David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Less Is More

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One of the luxuries of having a full-time faculty position —and no longer being an adjunct — is getting more time and opportunity to reflect on my teaching. The consistency of the position (I’m teaching the same thing in consecutive semesters!) allows for the sort of self-critical thinking necessary to improve. As I near the end of my first year at the University of Iowa, I’ve been paying more attention to how I’ve changed in the classroom, and noticing the subtle ways my teaching has evolved as I’ve settled into the job.

One of the biggest changes is that I’m now doing less in advance — less preparation, fewer planned activities for class, less stress over what I’m going to do. Some days the sheet of paper I bring into class with my plan for the day is mostly blank. It’s not that I’m spending less time or energy on my teaching — I’m still grading and advising, and I spend plenty of time reading and thinking about pedagogy. Rather, I’ve been trying to move away from an approach to teaching in which extensive planning and overstuffed class periods ruled out any chance of the unpredictable from happening in my classroom.

I’ve been an overplanner for a long time. I once boasted in a job application that — in a single class period — I might make use of a free-writing exercise, a mini-lecture, a discussion based on the free-writing exercise, a group activity, a role-playing game, and an end-of-class written reflection. Some of that tendency proceeds from an admirable impulse: I don’t think there’s one ideal way to teach every subject, and so it makes sense to use a mix of approaches in class.

I also think my overstuffed classes were a reaction against the tyranny of the lecture. Instead of a single mode of information delivery, I’d use five! Or ten! But I’ve begun to see that manic approach as more indebted to my own insecurity than to any pedagogical principle. If I had the whole class period planned down to the last minute, if I made sure the students’ experience was a whirlwind of activities and exercises, no one could accuse me of being underprepared. No less important, by overscheduling each class period, I could protect myself from the terrifying prospect of having to think on my feet.

That is the real terror of the novice instructor, isn’t it? Standing in front of a room full of students and not knowing what to say. A detailed class plan full of bullet points is a security blanket — for those of us who regularly suffer from imposter syndrome— against the fear that students are about to figure out we don’t know what we’re talking about. Although I’m not going to stop preparing for my classes any time soon, I’ve started to think that my tendency to overprepare prevents my classes from being as effective as they might be.

I’ve written before about looking for ways to cede control of the classroom, but in that case I was writing specifically about passing the baton to the students. I still think that’s a valuable ambition, but it’s also important to cede control to the “moment” — to the time you and the students have to work together in the classroom. By planning so much, I now realize, I often foreclosed possibility and made sure that almost nothing could happen that I didn’t think of in advance.

How is that different from the professor who stands at the front of the lecture hall and reads his notes out loud? Although I had changed the method — with active learning activities taking the place of lectures — my rigidity and ultimate control remained the same.

I’m working to change that. I’ll never stop planning my classes. Nor do I think my students and I should just sit around and talk. But as I’ve gotten more comfortable in my new position, I’ve started to leave more to chance. I’m more and more convinced that it’s important to leave time for my courses to wander off course, for class discussions to function like real discussions and take off on interesting tangents, for unexpected problems to come up (and be dealt with).

So I’m planning less. I’m taking my time a bit more in class, no longer rushing through one activity to get to the next. I’m trying not to fear silence so much, but instead, to allow for it — to understand it, not as evidence that the class is a disaster, but as a valuable moment for reflection. I’m trying to signal to students, through my actions, that class discussion is not just a vehicle for me to get them to understand my point, but a valuable activity where they might actually learn something for themselves.

I’d like the classroom to be a space where I’m fully present, where I’m not just executing a plan, but I’m there with the students, responding to the ideas in play, working with them as they figure things out. My hope, of course, is that students will join me in this more mindful classroom, though I know that I’ll sometimes be unsuccessful on this measure. But I also know that no amount of planning can prevent that.

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