Saturday, July 25, 2009

Design Lessons

The first two weeks of the summer quarter are now complete, and I thought I'd comment on the experience for those students who happen on the blog--whether on purpose, or because they accidentally poke a link somewhere on the course web page.

I'm trying a couple of newish things this quarter; I say new-ish because I've tried them before with varying levels of success. The first of these is the Protokoll, the old German-university tool taught me by one of my esteemed professors in grad school. The word means something like "minutes" (as in the minutes of a meeting), or "official record," although the English word "protocol" means something more akin to procedure (especially diplomatic) or a kind of etiquette.

My aim in this exercise is a bit of both, but its reinstatement is tied to our new lesson-planning effort in General Studies. While I originally balked at the idea of planning out my "lessons" several years ago when first told that I needed to do it, I've come to embrace the notion enthusiastically. Not only does a well-laid plan help me not forget stuff (which I'm wont to do in my state of advancing age and decrepitude, evoked nicely, I think, by the Per Lindroth caricature that illustrates the post), it also connects to the practice of good design. Since I've been lecturing about the relationship between art and design since week 1, it seems only appropriate that my lectures themselves be well designed.

The Protokoll helps me accomplish, with the aid of my students, the requirement that I bridge one week's topic to the next week's. Asking the students to take over the task accomplishes two further objectives: to engage them in the material, and to encourage participation and interaction among their fellows. So far this is all working fairly well. Most of the small groups assigned to deliver the first Protokoll in their sections have approached it enthusiastically enough, and have acquitted themselves nicely. Organization and logic aren't their strong suits, but I can stress these elements in future, and later efforts will probably be better. My colleague who teaches another section of the second-level course reports equal success with the assignment in his class.

Alas, I'm not faring as well with the other effort, which is to provoke more verbal interaction with the images I'm showing. I'm not as good at the Socratic thing as my philosophy-professor/tennis-coach husband is; but then he doesn't show slides. I'm trying, but the sheer volume of material I have to cover in 3.5 hours is daunting, and I'll have to reduce that if I'm going to get much more conversation. But that's a goal I can work on, and is part of the reason behind planning lessons in the first place.

At the moment I'm still working on a proto-technological model. Not all that long ago, I showed 35 mm slides (on a projector I called "Dead Bessie" in reference to an episode of Firefly)--before the advent of PowerPoint and the in-room technology kiosks now available. In the "olden days" I'd have to haul in whacking great huge television sets with VCRs attached, and I still use the cart that was once Dead Bessie's mode of transportation. PowerPoint provides a superb platform for image-delivery (although I steadfastly refuse to do bullet-pointed lectures that outline what I'm saying, and then hand them out to students; I'm pretty sure that's counter-productive if one is trying to get them to pay attention to what one is saying), and I love being able to show details of images I could once provide only if I had a slide of that detail. But an artifact of the old delivery system is that I'm still psychologically bound to the old images.

In some cases I've modified the sequence of slides, but I'll bet that if I went back and dug up a slide list for Romanticism from ten years ago, that it would contain substantially the same examples as this year's list does.

So my lesson planning over the next few quarters will involve going back over what I show, and perhaps coming up with better examples of what I'm trying to teach, and a better design for engaging students in the process of understanding. The ever-swelling popularity of the internet as an educational tool makes it easier to link materials from major museums, both local and international, and my aim is to focus on their collections--rather than on my own.

Stay tuned. Fewer but pithier slide examples, more evocative questions, and stunningly inventive assignments are just around the corner.

Image credit: "The Absent-minded Professor" by Per Lindroth (1878-1933) from the Runeberg Project (an effort to provide online editions of classic Scandinavian literature) via Wikimedia Commons.