Embracing My Teaching Imperfections

I adore Google Street View. Short of bringing the entire class to Rome, I can recreate some semblance of grandeur in entering the city through the Porta del Popolo via Google’s panoramic 360-degree views. Students are usually awed by the sight of the two twin churches of Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli and enjoy the walk along Via del Corso.

Earlier this month, I was reorganizing my teaching portfolio and came across an old course evaluation document. Feeling brave, I opened the evaluation, and my eyes jumped to a long paragraph. The student described that their favourite day was when I tried to take everyone on tour to Rome via Google Street View. We entered the Porta and the Piazza del Popolo and stood in front of the Flaminio Obelisk. The student then described how I got “stuck” in front of the obelisk and could not move past the monument no matter where I clicked on the screen. I became nervous, started cursing, and frantically jabbed the mouse until the entire class was staring at a large projection of the sampietrini cobblestone. We never made it past the obelisk that day, and the class viewed photographs of Rome’s major sites instead of partaking in a virtual walking tour. Despite the technical difficulties, the student wrote that the day was innovative, memorable, and positive because the instructor was “so human.”

I remember that day well. I was frustrated and mortified when my computer froze. But I also recall that most students wrote about Rome in their self-selected final exam question, and the grades for that question were extraordinarily high. At the time, I did not make a connection between the two incidents. After reviewing the other feedback from the course evaluation document, I realized my blunder made a lasting impression. My teaching imperfections helped learners engage with the course content.

As a musician, I was taught to make confident mistakes. I cannot start over when I am on stage. I don’t strive to be perfect on stage; I aim to move people. The same goes for the classroom. I am not a perfect instructor: I forget to “publish” items on the learning management system, I swear too often in class, I misplace handout photocopies, there are typos in my rubrics, etc. Maha Bali, Autumn Caines, and Rebecca J. Hogue write that “perfect pedagogies are an illusion” (2017). Learning is a process, a cycle of imperfection. The problem is that instructors and learners often do not have the opportunity to spend time in this cycle of imperfection. We are expected to “perform,” to write elegantly-prosed papers, and deliver precisely-executed presentations.

Imperfections allow space for active participation, or “active generation” (Metcalfe, 2017), from both instructors and learners. Instead of setting all course details in stone, instructors can experiment, try out new activities or technologies, and shape the class according to its learners. Jesse Stommel states that “prepared is best, but underprepared is always better than overprepared” (2014). Being over-prepared runs the risk of operating on auto-pilot. Have you ever gotten into the car, and the next thing you know, you are driving towards work because your brain is on auto-pilot? Habits and routines are helpful, but passivity and mediocrity can be dangerous. As Sarah Brown Wessling puts it, “I have reached the point where I’m more afraid of mediocrity than I am of making a mistake” (2013; Minkel, 2017). As instructors, we cannot plan the perfect course, but we can keep the pedagogy open and work with our students as partners in being transparent and taking more risks.

Justin Minkel recommends instructors “model imperfection” for our learners (2017). Let learners witness what happens when you don’t know the answer and when you need help. Scaffolding assessments provide time and space to explore ideas and draft (and redraft) papers. We can encourage experimentation in formative assessments and provide useful feedback in the cycle of imperfection. Metcalfe notes that learners benefit from both immediate and delayed feedback and benefits increase with “elaborative or scaffolded” feedback (2017). Feedback offers additional opportunities to reengage with the material and reorient the direction for future experimentation. I don’t know about you, but I spend a long time drafting, deleting, redrafting, (cursing), editing, and rewriting papers. Students often do not see this process. How do I shift the focus away from the end product and towards the learning process? Well, this is what this entire blog is about. I don’t have the answers, but I will continue to reflect on and search for strategies for fostering learning while embracing my many imperfections.

Works Cited

Bali, M., Caines, A., and Hogue, R. J. (2017). Pedagogy of Imperfection. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/pedagogy-of-imperfection

Metcalfe, J. (2017). Learning from Errors. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 465–89. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010416-044022

Minkel, J. (2017). A Teacher’s Pursuit of Imperfection. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-a-teachers-pursuit-of-imperfection/2017/03

Stommel, J. [@Jessifer]. (2014, February 18). Prepared is best, but underprepared is always better than overprepared. [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/jessifer/status/435984562628214785

Wessling, S. B. (2013). When a Lesson Goes All Wrong. Teaching Channel. https://www.teachingchannel.com/blog/lesson-goes-wrong

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