A few years ago, I lost track of time while struggling to write a conclusion to a conference paper. When I glanced at the clock, I realized that I was supposed to be in the classroom in two minutes. Running from my office across campus, I started thinking about the relationship between teaching and writing. I was befuddled how I could spend so much time crafting the introduction and conclusions to conference papers, chapters, or articles, while ignoring how each lecture is, in many ways, a self-contained learning experience. How we structure our lectures is just as important as how we structure our written work. Organization matters, whether we are communicating to fellow scholars or our students. We’ve all been in conference presentations, interested in the topic but lost in a poorly constructed paper. I hate to think that my students have felt the same.
An hour and fifteen minutes after this revelation I was lecturing with a head full of steam and again found myself losing track of time. Glancing up at the clock, I quickly concluded class with this elegant dismount: “Well, that’s all we have time for today. We’ll continue discussing the changes in the Pennsylvania state constitution next week.” Realizing the pedagogical lunacy of that kind of ending, I resolved to find better ways to conclude my classes.
What began with a focus on the end of a lecture turned into a reorganization of all my survey sessions. I now select three to five big interpretive questions, and I begin each class with a PowerPoint slide listing these questions. After an hour of lecture and discussion of primary sources, I conclude with an identical slide and call on one of the quieter students to give us the beginning of an answer to any one of these questions. I then ask another student to build on that answer, and for the remaining five to ten minutes of the class, the students collaboratively construct answers. By structuring class this way, I feel that I’m moving students away from memorizing facts and toward answering historical questions. I’m also giving the students a preview of the content and then a concluding summary. If the students are anything like me, and, alas many are, it takes hearing something more than once to learn, and this structure offers just that.
Now this may seem tedious, and it does require discipline to leave the last five or ten minutes free, but the students love it. In fact, it’s frequently the most cited evidence for the comment that my lectures are clear and well organized. Those comments have little to do with my actual lecturing style. I’m neurotic, I talk too fast, my brain bounces all over the place, and I often can’t resist running down long tangents. But beginning and ending lectures with discussion questions brings order out of my chaos and reinforces the key themes of each class. While my annual impromptu treatise on the glory of pizza is no doubt riveting, the discussion questions remind students why it is that I’m yammering away about the introduction of the tomato into Italian cuisine (it’s my favorite tangible example of the importance of the Columbian Exchange).
I’m sure many of you have more subtle methods for opening or closing your classes, and I’d love to hear about them below. This method has worked well for my surveys, but I’m still looking for better ways to open and conclude seminars. What works for you?