teaching without a safety net
A public speaking coach once told me to dispense with visual aids. They are a crutch. They are distracting. They disrupt the flow of your talk. For a while, I was able to follow his advice. Then, with the era of power points, I stopped. My students resented lectures without power points. I brought power points into class. I got worse as a speaker.
Recently, I have tried to implement the advice and reduce distracting visual aids. What I learned is that students wanted notes and summaries. The power point presentation fulfilled that function. They printed power point slides out and wrote on them. But they didn’t seem to want or need visuals during class. They were still perfectly capable of following lectures.
My current mode of operation is that I provide outlines/notes/power point slides but the class itself is just me talking and directing class discussion without notes. Occasionally, I’ll pick up the paper to make sure I hit major points. Otherwise, it is a wild free-soc improv jam session. And it works. I can monitor class, have off the cuff discussions, and drum up the audience. Since the class has a loose structure, people are more relaxed and we can speed up or slow down as needed.
But there is a deeper lesson, aside from just being more relaxed. By forcing myself to essentially memorize all these readings and then explain, from scratch, how they are connected, I can actually see the connections more clearly. For example, I teach social theory for upper division students from Lemert’s text. The book is one of those anthologies that mixes actual sociology with a bunch of “hip” readings from the humanities that touch on social behavior. So for a lot of the readings on race and gender, I always thought they were disconnected. But by re-explicating, I realized that there are lots of common themes. One is that a lot of the “humanities” style readings are actually about claiming intellectual space for women and minority intellectuals and using that position to generate social change. Though it is not mentioned in the critical essays in the readings, it comes out when you have do in-class close readings. Franz Fanon raises the issue, Patricia Collins nails it, and then Gayatri Spivak mucks it up again. I don’t think I’d be able to see that chain of thought had I just relied on the power points I wrote three years ago. It only comes out when you read, in class, passages and directly compare them.
This is the lesson I have for you. If possible, “go free” but not wild. Loosen up, read closely, have fun. And see the connections.
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