Pedagogy for Posterity I: The “Team Challenge”

At the end of this current semester, I will be leaving the hallowed halls of academe. Probably not forever, but definitely for the time being. The original reason for this was a happy one–“maternity leave” (not really, since adjuncts don’t get that kind of thing). But, since my pregnancy is almost certainly not viable (I have 24 more uneasy hours before I go back to the doctor for another ultrasound to be absolute certain), now I’m just “retiring” because I can. Two courses a semester at UMSL pay me just under $7000, which is well above the national average, but hardly anything to write home about. My paycheck ends up being about $1200 a month, which as most of you grad students know is livable in a cheap-ass city like St. Louis (especially if your husband purchased your home outright, for approximately the price of a 1996 Sony Discman, and you therefore don’t pay any rent).

But, my other paychecks–from my writing, from this blog, and from my consulting–now add up to enough that so long as I pick up just a few more consulting clients, I do not need to adjunct at all. It’s a small victory and a bittersweet one, and I feel all over the place about it. On the one hand, as I’ve laid bare in the Chronicle recently, I no longer feel “called” to the classroom, and the realities of dead-endedness and disposability are getting to me. On the other, this is something at which I was–perhaps still am– gifted. I don’t say that about much. I have few gifts. They are, in order of relative strength (or “strength,” in the case of the first one):

  1. Talking
  2. Writing quickly (notice I did not say “well,” as that is both debatable, and the result of practice)
  3. Teaching

I am mediocre-to-shitty at literally everything else in the entire universe, so don’t be jealous of my lot in life. We all have our gifts, and these are the ones I was handed. And now I’d like to hand the third one along to anyone who wants it.

Because I will not be teaching again for the foreseeable future, I would like to record some of my pedagogy, not really for “posterity,” but just to share, to get some feedback. I don’t know how much energy I’ll have to do this on a regular basis, but here goes nothing.


Tuesday 28 January, 2014
Cultural Traditions II (World Lit survey, 1700-present)

Text: Voltaire, Candide, Chapters 1-18
TSWBAT (the students will be able to): contextualize what Voltaire was pissed off about; define Leibnizian Optimism and the principle of sufficient reason; pinpoint exactly when and how (and possibly why) Voltaire mocked said principle
Prep: Ss came in with a set of comprehension/interpretation Study Questions completed, but I did not check them for a grade (sometimes I call them out in front of each other, in an event I call The Reaping, because I am derivative)

0-10 min: Warm-up activity. Are you an ‘Optimist?’ Ss broke up into pairs and threes, and discussed whether they thought “everything happens for a reason,” or “everything happens for the best.” A roundabout way to introduce the Free Will/Determinism debate, which will be a large over-arching theme of this course. They discussed amongst themselves 5 min., we discussed together 5 min. Opinions mixed, from “God has a plan for everyone and doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,” to “The universe is complete entropy.”

10-20: Mini-lecture. Short PPT slide show with the basic facts about: Voltaire’s life and work, a few choice bon mots (also the definition of ‘bon mots’), a brief diversion into Leibniz and his amazing wigs, which necessitated a short explanation of Descartes’ “proof” of God. Slideshow ends with list of offenses for which Candide was banned (blasphemy, treason, philosophical impudence), and of things about which Voltaire was not “optimistic” (Lisbon earthquake, Seven Years’ War, slavery, anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, etc).

Main Activity, 20-55: Team Challenge; a ‘Scavenger Hunt’ through Candide. Here is a copy of the instructions from the worksheet I handed out, which I will collect in class tomorrow after they have a chance to revise some of their answers, using our discussion (see below):

Instructions—please read CAREFULLY: This Team Challenge is worth one In-Class Writing (all of which add up to be worth 15% of your final grade). The team(s) that find the most clues (and can discuss them to my satisfaction) will receive a “10.” The second-place team will receive a “9.” Third-place and below will receive an “8.”

Equipment: Your texts, your study questions, any notes you took while reading.

One member of your team will also need to have a computer for this challenge, as you’ll want to look things up.

  1. Please look up and define the “principle of sufficient reason”:

  2. Please offer an example (that you made up!) of the principle of sufficient reason in action:

  3. CLUE HUNT! Please locate, in the first eighteen chapters of Candide, as many instances of the term “sufficient reason” OR any other use of the principle of sufficient reason as you can, and list them and their contexts here, and then discuss how Voltaire is making fun of the principle in this instance.To begin with, you MUST find one of each kind (one use of the term; one “application” of the principle without the explicit use of the term).

  4. NOTE: in scoring the Challenge, instances of the term “sufficient reason” will receive 1 point; instances of the principle in “action” without the term will receive 2 points.


While Ss worked, I went around the class and met with them 1-on-1 three times, and did the following:

  • made sure they had all defined the principle of sufficient reason to my satisfaction, and come up with an example to my satisfaction (the second proved much harder than it seemed at first)
  • asked how many examples they had, and then informed the other groups as to the “number to beat” (i.e. “I dunno…over there they say they have five. Can you get five? I think you can get six.”)
  • repeated step 2; answered any Qs they had along the way

While they worked, as background music I played clips by one of America’s current foremost satirists, “Weird” Al Yankovic (we did a more general discussion of satire last week, with Swift).

55-75: Discussion of Activity, in which S teams shared their findings, and we discussed a) whether they had indeed located an appearance of Voltaire mocking the principle of sufficient reason (some had, some were not quiiiiiiiiite there; we discussed how they could revise to get it juuuust right); b) how Voltaire was mocking it (they were generally quite good at this; “bayonets are sufficient reason for the deaths of 7000,” etc).

We ended class without a wrap-up, because our wrap-up (where we discuss the “takeaway” of Candide, and why it was important for us to read and discuss it) will be a major activity in Thursday’s class.


So, that’s a good example of how I teach freshmen. It’s student-centered, activity-based, and generally has a sort of fun/evil twist, often “branded” with terminology I’ve stolen from my favorite sources (the Hunger Games, Project Runway, etc). I hope that perhaps if you are teaching Candide to first-year students (or even high-school seniors) in the future, that you might consider appropriating some parts of this plan.

11 thoughts on “Pedagogy for Posterity I: The “Team Challenge”

  1. Excellent lesson plan. But you really should add “Advocating, agitating, and generally getting up the noses of people who are in desperate need of intra-nasal irritation” to your list of skills…


  2. First of all–good for you for recognizing that there are other avenues, other places, other people who will value your skills. Secondly, I don’t think you are leaving teaching altogether. You’re just leaving it as it exists in its current form. You, my dear, will still teach wherever you are. As with writing, it’s just part of who you are. Not the only thing, but part. And for that, those of us who learn from you are grateful.


  3. Like for example, in my post-ac job, I happily spew knowledge of whatever. It’s nice to be a generalist. Refreshing. And people appreciate it! Like, here’s how the Coen Brothers films are representing Judaism–casual lit crit whenever needed, no essay grading involved. Just hafta avoid being Peter Pedantic.


  4. That sounds like a wonderful class. I would have loved to have you as a teacher back when I was a freshman (and even now, as a recovering academic/jaded PhD who has left the fold).


  5. Good luck with “maternity leave”!
    Also, thank you for sharing this lesson plan. I am also a teacher and seeing this makes me feel like I’m doing something right.


  6. I love the idea of a “scavenger hunt” to help students understand and engage in the process of finding evidence to support or contradict an idea in a text. I will definitely consider appropriating that strategy for other texts I teach!


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