This paper broadly addresses the topic of intentionality in teaching, specifically in the area of student engagement. I will describe the first major rough patch in my teaching journey, which occurred when I was teaching a course in classical culture at a small, liberal arts college some years ago.
Two first-time experiences converged in that one class. First, although I had been teaching for the better part of a decade I had never really taught a discussion-based course in Classics-in-translation. I had never put much thought into how to keep students engaged—it was never a problem in the Greek and Latin courses I had taught. Secondly, I had never taught in a small, liberal arts college setting (nor had I experience of such a setting as a student).
This paper will discuss the mistakes I made in these new circumstances, and what I learned from them. Among these mistakes: though the class was capped at 25 students, I did not design the course to be materially different from a large lecture course; I did not think about ways to foster and facilitate fruitful discussion; I did not have an attendance policy; I kept the number of graded assignments to a minimum (a few papers and a few exams). Many of these decisions were informed by my own experiences as an undergraduate student at a large, elite university—my course’s design mirrored what I had known as a student.
The unit on the Iliad was particularly emblematic of the course’s shortcomings. I had not anticipated that the interest level would drop off so drastically as the weeks wore on and the novelty of the Iliad wore off. Discussion all but dried up and class sessions increasingly consisted of my summarizing the books of the Iliad while the students’ eyes glazed over.
Predictably, their evaluations were terrible. What I learned from them and from the experience as a whole led to concrete changes to how I teach classical culture courses. The unit on the Iliad specifically prompted me to require students to take turns leading discussion. Other changes I have incorporated: I require attendance; I include more small-impact assignments; I require students to give presentations, to give them ownership of their learning. In short, I have incorporated many more mechanisms to foster consistent student engagement.
I learned some broader lessons too about mindfulness and intentionality, which are not my default settings when it comes to teaching. I have learned to be less reliant on the models of courses I took as a student, and to think—and think hard—about what I am trying to accomplish as a teacher. Over the years I have had to remind myself from time to time to think about what I am teaching, why I am teaching it, what I hope students will gain from it, and how I will help students get to that point.
On Being Calmly Wrong: Learning from Teaching Mistakes