Start Small, Finish Big

Newton's Cradle with red ball

You’ve just returned from a Teaching Professor Conference or read of an innovative teaching strategy in a book you devoured. You desperately want to incorporate the innovations you’ve learned into your own courses, but at that exact moment, you feel your energy drain when you imagine hearing unsupportive administrators utter their stern objections “to keep things the way they are.” You pause to look around, seeing older colleagues who have more teaching years behind than ahead of them—“I tried that once … “—knowing that they never received the administrative nod for their innovations.

I don’t face these challenges where I teach: neither in my department nor in the college administration. For that, I’m thankful. But my situation wasn’t always so accommodating, or so I thought. When I began to use writing within the classroom in ways that seem foreign to college administrators and suspicious to department chairs, I could feel their distrust grow. “Someone told me you really enjoy teaching freshmen writing,” a senior colleague said doubtfully, stating it so I could immediately deny it! Who, after all, could be expected to marshal any enthusiasm for historically despised courses? Although that was many years ago, I hear about similar situations today through workshop questions and e-mail correspondence: enthused instructors looking for an implementation pathway to those terrific ideas in the midst of their discouraging circumstances.

The best adage I can give is short: Start small so you can finish big.

Early in my career, however, I “started big” and in the process nearly wrecked my pedagogy and my career. At that time, I disposed of my previous grading system in all my courses, a huge undertaking that meant hurling the wrecking ball to the “traditional way of doing things” like grading every paper, using grading categories, and excluding process in the final grade. I succeeded in knocking down 20 such items. And I did so with the best of intentions—making grading contribute to, rather than compete with, my course goals. But because my demolition was big, I felt compelled to construct a whole new grading structure that matched the size and weight of the previous one, all within one semester! The task was overwhelming and not only for me. My students couldn’t understand, let along appreciate, a grading system they had never seen before and which I couldn’t articulate definitively. That tension registered in my student evaluations at semester’s end. My dean was dissatisfied.

“Your student evaluations aren’t as high as your colleagues in first-year courses” was his chief critique. “Your department chair says you aren’t getting the kinds of evaluations you should get, given the amount of hours you spend on your courses.”

He paused for a moment as I braced myself. “Couldn’t you give students a grade for each paper and then change each as time goes on?”

My immediate impulse was to shout No! but that reaction would have demurred what the evaluations clearly indicated: Students couldn’t understand what I was doing. Neither could the dean. In both cases, I had grounded the theoretical background for my pedagogy—even a justifiable one—in a language I couldn’t summon in dialogue. But my greatest oversight was even simpler: I failed to appreciate the importance of the small change that can bring tremendous results.

That very next semester I kept my approach, but rethought the implementation; I instituted just one small change, first prompted by the dean: “Well if you won’t issue grades all semester,” he had said, exasperated. “Could you hold one of your usual student conferences the week before the final portfolio is due?” That small revision produced an avalanche of improvement, raising student performance and my dean’s eyebrows in one action. It’s a cliché but true: Nothing speaks like results.

Looking back, my dean’s initial response sure ignited my overreaction, but it also evoked a better solution that translated into slowing down so I could solidify my approach with all constituencies. Sometimes administrators and students don’t see clearly where we’re coming from because they did not accompany us when we attended that exciting conference or read that compelling book. Our vision must be experienced to be shared; otherwise, it’s clouded.

Think of the changes that have been thrust on us unwarily, where administrators and faculty heads forgo dialogue by implementing what we are told we must accept. All of us face new realities that threaten our pedagogy in an age of shrinking budgets and oversized classes. But it is often in the midst of those pressures that new pedagogies flourish. I am thinking of Larry Michaelsen’s use of team-based learning only after he was faced with astronomical class sizes. Or equally redolent is how some faculty revived rhetoric in English departments after students on the GI Bill flooded classrooms following World War II. There are countless parallel stories of how adversarial contexts encouraged us to start small and to finish big. While we work for better teaching environments, we can think of trying just that one thing in class that will open the pathway to more things.

I still see that dean, now retired, and remember his brusque objections. And I thank him.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B., & Fink, L. D. (2002). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Gary R. Hafer is the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College, where he teaches college composition, classical and modern rhetoric, and introduction to literature.