Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pedagogy of Prestidigitation

I put what might be too much thought into presentation when I teach. I say it's too much because I don't know how much of it comes across to my students, but insofar as a teacher must entertain, it seems appropriate to work on one's showmanship. Over time, I've developed some particular aesthetics of teaching that both keep me motivated and focused in the task, and hopefully contribute something unique to my students' experience.

My basic model is jazz improvisation, for reasons perhaps best understood by fellow initiates of Robert Anton Wilson. The presentation slides give me an overall structure and contain the essential information. For the most part, the slides are supposed to be springboards for verbal improvisation. I like the idea of running discussion sessions, and when it happens I enjoy it, but I find it hard to get the students going. In introductory ethics courses, when I include assignments that require them to read before coming to class, it's easy because everybody knows what's right (before they take philosophy, at least). In most courses, I think I scare them too much. It's not intentional or anything, but I've been given to understand that I have a forceful presence. As much as I try to dial it down, it seems to come across anyway.

Still, that's just about lecture style, and not really all that different from the most general public speaking advice. In addition to that, I give some thought to the peripherals. For instance, I value minimalism in my self-presentation. Remember, I said my conditioned response to teaching is to reach for the chalk? I value that model because I (usually) don't have to bring the chalk and board.

The blackboard is classroom infrastructure; I walk into a room and expect to see one. The tools are simply at hand, something I find in the environment, take up, and use. Most of the time I taught at Tulane, I had a pile of books and notes and papers to hand back. Way too much baggage for someone teaching about letting go and liberation, right? As I got more comfortable in the classroom, I started trying to scale back and bring only what I really needed. At Twente the classroom tech is so reliable that I don't even need notes or textbooks. I can walk in with no materials, log into a computer, fire up my Google Presentation, and get to work.

If there is any magic in it, it happens there. To walk in with nothing and create something wonderful using nothing other than what is to hand is the work of an illusionist. Behind the scenes, there's preparation and reading and notes and consultation, but the students don't see that, and they don't need to see it. If I've done it right, they're too occupied with the illusion to think about it.

At least, that's what I tell myself the good days are like. I know it's more like some stuttering, some swearing, the occasional funny joke, and the ubiquitous unfunny joke. Still, if I don't imagine something better, I have no incentive to improve. Even fictions have their function, in the end.