I'm always trying to change up the ending of a class, taking a cue from my friend and colleague to Tony Crider who wrote in The Chronicle in 2015
about "Epic Finales" rather than "Final Exams." This semester in my nineteenth-century art class I had a "Finale:" after using my Reacting Game, Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89,
which I co-wrote with Nicolas W. Proctor and Michael A. Marlais, I decided that each student should give a presentation about the future of their game character and discuss a painting from the future (post 1889) .
One of the students was late to class. He did not send the painting he was going to present for inclusion in the PowerPoint. He hadn't prepared enough and had his own presentation, which I said he could load on the classroom computer. And one of his slides was full of text. But that was not the worst of it.
The worst was the fact that the entire class did not take him seriously. There was laughter the entire time he spoke. No one was paying attention. It seemed a big joke.
I was angry, despondent, and wondered what to do. Later that night, I received a message from this student, asking if his presentation was "bad." I told him I would be in my office the next day in the afternoon if he wanted to speak about it.
He came to my office. It was nearly 24 hours later. I was still unsure what to do. Did he just blow off the presentation? Did he not care?
I asked outright if he had blown off the assignment. He admitted that he had not prepared enough. I also asked if he meant to make it a stand-up comedy routine, getting laughs from his classmates in order to deflect from the fact that he wasn't prepared.
And that is where it got interesting.
As we talked, it was clear that this student, a transfer student from a majority minority student environment, was finding it a bit difficult to navigate our mostly white campus. Humor had become one of his coping mechanisms. But he assured me that while he does include humor at times, he did not intend for the entire class to continue to laugh for the entirety of his presentation.
Then and there I decided to ask him to give the presentation again. To me alone. To make him learn what he did wrong and to be sure he learned from his mistake.
He was surprised, but he agreed. We went into an open classroom and he started. I pointed out that his back was to me. He wasn't engaging me. He was fidgeting. He needed to project his voice. He has a very deep voice, and often tries to mute it to fit in. But I told him for a presentation, he should let it fly and command the room. He did.
He then told me he was grateful for these tips because he had to give a presentation the next day in a class that is in his major as the final (finale?) for that course. I told him to think about what I said: don't fidget; face the audience; no text loading on a slide!
I checked in with him the next day, after I knew the final for his course had ended.
"How did it go today?", I asked.
He said the professor commended him on his presentation and wants him to return to her classroom next semester, to give the presentation again and to help other students think through the assignment, which was the creation of a video.
I could have stayed mad. I could have vented on social media. I'd like to think that instead, I taught this student a bit about how to present in a formal situation. Could it be that a transfer sophomore in college really had never been taught formal presentation skills?
I don't know.
But I kept thinking: isn't that what we're here for? Am I only supposed to teach art history? Isn't a small, liberal arts school, like the one where I currently teach, a place where we lift up students even when they fall down and, some could even say, screw up?
He did screw up. And he didn't get a great grade for the presentation.
But he learned how to do one. Better than he did for my class. And somehow I think - isn't that the point?
"Finale" to Spring semester 2017, indeed.