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Preparing to perform

I’m not sure how other faculty feel about class time, but I find that teaching class is an odd hybrid of performance and improv [1]. That is, when I’m in class, I’m playing a role (old, disheveled, wise but crazy person) and I’m following a bit of a script (We will talk about X, then Y, then Z; I’ll use this technique for X, this for Y, this for Z), but I also plan to adapt as necessary.

I rely on a lot of active-learning techniques in my class. Some involve students working in pairs or small groups on problems. Some follow more of a Paper-chase-like format (Ms. X, what approach would you use on this problem? Mr. Y, what other approach might we use? Mx. Z, which of those two do you think we should pursue, and why? Ms. A, given Mx. Z’s choice, what ….).

Whether I teach in that format, or in lecture, or in a mixture, I need to know the material well enough to present it and to adapt to unexpected answers, questions, or suggestions. I need to have a set of examples that illuminate, challenge, or contradict, and I need to understand the examples well. I need to have mastered the steps of the algorithms I discuss. I need to know the readings well [3].

That’s what class prep time is for. I spend time rethinking the core topics of the day, asking myself what the likely problem spots are, coming up with good examples and counter examples, psyching myself up for the performance, checking on details I may not remember, and so on and so forth. Some of that preparation happens far in advance of class. But much of the preparation needs to happen right before class so that the concepts are in active memory.

There are some topics that are so familiar that I need less prep time. I still recall one of my advisees being incredibly impressed that I ad-libbed an hour-long class on some topic from a prerequisite class when it was clear that none of the students had really learned the topic [4].

That’s almost certainly the exception, rather than the rule. For most topics, I need the time to think, reflect, and make sure that I’ve thought not just about the main topic, but the appropriate links to other issues, the complexities, and more. Even for topics I know well, it’s worth my time to rethink these issues. The better I know a topic, the easier it is to improvise. The more I’m able to improvise, the better class is.

And so the hour or so before class is important to me. I can’t always get those sixty minutes. But I try to always have fifteen minutes before class when I really get the performance in order. So, when someone pops their head in my office and ask I know you have class in a few minutes, but can I talk to you about …, my answer should always be No. I’m getting ready for class.

We expect stand-up comedians need time to themselves before their performances. We give musicians time to themselves before their performances. Many actors are in a green room before performances. Maybe I need a green room for my classes.

[1] That’s not to say that improv is not a form of performance. Perhaps I mean more traditional forms of performance and improv, but that doesn’t flow as well.

[2] Old, disheveled, teacher.

[3] More precisely, I need to know the readings better than the students.

[4] I remember the student’s reaction, which appeared on Plans. I have no memory of what the topic was.

Version 1.0 of 2017-11-06.