Saturday, September 17, 2011
Clairvoyance: the real thing
Deliveries from the college's repro services ramp up in the days preceding the start of each semester. Our course syllabi and first-week handouts begin to appear in our campus mailboxes. The initial trickle turns into quite a flood as the first day of instruction approaches—and woe betide those who submitted their print-jobs too late to ensure delivery before the semester begins. (You could end up on the doorstep of repro services, hat in hand, while disgruntled employees poke among the just-printed but undelivered jobs to see if your syllabus is ready for the class that's meeting in thirty minutes.)
In our math department, the deluge of printed matter is always punctuated by a singular event. During the last week of summer vacation (or the last week of winter break), a heavily-laden delivery cart arrives from repro services, groaning under stacks of boxes of shrink-wrapped bundles. This particular shipment stands out from all the others because it is addressed to one person, a colleague who always submits her entire semester's worth of print-jobs in advance.
The entire semester. On the first day of instruction her office is stuffed with every handout, worksheet, quiz, and exam that she intends to use in her courses for the duration of those courses. She will not have to write or copy a single instructional document during the entire academic term. Despite having witnessed this for several years, I am still unable to fully grasp the concept. It's quite foreign to me.
I know what lesson plans are. Why, I've even used them. Or, rather, tried to use them. I confess that my “lesson plans” have eroded over my years of teaching. Careful outlines with boxed examples and key concepts have withered away to Post-it notes containing pre-cooked problems with the kinds of results I want. (Well, sometimes. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that my cluttered brain contains many memorized examples that I can call on at will, or reconstruct on the fly, depending on what comes up. I mean, how hard is it to cook up on the spur of the moment a quadratic equation with complex roots? Who needs a Post-it for that, right?)
Moltke's dictum that “no war plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy” applies to the classroom as well as to the battlefield. I simply cannot imagine following my colleague's example of preparing every quiz and exam in advance of meeting my students and then managing to stick with my original plans. In fact, I prefer to hold off on writing my exams until after holding a review session with my students, which usually means writing the exam the night before I administer it. It's not procrastination. It's how I find out what I need to test them on. It's a process of reacting and adapting to each class at each moment of time during the semester.
I don't, however, think that I am capricious or random in my instructional approach. I have the prescribed goals carefully outlined in my syllabus and I certainly test student mastery of desired learning outcomes with my exams. But I do not try to anticipate in advance whether a particular class needs more or less emphasis on a particular concept or set of concepts. Every sample from the student population is different in some way from every other. Every semester I need to find out their aggregate strengths and weaknesses and attempt to direct my instructional efforts in the direction that seems the likeliest to do the most good. It's not exactly a science, of course, and it's certainly not predictable. My crystal ball is way too cloudy for that.
I have a grudging admiration for my colleague's industriousness in generating all of her course material so far in advance, but it's mostly the credit one gives to prodigious labor, whether or not the result strikes one as praiseworthy. In addition to being awestruck when I witness the massive delivery from repro services, I also shudder with horror.