Reflections on the college classroom

On not being afraid to do too much – of the right thing.

My father-in-law lives by a simple mantra: ‘don’t be afraid to do too much’.    In his case it has been an unbridled success; decades of ridiculously hard work have left him ear-deep in antique cars and gigantic televisions, and in the enviable position of being able to spoil his grandchildren.  Being rather more indolent by nature, it would not be fair to claim that this motto has been my guiding light.  However, there is – or was early in my career – one great exception to this: teaching.  In respect of reading, one of the twin pillars of my discipline, I was not afraid to pile it on, to demand in essence that my students live by my father-in-law’s maxim. More was better.  Duh.  Students would learn more from reading 80 or 100 pages or more per class than they would from reading 10 or 20.  I mean, even the meanest intellect would have to acknowledge the frankly Newtonian force of such logic.

Callow fool.

I’m not entirely sure where my ill-conceived certainty on this point originated.  I suppose it seemed like common sense.  More practice, more time on task, more exposure to content seemed to add up to more learning.  Such calculus had the added authority of reflecting much of my own training as an undergraduate and graduate student.   It gradually dawned on me (a little thick as well as indolent you see) that this might in fact be counter-intuitively counter-productive.  Students floundered amid a mass of material and I became increasingly frustrated with their mysterious – in my less charitable moments, I might have said lazy and/or feeble-minded – lack of progress.

Ultimately I think the misguided belief that more was necessarily better arose as much from my unrealistic and somewhat self-centered expectations as from my ignorance of the science behind processes of learning and cognition.  Once I relinquished the naïve – or is it narcissistic – desire to get students to a level where our conversations would be more satisfying for me and focused instead on their needs, it became obvious that I needed to rethink the amount (and kind) of reading I assigned.

Proceeding from the staggeringly banal insight (told you: bit of a thicky) that it is better for students to read carefully and critically a short document than to skim briefly a long, content-rich document before inevitably staggering to a halt miles from the end, I changed practically all of my reading assignments.  I reduced the daily volume of reading and worked harder to find engaging but still challenging material.  Counter-intuitively this seems (I have no quantitative data to substantiate any of this) to have enriched in-class discussions and more importantly, improved many students’ ability (and inclination) to deal with documents in a more reflective and critical fashion.

Were I a (more) vindictive person, if my father-in-law wasn’t such a great guy, I’d be sure to use all this as the basis for a pointed and stinging rebuke of his personal philosophy over our very next family meal.   Or I might be so inclined if not for a lingering suspicion that I and not the mantra was the source of the problem.   By conflating more exposure to content with more learning I had students doing too much of the wrong thing.  And that’s something to be afraid of.  Now I just have to figure out how to convince them they shouldn’t be afraid of doing too much of the right things – such as taking time to apply their critical faculties to everything they read, hear, watch, or see.

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