Thursday, October 11, 2012

Teaching Someone Else's Students

I am precisely a week behind in blogging. I suppose that two transcontinental flights and a rollicking wedding at a nature preserve (not mine — the wedding or the preserve) can have that effect now and again.

So, precisely a week ago, I taught an undergraduate class at Penn.

The director of the center where I'm based this year was away giving a talk, and it happened to coincide with the week that his Jewish history class was going to cover the rise of Hebrew poetry in Spain; so of all the fellows here this semester, I was the logical choice to fill in. (Had this been the spring, there would have been two people who would have been even better, but no matter.) It was material I could teach with my eyes closed, so I decided to use this as an opportunity for a bit of pedagogical experimentation.

I'd already been thinking, on the basis of student feedback, that I would eventually have to get away from delivering lectures in intro classes on the basis of a prepared text and work, instead, from notes. And I was dreading the possibility. I figured I'd get flustered, forget to mention a ton of stuff and generally be inarticulate. I was also really worried that I wouldn't have a good core of materials to work from and I'd have to invest the same, insane, intense amounts of time in writing lectures every year as I did this year; and that wouldn't be feasible if I'm ever going to be this book manuscript finished. (Which I am.) So I was really resisting the change, but figured that this would be an opportunity just to see how teaching from notes would work.

I'm pleased to report that it worked really well. I hadn't planned to use a Powerpoint presentation (although that's something that I do under normal circumstances), but decided to in the end as a way of anchoring myself to the narrative arc of the class.

As I said, I do it anyway, but I didn't realize that it would also help with going off-script. There was one moment when I got ahead of myself, but it didn't seem to throw things off at all when I stopped and said, "Wait a minute, let's actually go back one step."I definitely don't think I'll have trouble carrying it forwards. It also seems like I'll be able to work from sets of notes in future years and do whatever updating I need without feeling like I have to completely rewrite each lecture each year, which was one of my major concerns.

Plus, I did a few cool things with text slides.

In a certain respect, it was very freeing to teach a one-off class. It's not to say that I felt like I could screw up the director's course and not have to worry about it because I wouldn't be the one picking up the pieces as much as it was kind of freeing to have no history with this particular group of students: no set way of doing things, no particular expectations on their parts. I could just try a few new things and see how they worked. It was surprising; I expected that it would be disorienting to walk into a classroom where the students already had a rapport with each other and a regular routine, but not so.

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