"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Prepare Less, Teach More

The thing I love most about teaching is the performative improvisational aspect that dominates during my best teaching days. Since I began teaching, first creative writing, then composition, and finally literature, I’ve always been most comfortable when I arrive to class slightly unprepared, with no set agenda. My classroom is by no means a “de-centered” zone—I like to maintain control—but I do do my best work when I don’t know what I’m going to say next and then constantly surprise myself when I say it.

In recent years, though, I’ve become what I thought was more “responsible.” I prepare lectures daily, set specific goals, and try to enlighten young minds with what ultimately, more often than not, seems like rote recitation of ideas and facts. I don’t want to give the lectures up completely, but it occurs to me recently that I should write the lectures, then leave them at home. The writing helps me to think through the material, but the actual physical remnants of that thought, the pages of notes I usually bring to class are ultimately a hindrance to my own teaching style.

The best two days this term have been days when I’ve been too busy (or too lazy—I sleep in a lot) to prepare detailed lectures. One was today. I am teaching Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, and because I’ve only read the book twice myself, and have never taught it, feel like I have very little intellectual ownership of the text. I spoke to my friend John (an older, much more experienced teacher) before class and he expressed amazement that I would try to teach that particular book to a classroom full of non-English Major freshmen. But try I did, and for the most part it was a success.

I am astonished at my own ability to discuss, interpret, and peform texts on the fly—all nervousness (the nervousness that sometimes creeps in when I have to constantly refer to and fumble my notes)—disappears and I manage to discuss the text with the enthusiasm of a reader and writer, not that of a teacher paid to profess things at students. Over the course of 80 minutes, I discover things I didn’t know about the text, I analyze formal structures, narrative arcs, and I understand, and enjoy, the book on a much deeper level than if I had simply written a lecture based on my usual “reading” of the book. Of course the students are an immeasurable help. They sense my enthusiasm and are in turn enthusiastic, inquisitive, flexible, and for the most part, truly interested.

Prepare less, teach more.


Rose DesRochers said...

I just stumbled upon your blog. I enjoy my visit. Take care Tony.

Josh_Hanson said...


Are you familiar with Louise Rosenblatt?

You should check that book out, if not.

kevin maier said...

Sometimes I very strategically leave myself, say, 80 minutes to prepare. I'll have done the reading earlier, of course, and I'll have been thinking about it, but I just wait to formally gather my thoughts until the last minute. Indeed, it's best for me if it's the 80-minutes right before class. It's scary, and it flops miserably sometimes, but man, I work efficiently and I come into class with the material fresh in my head. Your mantra--prepare less, teach more--captures this perfectly. Remind me to keep saying it to myself, would ya?

Now if I could just find a similar mantra for my dissertation. write more, fuck around less? hmmm...

Anonymous said...

K. Mai: I've tried that one. it still doesn't work. I'm convinced the only things that make us "writers" (and the scare quotes only denote "those who should be writing") work are fear and ultimatums.

L. Trent said...

This is an interesting post.
I think I teach best when completely hyper-prepared (I block out every ten minutes, because I'm crazy). By 'best' I mean that I can fill up my time in the most effective way.

But I think I had my best teaching experience was whle teaching a story that I'd only read once. It made me rely much more on the students' comments and not on my own agenda or knowledge of the text, since we all had pretty much the same amount of time with it.