Announcement. This post is the first in a series of posts on timeless teaching texts. I’ve chosen as a first one of my favorites that I have talked about briefly before in the blog post “Random Careless Rhythm.” It’s by Gilbert Highet, a Scottish American scholar from the middle part of the 20th century.
Did you have teachers in your academic career, even as far back as elementary school, who took the time to ensure that you clearly understood the central idea of their course? In my experience, the final week was a rush—a madness-generating dash—to pack as much as possible into the waning moments of the semester. I’m pretty sure I’ve done the same. It can make you feel like a distance runner whose final hundred feet leaves her on all fours dry-heaving just past the finish line. It’s not very pretty and hardly sustainable.
This semester, I have had to face more often than before the question of what kinds of activities does TLT recommend for the week after Thanksgiving. The reason could be blamed on COVID-19 and the virtual environment, too, as were in the process of guiding faculty who are opting for a final project instead of a final exam or are wondering how to create a more cheating-resilient final exam. This effort has produced the webpage “Creating an Engaging Final Week” on the Resilient Teaching & Learning website we created over the summer. The question re-emerged for me last week when re-reading Gilbert Highet’s classic The Art of Teaching where he describes the concept of “Fixing the Impression.” He takes the idea from Plato’s famous wax tablet metaphor (Theaetetus 190e-195e) that has continued to inspire discussions even as recently as 2015 in How We Learn (cf. p. 97). Here’s Highet’s opening paragraph in “Fixing the Impression”:
The teacher has not finished his work when he has communicated the required knowledge to his pupils. Their minds are not stone, to be engraved. They are wax to be molded and then hardened. Often they do not take the first impression; or, if they do, they lose it again. Often and often they take wrong impressions and distort right ones. Illness and football, love and carelessness, and many other things help to make the impressions incomplete. If the teacher leaves the minds of his pupils inadequately informed, he has done a poor job. He resembles a doctor who sees a patient past the crisis, makes sure that his temperature is down to normal, and then stops calling, instead of giving advice about convalescence, prescribing a tonic, and watching carefully for dangerous sequelae and a possible relapse (146).
Highet pulls no punches: the teacher, in his opinion, bears the responsibility of making the mark.
Highet identifies three steps for fixing the impression. He first proposes a review strategy that takes its cue from travel . He does not consider a 30′ segment on the last day to parrot a list of terms a review. Rather, he suggests taking 3-4 class meetings (150-200′) to re-walk the entire course’s journey: acknowledging the beginning, noting important detours, pondering the epiphanies, and standing in awe at how far we’ve come as a group. If this method sounds similar to Roediger’s idea of relearning information, it should. During this retrieval process, the second step for fixing the impression can occur. Time is given for students to ask their questions now that they’ve seen the course’s full spectrum. They are given opportunities to challenge the teacher, asking for clarity and pitching alternative interpretations and contrasting arguments as they rise eye-to-eye with the teacher. Mind facing mind. One of my favorite examples of what this second step can take is a type of Q&A called “quodlibets,” a session practiced by 13th and 14th century teachers at the University of Paris and translated “whatever you like.” Instead of some sleep-inducing, bleary-eyed experience, the quodlibets were rousing interactions in which students tried to puzzle the teacher, find inconsistencies in the lectures, or even root out heresy . Apparently, the minutes to these quodlibetal disputations are still available to be studied and imitated. The third step for fixing the impression according to Highet is taking time to acknowledge you have not taught them all you know or all they can learn about this particular subject. There’s a moment to “awaken their interest still further” by addressing “outstanding problems” (151). Reserving the last week for reviewing, questioning, and addressing outlying issues is a substantial commitment, no doubt. But the payoff—and goal—occurs when the class “stops being the mere transmission of information and becomes the joint enterprise of a group of friendly human beings who like using their brains” (153). How much more beautifully can someone express the experience of learning?
Fixing the impression has very real practical value for teachers during the Great Pandemic. The virtual environment has forced many of us to reconsider classroom dynamics, a maneuver we excel at but prefer to avoid. We may have concluded we needed to do something radically different in order to preserve the integrity of our classroom dynamics. That week after Thanksgiving must look differently. But I think it’s during that post-Thanksgiving week that Highet’s idea of “fixing the impression” is most fitting. If we’ve planned carefully enough, we could spend post-Thanksgiving class time engaging with our students, carefully fixing the impression—that single idea our course conveys—clearly within the minds of our students. We should invite the students to bring their strongest artillery to the fore in challenging what we’ve argued, how we’ve argued, and to what purpose we’ve argued so that we can lastly turn to consider the horizon and its expanse—like a child gaping at the ocean—dreaming of the yet-to-be-discovered.
The power of Highet’s section “Fixing the Impression” comes from his commitment to what I see as pedagogical tension. We don’t have to teach new content all the way up to the final exam or final project, piling on data. Stones stacked too high crumble. Fixing the impression is a strategy that allows us as teachers to celebrate the journey with our students, something that some of us (myself included) are often hesitant to do. It’s an invitation to recognize our place within progress’ spectrum: we’re somewhere in the middle stretched taut by certainty and doubt. So, find your way to fix the impression and enjoy the fellowship of those who love using their brains during the post-Thanksgiving week.