Less Is More — Or At Least Just Enough

I’m once again teaching the comparative politics of Asia. When I first arrived at my current university, the course in question was limited to East Asia — China, Japan, and the Koreas. I had to strip out past content on South and Southeast Asia. I recently managed to persuade the powers-that-be that ignoring one-fifth of the world’s population was not a good idea, and the content on India, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., is back in. Consequently, I’m reviewing old lecture notes and visual aids.

My immediate mental reaction to the change was “how can I possibly jam even more material into a single fourteen week semester? How can I fit in everything that is essential to this subject?” I noticed that I was falling into the trap of assuming that I had to “cover” “everything” to do a good job, when even the undergraduates who eventually become academics remember very little of what they encounter in college.

I think this reaction is something that gets inculcated in us by our professors, and we  unconsciously pass it on to the next generation of students when we teach. We learn to define doing well — whether as a student or a professor — as being able to call forth a plethora of minute details.

So as I look through my lecture notes, I have to constantly remind myself to focus on what not to teach rather than what (in a perfect world) I could teach. I ask myself “will students’ lives twenty years from now be irrevocably changed for the worse if they don’t remember this?” If the answer is “no,” then it becomes much easier to delete it from the list of things that I think I must cover.

Student Teaching

I’ve got one of my favorite subjects coming up next semester — comparative politics of Asia — and I’m going to experiment with MIT’s Visualizing Cultures (VC) curriculum. My goals are to introduce students to the scholarly interpretation of visual source material and to get them to learn course content by teaching it to their peers.

I’m going to divide the class into teams; each team will work on one of the topical units in the VC database. Each student will need to complete the following tasks:

  • Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes an image (or images) from his or her team’s unit, using the VC-provided guidelines.
  • Read a teammate’s essay and write a 1-2 page critique.

Each team will then lead the class through an exercise on the team’s topic that uses images from the VC collection. Instructions for these exercises are conveniently available on the VC website.

The class will evaluate each team’s presentation and teaching, and students will evaluate their own performance and that of their teammates. I’ll factor the results into the participation component of each student’s course grade.

After a VC topic has been taught, students will take a online quiz. The quiz questions will focus on the essays contained in the VC website — written by top scholars in their respective fields — and the other assigned readings in the course.

The class meets twice per week; I’ve scheduled the “student teaching” for once each week so that it becomes expected and routine. I’m expecting that the whole process — analyzing images to answer questions posed by the scholars who have organized the VC curriculum, two individual writing assignments, collaboration and teaching, and a quiz — will help students learn content and skills more effectively than standard lectures.

One last note: the image collections hosted by the Visualizing Cultures project are currently focused on China and Japan in the contemporary period. I’m hoping that the project eventually expands to include India.