Teaching and Learning Institute

English professor explores how to “teach less better”

With support from the TLI, Nzadi Keita, Associate Professor of English, attended Ken Bain’s conference, What the Best College Teachers Do, in June 2014. The conference affirmed the strengths of her courses and inspired new thinking on her already-innovative class on Memoir Writing in Philadelphia.

Coming into Ken Bains’ “What the Best College Teachers Do” conference, Dr. Keita’s concerns focused most on the creative writing side of her teaching practice, rather than literary study. Specifically, rethinking her approach to a particularly challenging course, Memoir Writing in Philadelphia, was her aim. As Dr. Keita notes, the course has two large agendas: to create opportunities for Ursinus students to have deeply engaging experiences in Philadelphia, and to pose assignments that draw those experiences out in compelling, powerful writing. This style, largely unfamiliar to most students, demands revelation of their personal lives and viewpoints. Making sure the students would grasp this style drove her preparation for the second iteration of the course. As she explained, “I searched among short memoirs and whole books for writing that would enervate and illuminate bold choices of language, form, and subject matter.”

By contrast, the conference refocused her on the learning experience as a paradigm shift. Deep learning, attendees were told, challenges students to change their paradigms, to create and/or adopt new models for behavior. In many ways, Dr. Keita’s creative writing classroom already represents this shift: she almost never lectures, and students instead have to speak, question and critique each other, and make decisions in a conscious way. Physically, they have to move around—and particularly, travel together. In and out of class, they make much more use of their senses regularly.  

However, the conference helped Dr. Keita see ways to adjust the frame in all of her courses. She saw that the emphasis on product in poetry and prose writing classes had overtaken the gifts of process, and was inspired to think about her discipline more holistically while planning. She remarked, “I feel encouraged especially to rethink how I assess student writing, in light of the dictum that ‘if you want to promote deep learning, you have to assess for it.’ This idea tells me that guiding students toward stronger memoir writing is more likely to come from putting energy and sustained attention to their personal experiences, rather than showing them models of good writing and saying ‘write this way to improve.’” This practice made the most profound impact on her through a statement Bains repeated often: “Teach less better.”