November 16, 2015 by Jean
This week, I am coming to the end of my first experience teaching a course at the local Senior College. Senior College is Maine’s lifelong learning program (see The Treasure That Is Olli). There are 17 separate programs in different parts of the state, run by volunteers and supported by modest membership and tuition fees ($25 annual membership and $25 per course tuition in my local program). The course I have been teaching, “True Womanhood and Women’s Activism in 19th Century America,” has been eight weeks long and is a more focused piece of a course on “Women’s Movements in the United States” that I taught for many years at Gettysburg College.
The experience of teaching Senior College has been very enjoyable, but also more work than I had anticipated. Although I have taught this material many times, the format for this class was very different from the way that I had taught it before. For my undergraduate course, the class met twice a week, the students did heavy reading in preparation for class and prepared questions for class discussion that tied the reading to course themes, and the class was conducted as a discussion of those questions. This format was not appropriate for Senior College, where the classes meet for two hours once a week, there are no written assignments, and reading outside of class should be kept light. For the Senior College course, I divided each class session into two parts, a lecture followed by class discussion. Those lectures were all created new, and each took several hours of preparation.
I don’t want to give the impression that I regret taking on this responsibility. On the contrary, I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It has been a learning curve, as I sorted out how teaching elders is different from teaching 18-22 year olds. It took me about 6 weeks to figure out the right mix of information and interpretation in lectures. Along the way, I learned new things about teaching and about the course material. This weekend, as I worked on preparing the final lecture for the course, I was excited by a new interpretation of some of the course material that I started to develop.
I fully intend to teach this course again, ideally next fall. When I do, it will be much less work. The reading and the arc of the course worked well, and I don’t expect to change those. I now have the eight lectures prepared, and those will only need to be tweaked. What I need to work on next time is how to ask discussion questions that elicit a thoughtful analysis of the course material. Only once did our discussion produce ideas that were new to me; given the high level of engagement and rich life experience of the students, it is my failure as a teacher that it didn’t happen more often. New courses are always first drafts; the second time around will be a richer experience for both me and the students.
I have learned from this experience that teaching meets my own needs for intellectual stimulation in ways that nothing else matches. And because I am a passionate and skilled teacher, this is a wonderful way for me to contribute something worthwhile to others. I have also learned that an eight-week course is just the right length to enrich me without exhausting me and that teaching one course a year is just right.