Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The benefits of discomfort while teaching

I'm teaching an ITV course this semester, meaning there are students at another location that communicate via television screens and microphones, as well as students in the classroom.  In the first two days, I've noticed this dynamic requires me to be much more on edge, much more alert.  It's not easy to get comfortable teaching in this environment.

But is this a bad thing?  Perhaps if I teach from a heightened alertness instead of a calm comfort, I'll do a better job teaching.  I'll be sharper, and the educational experience for the students will be better.

After all, lecture is much more comfortable than discussion.  When lecturing, one can get into familiar speaking patterns and cover familiar material.  In discussion, a facilitating teacher has to be more flexible, innovative, thinking quickly about student comments and trying to help a student-driven discussion move in positive directions.  Because one can't plan out all features of a discussion, a teacher has to be on edge.  This is true whether students are very responsive (you must be sharp in allowing all students to share ideas and sharp in helping bring those ideas together in a useful way), or whether students are not responsive at all (for then you must figure out way to get responses, or ways to usefully manage the time despite unresponsiveness).  And for the classes I teach (composition and literature), discussion is much preferred to lecture.

Again, this alertness is a good thing.  That's not to say it is bad teaching to get comfortable and familiar with your material and and the way you address that material.  But when discussing literature, I think the class is better for the students because I'm not comfortable.  When I'm edgy and alert, I'm giving students more chances to provide their own insights, and I'm sharper at finding new and creative insights based on the discussion.


  1. I agree with you that the educational experience could potentially be better with an uncomfortable teacher, but on the other hand, teachers who seem completely at ease with the surroundings, subject, and strategies to be implemented rub off on students. If you are on edge, perhaps the students, too, are on edge. Could that adversely affect the learning? Could the reason for less responsiveness be that students sense your discomfort, could it enhance their own discomfort, and could this in turn inhibit free sharing of ideas?

    You can be comfortable and still be open to something unexpected, too, I think. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

  2. In this case, the students have (so far) been very responsive. It might just be a good class, but I sort of think they like the idea of being on screen--rather than seeing themselves as performing for the teacher, they may see themselves as performing for each other.

    Perhaps "discomfort" is too strong a word. What I mean is that I'm not allowed to "relax" while teaching, which is probably a good thing.