|Iris, garden, April 2010|
My short answer: Um, all the time. For both options. Let's start with the first question.
Where or when in your life have you allowed the details to become more important than the thing they were serving? When I'm grading papers. All those comma splices and run-on sentences and misused words drive me nuts. And I sometimes lose track of my students' ideas (the big picture) when I focus on those details. But then again, if I don't focus on those details, my students won't become coherent writers. Right? Don't they need me to circle and point out their errors? When my teacher points out that I'm not pressing with the base of my index finger, she's not telling me I'm a bad yogi. She's asking me to be mindful of a detail that is essential to a strong foundation in all poses that require my hands to be on the mat. When I ask my students to pay attention to their syntax, I'm helping them build strong foundations for all the writing they'll do in their future lives. The details matter. But maybe they don't matter as much as I think they do—when a student's grammar is so atrocious that it takes me 30 minutes to get through a page, am I really serving that student by noting every single error? Probably not. A practice I'll try this year is to note repeated errors and have 5 minute conferences about those specific errors. Then I'll check the next paper for those same errors and see if there's improvement.
But what about the second question? Do I skip the details sometimes in search of the big picture (even at the expense of the big picture)? Maybe. I wonder if this isn't my major weakness as a teacher: I love to talk about the big, juicy stuff—the meaning of life stuff, the stuff that reading books is all about. I love to ponder the difficult questions with my students, and I love to see them drawing connections between themselves and the (often strange) folks in the texts we read. But, especially in upper level electives, do I err on this side too often? Would my upper level students benefit from the more direct explication that I ask for in lower level courses? Probably. Maybe I should start discussions more often with the plot, the themes, the characters, the setting, instead of asking students to extrapolate from what I assume they understand. In yoga, even the most basic poses can be incredibly challenging for an advanced practitioner, if you pay enough attention to the details. In fact, I've been through many excruciating adho mukha svanasanas (down dogs) and tadasanas (mountain poses)—thanks, Abby!
So, what do I do, now that I've acknowledged some of places where my teaching practice could be more refined?
1. Keep thinking about how I do assessment. (I've been poking around this guy's blog, wondering if there are insights I might glean—how can I adapt some of the methods he discusses to the kind of no-grades policy we have at Urban? Are there more efficient and more effective ways to give students feedback on their writing?)
2. Remember the details, particularly with older students. They may be faster at it, and they may need less coaching, but—especially considering the sheer length of the readings we often assign in electives—sometimes slowing down and going back to basics is a wise thing to do.