Improvisational teaching

This entry is part 44 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently

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I still have draft posts in the hopper from the June 2010 nmc summer meeting (yes, June 2010…yes, this post has been in draft mode for THREE YEARS). At the nmc meeting I was supposedly live blogging. Okay, so now I think it is safe to say that I was live note-taking. Shaping those notes into posts takes me a long time…I need time and space to think and to pull my thoughts together… I can’t do it on the fly. I heap hearty praise to all of you out there who can… but I am not one of you.

I thought a lot about John Seeley Brown’s closing keynote at the 2010 nmc called “The New Culture of Learning in a World of Constant Flux.” Unlike Mimi Ito’s fascinating opening talk-blur  (I don’t think she took a breath once), I found JSB’s presentation about teaching and learning refreshingly un-academic, jargon-free, well-paced and engaging.

During his talk JSB reminded the audience of an article by Andrew Sullivan from 2008 called Why I blog. Despite the fact that it is 5 years old, this article still resonates with me.  The best line was this one where he compared blogging to jazz:

To use an obvious analogy, jazz entered our civilization much later than composed, formal music. But it hasn’t replaced it; and no jazz musician would ever claim that it could. Jazz merely demands a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both.

The metaphor could be extended a bit further. I think Jazz, and by extension, Improvisation, is something we need to think about. JSB’s talk focused upon how we were (and still are) in the midst of a big shift when it comes to learning… a shift from the predictable world where equilibrium exists… to a world in constant flux, exponential change, and persistent dis-equilibrium. This is hard for the rational, measured, control-is-good people among us …very hard. It is hard to teach in a world in flux; it is also scary to think about where our jobs, our skills, our teaching will be when the dust settles.

Our primordial urge as rational human beings is to grab hold and control our surroundings more and more.  I remember thinking back then (as I still do now) that instead of trying to control everything we should instead be letting go.

Fast forward to this summer (2013).  I went to the Public Library recently and scooped up a bunch of books…some looked interesting, some looked challenging, some were chosen just because at the end of the day I needed  zoning out material.   “Bossypants” by Tina Fey is definitely one of those read-until-you-zone-out books.  However, there was one section called “The Rules of Improvisation”  that caused me to perk up and pay attention.

The rules of Improv (to paraphrase Fey) are as follows:

  • AGREE: Always say yes.  You are required to agree with whatever your partner (or the situation at hand) has created.  “Start with a YES and see where that takes you;”
  • SAY YES, AND…. :  Agree and then add something.  TRUST that something good is going to happen. Don’t be afraid to contribute. But always make sure you are adding something to the conversation;
  • MAKE STATEMENTS:  Don’t ask questions, make declarations…aka “Fake it til you make it,”
  • THERE ARE NO MISTAKES: only opportunities. To quote Fey : “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.”

I am gradually beginning to think about the fall semester and how I plan to approach it.  As my colleagues talk about “finishing up their syllabi” and planning out their course calendars, I find myself going in an opposite direction.  So much of how I teach and what I teach depends upon the people that are in my class.  I have a plan for the class, I have hopes for things we might be able to cover during the 16 weeks, but I refuse it lock into a rigid schedule without knowing what their goals are and how the class is going to help them get there.

In short, I believe in and practice improvisational teaching. I believe in saying yes and then adding something. I believe in working with others, being open to being surprised, trusting that something good is gonna happen, sharing the responsibility, going back and forth, and collaboratively making something happen.

More than anything, I believe improvisational teaching is the only way I can make sure that my teaching is truly relevant to my students‘ learning.

As always, I welcome your comments!



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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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