Teaching is a Beautiful Mess

Teaching is a Beautiful Mess March 12, 2019

In the midst of a busy semester, I’ve been focusing on the structure & detail of how I teach. There’s no universal rule to make it better, no magic trick, just the hard work of understanding what it is we’re trying to accomplish and being there for the students.

Photo in public domain, from Unsplash. Taken by Eugenion Mazzone.

I’m currently taking a year-long online class called Effective Teaching Practices through my university. It’s my first time taking an online class, and thus it’s a bit of a new experience (added to an already packed semester where I’m teaching 4 classes, presenting at 2 conferences, wrapping up various research projects to send to print, teaching dance, and oh yeah I just moved to a new place what was I thinking?!).

The course is something of a master class, with units on pretty much every aspect of course design and in-class strategies that one could think of. It features videos of teaching demonstrations, technique breakdowns, suggestions of specific techniques to use, opportunities to discuss and reflect, and more. And for all that it’s one more thing on an already intense calendar, I’m really enjoying it.

However, I’ve noticed a tension between two attitudes about education: on one end of the spectrum, we have the “prepare, prepare, prepare” view, while on the other we have the “people gonna people, just roll with it” view. In the former, the instructor needs to anticipate every possibility and be ready to guide the students through them all, while in the latter, there’s more flexibility for spontaneous developments to arise and influence the lesson plan. I think every educator has a balance of both, and obviously there has to be a certain amount of preparation for everyone to succeed at a basic minimum.

Me? I fall between the two poles. If I know the material well enough, I can roll in with a very minimal lesson plan, and be ready to guide the students through the major points that I perceive to be of the most importance. But even that requires an amount of preparation that has happened in the past, with me learning and mastering this material possibly as far back as undergrad or grad school. So while it doesn’t feel like preparation to me since the knowledge became ingrained so long ago, it still is (this is what I enjoy about teaching folklore topics, btw: I can rattle off almost an hour on folk narrative at a moment’s notice – well, more if I want to have snazzy slides too – because I know it so well).

One of the areas where my teaching experience dovetails with the research on teaching is that we need to take into account where our students are at as we prepare. I know not everyone has a handy definition of folklore as informally transmitted traditional culture just sitting there in their heads, but I know my students have all experienced folklore, whether in the form of jokes, or family folklore, or foodways, or body art. This online course has taught me to grow even more precise at articulating my learning outcomes and connecting those to where I suspect my students’ knowledge already awaits, or better yet, asking them to figure it out. For an instructor like me who prioritizes discussion-based classes whenever I can, getting confirmation on this strategy was great, plus it connects with what I know of the importance of fieldwork and ethnography from the perspective of folklore and anthropology: want to know what people know? Ask them. And then listen and take them seriously.

As I’ve noted in the past,when an instructor shows up excited and emphasizes the relevance of the topic they’ll be teaching, it tends to have a positive impact on the students. Now, having taken this online course, I can see that there’s research backing up this strategy, and others I’ve used in the past. That feels good, and the fact that I’ve been feeling this way about many of the modules in our class is heartening. Teaching may feel like flailing around a lot of the time, but now I’m seeing that I’m utilizing evidence-based strategies, even if I didn’t have words for them before.

At the same time, there’s always going to be a human element in teaching. This is why I don’t believe in agonizing over perfecting every last detail of a lesson plan before using it. A student will have a question, or I’ll have a great last-minute idea, or… you get it. This is actually how I teach dance, too: I have some concrete ideas going in about what I’ll be covering, but if a student needs to review a particular movement, I’m generally up for modifying my lesson plan, unless it’ll majorly derail what we were supposed to work on.

Arranging all the moving pieces of a courses’s goals into a cohesive whole is challenging, but so is being responsive enough to student needs to adjust in the moment. This is why I describe teaching in the title of this post as a beautiful mess: teaching is an art, but also an evidence-based practice, but also something with so much of the human element in it that it’s impossible to control or predict at all times. In my experience, I need a certain amount of preparation to arrive with confidence in the classroom, and then I need to be able to let go enough to roll with it when surprises emerge.

The rewards speak for themselves. This semester alone I’ve seen quiet students begin to contribute in class, and I’ve seen outspoken students make way for the quiet ones. I’ve seen students connect animal bride legends with domestic violence and rape culture. I’ve watched the lightbulb moments when students understand why we just read a book of Palestinian-Arab folktales in order to better understand women’s global experiences, rather than me thrusting a textbook about women and Islam at them. And so on.

I’m the type of nerd who always wants to understand the nitty-gritty details of what I’m doing, not only so that I can better do it, but also because I enjoy the process. People sometimes ask me if researching fairy tales takes the magic out of them, and the answer is hell no, it just makes them cooler. Teaching is like that too: we need to understand what we’re doing in order to do it well/better, but it’s not always going to be as precise as we like. I believe I was already good as a fairly intuitive teacher, but now I’m doing better with evidence-based strategies within my reach.

Teaching can be both beautiful and scientific, rigorous and messy, and I’m pleased to be continuing my journey as a teacher to keep improving for the sake of my students. Because in the end, if we’re not centering the students, why are we even teaching?

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