May 8, 2014

Teaching is hard—really hard

Neutral icon designed by Julien Deveaux from The Noun Project collection

I had the opportunity to teach a Spring 2014 course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Not a studio-practice course, a discussion-driven one. The focus was on issues affecting designers. Each week, participants were given material to review—varying from a reading to a recorded talk. The class would then gather to discuss the assigned piece and identify themes, trends—issues—that are relevant to the current state of a designer.

This was my first time teaching such a course. At its twelfth gathering, one of the class participants, in response to one of the assigned reading/viewing materials, said, “Share the struggle.” In retrospect, I’m aligned to doing this practice, having shared my struggles with writing and speaking.

Here are things I discovered during my experience as an instructor:

Small class sizes aren’t necessarily advantageous
In his interview at the 92Y about his book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”, journalist Malcolm Gladwell identified the negative potential for a small class size: lack of diverse viewpoints (particularly for discussion), domination by vocal participants, and increased (even alienating) self-consciousness by students. He pointed out that a teacher, from his research, didn’t want to teach a class whose size was eighteen or smaller. My class consisted of seven people. From a Gladwellian angle, perhaps this class was doomed by its size.

Gladwell’s list of disadvantages, attributed to a small class size, proved true for me. I always assumed that an intimate class size was better in its ratios: between instructor and student, between student and student, between student and topics. This was the wrong assumption with this course. What can go wrong gets easily amplified: discussion became lopsided, side chatter and outbursts became distracting, and a low collective energy level became dominant.

Discussion only works with a variety of participants 
Facilitating a discussion is swiftly handicapped by people who remain essentially silent (made more apparent by a small class size). There are factors that can be perceived to play roles here.

Doing a roundtable motion for each person to initially insert their thoughts toward a possible class-wide discussion, and pairing like-natured (or not) people in teams, were the only techniques I used. I wished I knew other ways to effectively stimulate reserved dispositions, because no participation equals no discussion.

There was, to me, a very interesting range of design-related topics (see photos) that was introduced. The coverage was broad, but the depth lacked diversity. Discussion typically gravitated to the same vocal participants, the class’ minority. As a result, no involvement equals lost opportunities to communicate and share thinking (which has strong implications for the quality of work outside of the classroom and away from campus).

Evening class promotes a weak reception
The typical response to my greeting of “How are you doing” was: “Tired.” A student’s work-life is visibly hectic and packed with due dates. Each entry into this nighttime class was welcomed with a collective climate of spent.

I’m sure there are studies about what time of day is ideal for the human mind and body to learn. I wonder whether a class, held after a long stretch of previous classes and at night, is beneficial.

Show-and-tells are fun
These were instituted on impulse, in case there was a deficit of discussion. Participants were encouraged to bring items that fascinated them. From publications to illustrations to films, cultural points of interest, with eruptions of levity, were shared.

Digital devices reign in the classroom
Though I stated at the outset that looking at phone and laptops were restricted in order to focus attention on discussion, my ban on digital devices was violated a lot—especially by those who didn’t participate in discussion. I don’t know what was browsed on screen. But the act of diverting attention with keyboarding, swiping, staring at a source of attraction, was annoying. I repressed my fuss. I did not want to call out people (“Would you like to share what you’re looking at?”), considering the tiny class size, which, I felt, would reverberate the act of divorcing people from their digital habits, then amplified in the classroom.

Eraseable boards are highly useful
Unfortunately, the large mounted monitor in the room wasn’t used, for I only found out much later how to use it (and the solution was simple). So the writeable boards were utilized at each class. They proved to be an excellent tool. It provided a method to write and visualize thoughts, with the occasional class participant getting out of the chair, standing, and moving around to make a contribution on the whiteboard.

If I had the chance to reset the course, I would have executed these approaches from the semester’s start:
  • Rather than focus on one piece of material to digest and talk about for the duration, I’d assign more material to read/view/listen to help invoke more discussion and utilize the three-hour class
  • Rather than leave show-and-tells up for grabs, assign show-and-tells to each class participant as another incentive for verbal participation
  • Include more guest speakers to help expand class interaction and diversify the course material

Satisfying all class participants, not guaranteed

There is an inclination to please everyone when teaching, no matter how few or many. But there is potential that a few (or just one person) will not be satisfied. This happened to me, and it made me sad, because a need was unmet. To hear feedback from a participant that class discussions failed to satisfy dampened my outlook.

A seasoned educator bluntly told me, “There are always complainers who excel at complaining.” Though complainers’ hardened outlook and piss-on tendency are unavoidable, complainers shake confidence, and mine was dented. Self-doubt ensued.

To add to the list of changes I’d make the next time, I would:
  • At the first gathering, have a frank and thorough talk about what each participant expects
  • Ask how experiencing the course is going, insist on receiving feedback, then determine adjustments

Teaching is a honed skill

I tweeted: Whenever I hear someone claim that “Teaching is easy”, I get highly suspicious. Envisioning a course flat on paper, a la the syllabus, is easy. The hard part is realizing how the class will flow, like a smoothly choreographed scene-by-scene play. Tough going, especially when a rhythm has yet to be established for a first course that is first taught. I envy instructors who confidently (and resiliently) develop a course that she or he has incrementally improved over time.

Beyond my desire to shape a course and influence people, teaching emphasized its stature as a noble, albeit totally consuming, job. My view of teachers, in whatever capacity, has further increased in admiration.

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