What I learned last semester

This past year was my first teaching in the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London, and it’s been quite a change from teaching in a Canadian university. Here, “classes” are “modules”, “programs” are “courses”, lectures are uncommon, and academic staff (not “faculty”) are all administrators as well as teachers and researchers. More prosaically: semesters are shorter, contact hours fewer, and students are differently prepared for their studies. Navigating all of these changes has been challenging, but has also taught me some very useful things about my daily teaching practice – things I suspect will stay with me, and will transfer to any university environment anywhere.

Below, the top five things I learned about myself as a teacher when I moved from the Canadian to the British academic system.

1. I teach way, way too much material.

Less is more. Think about it: are students learning the what, or the how? I’d already realised this, to some degree, after earlier teaching mistakes (when you’re already behind in class number two, something has got to give). But this year brought home for me how useless it can be to offer “extra” content when you’ve only got two hours per week (really, including moving-between-class time and settling-down time, 1h45m…), and when students are still struggling with round one. I’ve decided, for example, next year to teach only three plays (down from seven) in my module on theatre and performance in North America. The rest of the time we will use to synthesise ideas, to come to grips with stuff we can find online about the plays in production and the artists who created them, and to prepare questions to ask those artists during scheduled Skype visits. Less really is more: the students will have three profound and deeply travelled experiences, instead of remembering one day that they might have at some point read that play by what’s-her-name.

2. Administration sucks my teaching brain.

Admin is a fact of life for many academics, and for most academics in the British system, where the administrative workload is comparatively heavy. We tend to think admin takes time away from our research, but I found this past year that what suffered most from time spent doing administrative labour was my teaching. Admin is pernicious: everyone complains about it, but really it’s an excellent excuse to procrastinate about other things. Like teaching prep. I know now that setting boundaries around my administrative labour will directly benefit my teaching, and therefore my students. Totally worth it.

3. Pocket lectures are the new black.

What’s a “pocket lecture”? It’s a bite-sized chunk of key information that students need but that need not take up a whole lot of time in class. It fits perfectly between group or independent writing exercises, and makes students feel like they have a very clear take-away that they can apply while doing homework or bring to the next session. It’s ideal if you have a room full of students who claim they don’t like lectures but seem strangely attached to your words of wisdom. Find the most important topic in your lesson for the day, locate that topic’s key term, and expand for five bullet points.

4. Students need to write more. In class.

I’ve always used group devising exercises to work through questions and problems in class, but only this year did I learn how powerful free-writing in advance of these group exercises can be for students. With the help of my colleague Kelly Peake from Thinking Writing at QMUL, I now have an armful of terrific, super-short writing tasks that I ask students to do on a regular basis – usually two or three per class session. (See below, under comments, for some elaboration of what this looks like in practice.) I never see this writing work: it is for the students alone. It is a way for them to process their thoughts, and something for them to refer to when I call on them, or when I divide them into groups. It’s extremely useful for introverted students who are whip-smart but very shy.

5. No alcohol on school nights, ever.

Not even a glass of wine. I am officially old.

Warmest wishes,

Kim

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2 thoughts on “What I learned last semester

  1. I love these suggestions. Please elaborate on the nature of the short writing assignments. I feel the need for a change in my approach to teaching, and am attracted to the idea of more in class writing assignments. Group work–love it. And are there any resources you can recommend on pocket lectures? Thanks!!

    • Tracy – the short assignments vary hugely from discipline to discipline; a lot of the stuff Kelly shared with me came from the social sciences (your territory!), and I adapted it for the arts. My rule of thumb, though, is this: anytime you’d like to ask the class “what do you think of X?”, turn it into a free-writing assignment. “How does X impact Y? Write for ONE minute. Your writing doesn’t need to be coherent to anyone but you. Just get your thoughts on paper, and let them lead you to new ideas.” Often I vary the length – say, one minute for a simple task, 5 minutes for a synthesis task, etc. And sometimes I ask the students to pair and share their writing, or bring their writing to a group task and begin that task by all sharing their writing. This is useful because it means all they have to do to break the ice is read out loud.
      One transferable one I like, though, is the “critical moments” task. Kelly helped me develop this for a first-year performance workshop I held with my TA, Harriet, in semester one. Half the class showed scene study work they had prepared in advance, and the other half had to respond in critical but collegial ways; all of this led up to their first assignment (and yes, the roles were reversed in another workshop later in the term). Kelly helped me see that we needed to aim for less-is-more (hats off to you for that post, btw), and to ask the students simply to pick out one key “critical moment” for themselves in each scene study. I did it too (I think this was important – we all did it; it was meaningful labour for everyone in the room). Then, after each performance, we wrote for two minutes about why we selected our moment, and what we thought it meant to the scene study as a whole. Finally, we debriefed, using our critical moments writing to spark conversation with the scene study creators. I can’t express how well this went; it was a paradigm shift for me as a teacher to witness it.
      RE: pocket lectures, honestly, I searched this morning and could not find the source! I know it’s not my idea – I have a vague memory of getting it from a post on the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv (, but I searched my archive and can’t locate said post. If anyone knows what my brain has apparently repressed, please hit reply now!
      Kim

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