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How I Learned to Leave My Lecture Notes Behind ... Sometimes

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05 Feb 2013
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
Tags: student learning   |   embodied teaching   |   critically reflective teaching

It was the middle of the semester, a time when exhaustion so often overtakes pedagogical finesse, a time when the energy of new courses is abating and the promise of a reprieve from grading and lecturing is too distant to relish. It was during one of these mornings when I lamented to my colleague that I felt insufficiently prepared to lecture in my course. She shared with me an insight that has shifted how I prepare for my classes.

In the first few years of teaching, balance on the pre-tenure track is fleeting. This lack of balance is exemplified by the frantic pace and workload that creating new syllabi and assignments, writing new course material, and assessing both on the fly brings upon new faculty. How do we prioritize our time and our efforts? Given that the length of our days is unchanging,[1] how do we invest in students in a smart way? Given that we can only do so much, how do we teach efficiently?

All of these questions take us back to my colleague’s sage advice. She asked me a simple question.

If I have to write something down in order to remember it, why would I expect my students to integrate it into their knowledge and experience? If I have to write something down in order to remember to teach it to my students, how important is it really?

That is, what are the most important matters we want our students to learn? Aren’t they those insights and experiences that we have cultivated over years of committed study, extended reflection, and formative experiences? That’s the kind of stuff we don’t commit to paper but to memory. We commit them to memory not by rote but by letting it shape us at our very core, which is precisely what has driven a life of study and teaching.

Teaching, especially in our earliest experiences, can quite easily expose our anxieties and insecurities. Standing in front of a classroom full of students, I have clutched my carefully crafted lectures, well-outlined notes, or even an intricate visual presentation as a means of protection and safety. What if we instead held on tightly to that which we know best, to those passions that have carried us thus far?

I followed my colleague’s advice and started trusting a bit more my education, training, and passion. Of course, this does not mean that I started winging my lectures and teaching. Neither does it mean that the pressures of teaching simply disappeared. I prepare. I study. I review. I take notes and even write manuscripts of portions or the entirety of my lectures. But I also have found a great deal of freedom in leaning on my preparation in graduate school and simply teaching those things I am most passionate about.

Try this experiment. If you had to teach on your field of study five minutes from now without the help of notes, what would you say? Our daily teaching is not such a dire scenario but perhaps such a scenario is nonetheless instructive,[2] for it would reveal most clearly what is at the center of our pedagogical commitments.

Looking back on my first few years of teaching, I wish I had given myself the freedom to be less explicit in some aspects of my teaching. I spent too much time grading with a fine tooth comb and honing my lecture notes. I could instead have provided helpful but broader comments on papers. I could have leaned on my knowledge and learning to help fill out my lecture notes. Such freedom would have given me room to reflect on where more explicit direction would have been useful to my students.

(I would have liked to have been far more explicit with students about my expectations and my assignments. The vast majority of my students are responsible and self-directed but a handful of students too often exploit the ambiguities of a new professor's syllabus or my inexperience…but I digress!)

But more than all that, I wish I had given myself the freedom to be a teacher, not an anxious graduate student still trying to make the grade. This transition is by no means easy but essential to our vocations as educators.


[1] By the way, if you lament that we can’t extend our days beyond 24 hours, read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0812982940). That will cure you of such hopes!

[2] Of course, this works very well when we are teaching at the center of our disciplines. This is not always the case as some courses will stretch us beyond our particular guilds and into new realms of knowledge. Even then, we bring an indispensable expertise to the table. Lean on it, even as you necessarily lean more heavily on your notes.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Eric. The reminder about what is central and key to teaching well is important. And, certainly, it often seems that those moments when I go “off script” and just try to get students to see what is amazing, or inspiring, or troubling about the material are the moments when they get most excited . . . or, at the very least, the moments they stop texting and checking Facebook and make direct eye contact.

    This also explains why repeating the same class can sometimes result in better teaching. With more familiarity with the material, with the course more deeply “in one’s bones,” the class becomes more of a conversation.

    How do you decide when to leave your notes behind? Does it have to do with your familiarity, or with what you want students to do (textual analysis, broad historical understanding, etc.)? And, as I’m just beginning to experiment with the formal, written lecture, I’m wondering how you try to determine when it has been effective or successful (if ever).

  2. Hi Kent

    Thanks for the helpful comments. I think the freedom I feel when I have those moments in class when I go “off script” are deeply satisfying. It seems more natural in some sense, and it does feel like a conversation a lot more than me reading a transcript to my usually patient students. I completely resonate also with the way that repeating classes brings a sense of familiarity that enhances my teaching. Then again, I sometimes have to ask my students to stop me if I’ve already shared the same story or anecdote with them. I’m turning into “that” professor!

    I leave my notes entirely behind only rarely. I especially do this when I’m teaching at churches. However, what I have found is that limiting my lecture notes to, say, a single page provides some of that freedom we’re looking for without having some anchor to which we can return. In my own discipline, having an open Bible, and students who have prepared to engage the text is more than enough to fill an hour of really good teaching.

    I too would like to hear from others about written lectures. I only very rarely do this, partly because writing a full-blown lecture takes an incredible amount of time. However, I have a suspicion that there certain topics, issues, and contexts that would call for lecture. Any other thoughts?

  3. Hi Eric,
    I would just like to say how true your bog felt for me. During the first year of teaching I was holding on to my lecture notes like dear life. It took a full year for me to be able to leave the notes on the desk and stand on my own two feet.
    Of course I’m too much of the neurotic academic to even dream of walking into a class without them (the world may as well stop turning!) but I know when and how to put them down now.
    By the way thumbs up for your colleague who asked a very simple yet totally disarming question.
    Congrats to you too for having the guts to go with it. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is.

  4. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I always find that knowing the struggles and successes of others in the field makes all the difference. My guess is that many of us “neurotic academics” (I like that term! It seems to apply to me well!) are not going to ditch our notes entirely but knowing that they are helps rather than the ultimate source of everything I know and want to teach has been liberating to me. Thanks again.

  5. Eric, you are lucky to have had such a helpful colleague at just the right time! I have often felt a bit sheepish about writing down a bunch of names and dates that I myself can’t commit to memory. You have nicely articulated why, AND made me feel somewhat less guilty about relying more heavily on the kind of knowledge that comes more naturally – less detailed, more intuitive. Most of my students take only one REL course, of which they’ll remember hardly anything, so it’s good advice to prioritize what I ask them to learn.

  6. I really enjoyed this piece! On more than one occasion I’ve found myself, er, inadvertently experimenting with note-free teaching — that is, I managed to waltz off to class with my notes still sitting on the printer (and some reason not to pull them up from Dropbox or Gmail). I’ve found that I teach very well with no notes in those cases where I have already spent time that morning organizing my thoughts into notes or updating those notes; essentially, I need the preparation but not the notes. Teaching with no notes and no preparation, on the other hand, is… doable but a lot harder.