I’ve written a fair bit in this space about chucking my textbook in this semester’s survey course. I haven’t mentioned the other thing that I’ve chucked: my lecture notes.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: When I got my first job, someone told me to find two textbooks I like. Then assign the second best one, and write your lecture notes out of the first. After all, it’s only plagiarism if you actually read your notes verbatim and I never did that even in my earliest days. I only had them around in case I had a total brain meltdown while lecturing, but I’ve been teaching long enough now that all I need to do is take five minutes with my slides before class and I’m good.
I used to think I wanted to get all my lecture notes down to a single page. This new model comes from doing book talks. General readers don’t want a dull lecture, why should students? Therefore, I’ve boiled things down to the basics.
Everything I need to prompt me to say the right thing is on my PowerPoint slides (titles, pictures or quotations – almost no slides of professor-generated text). It was easy to do that when talking about the book because I spent so many years researching it, but I’ve been teaching the second half of the American history survey four times longer than that. I’ve realized that I can do the same thing with my survey class now too.
There is one key sacrifice when doing things this way, namely the level of detail that you can provide. There are quotes in the PowerPoints and the occasional statistic, but the general level of detail I’m imparting to students is a lot less when I’m working mostly by memory because my memory can store only so much. Trust me, they still need to know facts. I’ve just stopped providing the thick description that I used to offer with every key name, law or event.
The advantages of this approach, however, far outweigh the disadvantages from where I sit. First, since I’m looking at the class almost the whole time I’m talking, very few of them ever reach for their phones. Second, they’re more prone to ask questions for the same reason since they know they’re not interrupting me while I’m reading. Third, it’s much easier for me to concentrate on presentation when I’m not reading anything. In other words, I think I’m a better speaker doing things this way.
I think the most important effect of chucking the notes and the level of detail that goes with relying on them is the freedom to experiment. I’ve been using short clips followed by discussion for years now (and apparently so are a lot of other people), but there are so many other things worth trying. While I have no class bigger than 40 people, I’ve come to believe that even a large class doesn’t necessarily have to be all lecture.
I’ll try to cover some new classroom activities that I’ve been thinking about doing on this blog tomorrow.