Every few semesters, a senior faculty members observes my teaching for a class session. Here are some quotes from their observation reports. Each one has a link to the full report further down the page. The most recent is from 2017. It’s been a few years since I’ve been observed.
FALL 2017: ADVANCED WRITING SEMINAR: WRITING FANDOM
This was a masterful class. . . . The instructor has done an excellent job at facilitating an environment that feels both intellectually rigorous and comfortable. I am thrilled to have such a vibrant, skilled teacher working in our program.
—Tahneer Oksman, Assistant Professor and (then) Chair
of Academic Writing, Marymount Manhattan College
SPRING 2016: INTRODUCTION TO LITERARY STUDY
Alec is frankly a brilliant teacher, and it was probably the best class session I have observed in the last couple of years here at CCNY. . . . I learned far more from observing Alec’s classroom than I could offer him in my feedback, I’m afraid; it was a pleasure and a privilege to observe.
—Robert Higney, Assistant Professor of English,
The City College of New York, CUNY
Magnet is incredibly well-informed and prepared. I was impressed and even blown away by the background info he supplied on the authors discussed in class. . . . It’s clear that he’s a masterful teacher who delights in his vocation.
Magnet has a magnetic presence at the head of the class. Twenty minutes into class, he broke the students into pairs to discuss the material, demonstrating real understanding of the value of small groups in drawing students out and expecting a lot of them. During this portion of the class, he rotated among small groups to engage them and answer questions. When they returned to a large group discussion of the material, the students were lively and interested and smart about character motivation and critical analysis.
—Emily Raboteau, Assistant Professor of English,
The City College of New York, CUNY
It is in terms of this last skill—the capacity to talk about provocative subject matter in mature ways—that I want to commend Mr. Magnet’s pedagogical style. When I heard that the class was reading an essay by a gay man with AIDS who takes testosterone, and likes it, I thought for sure I was going to witness all kinds of immature and petty classroom comments. Instead I was quite pleasantly surprised: Mr. Magnet’s students were thoughtful, respectful, and engaged on all fronts. And, having taught at John Jay for many years, I give full credit for this to Mr. Magnet’s dynamic and demanding teaching style.
He treats his students as intellectuals-in-development: of course they should be exposed to challenging and provocative reading material, of course they’d be curious about the differences between a magazine essay and an academic article, and of course they’d be wondering how an imagined audience shapes an author’s rhetorical choices. What is wonderful about these pedagogical presumptions is that they are correct: Mr. Magnet’s students are curious and they are learning—thanks, in large part, to him.
—Elizabeth Yukins, Assistant Professor of English and
(then) Director of the Women’s Center for Gender
Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
Marymount Manhattan College, Fall 2017
Advanced Writing Seminar: Writing Fandom
Tahneer Oksman, Assistant Professor and (then) Chair of Academic Writing
The session focused on several chapters from Junot Diaz’s Drown. Students discussed the stories from a variety of angles: point of view, symbolism, character motivations, narrative form/structure (voice, style, etc.). Students were also asked to think broadly about the context of the stories, including questions of gender, race, class, and sexuality, and the instructor pushed them to connect their analyses and close readings with readings they had done, and conversations they had had, earlier on in the semester. This was an excellent class and students were impressed, as was I, with the instructor’s facility at handling the text and helping us all find unexpected connections.
The instructor used a number of strategies to actively engage students: an in-class writing exercise, prompted by a set of thoughtful, coherent questions; asking students to read passages out loud, and then following those readings with discussions about the specific language in the text; and posing broader discussion questions, in which he encouraged students to think about the connection between the assigned readings and readings that had been done earlier in the semester.
The session opened with an introduction to the text, including provocative questions to get students thinking, followed by individual in-class writing and a long and involved discussion. Almost all students took frequent notes over the course of the session.
IV. Student/Instructor Dynamics
The students all clearly respect the instructor, and feel comfortable in his presence. He supplied lots of encouragement of their ideas (with head nods, exclamations, etc.), but he also challenged them when they did not back up their points with sufficient evidence or when their ideas strayed from what was in the text. The instructor also allowed a healthy debate to flourish, which the students seemed to appreciate, and he backed off and allowed students to converse with one another until it seemed their arguments had leveled out.
Students were also energetic over the course of the entire session, which is a notable feat given that this was an evening class. It helps that the professor has a sharp sense of humor, which is something his students clearly appreciate.
V. Ability to Communicate
The instructor seems naturally at ease in the classroom. He is sensitive to his students’ needs, and communicates easily and effectively with them to compel them to do their best thinking and writing.
VI. General Perceptions
This was a masterful class. Having taught a number of these Advanced Writing sections, and having directed the Writing Program for four years, I know it is a unique challenge to engage some of the best and brightest of our students. The instructor has done an excellent job at facilitating an environment that feels both intellectually rigorous and comfortable. I am thrilled to have such a vibrant, skilled teacher working in our program.
The City College of New York, CUNY, Fall 2016
Introduction to Literary Study
Robert Higney, Assistant Professor of English
Alec spent the ﬁrst 1/3 of this session wrapping up the class’s discussion of the play The History Boys. The warm rapport that the class had with each other and with their instructor was immediately apparent, and in the process of working through some misunderstandings that a number of students had had about the plot of the play, there were some nice laughs; Alec is very skilled at encouraging students to share their frustrations with their reading and writing and oﬀer each other support in discussing those frustrations. Alec also had a couple of students read a short scene from the play to focus discussion. The History Boys deals centrally with issues of sexual abuse in a school setting, and discussion of the play led into some broader questions about gender and power diﬀerences, and how abuse of the kinds depicted in the play might be understood diﬀerently in the real world depending on the genders of those involved (this was quite a sophisticated debate that students themselves initiated). Alec managed this sensitive discussion expertly, drawing students out on some of the points they made, but directing everyone’s attention back to the text and the business of the literature classroom subtly but clearly at an appropriate moment.
The rest of the class was devoted to beginning discussion of Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Alec transitioned to the novel very smoothly, which allowed the questions about gender that had been raised in the earlier discussion to remain in the air as the class moved to Diaz, and these questions were taken up again in the discussion that followed, making for a nice connection between the texts. He also handed out a bound copy of a website’s annotations to the novel, which seemed very useful. Alec began by asking for students’ general reactions to the text, which were enthusiastic, and many were comfortable linking the novel to their own families and backgrounds. Alec used one student’s point about how the narrator suddenly appears in the text to move into a consideration of speciﬁc passages and asking more pointed questions about the novel: who is this narrator, what does he have to say about how we tell stories, or about how we tell stories about other people?
Alec then directed students to a particular passage in the novel and asked each of them to read a sentence, going around the room. This was a great exercise (one I plan to adopt myself), as it focused everyone on the passage, got everyone to speak, however brieﬂy, and highlighted for the one or two students who didn’t have the text with them the importance of being prepared (without Alec having to call them to account himself). They discussed the kinds of cultural knowledge that the novel expects us to have, and how it both witholds certain references from us while providing us with background through footnotes and a whole ﬁctional textual apparatus. The discussion of gender returned here to good eﬀect, as students grasped how the novel’s slangy language around Dominican-ness and masculinity has certain assumptions built into it about how one should inhabit those identities, and the ways that Oscar is trapped by his inability to occupy them in certain ways. The class also touched on issues of shame and responsibility, which the narrator of the novel raises in his quasi-apology for the way in which he narrates Oscar’s story. This again opened onto a discussion of students’ own experiences of gender regulation and identity, and Alec oﬀered brieﬂy some details from his own background that students clearly appreciated and could identify with before turning attention again to the text. The session concluded with some notes what to look for in the reading for the next session—Alec made excellent use of the 4T5 minutes left as class wrapped up to highlight another passage in the novel, point to its relevance, and encourage students for next time.
This class was conducted at a very high level, particularly considering that it’s introductory-level and ﬁlled with students of varying academic backgrounds, interests, and levels of preparation. Alec is frankly a brilliant teacher, and it was probably the best class session I have observed in the last couple of years here at CCNY. I oﬀered him some suggestions for structuring the session a bit more formally—my own impulse would have been to conclude History Boys with bit more clarity and oﬀer more of an introduction from the instructor to move into Oscar Wao; but Alec’s approach also had its beneﬁts in tying the two texts together, as I noted above. I learned far more from observing Alec’s classroom than I could oﬀer him in my feedback, I’m afraid; it was a pleasure and a privilege to observe.
The City College of New York, CUNY, Fall 2014
Freshman Inquiry and Writing Seminar: Self & Other in Literature
Emily Raboteau, Assistant Professor of English
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, Fall 2012
Writing across the Disciplines: Bodies and Difference
Elizabeth Yukins, Assistant Professor of English and (then) Director of the Women’s Center for Gender Justice
I observed Alec Magnet’s class on October 17, 2012, and there were 23 students in attendance. Mr. Magnet has chosen to structure his Eng 201 syllabus around the theme, “Bodies and Difference,” and this theme has allowed him to examine a broad—and provocative—issue through the writings of many different disciplines and genres. Over the course of the semester, the class will have read historical essays, poetry, memoirs, psychology essays, journalistic accounts, and legal texts, all focused on how bodies are assessed and understood as different. With this theme, Mr. Magnet has created a topically rich syllabus that combines a diverse assortment of reading with very practical and thoughtful writing exercises. For example, on the day I observed the class, Mr. Magnet had his students read Andrew Sullivan’s New York Times Magazine essay, “The He Hormone,” and then reflect on the article in their journals. Mr. Magnet guided their journal responses by asking specific, writing-oriented questions: he had them identify Sullivan’s argument and his rhetorical approach, and he had them evaluate the efficacy of Sullivan’s sources of evidence. What this assignment enabled the students to do was to focus on both what Sullivan argued and how he argued it. Given that this essay is on testosterone and the claims that Sullivan makes about its effects, the assignment also gave the students the opportunity to reflect analytically—rather than just reactively—about a controversial topic and to be able to come to class ready to discuss the subject in an informed and scholarly manner.
It is in terms of this last skill—the capacity to talk about provocative subject matter in mature ways—that I want to commend Mr. Magnet’s pedagogical style. When I heard that the class was reading an essay by a gay man with AIDS who takes testosterone, and likes it, I thought for sure I was going to witness all kinds of immature and petty classroom comments. Instead I was quite pleasantly surprised: Mr. Magnet’s students were thoughtful, respectful, and engaged on all fronts. And, having taught at John Jay for many years, I give full credit for this to Mr. Magnet’s dynamic and demanding teaching style. His students clearly trust him and his requirements, and they work to meet his classroom efforts more than half way. For example, at several points during the class period Mr. Magnet had the whole class read aloud. The students did this, without a word of complaint, with each person taking a sentence or two in an orderly fashion. Not only were they clearly accustomed to the request, but they must have seen merit in the exercise—we all know how students can make their skepticism about an assignment known, loudly and clearly. After the class read aloud the first two paragraphs of Sullivan’s essay and Mr. Magnet followed with, “Okay, what’s the author getting at here and how does he do it?” the students jumped right into an animated conversation about Sullivan’s choice of visual imagery, his interest in a shock effect, and his stylistic strategy to withhold information so as to cultivate the reader’s curiousity. Mr. Magnet frequently encouraged his students with comments like, “that’s a really good point,” and offered his students useful rhetorical terminology when they were struggling to explain Sullivan’s writing moves.
After extensive class discussion and debate, Mr. Magnet then had his students break into small groups to discuss specific passages in the essay by means of three analytical prompts: 1) figure out what the passage means and how you could paraphrase its intended purpose; 2) break the passage into its component parts—what are its claims and its evidence; and 3) evaluate the passage—how successful is it in making a convincing argument? As I watched the small groups work, I noticed how attentive the students were to the assignment and how comfortable they were with the questions asked. They clearly have been taught well. In the final minutes of the class, Mr. Magnet offered to his students just the type of thought-provoking questions that I think has made them so responsive to his pedagogy. He treats his students as intellectuals-in-development: of course they should be exposed to challenging and provocative reading material, of course they’d be curious about the differences between a magazine essay and an academic article, and of course they’d be wondering how an imagined audience shapes an author’s rhetorical choices. What is wonderful about these pedagogical presumptions is that they are correct: Mr. Magnet’s students are curious and they are learning—thanks, in large part, to him.