Classroom Improvisation: a favorite moment from my teaching

I used to teach a research methods class that appealed particularly to students writing Masters and Doctoral theses. My students came from several different disciplines, and from all over the world. What they had in common is that they were all facing the terrifying prospect of having to do an extended piece of original research, and then to write what would be by far the longest research paper—a book, really—that they had ever produced. They were wonderful students to teach, because they were dedicated to making the world a better place, and because fear concentrates the mind wonderfully and made them very motivated to learn.

The class was a three hour seminar, and because three hours of talking can be deadly, I always had the students do something that took them out of their seats and got them using a different part of their brains. On this day, I had hung large pieces of paper around the wall. Each page had a different question or caption, and I asked the students to move around the room and write something on each sheet, in response to the question posed. One page said “The thing that scares me most about doing my research is…,” another said “What I most want to accomplish with my thesis is…” One said “A picture of me as a researcher.” This was the one I most enjoy, because the social sciences, which I teach, are so often entirely verbal and text driven. One of my favorite things to do with students in my classes is to use pictures, Lego, hands on exercises, and other things to get them out of a purely text-and-talking mode.

After the students were finished, I walked around the room, commenting on what they had written on the flipcharts. My last stop was the chart of self-portraits. In the bottom left hand corner was a little cartoon of a pig with wings, surrounded by the legend “when pigs fly” and “a snowball’s chance.” I knew who had drawn this one. I’ll call him Joseph. He was an engineer from a developing nation in Africa who was here in Massachusetts to get a doctorate, and his passion was the recycling and redesign of electronic products to prevent environmental harm. He was new to the US and homesick for his family, but determined to do well. He was struggling more than his fellow students, who had all been in their respective degree programs longer than he had. I had already spent considerable time with Joseph outside of class, at his request, because he was so concerned about whether he could do well in the course and had so little confidence in his ability to understand.

All the drawings showed students who were frazzled, at sea, overwhelmed, but Joseph’s was ostensibly the most hopeless. Although I didn’t look at Joseph when I pointed to his drawing, I could feel him tense as I began to speak. He had not signed his drawing, and I didn’t say whose drawing it was, but watched him out of the corner of my eye. I said “This student is afraid of not being able to do what he has set out to do. He thinks he will succeed only when pigs fly. Well, I have news for him. Pigs don’t fly, and they will never fly.” I could feel, rather than see, Joseph sagging into his chair as I spoke. “But the good news is, that although pigs cannot fly, there are other things that they can do very well. Pigs are great at hunting for truffles, which they detect through careful searching and dig out of the ground, like precious gems. Research is a lot like hunting for truffles—pursuing and finding gems of insight in a vast field of dirt. So for all of you, if you are a pig, don’t try to fly. It won’t work. But do what you do best—do what you are good at, and what you are passionate about, and you should be a good researcher.”

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2 Comments

Filed under creativity, learning

2 responses to “Classroom Improvisation: a favorite moment from my teaching

  1. I really do like your article. I m a Phd student in Japan exactly in the filed of robotics and guess what i cannot talk Japanese. I cannot speak English so fluently. I am from Africa as well and you have described me with these phrases. It ‘s wonderful to discover that you re not the only one who s scared to bones because of a vey huge project… If you could always write essays about Phd students that is so encouraging to me

  2. khaoulayoussef, I really appreciate your comment. I am glad that I have captured something of your experience, and hope that you take some comfort from knowing how many of us experience this terror. Would it help you to know that even many professors feel this? I think it comes along with doing original work and with caring very much about your work. When I was getting my doctoral degree we formed a discussion and support group for PhD students and that helped me tremendously.
    I’m sorry to say that I won’t often be writing about PhD students, but I do think my work has a lot of implications for how we teach at the graduate level, and for how to constructively bring emotion into the classroom.
    Best of luck to you!

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