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Protecting Your Time (and Energy) In Class

Last time I discussed laying down the law to prioritize your own work. Today we talk about actual class. To be honest, a lot these strategies protect energy more than time, because part of my time management strategy was to make sure teaching didn’t kill me. To that end, it was important that there were at least some days when I didn’t have to prep for lecture.  Finally, these strategies kept me amused in class. It’s deadly (and contagious) when you’re bored with your own material.

When asked to justify any of these tactics, I’d always tell people that it ‘put the burden of learning back on the students’. I was kind of making that up to begin with, but you know what? It turned out to be true. Students have become all too accustomed to passive learning, and to you telling them  what they should be getting form the material. Forcing them to tackle the material themselves means they learn better and you aren’t the sole responsible party in the learning transaction.

For inspiration, I’ve included a few of my favorite onscreen ‘teachable moments’.

1. Discuss, Discuss, Discuss

The more you can incorporate discussion, the better.  I know, you can’t really use the Socratic method (as illustrated below) with 200+ students. But you can solicit audience participation at certain points or at least have an opening patter where you ask if anyone saw any good movies over the weekend. That gives you a good five minutes of warm-up time. And while I wouldn’t advise improv in a language class (you’d better be prepared to translate Thucydides, believe me), I always scheduled several discussion days into my language classes. Hey, we needed cultural context, right?


‘Strangers With Candy’ is one of the best, most demented shows about classrooms…

You can also have brainstorming sessions to review material  — you’ve been lecturing them all semester, now it’s their job to synthesize.


‘Flash’ Harry instructs the girls of St. Trinian’s. Devilishly funny Brit movie with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth.

2. Group Projects

Let me guess, you always ended up doing all the work for your student group and now you hate group work. But consider the benefits now that you’re a teacher: by not grading every individual student on a project, you cut your workload down tremendously. I always included a rider in the assignment requiring the group to list how it delegated the responsibilities, and told students that while I’d prefer them to fix problems themselves (like any real-world boss), serious non-participation should be reported to me. And believe me, I did fail a few students on that count. I also let them play to their strengths; one could give the presentation, others could do the write-up, etc.

3. Assign Student Presentations

Ah, I loved assigning presentations Why? 1) It made them create class content and 2) it made them walk in my shoes for a day. As I always told them, presentation skills are very useful in the real world, as is brainstorming your own project ideas. I saw some good presentations on Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and God of War. At one point, a group of engineering students was espousing the virtues of the Homeric imagery in 2001 — that was a good day! Even if there’s no room for ‘culture’ projects, you can make them teach a particular topic for the day. In my experience the students did far better on presentations than papers; they love multimedia.


Classically ‘Clueless’.

You can combine this one with group work above for a major/final project, or make individual students give mini-presentations. One savvy prof advised spacing out the presentations throughout the semester, the better to regularly have breaks.

4. Have a ‘Go-To’ Emergency Project

Some days you’re one cigarette away from a nervous breakdown and you need a plan, fast. My strategy was the following: walk into the classroom, announce that we were going to ‘have some fun’ today, put the kids the kids in groups, and say the following: ‘Imagine that you are assigned to write a movie based on [insert X topic or author or work]. Work on your elevator pitch, telling me how you’d adapt and cast it, and why you chose to reflect [insert Y item/theme/whatever]’ The last bit ensures critical thinking, see? Then I’d have them turn in a write-up at the end.

This meant I didn’t cry in front of my class, and my students’ weird ideas actually cheered me up most of the time. C’mon, don’t you want to hear their pitch for a movie about Madame Curie?


From ‘Orange County’, written by Mike White, who is also playing the teacher.

5. Show A Movie

This one’s for when you can hardly keep from falling over on the podium. It isn’t the cop-out you remember from high school, either, at least if you’ve defined your goals to include reception and modern media literacy. Make it an actual assignment by having the students write something or do some research afterwards. I used Humpday and Chasing Amy to teach Plato, Parks and Recreation to teach gender, Lone Star instead of to supplement Oedipus Rex, and made one myth class analyze the History Channel’s episode on Medusa against the primary sources.  My only regret was not getting Velvet Goldmine into a class – you’ve got gender theory, history of rock, pastiche, and Dionysian/Apollonian aesthetics, all in one movie!

And if you can’t stomach a whole movie, at least show some relevant clips from The Daily Show, or geeky jokes from your favorite hacker site, or whatever might bring some levity to the situation.

Basically, if you can make students think critically about whatever media — the sources it reflects, the spin, the elements it chooses to emphasize,  the ‘real’ historical sources or facts about a topic — I say you’re still doing your job.

I’m ending with some random ideas you could use in class:

Last of the Mohicans for American colonialism. Or Avatar. That movie has ‘white Messiah’ written all over it.

A Beautiful Mind for econ/math type stuff.

— Isn’t there a movie about Hypatia somewhere? Math! Religion! Philosophy!

— How about a diaspora class on M.I.A and Far East Movement?

Any other brilliant ideas? I’d love to hear from some science/math people…


  • Ugh, Oedipus is a total schmuck and the students just *hated* him. Lone Star, on the other hand, is a great movie and was eerily prescient about the whole Texas textbook debacle!

  • I’ve seen my teachers use most of these strategies at least once. I know they always made class easier for me, but I never thought about how they make class easier for teachers…

  • That is awesome! Not that I had the chance to have such discussions, Spartan eugenics was about the closest I got. But thanks for contributing, I’m always excited to hear what’s going on in the non-humanities parts of teaching!

  • This is very late to the party–but what the heck. I teach Psych, so those alternative “fun” assignments are fortunately pretty easy to come by. I also use discussion/group work and case studies.

    Clips from Clockwork Orange — classical conditioning

    Breakfast Club–social psychology, in group/out group/ stereotypes (sometimes I tell them to watch Survivor)

    Girl Interrupted (or Cuckoo’s Nest)–why I chose those is an exercise for the student.

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