Reinventing a course is an idea that both appeals to me and appalls me at the same time. It appeals to me because when teaching something begins to feel rote, stale, and out of date—if I even become aware of it through the haze of teaching blindness, where a class becomes frozen in time at its most “perfect” moment of development—the idea of recreating that course from scratch, based on your hopefully deeper understanding of the subject and pedagogy, is a pretty exciting idea. I appalls me because I really don’t like teaching a course for the first time. I just don’t. It’s nerve-wracking and is an easy excuse for Murphy’s Law to come out of its cage and start gnawing through my ankle. (On a related note: If I had a donut for the number of times I’ve thought, 5 minutes before a new class started, “Well, I’ll be fine as long as no one asks that one question..,” my pants would be 3 sizes larger.)
The nice thing is that the vast majority of the classes I teach nowadays are technology courses, typically involving software training, and as such are by their nature highly compartmentalized. I know that during a session I have to talk about A, B, C, and maybe D. For the 18 hours or so of Photoshop material I have developed, I have 1 lesson that takes upwards to 3 hours of class time to finish, 1 that takes 1.5 hours, and the other 30 or so take anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 minutes. When I get tired of training on a photo, or have to update a process, it’s relatively easy to swap it out for something new—find a better picture, update the handout/cheat sheet, and practice some to make sure it all works and I won’t look foolish in class (well, with an over 75% chance I won’t, anyway). How I teach the courses evolves naturally for me—at least I really hope it evolves, and in the right direction—in fits and starts, based on feedback and ideas from my peers and students, and time. When I first taught something “for real” (freshman English), I wish someone had told me, even before the first class, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a lot better at this.”
In any case, from my piecemeal reinventions, I’ve found some approaches more valuable than others:
1) Other people’s work is often pretty amazing. I borrow ideas and approaches from teachers better than I all the time, so that I can become a better teacher. For me, the internet remains the Greatest Thing Ever for this, but for many instructors it’s their peers and articles or books their peers have written. And hopefully put on the internet. At ISU, we have listservs that provide part of this function, but don’t forget that with some searching that there are teaching forums on your subject of expertise out there, somewhere. I’m pretty sure every teacher does some form of this.
2) As foolish as I sometimes feel sitting in front of a computer and instructing it in how to, for instance, use the LiveTrace feature in Adobe Illustrator, while recording the whole thing in Camtasia, it’s actually a pretty useful if unorthodox way to figure out how something’s working and will work in a classroom setting. If I was better about taking it a few steps further and made a clean, useful video to actually put on the web, I’d even be better. Another thing to underline in my To Do list.
3) If I redevelop portions of the classes I teach, I make sure I can fold them in gracefully. That means that I’ll go to great lengths not to have the new material be the first or last thing I present in class, not to put new material side-by-side with other new material, to surround new material with “tried-and-true” material, and to not use that material until I’m sure I’ve reasonably thought it through (and remember that this is reinvented material, not new material I’m forced to present—a totally different and un-housetrained animal).
4) Looking over evaluations is nice, but for reinvented material, I will often take some time at the end of class (usually as the students are getting ready to leave) to ask them what they thought of the new material. However, it’s not very awkward for me to do this as I typically only teach small classes and have a relatively informal rapport with the students. I’m not sure I’d do this if neither of those factors were there. However, I’ve received good feedback this way that I wouldn’t have seen in the written evaluations weeks after the classes were done.
Of course, The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology has a lot of great people who’ve been teaching for a lot longer and more successfully than I, who can help instructors with both the reinvention and invention of classes. #shamelessplug