Barry on Teaching

I came across these images from from Lynda Barry via Austin Kleon, and I think they do an incredible job capturing what, in my mind, is one of the important parts of being a college instructor: trusting your students.

There are a lot of ways assignments can go wrong, and I think the easiest one is to be too prescriptive. This actually comes from a good place, as Barry illustrates—wanting to help out, set the terms, make things clear. We all have been on the receiving end of a vaguely worded assignment, and it’s the worst. But I think overcompensating can be just as bad.

When I wrote the assignment for my students’ first audio essay, I was worried that it was vague. I even put in language about knowing it was a little vague. I wanted to give them freedom to work, but I also wanted to be clear (for my sake as well as theirs) on what was required and how they would be evaluated.

The results blew me away, precisely because they were so unexpected. Everyone “got there,” in terms of what I wanted them to demonstrate, but did that in their own way and with their own point of view—including people for whom this was their first experience with audio editing. It was one of those, “this is why I do this,” kind of moments.

I think it’s really easy and really lousy for instructors to make students into Twitter punchlines, or to group “them” into a totalizing category that instructors themselves would find offensive in any other academic context. (“Oh, those sure are some lazy students!”) As an instructor, you have give students the tools to “get there,” but then you also have to let them get there—not necessarily by making open-ended assignments, but (at least) by trusting that they can.

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