As we reach the end of my little bloggy mini-series, it’s time to have a look at how my clever plans for teaching within the frame of Scholarship as Conversation sometimes gang agley.
Of course, my little assessment summary here will be more anecdotal than rigorous, and my sample size is small and inconsistent at best. I’ve used the whole-course design three times, and I taught it a little differently each time; I’ve been teaching college students long enough to have learned that no perfect plan for the term survives its first encounter with the classroom. To teach is to adjust, to be willing to change when necessary to meet the need before you. I do not always remember this, although I try — I am acutely aware that one of my pedagogical sins is a desire to hang on to my plan and make things work out the way I decided they should, regardless of the evident need to do otherwise. Also worth noting: I have less experience with library instruction than with teaching philosophy courses, so in that realm I am still finding my way.
The Greater Lesson
The advantage of making quite a lot of room for students to contribute to course content in the way I have for a whole-course plan is that it can, when it works, generate actual participation in proper scholarly conversation.
The trouble with making quite a lot of room for students to contribute to course content in the way I have is that it puts the class constantly at risk of being undermined by non-participation, so that the Conversation never really happens. All it takes to derail the process almost completely is a critical mass of students choosing not to do the work, after which keeping the class going forward at all becomes a burden for the instructor to bear alone.
Blind horses. Water. You know the drill.
Every time I taught the PHIL 230 course this way, my numbers were small (never more than 11 students in any given class), but I was lucky enough to have a philosophy and religion major/minor or two and/or some subject majors in each group, some of whom were further along in their studies (juniors, seniors). Having them there meant that the basic research lessons could be reinforced by the students themselves, helping each other to learn and practice. Having the work done in shared environments — the collaborative bibliography, etc. — meant that the better students could be visible models for the students who needed more help. When it worked, it worked pretty well. It was, however, painfully obvious when too many people in the class either hadn’t done the reading at all or hadn’t really grasped it, which meant that there were several days when I had to substitute alternate tasks or lecture for the original discussion plan. As my majors at the time might tell you, I have no problem at all making students do at least some of the reading in class if they haven’t done it before class — and sometimes, I had to do just that in all three PHIL 230 instances, although it was a bigger issue in the Comedy class than in the other two. This is not an ideal situation, although it does afford the instructor an opportunity to help students learn to read the content more effectively (sometimes). The Comedy class also suffered, I think, from an assigned text that I quite liked, but that the students really did not. The result was a disinclination on their part to do the assigned reading early on and a tendency to rely more on published work in psychology (which more of them found familiar and readable) than philosophy when they started doing their own research.
The collaborative annotated bibliography was, perhaps, a touch too clever for real success, and probably would have accomplished more of what I wanted it to do if the work had been simplified. As the assignment was originally designed, it added unnecessary difficulty to already challenging research work — students not only had to find sources, they had to deal with me nitpicking their formatting in a bibliographic style with which they were unfamiliar while trying to do a kind of writing with which they were also unfamiliar. The way was not narrow enough, and the result was that while the best students (mostly the seniors) did quite well, the students who struggled really struggled, and for them this served as a disincentive to do the work. If I were ever going to teach a PHIL 230 course or something like it again, I’d shift the bulk of the research collaboration to a Zotero group and teach the students how to let the system handle the technical basics, so they could concentrate more effectively on source content.
The Smaller Lesson
Failure to narrow the way enough has been my biggest problem the relatively few times I’ve done library instruction, and the result is that I haven’t yet been truly good at making effective use of limited time. It’s difficult to know, with students one sees only once or twice rather than for a whole term, what the capacities and skills of a given session group really are. I struggle, I know, with accurately estimating the time it takes other people to do things; I read very quickly, and I have never been as good as I would like to be at figuring out the pace at which other people read or perform reading comprehension tasks. This is especially problematic when getting students to work within the frame of Scholarship as Conversation requires performing a research task of some kind as a part of the instruction session. Keeping it simple — in spite of my stubborn certainty that students ought also to grasp nuance and complex details — is the central struggle for balancing comprehension against time management, and I freely admit that I haven’t mastered it yet to my own satisfaction.
The trick I still need to figure out how to perform: get the students to consistently arrive at the basic ideas themselves, so that when nuance becomes possible, it also becomes natural. One non-conceptual obstacle perpetually looms over my efforts: I’ve got 30-odd minutes to do it, and my body and mind still operate in full-course time from years of ingrained habit. The key to success, I suspect, is getting better at figuring out exactly which limited set of “basics” I want the students to figure out and not overloading tasks or activities in ways that confound the process.
So: When it comes to prepping a short session, think like a carpenter — measure twice, cut once.
Well, that’s it for the series! I obviously still have a lot to learn, but I’m happy to keep working on it. Stay tuned for random nattering about old photographs, some babbling about movies and music, and whatever else comes to mind!