By Morgan Rooney, Educational Development Coordinator, EDC

Change is hard. It can be hard to see when it’s necessary, or to envision concretely what it might look like, or to actually implement it. When it comes to teaching, there are a lot of factors working against change: our workload, our perceptions of ourselves and our teaching efficacy, and our awareness of the many and intractable problems that hinder and constrain universities, professors, students, and learning generally. As a recent series of events in the new year have reminded me, however, perhaps the thing that gets in the way the most is habit.

A path through a snowy parkThe last leg of my commute home provides the pedestrian with two options: one can either take the pathway through a little park area that ends with a set of stairs, or one can take the sidewalk in a right-angle fashion. When there’s no snow, the former saves you about twenty seconds and allows you to fleetingly enjoy a tiny slice of nature. When the snow comes, the stairs are gated off and the pathway isn’t plowed. You’d think that would be the end of the first option. But no, after each snowstorm, people dutifully blaze a trail, bypassing the stairs via a side route that can quickly transform into a treacherous streak of ice. If you’re one of the first to attempt it after a fresh snowfall, the “shortcut” ends up taking much longer than the more circuitous route. Even when the trail is well worn, the icy, uneven conditions ensure that no time is saved.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon play out for a few weeks now—a fresh dumping of snow followed by, without fail, the re-emergence of that trail—with a sense of bemusement tinged with chagrin. After all, not only do I use the trail when it’s there, but lately I also find myself trudging through the snow when it’s not, joining the ranks for those who work to re-establish it. No time is saved; nothing is gained. The original function of the “shortcut,” in fact, is entirely undermined by the conditions I can’t help but acknowledge, but I trudge on anyway. The obvious question arises: “Why am I participating in this stubborn ritual?”

This absurdist drama—in which I am a consciously critical but nevertheless cooperative actor—has reminded me of the tyrannical force of habit in general, but especially in relation to teaching. In defence of my own practice as an instructor, I will say that I pride myself on taking a student-centred approach to my teaching, incorporating active learning into every lesson and implementing a number of strategies to empower my students with a sense of ownership of the class and of their own learning. But that said, I have lately found myself wondering how often habit is actually, and perhaps secretly, driving my decision making. How many times have I taken a well-known trail, so to speak, that saves no time or labour, or that no longer delivers on the promise that was its raison d’etre?

Two examples immediately spring to mind. First, I routinely collect feedback from my students about how a class is going, but I’m starting to suspect that I’ve been using those opportunities to explain myself more than to initiate student-driven changes. Similarly, I have long bemoaned students’ failure to complete weekly readings, and yet my assessments haven’t changed much in the last few years. These, too, are instances of me stubbornly participating in ineffective rituals that, in other contexts, don’t escape my notice.

Like others, I imagine, I had been consoling myself with thoughts such as “I’ve been at this for a while and know my business” and “some problems are too systemic for any one instructor to overcome.” New lesson plans and assignments take time and effort, and students work more and read less. There’s no sense “tilting at windmills,” right?

Well, actually, thinking back to the novel from which that expression derives, there is some sense in tilting at windmills. The loveable but absurd Don Quixote might have been off his rocker, mistaking windmills for giants, but every decision he made was fueled by one simple, worthwhile idea: that we must fight to make the ideal real. It is not enough to do things this or that way, to embrace seemingly intractable realities as inevitable, just because that’s how it’s always been done. Embracing that position, Cervantes wants us to see, is even more mad than Quixote’s fantastical knight-errantry.

When it comes to teaching, the challenge is to take or make new paths, even when so many things seem to scream at us, “There is no other way to do it.” Conscious self-reflection on its own is not enough, either, or at least it hasn’t been in my case. The only way to combat the tyrannical force of habit, I have recently concluded, is to actively seek out and embrace change. When I collect feedback from my students, I’m now committing myself in advance to implementing at least one or two changes they suggest regardless. When I see, as I have long seen, my students failing to keep up with the readings, I’m now seeking out new ideas and developing new assignments and grading schemes in search of something that will do more and better. Any improvement is better than the status quo, and any ground gained is precious.

By their very essence, re-trodden trails cannot lead us anywhere new. To find new paths, we have to jealously guard ourselves against a deference to habit, and we have to demand change of ourselves even when so many forces seem to insist that no change is possible, necessary or desirable. If you can make only one change in your approach to teaching this year, I would urge it to be this: commit to change. Commit to it not as a one-time event or temporary aberration but rather as a foundational principle in your pedagogy—not because your teaching is flawed or wanting but because, as Cervantes reminds us, the miraculous, absurdist impulse that drives every step forward in the human enterprise is simply that search for better, even if (especially if) we’re not entirely sure it exists.