Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Towards the end of my teaching career, I was comfortable enough with my subject matter and teaching skills that I could walk into a classroom without a lesson plan, without a textbook, and just teach. Some of my education friends will no doubt be critical of this concept, but it created an organic structure and flow that would allow me to work with my class and their questions as we worked our way through the material. I simply knew where we ended last time, and where I wanted to end this time, but I had no idea how I would get from one point to the other.
When I started, it was a very different story. I won’t say I started before PowerPoint was a thing (because it was), but classroom projectors were very uncommon. When I started teaching, we used overhead projectors. Being new, I would create my “acetates” (clear slides for the overhead) in advance to be sure I didn’t miss anything. My classroom was an odd shape, very long, but narrow, so the students in the back were further away than normal. As such, I wrote very large, and periodically put in slides just for humor’s sake to help break the tension. I always created my own slides, rather than using the material that came with the textbook because this was my class, damnit, not the publisher’s.
After class, I would put the acetates in the library. My thinking was that it was a service to my students, so if they missed something they could look at it, and if they really wanted to, they could also copy the acetates for their files. I didn’t have to do this and, to the best of my knowledge, no other faculty were doing so. But, as Oscar Wilde once said, no good deed goes unpunished and, sure enough, my boss came to me to discuss complaints from students.
As it turns out, they started copying them blindly, one at a time, without even looking at them. Eventually, some of them began going to my boss to complain about the slides, and, of course, I ended up with an unpleasant visit from him. He told me that they were upset because it was so expensive to copy them all because there were so many due to the large writing and slides (that were actually few and far between) that were meant to be humorous. He asked me to do something about that. I explained that if they looked at the slides, they could skip the humorous ones, and I have to write large so everybody can see them from the back of the room. He retorted that he didn’t care, he just didn’t want to hear any more complaints about how expensive it is to copy the slides.
Okay, I can do that.
The next day in class, I explained that I had been told that students were complaining because it was too expensive to copy my slides, so, they will no longer be available in the library, and therefore it is more important to take careful notes in class. Then I sat back and waited for the show to begin. Sure enough, my boss came down saying the students were complaining that I took them out of the library. I asked if it was a requirement that I put my slides in the library, and he admitted that, no, it wasn’t. Some students even came to me directly saying that THEY didn’t complain, so could THEY borrow my notes. The answer, of course, was no. I was not willing to hand them out individually and track what comes back and what doesn’t. My boss could do nothing, the students could do nothing, and this service that I had provided out of the kindness of my heart was simply done.
I was talking with a young friend of mine about Le Chatelier’s principle, a concept we teach in chemistry that when you apply a stress to a system, the system responds so as to alleviate that stress. In chemistry, it can be used to predict shifts in equilibrium, but I find it applies to so much in life. My students applied a stress to a first-year professor who was trying to be nice by complaining directly to his boss, so, I alleviated that stress, but not in the manner that the students had apparently hoped. No, I didn’t write smaller so as not to disenfranchise the students towards the back, and no, I didn’t take out the humorous slides.
There’s a lesson in this story, don’t you think? Having the power to change something is one thing, but one has to be careful not to lose more than gained. The students saved money, yes, but they lost the ability to view the slides outside of class. Maybe it was a good thing, though. Perhaps they learned to pay more attention in class. Or, maybe the administration taught them that they can get their way if they whine.