Teaching Thursday

Today is the last day of classes for the spring semester. As is so often the case, my eyes were somewhat bigger than my stomach and I taught too many classes and let my enthusiasm for various topics exceed reasonable expectations for student attention spans, workloads, and energy levels.

I also had fun despite the long tail of the pandemic, my typical lack of confidence in my knowledge, preparation, and pedagogy, and endless winter weather. And I developed some ideas on how to make my classes better, at vary least different, in the future. 

Here are those thoughts: 

1. Model Thinking. It took me almost 20 years of teaching to understand that even the best explanations on how to do something are likely to be inadequate if not combined with some demonstrations on how to implement these explanations. In the past, I’ve tried to do this by integrating examples into my classes, but this tended to generate a series of cookie cutter projects and papers that cleaved too closely to the exemplar. 

In a conversation with my brother — who is a K-12 educator — he suggested that instead of giving a student a fish or even telling them how to fish, that I walk them through the process of fishing and discuss with them the decisions that I make when selecting a rod, bait, and a location to cast my line (obviously, I have no idea how to fish so this metaphor is breaking down). In other words, instead of telling students how to produce a product or showing students examples of the final product, walk them through the myriad little decisions involved in production. This not only gives students insights into how to accomplish an often complex task at a very practical level, but also humanizes the process by showing them that most academic work is not intuitive, but the product of a series of little and often confusing steps.

[I am aware of the irony that I struggled to implement this kind of thing in my classes despite running this blog for over a decade. After all, part of the point of this blog is to make my research, teaching, and professional processes more transparent.]     

2. Focus on 12 Weeks. One of the good things that happened during this semester is that we had snow days. I think I lost about 2 weeks of class time in my Tuesday-Thursday afternoon classes and this gave both students and me an unexpected (if not entirely unanticipated) break. 

It reinforced in my mind the need to build more flexibility into my classes and consider whether the standard practice of 14 weeks of content spread over a 16 week semester might be a good bit too optimistic. Losing two weeks to snow this semester essentially forced me to reduce my 14 weeks of material to 12 and I’m feeling that this might be the right amount for the average semester. Of course, my sense for this is largely impressionistic, but my Greek History class remains active and interested and my Historical Methods students continue to show up for class even on “optional” days. This suggests to me that my students have sufficient energy, enthusiasm, and time to manage 12 weeks worth of work and as I design two new classes for next year, this might become the model.  

3. The Death of the Lecture. My Greek history course is a bit of a dinosaur in my rotation. It harkens back to a day when the “lecture/discussion” format was a kind of cutting edge pedagogy. In other words, this class continues to feature a good be of “sage-on-the-stage” time despite my commitment to more “guide-on-the-side” methods of teaching in my other classes. Some of this has to do with the inadequacy of available textbooks and the like, but most of this has to do with this class dating to the early years of the 21st century and drawing on late 20th century precedents.

The results haven’t been particularly disappointing in large part because students simply ignore my efforts to lecture. Instead, they interrupt me, ask questions, pursue tangents, and engage in discussions. I regularly find myself stranded behind the awkwardly designed “teaching station” trying to get the class back “on track.” 

I had always assumed that the lecture would die because students would simply check out and stare blankly at me as I babbled on ineffectively about this or that topic. Instead, students are taking the lead in killing the lecture by making it impossible in the classroom. 

4. Balancing Production and Consumption. One of my buddies observed this semester that students like to produce things and balancing between production (writing, making, crafting) and consumption (reading, listening, viewing) was a challenge in the humanities. I have started to think about in my own professional life where I frequently find myself out writing my reading.

As I look ahead to my teaching in the fall, I have three classes that all ask students to produce things: a prospectus in my methods class, a textbook in my World History I class, and an anthology of sorts in my editing and publishing practicum. But all these efforts to produce something rely on the students patiently and critically consuming content and this presents a real challenge as students’ eagerness to go “hands-on” and start to craft on their own challenges their ability to slow down, to read, and to think.

It seems ironic that in an era where consumption has almost become the equivalent of culture that teaching has to nudge students to drag the brake on their eagerness to produce.  

5. Accommodating Resistance. Finally, I want to continue to recognize and validate student resistance, even when its inconvenient and awkward. Like many faculty, I have a tendency to see things like poor attendance, disregard for deadlines and class policies, and poor performance as laziness or defiance. I have to keep reminding myself that very, very few students don’t want to learn in college and when students resist learning, they usually do it to send a message (even if they’re not entire sure what that message is or should be).

I need to keep trying to listen and work with my students to figure out why something isn’t work.  

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