Thursday, January 28, 2016

Let It Breathe

When I began teaching, and for some time after, I used to try to assuage such anxieties by crowding them out with activity. I would prepare 15 pages of lecture notes for an 80-minute class session. I would assign 70 pages of reading for every class meeting so we wouldn’t run out of material. I would cover over any pauses in the discussion with more lecturing, more PowerPoints, more handouts. I had students write research papers and exams and bibliographies and presentations and blog posts and quizzes — just so that it would be clear that I had a plan, and I was in charge, and I was well-prepared, and I knew what I was doing. It didn’t work. I was exhausted and tense, and my students were baffled and overwhelmed. In class, they just checked out. No one had room to breathe. The quick shallow panting of my own fears about teaching sucked all the air out of the room, leaving nothing left for learning . . . So I gave myself permission to breathe. Since then, I have become more present as a teacher, more able to tune into the practice of teaching — not as a forced performance of my own competence, but rather, as an experience I share with my students primarily for their benefit. And once I could focus on what my students really needed, I could see that they, too, needed room to breathe. In practice, that means my teaching is less busy but more mindful. I assign much less reading than I used to, but I take much more time in class to draw out student questions and even student silences. I have substantially rethought the length, number, and type of assessments I ask students to produce — generally in favor of frequent assignments of shorter, sometimes iterative writing. As my own class prep and grading have become less frenetic, the pace of class has also slowed, and our work has become both more deliberate and more careful. Sometimes we follow a tangent, or we might spend 20 minutes working through one important paragraph in one important article. Class time finally became student-centered time, and students responded by being more interested and more active. In the same way that I would bring a yoga student into a handstand through a series of linked preparatory poses and step-by-step instruction, now I deliberately and explicitly lead students from in-class writing to short papers to essay proposals, annotated bibliographies, and research papers.
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