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Teaching without writing

Posted by Arjendu on October 24, 2014

Last Sunday I dislocated my right shoulder. Nothing dramatic, no fistfights over the meaning of the 2nd law or interpretations of quantum mechanics or priority for research, nor because my students were mad at me for my supposedly short exam that turned out to be not-so-short … just a simple fall coming up some stairs, combined with a previously unstable shoulder (6 dislocations in the past) that a surgery didn’t seem to have made *that* stable. It was painful for a bit but once it got shoved back in at the ER (‘reduced’ in the medical terminology) I barely felt it.

But I did lose some time sleeping off the anesthesia, and have had to leave my arm in a sling for a while. I’m right-handed, so this made it very difficult to write or grade or do that Ph.D. dissertation external examiner thing I had scheduled for the weekend. I tried ‘voice-to-text’ software, and that wasn’t too bad for most things, but (a) it made me speak like an American — I haven’t purchased the fancier trainable software — and (b) had no idea what to make of words like ‘non-Markovian’, or any other technical jargon I was using around. I managed, somehow, for all those things, and leaned on my family greatly — it’s a nice place to be in life when your child can do your laundry for you instead of the other way around! The silly accident made an already crowded schedule just that much harder for the last few days.

But you know what wasn’t an increased challenge, really, not much anyway ? Teaching my thermal/statistical physics class. This week, I’ve walked in with the printout of questions the students have generated overnight from the reading, told them to go through the questions AND then repeat their transit over the chapter in small groups. They throw questions out to me when needed while I wandered around the class kibbitzing during the discussions, and periodically summarized verbally the central points of each section. It means we’ve marched just fine through the material, finishing with working on some problems in the same small groups. It’s helped slightly that for this part of the term I have the students signed up for short teaching presentations (to get them ready for larger presentations as part of their senior graduation requirement). So I’ve had students do a (previously-prepped) derivation on the board for me as needed. But that was only about 5 minutes out of each class.

Carleton physics students are so used to this sort of reading+questions+classroom-discussion-based format (and I am so used to it myself) that things seem just … normal. And it’s far cry from the ‘chalk and talk’/lecture-intensive world from my own undergraduate (and actually, graduate school, too, now that I think of it) days. I have no real idea how rare this sort of format is for the bulk of physics teaching out there in the world today, but I’d bet it’s rare enough.

You know what was challenging, surprisingly enough? Talking to my collaborators in California via skype. Turns out I use my hands to argue a lot more than I think I do, when it’s about dynamical systems and phase-space in particular. They thought it was pretty funny when I’d get frustrated by my inability to convey what I wanted using only one hand.

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2 Responses to “Teaching without writing”

  1. This sounds like a really useful way to teach upper-division material. How do you have the students generate questions?

    • Arjendu said

      Hi Jocelyn: Well, the students are asked to read the material before class and send me either discussion questions about the material that they would like answered, or a summary of the reading so I see if they understood it well enough or not. I use these questions to construct the lectures/identify example problems or exercises of some sort or … generate discussions. I’ve been doing it for years, and many other members of my Department as well — though some do it with far more structure than the loose format I am sketching.

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