Backup Plans

My friends often comment upon my penchant for organization, but I tell them, the reason I am organized is because I am extremely lazy.  Investing the time up front frees me up both in terms of being able to schedule personal time, and also allows me to smoothly hurdle those small emergencies than can derail a class session. I am speaking, of course, of backup plans.

As professors, we may have been enculturated to one form of course presentation, the lecture, and we may structure our classes around speaking for an hour or two at a time uninterrupted.  This is the most straightforward method, and also does not require much in the way of coordination of resources for effective delivery, except in the area of visual media: I have had overhead projectors disappear despite thick chains locking them down; I have arrived in the evening to discover the projector bulb burnt out and A/V nowhere to be found. I have had other faculty members jack up the connection to the internet (even had it sliced by a backhoe recently!) 

So what is the intrepid lecturer to do?

I have created multiple sets of the visual material, produced in a variety of media, and I also have them stored in a bunch of secure places.  No matter what they (the dark forces that conspire against us) throw at me, I will be ready, huzzah! Imagine me at this point triumphantly lifting my spear into the air.

I have transparencies for the odd overhead projector, and their cousins, the paper copies for document cameras, all in one binder per course. Many of these come from the publisher, as do some Power Points, which I sprinkle judiciously throughout the semester, but I have also developed my own overheads, which are saved on flash drives (top ten are reviewed here Since I am your typical absent-minded professor, and scatter flash drives like hair pins, I have lots of them, and keep one on my keychain, another in my wallet, and still others in my briefcase. I also have backed up my most essential documents on my Skydrive ( Some I make public for students and other interested individuals, others I keep close to my chest. There are other services, and here is a review ( but for simplicity’s sake, I believe in keeping on the good side of my feudal lord, Microsoft. 

Of course, the best backup location is in your head, and I am prepared to do any and all lectures on the whiteboard (I detest chalkboards and their squeaking and their dust, my hackles are rising just thinking about them). So I carry a ton of whiteboard pens in a spectrum of colors, as well as my own eraser and cleaner spray. I could use the grody eraser with no oomph left in it, and cross my fingers and hope the janitorial staff will clean the board sometime before academic year-end (and then they have to use the right stuff, ever notice how sometimes they are greasy, or streaky, or gummy?) or I can just do it already and give myself a pleasant slate to write upon.  By the way, I have also brought WD-40 to unstick windows, and cleaning wipes for desks during the flu season. Yes, I have an enormous tote bag.

All of this is another reason to branch off from the lecture circuit and develop some in-class exercises that can be thrown into the mix at a moment’s notice.  I have had to conduct classes while IT guys dangled precariously from the ceiling, tippy toes on my desk, to replace the aforementioned overhead projector light bulb (costing about $300 each so they aren’t kidding about turning those things off

At that point you are kind of left with a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” sort of atmosphere and it helps to have alternatives. It can also help student attention spans to throw a little physicality into the mix, always keeping disabled students’ access and participation in mind.  In my Introduction to Physical Anthropology class, I have my students sort themselves by gender and height to demonstrate individual variation and sexual dimorphism. It gives them a chance to stretch, chat, and mingle briefly before refocusing.  In Cultural Anthropology, after one quiz, I usually schedule a Survival Exercise, where students head outdoors for fifteen minutes in ‘bands’ looking for edible plants to identify on campus.

In any given session, I aim to change up the activity about once every 45 minutes, leaving about five minutes for transition time. Depending on class length, I may have room for three different segments. Being able to mix it up, responding to the mood of the class, keeps things fresh and is best done with an arsenal of backup plans.

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