Leaving the stage

One young professor dares to quit lecturing and listen to her students.

By Sherryl Kleinman
July 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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In my first undergraduate class, Introduction to Social Psychology, I
teach 80 students in a large room that has movable chairs and an aisle
down the center. The front of the room has two steps and a stage. In one
corner stands a full-body lectern, designed for average male height. The
podium hides my shaky hands and gives me a place to keep my notes, but I
can barely see the mass of faces. I wonder if they can see me, a talking
head bobbing up and down in the corner. At least I think to ask them if
they can hear me. I leave each hour-and-15-minute class with a sore
throat.

I take a chance one day and venture to the center of the stage, escaping
the confinement of the corner. But the lectern -- the place where I think
I am supposed to be -- draws me back. I am safer behind it.

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A month goes by. I'm still suffering the dread that begins an hour before class. Today it seems especially acute -- as if my body will rebel and finally realize my greatest fear: to enter class but not to be able to speak at all. By the time I open the door to Alumni 410, my throat is shut and I'm convinced my mouth will follow. I'm wrong; words do come out. But they're not the ones I have planned.

"I can't stand it up here. I'm getting off the stage," I say. I move away from
the lectern, walk down the two steps.

The class applauds.

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The course gets better after that. I walk in front of the first row of
chairs and I move up and down the aisle. Students in the back row no
longer read the Daily Tar Heel.

Their applause has given me courage. Over the remaining 10 weeks I begin to experiment. Sometimes I stop lecturing altogether. I have the students do some 15-minute exercises in small groups. Occasionally I ask questions any of them can answer, questions about their lives. The interaction warms my joints and I find myself doing a bit of improv, making them laugh. The pre-class dreads have almost dissolved.

I ask students to apply concepts to their experiences as students,
friends, daughters and sons, girlfriends and boyfriends, moviegoers,
sports enthusiasts and whatever else they'll share. I ask them
to think about this "education" they're participating in and the model of
teaching that fits most of their classes.

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One assignment calls for them to write detailed field notes based on five
hours of observation in a social setting. When it's time to show them that
even the physical arrangement of a setting can yield important
information, I use our classroom as an example. I ask them: What does this room tell us about higher education?

Silence.

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After an excruciating minute, a woman sitting near the front offers, "That
thing you stood behind in the first weeks of class reminds me of the place
a minister would preach from." Another student explains that the stage
elevates the professor, puts her, but usually a him, above the students.
We talk about how the room announces who has authority and how it reflects
the typically distant relationship between professors and students.

"Note that all your chairs face me, not each other, and I get to face all
of you." Their faces brighten with the sudden awareness of the obvious. "We could say," I continue, "that the arrangement of chairs tells us that you should only learn from the person at the front -- from me -- and not from your peers." I'm not yet confident enough to speak my next thought: If I'm the all-important one at the front, we presume that means I'm not supposed to learn from you.

Do I hate lecturing? Not always. When I'm on, and I think they're getting it and I do it with wit, I'm seduced by my own performance. But group discussions make the material more palpable. When I give them an exercise to do in groups of five I join a different group each day. I want to learn what they care about. How can I teach them if I don't know who they are? How can I get them to
care about these concepts of everyday life if I don't know about their
lives?

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Sometimes in the middle of a lively discussion I worry that there's all
this material left to cover, so I switch back to lecturing. The energy in
the room drops. They stop looking at me, or anyone else, because they're
too busy looking at their hands moving across the page. This is supposed
to mean they think what I'm saying is important, important enough to write
it down. But for all their frantic scribbling, I wonder how much is
registering in any meaningful way.

We're back to business. Soon a few of them will pretend they are
stretching or scratching their backs to hide what they're really doing --
turning their heads to check the time on the clock at the back of the
room. I appreciate such courteous contortions, but they remind me of the difference between learning for the love of a subject and dutifully attending a class.

Since that class where I first dared to walk away from the lectern, I've
given up on lecturing. Now I want students to uncover the material, rather
than cover it. Two students co-facilitate the class with me each day. We
meet a week in advance to figure out the ideas we'd like to grapple with
and plan ways to encourage student participation.

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One day we're discussing Jane Tompkins' article "The Pedagogy of the Distressed," about her move from traditional teaching to a model in which students help direct the class. A woman sitting near the back raises her hand and says in a nonchalant tone, "Professors here don't even seem interested in what they're talking about."

Other students jump in, outdoing each other with horror stories about
professors who have honed tedium to a high art, but I'm still reeling from the first student's remark. I recall my own lecturing voice. I was interested in what I taught, but would my students ever have known? When I lectured I used the same disembodied voice of authority I'd heard in all those years of schooling. Lecturing made me feel distant from myself -- as if I was wearing another layer of skin.

I wanted to tear it off, but I was afraid. After all, I had grown this skin in graduate school, where I subliminally learned that teaching undergraduates would impede productivity. Teaching was the trade; research and writing the art. No one became famous or successful or even tenured from teaching well. In my first semester as a young professor, a senior colleague gave me a pep talk: "I'm sure you know that publishing is what counts for tenure, but I'm going to tell you anyway because sometimes faculty don't figure this out. It's OK to be a mediocre teacher." I had never before and never since heard it put so
baldly.

What I have heard, often enough, is professors complain that students are
satisfied with mediocrity. They don't care about learning; they're
anti-intellectual; they just want the credential, professors will say. I
admit I've said the same things myself. But my thinking has changed since
I abandoned the safety of the lectern and stepped down from the stage. By
making students collaborators, I've learned -- and they have taught me --
that in the end, mediocrity satisfies no one, but together we can do
far better.


Sherryl Kleinman

Sherryl Kleinman teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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