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.