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Saturday, September 16, 2006
Trust the Undergrad
Preparing for my senior seminar class MWF afternoons has been particularly taxing. It's a course I always wanted to teach, but one that I'd never thought completely through until now: I knew what I wanted the students to get out of the course, but I wasn't sure how to get them there. When I started teaching the course for real just a few weeks ago I caught myself taking delicate steps around certain topics, worried that my seniors would be bored, worried about whether or not they'd understand what I was saying, worried that they'd roll their eyes at me or sigh or yawn during lecture. None of these things happened.
Thursday night I set to the task of preparing my lecture for Friday. I fumbled around for a few hours, trying to pack in a lot of complicated theory and make it sound exciting and new and fun. I shuffled through dozens of books looking for good passages to include in my lecture, but discovered that the only good passages were several pages long, and that I couldn't give my students a good sense of the author's meaning in just a few sentences. Preparing the lecture frustrated me to no end, and I didn't even finish it Thursday night. I left it hang until Friday morning, just hours before the lecture.
Suddenly, I had an idea. Instead of yammering about the theorists and the theories and the history of the ideas, I'd make the students get the information themselves. Frantically (and with the generous assistance of Amy, Administrative Assistant Extraordinaire), I photocopied five sets of different readings from different theorists, each reading 6-8 pages long. I went to class and split the full group into five groups of 6-7 students each, and each group got a different reading. The readings were dense -- in some cases VERY dense -- and I explained that to my students. I told them I wanted them to read the copies I'd given them, pick out key points, discuss the key points in their groups, and then relate the theories/theorists back to the material they'd been assigned to read this week. I held my breath, it seemed, until they were finished reading and the time for discussion arrived. I was afraid the room was going to collapse in silence.
To my great surprise, they discussed! And not only did they discuss, they DEBATED in their groups! They wrote things down! They highlighted! They referenced their textbooks and other documents I'd assigned! One group even asked to read MORE of the work of the theorist they'd been assigned. "I thought reading this stuff would be boring," one student said, "but it's actually really cool!"
I had planned for us to get back together as a full group and have each group tell us what they'd discovered, but the conversations in the small groups were going so well that we ran out of time. Of my 32 students, 28 were there after the class time was technically through. Two of the groups stayed even later to chat with me about what they had read. I was awestruck by them, by their amazing capacity to plough through new material in a short time and to be so engaged in it.
I learned something about them: I need to trust them. I don't have to sugarcoat the hard stuff for them, I don't have to tiptoe around difficult passages and worry about their comprehension. For the most part, they GET IT. They can handle it. I need to trust my undergrads more, especially the juniors and seniors: they know what they are doing, and I'm incredibly -- amazingly -- proud of them. I can't wait to tell them that on Monday.