The Antifragile Teacher: 14 Low-Tech Teaching Techniques

IMG_2541-003In Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992), Camille Paglia describes a hilarious scene wherein a famous history professor’s briefcase slips and falls off his desk during one of his Ivy League lectures. The briefcase lands “with a huge clang into a wastebasket. No one in the jammed hall breathed. The professor blanched but, stone-faced, kept talking and at last, with difficulty, rescued the briefcase. Strange and dead.” Paglia goes on to contrast this stiff WASPy response to the comedic way in which her favorite teacher at Harpur College, Milton Kessler, would have surely dealt with the same mishap. “At Harpur, there would have been hilarity and Jewish shtick, the free play of humor and self-satire. I welcome all random incidents—from chairs tipping over to explosions in the street—and try to incorporate them into the class flow.”

If the stodgy history professor had been totally thrown off of his game by the falling briefcase, we would be able to say with confidence that he was a fragile teacher. But, as it stands, we could perhaps say that he was (at best) a robust teacher. After all, he was able to keep going regardless of the random event. But is this really such a good thing? I think not. Televisions also keep going regardless of the random events happening in your living room—yet this is hardly a good thing (all to the contrary). When bad teachers are robust, they’re like stand-up comedians who don’t realize (or, worse, don’t care) that they’re bombing. Nobody’s laughing, and the smoky bar has fallen silent, but they keep on talking, as if the audience didn’t even matter. When good teachers are robust, they forfeit all the home-field advantage afforded the living. They transform what should be a dialogue into a monologue and could care less whether or not their students understand them. So, while you definitely don’t want to be a fragile teacher—that is, a teacher who’s thrown off by the slightest interruption—you also want to avoid the dangers associated with robust teaching. What we want is to be antifragile teachers, and I can think of no better description of an antifragile teacher than Camille Paglia’s description of her mentor, Milton Kessler:

“He believed in the dramatic moment. Everything that you were, everything that you had ever seen or experienced pressed upon the text in front of you. The class hour seemed to melt and expand. . . . Reading a poem, Kessler strove to remember everything, to fill it even fuller than the poet had left it. With the improvisation of great Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce, Kessler would weave in and out of the class his own passing thoughts, reminiscences, disasters. . . . I remember bursting out with startled laughter when Kessler once said offhandedly in the middle of class, ‘So last week I was driving along and, in my usual trance, ran into the back of a truck.’ Master teachers, revealing themselves, show the continuum of life and thought. . . . French post-structuralism, among its many stupidities, denies that a coherent self exists. Academic nebbishes love this notion. Anyone interested in the performing arts knows that personality is a vitalistic, uncontrollable phenomenon. Talented performers and teachers have an electric power of personality, a charismatic magnitude and density. Kessler was a burly, robust man with the inner emotionality of the melancholy Jewish tradition. . . . Kessler freely showed emotion. Once in class, he suddenly exploded with rage at some boys in the back row. He accused them of ‘peeking,’ of peeping Tomism: ‘Get out! It’s obscene!’ He meant, I assume, that they were sneering cynics, keeping themselves apart from the class. It’s good for students to see honest emotion from their teachers.”—Camille Paglia, “Milton Kessler,” Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992)

Milton Kessler was an outstanding poet and beloved English professor. He was also, I would argue, an antifragile teacher.

The “antifragile”—a term coined by the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb—is that which is “beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. . . . The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means—crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them—and do them well.”

What follows are some practical tips and suggestions. If they seem at times murky and imprecise, it’s because the reality of teaching is often murky and imprecise. These are not, after all, random theoretical speculations that came out of some pedagogical workshop; these are field notes jotted down by someone with skin in the game. Like Taleb, I eat my own cooking—viz., if I tell you to avoid a particular course of action, it’s because I’ve tried it and failed miserably. Likewise, if I recommend a particular course of action, it’s because I’ve tried it and it worked.

HOW TO BE AN ANTIFRAGILE TEACHER

1) Avoid classroom technology at all costs, as it fragilizes your teaching. When I was a graduate student, I thought the road to pedagogical paradise was paved with PowerPoint presentations. But I’ve since come to see classroom technology as a bedeviling crutch. If the show can’t go on without the computer, maybe there’s something wrong with the show. How many lectures are delayed awkwardly because the computer isn’t working? How many students drift off into a peaceful sleep when it is working? Unless you are teaching film studies or art history (or something similar), you really don’t need to use a screen of any kind. You don’t even need to use the blackboard. All you need is some voice, a whole lot of eye-contact, and a book in your hand. Whilst we were all being dazzled by the promise of technology in the early 2000s, I fear that we may have lost sight of that which is special—and potentially magical—about the classroom: namely, the spontaneous dialogue between student and teacher, which fosters a fluid and exciting learning process that can only take place when human beings transcend the limitations of computers and books.

2) Stick to the classics, for the most part—viz., stick to nonperishable books. “The best filtering heuristic,” Taleb maintains, in Antifragile (2012), “consists in taking into account the age of books and scientific papers. . . . books that have been around for ten years will be around for ten more; books that have been around for two millennia should be around for quite a bit of time, and so forth.” Many will surely object to this stricture on the grounds that it drastically limits the perspectives and concerns covered by the teacher. Though this objection is not without merit, it is nevertheless, to my mind, ultimately unconvincing. Why? Because the classics are classics, more often than not, because they’re extraordinarily rich texts—viz., they contain multitudes. For instance, if you wish to teach on radical feminism, you can find a brilliant defense of it in Book V of Plato’s Republic (written over 2,500 years ago), wherein Socrates advocates the abolition of gender roles and the nuclear family. If you’re looking for a spirited defense of cosmopolitanism, you can find it in Epictetus’ Enchiridion. There are numerous examples such as these, and they all lead me to the same conclusion: you don’t need to get at new perspectives and concerns via new works. You can, instead, look at the classics with the fresh eyes provided by new perspectives and concerns. This allows you to avoid the twin dangers of faddishness (um, let’s say, to the left) and stodginess (um, let’s say, to the right). Besides, most of what’s published now—most of what’s hot in academia at the moment—will be completely forgotten twenty years from now. Plato’s Republic isn’t going anywhere.

3) Have a loose outline rather than rigid lecture notes. Good books have value. I’ve learned a great deal from good books. But I’ve learned still more from good teachers—who were in front of me: alive, breathing, quirky, passionately invested and endearingly fallible. The problem with books, even the best books, is that they say the same thing, in the same way, to everyone. A book is, in essence, a long monologue: the author speaks, you listen. Good teaching, on the other hand, is a dialogue, a semester-long conversation between a teacher and his students. Of course it’s a special kind of conversation, wherein one interlocutor (the teacher) does most of the talking. Still, if a teacher is sensitive to his audience, he can accomplish more, in less time, than any book. He can do so because he’s alive, just as language is alive. He can do so because he’s there, in the room, with his students, and can communicate with all of the precision and subtlety of the spoken word.

4) Have numerous small assignments rather than a few big ones. This way you get to know your students better and reduce the likelihood that mistakes will overwhelm the results.

5) Don’t be a control freak! Let classroom discussion move as organically as possible. Don’t micromanage it.

6) Love the loudmouths. Use the energy provided by the more vocal students. Don’t quash them. Instead, treat them like spirited interlocutors, 21st-century Glaucons, who’ve been sent down from Zeus to liven up the dialogue in your little classroom republic.

7) No classroom presentations! Avoid classroom presentations by students, as they are (almost always) a complete and utter waste of time (trust me, ask your students what they think of them on an anonymous questionnaire and they’ll tell you). What’s more, classroom presentations make your class that much more fragile (e.g., if the students don’t show up, show up unprepared, etc.).

8) Teach what you know—really know—and nothing else. Don’t cover things that you can’t talk about with confidence and competence at three in the morning, at the end of a dinner party, after far too much wine. Cover things that you know in your bones, very well, inside and out. Don’t cover things because you think you’re supposed to. If you’re covering something the way a certain kind of kid “ate his vegetables”, you probably suck when you’re doing it. You’re probably boring. So stop. If that makes your teaching lop-sided, so be it. It’s not your job to teach everything. It’s not your job to be comprehensive, whatever that means. It’s your job to set their minds on fire. And you can only do that if you’re genuinely enthusiastically about what you’re teaching. Enthusiasm is contagious, and it can’t be faked—even by cheerleaders.

9) Go with your emotional mood. If you’re sad and depressed, teach on sad and depressing things that day. The more your mood corresponds to your subject, the more effective your teaching.

10) Go with the flow of current events. If something big happens—school shooting, dramatic election, etc.—incorporate it into the class; connect it to the material as much as possible. This makes ideas come to life for students, and you.

11) Be the Medieval Catholic Church. Make sure your class has something for everyone, like a large public swimming pool: a shallow end, a middling area, and a very, very deep end. If you’ve got nothing but a deep end, you attract the best students and lose the rest. That’s a failure, especially if you’re a public-spirited citizen with democratic political sympathies. What’s more, it’s profoundly irresponsible if you work for a public institution (as do I). It’s also a failure to water everything down so that the whole class is one big vast shallow end—a wading pool for toddlers really. If you do this, you lose all of the best students, and even many of the students in the middle; indeed, you even lose the very weak students you aim to please, because they’ll despise your contempt as soon as they’re smart enough to detect it. What you need to do is aim to be like the medieval church at its best—that is, have something for everyone: pretty stain-glassed windows with comic-book-style Bible stories for the illiterate peasants who don’t understand Latin, deep intellectualism for the philosophical Thomas Aquinases of the world, and everything in between.

12) Avoid educational theory. Why? Because most of it is complete bullshit written by people who’ve never set foot in a classroom OR suck at teaching when they do. What’s more, the minority of educational theory that contains valuable advice often fails to account for the subject matter and the personality of the teacher. This is a very big oversight. Why? Because your pedagogical method has to accord with both the subject matter you’re teaching and your personality. If the educational style happens to accord with your subject matter and your personality, it might work; but if it clashes with either, you will seem inauthentic and your teaching will fall flat. For instance, I know teachers (by nature authoritarian) who are (tragically) enamored with the “democratic classroom” idea; however, the mismatch between their pedagogical theory and their authoritarian personality makes their teaching false and confusing. They’re fooling no one, with the possible exception of themselves. They’d be far better off if they just went with the authoritarian teaching style—as does my officemate, one of the best teachers in my department.

13) Take the blame for everything that goes wrong in the classroom. When you are faced with a bad teacher—I mean a really, really bad teacher—it’s hard to not to ask the question: Were they always that bad? I suspect not. I think they cared once. At some point, however, they lost faith in their students: frustration gave way to despair, which, in turn, gave way to cynicism. Teaching can be downright frustrating. Sometimes your students just aren’t getting it. You’re up there, alone, at the front of the class, and you’re failing. It can be humiliating. And it’s tempting, at such times, to blame others, to conclude that your students are lazy, that their high schools failed them, that their parents failed them, that they’re ill-prepared for college-level work, or that they’re just plain stupid. Even though some of these things may be true, dwelling on them is, I believe, insidious, as it shifts responsibility off your shoulders and onto someone else’s, where there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. The best teachers I’ve known walk out of an unsuccessful class wondering where they went wrong.

14) Have faith. What separates good teachers from bad teachers is faith. If you’re going to be a truly effective teacher, you must, above all else, have faith in your students. You’ve got to believe that each and every one of them has what it takes; that they’re all just one well-chosen analogy away from enlightenment; that they can all come to grips with difficult material—indeed, the most difficult material—if only it is conveyed to them in the right way. I’ve come to believe that good teachers are primarily creative translators. Important ideas are often encrypted on the printed page in jargon, dated language, or impenetrable prose. The teacher’s job, as I see it, is to translate those ideas into clear, crisp, accessible speech. To do this, you’ve got to have faith in language. You have to believe that meaningful communication is possible. You have to believe that the human imagination is capable of finding creative ways to traverse barriers erected by space, time, and culture. You must be able to say, with the Roman poet Terence, “I am human, and therefore nothing human is foreign to me.” Anyone can operate a laptop. Teaching is a calling.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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