Thanks for the various feedback on the three streams idea: I’ll be posting more about it next week, when I’m properly back in the saddle/office.
In the meantime, I thought it would be good to write a quick piece about covering your bases in the classroom, when things don’t work. This is a bit different from learning from failure, which primarily revolves around failures to reach the nominal class objectives. Instead, I’m talking about when things go more broadly belly up.
These kinds of failure fall into different categories:
- Technical failures. If the projector doesn’t work, how screwed are you? Ideally, there’s someone you can phone to try and fix it, but if that’s not an option, can you adapt your class to run without any slides: unless you’re putting a lot of data into the slides (which you shouldn’t be), then you probably can, although the experience it likely to remind you of how much of a prop those slides can be: remember you can always email out/post slides after class. More mundanely, your room might have a whizz-bang computer pod, but you might want to take along your own laptop, just in case.
- Rooming failures. Usually you know what sort of room you want/need, but timetabling can’t always oblige and you might have to be moved around. Can your class survive a move into a raked lecture theatre, when you’d planned for a flat seminar room? Again, it’s usually not a huge problem, but some thought about such things beforehand probably makes sense: it might even throw up some interesting ideas.
- Student failures. My good colleagues have covered much of this, especially the failure to prepare or to act as predicted. Here, I’m thinking more about what happens if half the class doesn’t show up, or all but one fail to show up: I have exactly this second scenario occur earlier this year, for a group exercise, which posed some interesting challenges and hasty improvisation. However, we got something working (partly by removing to have some liquid refreshment): smaller numbers is much less of a problem then you might think because you can start to tailor content more closely to needs and become more interactive. A bigger (and rarer) problem is when a whole bunch of extra people turn up: can you fit them into the room and do something useful with them? Snowballing is a good way out of this one.
- You failures. As a keen reader of this blog, this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s still reasonable to talk about this: we have all messed up at some point. My personal nadir came as a teaching assistant when I found myself sprawled on my bed, still clothed and drunk from the night before, 20 minutes into the morning class I was supposed to be giving to the students I’d been out drinking with the night before. Suffice to say, it wasn’t pleasant for anyone involved. Let’s just say that I speak from experience when I say that some judgement might be exercised in such situations. Aside from such catastrophes, can you cope if you leave your teaching notes on the bus to work, or if you have four hours of class back-to-back? Knowing your breaking points is important if you’re going to be able to handle them (and, ideally, to avoid them).
This is be no means definitive as a list, just something to get you thinking about what you really need to make your class work. Sometimes you get hit from different sides at the same time, sometimes some promised help doesn’t materialise.
For me, the important thing I’m taking from writing this list is that usually you can cope, if you keep your head and prepare to run with something a bit different. And that’s another great reason not to get smashed out your head the night before.