Monday, January 18, 2016

Course design and creativity

After five frenzied days, I think I have both of my syllabi written.

Let's hope so, since classes start tomorrow.

All these years later, I'm still surprised by what intense, creative labor course design can be. Whenever I'm building one from scratch, I find myself convinced there must be some perfect, Platonic version out there--a combination of readings, a sequence of assignments--that will allow the topic to bloom forth, revealing its fullest meaning and potential. (And not finding that perfect form means the class will suck and fail and EVERYTHING WILL BE RUINED.)

It's delusional, I know--but sometimes, after spending a day writing and rewriting the two or three blurby little paragraphs that lay out the purpose and the big ideas of the class, I realize why I do it. Suddenly, there it is: the whole argument, the whole thing I believe, the theory I want to test that might help me make this class more than just "an exploration of X topic."

And that kind of revelation, whether or not it's connected to anything I've thought or written before, or anything I expect to write in the future, is the same high I get from writing, from research, from the kinds of discovery and meaning-making that happen when I'm alone in a little room all by myself.


Still, as creatively satisfying as course design is, I'm on guard against spending too much time on it; that's why I waited until Thursday, when we'd returned from our latest travels, to start working on my syllabi. Obviously, I'd already ordered the books, and I'd started thinking about the supplemental readings, but I was deliberately not letting my mind fully turn to the topic.

And it strikes me that deferring this work may be a version of "the power of procrastination" that Adam Grant writes about in this weekend's NYT. As Grant notes,

Our first ideas. . . are usually our most conventional. . . . When you procrastinate, you're more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns. Nearly a century ago, the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that people had a better memory for incomplete tasks than for complete ones. When we finish a project, we file it away. But when it’s in limbo, it stays active in our minds.

According to Grant (and the research a former student of his has done on the subject), this can be taken too far--when you're really panicked or pressed for time, you're likely to grasp at straws and throw together anything that will work--but a certain amount of procrastination, and a certain amount of time pressure, really does stimulate creativity.

In my case, I wasn't actually procrastinating writing my syllabi. I just had other things to do first, and I'm enough of a monomaniac that I can't simultaneously develop a new class and focus on my own writing. My natural preference is to focus on just one thing at a time, and the more creative the labor involved, the harder I find it to switch between projects.

But in the real world, we can't focus on just one task at a time--and though I get overwhelmed easily, I also get grumpy and bored when I don't have enough going on. So I've taught myself to manage multiple projects by parceling out my time in portions large enough to feel I can achieve some degree of immersion: four uninterrupted hours; a day; a week. Here is where I work on A! And there is where I turn to B!

Because I have pots going on multiple burners throughout, I'd like to think that some of the benefits that Grant ascribes to procrastination still accrue: even while I was working on my Milton chapter or the textual notes for my edition, I knew syllabi-writing was on the horizon. And occasionally, when stuck on a sentence in my chapter, I'd take five minutes to sketch out the reading schedule for my senior capstone, or I'd toggle over to the internet to see if there was an online version of one of my supplemental texts. So a corner of my brain was still ticking.

Greater productively through procrastination. I'd said it before, and I'll say it again.


Historiann said...

Word. And thanks for that justification for procrastination! That's what deadlines are for, right? Thanks for this excuse further to procrastinate, because I am currently finishing my syllabi! (I'm proofreading.) Not new courses, but lots of new books and a wikipedia project in one case to incorporate into my running template for both of them.

Susan said...

I am so glad you talk about the creativity of writing a syllabus. I kept thinking I should be able to work on my syllabus anywhere, but it turns out I need to really focus on it, and have lots of books around. Once you've got the syllabus set, you may fiddle, and actually teaching takes lots of work, but you have a road map, and you can do the rest in a different way.