Randomness and Teaching

Well, Trump won, and I suppose I will comment on that at length at some point. But I want to discuss something else.

I was thinking this morning about the randomness inherent in making decisions. Think of a path that forks left or right with no clues as to what follows  – what makes you choose left or right? SOMETHING does. Back when I knew something about programming – 1990? – we would use random number seeds based on the system clock if we needed a semi-random number. I have to wonder if the circadian system offers the brain a similar out.

That (random?) thought said, I am a general fan of randomness when teaching. I don’t have a lot of formal structure, usually, other than a vague ‘we are going to discuss X,’ or ‘we are going to do this exercise together to master Y,’ or ‘we are going to play a game in order to learn Z’.  I leave the creation of teachable moments to chance; I figure the friction created by me, the students, and the material rubbing together is going to create sparks that I can then turn into a fire. Once I have a fire going, then the class takes on a life of its own and all I have to do is enjoy the heat.

I do prepare graduate courses differently than undergraduate ones, though. I waltz into undergraduate ones and lecture extemporaneously as know the material really well.  For graduate classes, even though I still know the material, I usually prepare a page or two of bullet points and questions that I want to hit. It’s more of an emergency blanket; if the class discussion slows or meanders, I have my page to lean on to restart things.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I rely on a certain degree of unpredictability when teaching. I make a lot of teaching decisions on the fly and instinctively rather than planning them out. Planning is valuable, and I sometimes do a fair amount of it, but it’s become necessary for me over the years to react quickly to conditions in a class.

FYC is different, though (I mostly teach upper-division PW and rhetoric). FYC students need structure; my more freewheelin’ style doesn’t mesh well with freshmen that come to the course feeling lost technically, socially, and materially. They don’t do well with abstract thought or ethical dilemmas. They don’t necessarily know how to answer, or ask, good questions. They are not as comfortable with ambiguity as I am. So I have to adjust and break the course into discrete, predictable units. It doesn’t please my personality, but adaptability – even random – is the essence, I think, of decent teaching.

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