Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pedagogical Oil Change

It must be that time of the semester when the courses start to ramp up and the students are getting a little punchy; with each passing week, I feel myself getting more anxious about what projects are coming down the pike, what they'll need to have under their belts in order to do said projects, and when in the hell I'm going to find time to work with them in class on all of that stuff they'll need (case in point: see post on teaching making meaning, below).

All of this leads me to ponder the ins and outs of what I suppose I'll call "class maintenance" (not Marx--think Dewey). This is the only term I can think of that speaks to the bevy of tasks that we undertake over the course of the semester that fall outside the bounds of what's covered on the syllabus. I'd count activities like these as qualifying for the category: meeting/email exchanges with students who have missed key classes; design and delivery of new in-class assignments that prepare students for papers, projects, etc.; preparing handouts/blog or Blackboard posts that describe or isolate key themes; construction of group work activities that help students get to know each other better and work on emerging ideas/skills... I'm sure there are more of these that we do, but this is the slate that I'm focused on right now.

My paranoid fear is always that I'm doing, um, is it called "Tuesday Morning quarterbacking?"--i.e., trying to call plays (lessons) after the fact (or after I've already had my chance to teach it). But I've definitely had the experience where something clicks for students in one or more of the above situations, where it hasn't before. And they're often so reticent to say when they don't get it--even knowing that they'll need to understand a reading, an assignment, a theory, later. [This is when I love having the student who's willing to ask the "stupid question." Nothing like seeing that wave of relief on other people's faces that they're not alone in wondering what the crap I'm talking about.]

The reason I want to term these things "maintenance", of course, is because I've come to believe that they work like oil changes for your car. Of course, when you're busy and strapped for time, it's a big pain to drag yourself down to the dealership and sit there for an hour while the mechanics tune-up your vehicle. Doing this regularly, however, ensures that the engine doesn't seize on you while you're on the freeway. I'm sure we could take this car metaphor WAY too far here (pedagogical seatbelts? Air bags? anti-lock brakes?), but I think the overall idea holds: a little maintenance along the way can prevent a huge accident later (which is altogether more inconvenient and generally happens, to me anyway, at the end of the semester when I'm least equipped to handle it because I'm exhausted and cranky and thus more willing to blame the student than myself).

It occurs to me, of course, that this "class maintenance" is very particular to a specific kind of pedagogy. I like a constant flow of information from the students to me and vice versa, and when they're silent, it generally means that we've gone off the track somewhere (but hopefully not in a Neil Young "Alabama" sort of way). And this is made far more simple by the fact that I teach at a SLAC where my class size is 20 or so. But is class maintenance happening in all of our courses, regardless of what, how, and who we teach? What does it look like for others?

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