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Unexpectedly Reactive – Unexpectedly Good?

This past year the Curricular and Research Support group on campus piloted a program that we hoped would fit into our over-all goals of both improving the ways we support coursework and also making all of our jobs a little less reactive, a little more proactive, and therefore a little more sustainable given lots to do and reductions in all kinds of resources. We called them Production Meetings (a term borrowed from Hollywood), and the idea was that a full cast of academic support professionals would meet with a professor early on in the course-planning phase, several times before the professor taught the course, and then as needed while the course was underway. We’d work together to brainstorm ways of making potentially support-intensive assignments work smoothly while all the while keeping things focused on the learning goals of the course and of the assignment.

And in a lot of ways, these Production Meetings seem to have worked really well. I always try to talk very clearly with professors about the learning goals for their courses and assignments so that I can figure out the ratio of fish to fishing polls I should be handing out to students, and these meetings gave me much more nuanced views of the goals than I’m often able to glean in other settings. It also gave me a much bigger picture view of the course, so that I could recommend (in one case) reducing the library-related work quite a lot in order to leave time for the more pedagogically relevant work in the course.

One thing the Production Meetings didn’t do, though, was make me any less reactive. If you’ve ever taught a course, you know that the syllabus is never quite chiseled into stone. Due dates shift. Assignments adjust as you get to know your students. And so when these Production Meetings left me feeling like I had a timeline for my term’s work, with specific due dates for things like a research guide, individual meetings with students, and classes, it turns out they did me a disservice. With everyone feeling so much more “in the loop” than we really were, we forgot to check in with each other and keep each other apprised of changes. In my case, it ended up leaving me scrambling at the last minute over and over when I would otherwise have just been scrambling at the third-to-last minute.

Granted, it was a pilot program, and we all learned a lot from that experience. Next time we’ll have a much better sense of how and when to check in with each other. Next time there will be more expectation on the part of the professors that they can’t change their syllabi quite as much when 5 or 6 other units on campus are depending on the plan. Next time the 5 or 6 other units will know better than to think the syllabus is final.

But I wonder if being proactive is really the highest good in the first place. I advocated for it strongly for years, and I still think that advanced planning is better than no planning most of the time, and I still think that the more we can talk with professors about their learning goals in advance, the better. But a classroom is actually an inherently reactive place. Students react to new knowledge, each in their own way and at their own pace; professors react to students, modulating delivery and content to match their students’ needs.

There’s got to be a way to balance the delicious reactiveness of a classroom with some organizational proactiveness, of course. But for right now, I think I’ll practice privileging ways of making space for reactiveness.