So there I was, prepping away last Monday just after lunchtime, racing to get my two classes ready for Tuesday and Thursday, when I got a phone call from my dad. He’d been in a serious car accident (not his fault, and he’s fine), and needed a hand. Off I went.
Two hours later I was home again, relieved dad was also home and dry. I turned back to work: I had one set of prep down and one to go, but I reminded myself that the second set was stuff I’d taught before and that it went well last year. Won’t take long, I said to the dog. We’ll be off for evening walkies in no time.
[Cue time passing]
So there I was, sometime around 9:30, still fussing the prep. Honestly, I could not understand it myself. It was no more complicated than a series of exercises I’d devised to help explore the acting theories of Denis Diderot, plus a few discussion points around the film Stage Beauty, which I use to help us make sense of the notion of acting with – and without – our emotions on our sleeves. But somehow I could not finish my plotting, leave well enough alone.
Did I mention that I had imported a good portion of my prep from last year?
What, I want to know, causes us teachers to give in to prep creep? (Def: that weird sensation that I’m just not ready, that if I just futz a bit more [add a few more lines here, directions to the exercise there] I will clearly be so much more prepared for tomorrow, for anything the class may throw.) When, OBVIOUSLY, we know this inner monologue is not true: classes go well or badly quite unexpectedly. The best prep in the world can’t stop the train crash from coming, if the mood in the moment launches us onto the tracks. Similarly, sometimes prep has to go sailing out the window – and then sending it flying is the best decision in the world.
On Tuesday, after a sleep and a think, I decided to ask my colleagues about their preparatory practices. Specifically, I asked two of them – both “senior” mid-career, both decorated teachers, both on my floor in the Arts & Humanities Building – how they prep for classes they have taught before. What’s their strategy? How much time do they allot, and when?
Both had similar responses. Lots of “minor” re-prep is to be expected, and it can take different forms (re-reading notes; re-reading salient chunks of primary text). Some major re-prep is essential if you’re to keep a class fresh. One commented on the importance of making notes on sessions just run in order to tell your future self what rocked and what sucked, thus prompting appropriate levels of re-prep later. (I’ve done this for a while now and I am an advocate, too. At the end of every teaching week I take 15 minutes to make notes in the margins of my prep documents, casual but clear: “this worked because everyone was confused and needed time to process the reading”; “this did not work at all because nobody was interested in this question”; etc.) The other noted that he purposefully tosses out some of his most cherished lecture material each year in order to keep himself on his toes. (WOW! Props.)
Both, however, reminded me (unbeknownst to them) that I may be placing my re-prep eggs in the wrong basket. Fussing over discussion questions and group work exercises is largely a recipe for… well, not much. Energy in the room and dynamics on the day are what determine a successful or unsuccessful class debate; certainly my job as discussion curator requires me to spend time figuring out the different steps in a group exercise and guiding students through it, but more important than my fussing the minor details is getting the major stuff right. And this is where I’ve been falling down lately: I’ve been neglecting my pledge to re-read the primary texts I teach in their entirety as often as possible.
Lately I’ve been skimming my re-reads, or going to the “hot” bits of articles to remind myself of key claims by authors; the devil’s in the details in this case, though, and the fresher a text is in my mind the more likely I am to teach it with verve, energy, and enthusiasm. I reminded myself of this obvious fact last week when I made the time to re-watch the entire production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that my 20th Century Drama class was studying – even though I’ve seen that production literally half a dozen times at least. Every re-reading or re-viewing – we know this, right? – yields new knowledge, insight, discovery; plus, re-reading plays and poems and novels (as opposed to Word documents containing prep for classes!) is enjoyable, inspiring, even escapist. In other words, labour that might actually be fun.
Why hadn’t I realised this before? Instead of fussing my prep ad nauseum, perhaps I might better invest my time in a full, engaged re-read/re-view of the stuff I’m actually teaching. Sure I might remember the key bits – but then I might not. Worse still, I might have forgotten the tiny, marginal comment by the most marginal of characters that, as it turns out, just about holds the key to everything.
If I start spending my time re-reading rather than (anxiously) re-prepping, I’m betting I can easily find time and energy to run through my previous prep, tweak as needed, and head into class feeling refreshed and excited about the stuff I put on the syllabus in the first place. Because, you know, it’s an enormous pleasure to teach – the opposite of paperwork.
How about you? What’s your prep (and re-prep) strategy? I feel like we don’t talk enough about this issue, especially with/among our junior colleagues who are just starting out and are drowning in (first-round) prep and its attendant anxieties.
So let’s start now.