Classically Inclined

March 5, 2012

Teachable moment

I had a couple of unexpected insights into my teaching last week, one caused by circumstances beyond my control, one a consequence of a choice I’d made to vary my approach.

The first occurred in the first year literature survey, where I was giving my second lecture on Cicero’s Catilinarian speeches. The lecture of the previous week had dealt with the dates and chronology and the who and why of the conspiracy itself, so that I could spend its companion talking about the interpretation of the four speeches to people who had all the background material and thus would get what was going on. So far, so good.

But when I got to the classroom, the computer wasn’t working. It just wouldn’t turn on – which meant no Powerpoint. Drat, I thought. Rather than mess about with the machine, I decided to pull up a stool and give the lecture from my notes. The slides had a couple of particularly relevant quotations on them, but there was nothing that the students hadn’t read before and couldn’t look up afterwards. So I gave the lecture, and at the end, as usual, asked students to complete a one minute paper for me. (I have realised that, despite talking a great deal about one minute papers, I have yet to blog about them. It’s on the list of future topics.)

To my great surprise, a good number of students completed a one minute paper to tell me that they had preferred the lecture without the Powerpoint. It was easier to concentrate, they said. I could take notes better without being distracted. I enjoyed the lecture more.

It made me think about the prevalence of Powerpoint in the classroom. When I was an undergraduate, I never had a lecture with a Powerpoint. I had rather a lot of handouts, including relevant quotations, some of considerable length (and longer than I can sensibly get onto a Powerpoint slide). But my teaching, at least in lecture contexts, has taken it for granted that I will provide a Powerpoint. I have always had strict views of what should go on slides (words that might be difficult to spell, dates, that sort of thing), and I like to think I use them reasonably well. But this experience made me realise that there are some lectures where, perhaps, I could do without the Powerpoint. That it might be a good idea, once a term in each course, to pick a lecture where slides could be dispensed with, as a sort of oasis away from the tech. Obviously, I was lucky that the slides didn’t work in this lecture rather than in its predecessor – trying to communicate dates and names and so forth effectively and accurately without the slides would have been really very difficult. But a day off from the Powerpoint was clearly something some students appreciated, and I wonder if might be worth exploring the possibilities that offers more deliberately.

My second teachable moment came in my epic seminar, where I had deliberately fiddled around with the format. This was because I’d decided we were going to finish the term reading Quintus of Smyrna’s Post-Homerica, a book I’ve never read before but seemed to promise a nice capstone for the course material. Rather than fib and take on a position of authority in guiding discussion (which I had felt comfortable doing with the other texts we’ve read), I decided to keep my role as content expert but give up my role as facilitator. So I asked the second year students to prepare to lead discussion on the first half of the poem, and the third year students to lead discussion on the second half.

After the second year’s seminar last week, I am kicking myself and wondering why I didn’t move to this format at the start of the second term, once students felt more comfortable with the ideas of epic. The dynamic in the classroom is very different – the discussion is more student-led, there is more student engagement, the subject feels as if it’s at the centre of the conversation rather than me acting as a conduit of privileged knowledge. Which is exactly how seminars should work. I’d still have wanted to facilitate the first seminar of the second term (to allow students to find their feet as much as because we started with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and I think there’s a lot to be said for someone helping you out with that particular text), and I still want to guide the deconstruction of the week’s set article, but I’m very struck by the different intellectual environment that hierarchy structure created.

Now, to an extent I had planned this, in that I had chosen this approach for something where I wasn’t an expert on the particular text, and because at this stage in the term I hoped this would be the kind of result that I would get. But one of the CIQ responses said that while the format worked well, the writer hadn’t felt confident enough to share their own thoughts with the group. I wonder whether incorporating this format earlier would do something to encourage more shy students to speak up sooner, if only because I could then give facilitating responsibilities to smaller groups rather than a whole year.

For one week, that’s quite a lot to chew on – and I’m going to have to come back to these ideas when I know what I’ll be teaching and in what context next year.

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