Continuing on from yesterday, one other element of the Alan Jacobs post that interested me, on managing classroom time:

4) Many academics are control freaks, and one of the most common ways that freakery manifests itself is in over-preparation for classes. That’s bad in a couple of ways. First, you spend more time than you can really afford, and second, once you’ve spent all that time you want to make sure that you squeeze it all in to your class time. So you end up talking more than you should, talking too fast, and shutting down potentially interesting conversations because you’re afraid that you won’t be able to cover everything you’ve prepared for. Over-preparation is thus not only time-consuming but has many bad pedagogical side-effects. You’ll do real damage to the classroom environment if you think getting through your outline is more important that allowing the students to pursue an issue that really fascinates them and gets them involved. Invest less time in traditional course prep and more time in thinking about how to manage the time in the classroom that increases student involvement.

A few thoughts on this:

1. I will absolutely and always trade off "covering material" time for "useful discussion" time; five instructive 15-minute digressions will have a bigger effect than another 70-minute lecture, at least for the average student.

2. I intentionally structure my courses with 'slack time' in the expectation that this will happen. As an undergrad, it was a frequent experience for the professor to get behind the syllabus and then attempt to play catch-up. But if there's space built-in, in the form of lighter readings or extra time devoted to a text or topic, then there's no need to catch up.

3. The subject matter I've taught in my courses helps, since it is usually modular and can be added to or subtracted from without much of a problem; it might be more of an issue in a class focused around a small number of texts--but I think it can still be managed.

4. The reason for #1 is that teaching, it seems to me, is frequently an act of real-time translation: as a professor, you're attempting to give your students a logical and interesting approach into great works or academic ways of thinking, which means giving them a lot of information they do not necessarily know how to process and teaching them how to do so. In the same way, students are attempting to take the information and concepts they're being given and translate them back into more familiar ideas and concepts. As an instructor, I try to anticipate what this translation will look like for them--what are my students likely to know? what's likely to need explanation?--but it's an imperfect process. Discussion and useful digression is one of the points at which the difficulty in translation can become obvious: students use the concepts, but not correctly, or they ask for a further explanation of something you thought was clear but was not. Or else you find out that the students think something is much more interesting than you did. Either way, it clarifies for the instructor where the course needs to go; it's probably the most useful day-to-day feedback during a semester.

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