This semester I'm continuing my Italian study with private lessons. This initially seemed easier than what I was doing in the fall, and in most ways it is. I meet my professor once a week for two hours, which means that I get about as much instructional time but waste less time commuting; I also have less work to prepare in advance. And since it's just the two of us, it's all quality time: there are no moments when I'm zoning out or only half listening while one of my classmates is on the spot.
That's also the problem. Two hours is a lot of time. Just as my body is not ready to run 9-minute miles for two hours straight, my brain is not ready to speak Italian for two hours straight. This week I'd read a couple of articles in the Italian press about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, so after 45 minutes on grammar we turned to that. Then we broadened our discussion to EU immigration policies more generally and how one strikes a balance between border protection and humanitarian relief. This was hard, but I was pretty game for a while. Around the time that my instructor turned the conversation to Obama's executive action on immigration, however, and asked me to compare the American and Italian situations and outline the differences between the Democratic and Republican positions, my brain stalled out.
Partly it was the complexity of the material, but mostly it was just fatigue: at a certain point I was unable to access even the most basic vocabulary or pronounce words I'd been saying just fine twenty minutes earlier. In fact, I've never before felt quite this level of mental collapse--though those times I've been awake for 30 hours for a complicated transatlantic journey and then had to negotiate an unfamiliar municipal transportation system might come close.
I recovered, of course, but the experience has made me think a little harder about the way I schedule and manage instructional time in my own classes. I've always been mindful of the kind of fatigue produced by monotony (sitting too long in one place or doing exactly the same kind of work for 60 or 90 minutes), especially in lower-level classes or classes that meet only once a week, but I haven't thought much about the fatigue caused by brain overload. Maybe a student isn't staring off into space or typing on her phone beneath her desk because she's uninterested, but because she can't absorb any more information right now.
Not that the two are mutually exclusive.