Jazz Math Ed
A lot of talented and effective lecturers prepare so carefully that every time they present a certain topic, it’s just like every other time they’ve presented that topic. So don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen it done, and done well, hundreds of times. Let’s call that “classical” style. You look at the printed score, and you pick up your instrument, and you practice like crazy until you could hardly ever miss a note except on purpose … and then, and only then, you go out in front of your audience, and, with any luck, you play your little bit and they love it.
On the other hand, there’s the “jazz” style (as I propose to call it here): you look at, not the score, but the chart: an outline of what’s supposed to go on in a given performance. Then you grab your axe and wail (and, with any luck, they love it).
Now, I have been known to prepare lectures carefully. Heck, once I even read a talk from a printed copy. Mostly, though, I won’t even think about doing things that way if I feel like I’ve thoroughly understood the material … which, since I’m mostly lecturing on subjects I’ve known pretty well for about thirty years, is most of the time. I get to have a whole lot more fun slinging the math this way … and I sincerely believe that the students (usually) get a better show. For example, I’m free to change everything around if there’s an interesting question. Moreover, since I’m working without a net, I make real mistakes in real time and have to recover somehow (just as every student will have to do before long if they’re keeping up with the homework); and more than this, I get to—have to!—model the quasi-obsessive “check it if you can think of a way to check it” behavior that typically separates the “A” students from the “B”s.
All well and good. The trouble is, it seems like whenever the subject (“how can we become better teachers”) comes up, all anybody ever wants to talk about is “classical” style. And that way madness lies. It’s possible to be too well prepared—I’ve sure as heck seen that done. There comes a point where you might as well just read the furshlugginer manual—except that that would be cheaper and more convenient. Also, quite often our bosses are enemies of the academy who would like nothing better than to find a way to eliminate their need for performing artists and replace us with canned “lectures” (or, worse yet, with computer programs) that can be paid for once and then controlled utterly. Now, I suppose I can be forced by economic pressure into training my own replacement … but I can’t be made to like it.
So: the charts don’t lie. For some reason, kids keep going to concerts. Even though the album is cheaper and you can play it again and again … heck, I don’t understand this fact myself. But record company executives seem to understand at some level that their livelihood depends on a bunch of wildly undisciplined misfits (i.e., performing artists). Wouldn’t it be nice if college administrators understood this too?