Saturday, January 06, 2007

New Term Resolutions

Classes resume on Monday (where does the time go? gotta do something about that holiday getting the way of my holiday), and this weekend is devoted to preparing for the new term. More than selecting readings and plotting assignment dates, the task involves surveying last term: assessing what worked, what didn't, and revising accordingly.

If I have a thesis for what I plan to do differently in my teaching this term, it could be summed up in Hamlet’s advice to the players: “suit the words to the matter, the matter to the words.”

In this respect, the first matter of concern would be the syllabus. I am hardly the first professor to go “off-syllabus” (I hope!), but I learned that what it means to go “off-syllabus” – that is, how it matters to the class – depends on how you conceive the syllabus itself, and thus the whole course. As I reported to Jim Lang at the Chronicle, I entered fall term subscribing to the notion of syllabus as contract. That is, I used the syllabus not only to lay out the dates and assignments, but also to spell out the learning objectives for the course – what students should know (content), and know how to do (skills), by term’s end.

I found that these two functions came into conflict, as in going “off-syllabus” –- aka, “getting behind” on the readings –- I felt that we were getting behind for good reason, that is, to fulfill the learning objectives. Indeed the most intellectually productive classes were those when we were, technically speaking, most “off-course”! So I do plan to rethink the number and pace of assignments . . . dare I say, assign less reading? (hear the cheers from southeast Ontario!) and so “suit the words to the matter” more effectively in that document.

But I also plan to use the occasion of “going through the syllabus” (in the first days of class) to advance the notion of syllabus not as contract, but as thesis. For as we teach our students, a thesis is an argument, a binding idea, or initiative; but a thesis is always provisional, contingent on the discovery of new knowledge, evidence, even new frameworks or contexts for understanding -- and therefore perpetually subject to revision.

We'll see how that flies (students can be relentlessly litigious).

The second matter of words in need of reform pertains to the discussion groups I assigned for my lectures. At the university where I teach, discussion groups are not a matter of course for lectures. Operating from the philosophy that knowledge is produced through conversation, I felt that discussion was important to the operations of the course, and so broke the class roster down into groups, and set aside time for groups to meet during class time. Alas, as I conduct my lecture as a large-scale seminar –- that is, class discussion is a vital component of the lecture period –- I found that the students who regularly contributed to those discussions were the ones who chiefly contributed to their groups. In this way, the class was only repeating itself on a small-scale (and not progressing), and, worse, that we were losing precious class time to the logistics of changing course mid-lecture, i.e., to reassembling into the small groups.

Heading into the last class of term, I had prepared a survey for my students to assess how much and how well they were learning (in fact, I reproduced the “learning objectives” from the syllabus on the survey to this end). I had this hunch about the groups mirrored back to me and confirmed, as students frequently noted that the groups were “not working.” But they also frequently enthused about the large-scale class discussions!

Going into the second term -- for others, new courses (my courses are year-long) –- I find myself in the position of having to revise my own thesis about the place of discussion in the course. Will I eliminate the groups? Rework them? I don’t know yet (that's this weekend's task). But I am learning, or re-learning, that dialogue is a means, and not an end in itself, and, as I have seen in my students’ writing -- another "matter" of "words" –- just because some students do not contribute verbally to the class does not mean they are not vitally engaged.

In short, I have to have the courage to go back on my own word(s).

The students’ astute responses to my survey, while humbling, give me the nerve to reverse course –- and even more specifically, to re-order my lectures. For many new professors, “writing the lectures” takes up most of their time, as they are assembling and framing material (much matter indeed), in ways they never have had to before. I learned from my students that I was frontloading in my lectures the material that they already knew. I thought I knew what I was doing; that is, I was working from the rhetorical premise of moving from the known to the unknown. But I was also inordinately concerned that students were “getting it,” in that I devoted the initial class time to reinforcing material, to make sure they had learned it before we moved on to new ideas. So anxious was I to review, in fact, that I would typically end up rushing through the new material (“we had to get through”) at the end of classes, when both the students and I were least fresh. Thus one student sagely pointed out to me that s/he would prefer to hear the new material when she was most prepared to digest it. (Indeed words cannot express, in fact, how much I learned from their assessments of how, and how well, they were learning.)

Students are prepared to learn when they enter the class. Just as important, they want to learn new ideas. What a humbling discovery! And, in retrospect, how obvious. But a discovery which dictates not only that I reverse the order of my lectures, but also . . . relax. The students are getting it – they’re learning – move on.

Of course, Hamlet might not be the best inspiration here. After all, he hardly achieves his own learning objectives in failing to determine, from Claudius’ reactions to the play, whether the usurper had in fact murdered his father. Did the words suit the matter, the matter the words? We don’t know, because he doesn’t.

Maybe he should’ve handed out a survey?

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