it. As they finished, they emailed their tutorials to me, and I put them up on the overhead.
We briefly analyzed each one, pointing out what was done well, and what needed work. I talked a little bit about audiences, and I told them about Mark at my first job starting off every software manual with a section explaining how to use a mouse and what “click” and “double-click” meant. That got astonished, disbelieving stares, and I think I was able to make a good point there.
Out of Time
I had a lot more to say about the usefulness of written tutorials, with some heavy emphasis on all these computer people who had to give family and friends instructions on simple tasks all the time. By the time we were done critiquing, though, I was down to five minutes left in class, so I rushed through that material and let them go.
What I didn’t get to was another personal anecdote, a story demonstrating the popularity and usefulness of tutorials, especially online. I was all prepared to tell them how I achieved some level of fame because of a short tutorial online. (If you search Google for “Alexpoet,” my onetime web moniker, my website is the top of the list because of a tutorial I wrote for XBMC Python scripting — which is another phrase that points directly to my page on Google.) I didn’t get to that, but next week’s class is about formatting technical documents, and most of what I did with that tutorial was take a flat text tutorial some Canadian dude had written, clean up the English, and apply the formatting rules I’d learned in my Tech Writing class. So, in other words, the material I didn’t get to this week becomes the object lesson next week.
The Teaching Experience
When I talked to Dad about my rough experience last week, one of the things he pointed out was that my sheer terror when I stepped up to the podium was caused by an acute awareness of myself. He said that would happen to anybody — even the most experienced public speaker, the most outgoing teacher — if he stepped in front of a crowd and spent the whole time paying close attention to what he was doing right or wrong and analyzing it. We’re too good at recognizing our own faults, we blow them out of proportion, and if that’s what you’re thinking about, you’re going to shut yourself down.
Dad said everything I described about my first experience fell perfectly into that condition, and I couldn’t argue with him. He said the way to fix it is to think about the students instead. Think about what they need to know, what I can tell them to make their lives better, and focus on their responses. I had my doubts about how easy it would be to follow through on that, but I spent the whole class trying to put it into practice, and it worked.
And I think it worked for everyone, not just for me. I mentioned the laughs I got, as often as I could, because they weren’t nervous laughter. I can be a funny guy, and when I made a sarcastic comment and the students laughed at it, I could tell they were at their ease. I think that happened as a direct result of my being more at ease, and it built on itself, so by the end of the class we really were just talking back and forth. I spent two days before the class wrestling with intense anxiety, and it was brutal right up until I cleared my throat and stammered awkwardly, “Umm, okay, I guess we should get started.” Then I took a breath, started with Dad’s question, “What didn’t you like about last week’s lecture?” and instead of feeling nervous that I’d asked a question they couldn’t answer, I just got irritated at them for not speaking up.
And from there on, I was fine. It was a great class period, and I think the lives of everyone involved are better for it.
More next week.