If we orient our teaching practice toward student agency, minor decisions can become paradigm shifts. Decisions made almost on a whim can become game-changers. Things that start off looking like problems become opportunities. I call these things “accidental pedagogies” because they contribute to teaching practice, encourage greater engagement in student work, and contribute to the ethos of a classroom that builds self-sufficient and self-determined learners.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that these small decisions and joyful practices alone constitute a teaching philosophy, or that anyone falls into being an effective educator by accident. The phrase “accidental pedagogies” is meant more to suggest ways that our existing pedagogies can be expressed in unexpected ways that have accidental, outsized effects on our classes and our work.
Below, I share two examples of my own accidental pedagogies. These two simple practices have brought joy to both me and students alike every time I see them used. In each case, I made a quick, spur-of-the-moment decision to address an immediate need. Each decision had unintended consequences that help make otherwise-tedious processes more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Accidental Pedagogy #1: Memes During Finals
One example comes from when I started working at a new institution fresh out of graduate school. In my first year, I noticed a frustrating difference between the LMS system I previously used and the one in place at my new institution. Trouble is, I discovered this difference in the literal last minutes of our final session. On the last day of class, when students were finalizing and turning in their portfolios, I learned that the system required a file attachment when completing an assignment. Students had built their portfolios in Google Docs, meaning they needed only to share a URL. But the system insisted on a file attachment.
Knowing the file was irrelevant and unimportant, I needed a simple way for students to attach a kind of file that’s designed to be temporary, easily accessible, and generally insignificant (because the attention needed to be on their portfolios). But I refuse to assign busywork, choosing instead to create assignments that have value to students. We needed, essentially, a random file—but one that would mean something to students. And what feels more random yet meaningful than a meme during finals?
The instructions became this: “Think about the mood you want me to be in when I read your portfolio. Attach a meme to this assignment that puts me in that mood. I promise to look at the meme first, then your portfolio. For this one part of this one assignment, copyright doesn’t matter—because it’s a meme. Citations don’t matter with memes. Concepts of plagiarism don’t apply to memes. Find one from anywhere, and attach it.”
No Plans to Change
I have long since switched assignments, LMS platforms, institutions, and assignment settings, each of which makes the need to attach memes to finals a little less relevant or necessary. But to this day, that one accidental pedagogy remains my favorite aspect of finals week. The images students upload run the gamut from obtuse and ridiculous to happy and hysterical. But they all create a reaction and add levity to a tedious process. And after a semester of studying rhetoric, the task of finding a meme to create a reaction in a familiar audience just feels appropriate.
As a result of inspecting memes before assessing portfolios, I laugh more during finals week more than during any other time of the semester, and it causes me to actually look forward to seeing what students create. This one small assignment twist, created out of necessity but preserved out of delight, adds joy to the end of every semester.
Accidental Pedagogy #2: Clapping at Audio Goofs
My next example comes from a very different project—one that doesn’t even involve students…yet. But I’ll apply what I’ve learned from this experience to future classroom activities because it works so darn well. In fact, the more it’s necessary, the more effective it is. People end up applauding themselves when they make mistakes. It’s ridiculous, and again, it elicits so much joy that I now consider the practice irreplaceable.
I’m working on a serialized audiobook version of the edited collection I published back in Feb 2021. For this project, I’ve asked contributing authors to read their own work, which means the audiobook is filled with diversity, containing nearly 25 different voices. For many of the contributors, this is their first time recording voice work. They don’t usually read their texts out loud. Many use the microphones built-in to their computers and record from echo-filled bare offices. But the quality, really, is less important than the authenticity. When listening to a book about pedagogy and people, there’s something significant to hearing the inflections of the authors, knowing not just what they care about but also how deeply they care about the things they wrote/say.
When Things Go Wrong
But what if they screw up? Anyone who’s done voice work has dealt with flubs. We mispronounce something. We get tongue-tied. Maybe we stumble over a word, and our mouths turn to jelly, making us go from articulate to babbling in a matter of syllables. As the audio editor here, I wanted to help make sure I didn’t miss any flubs that needed fixing. So I made a simple request to authors: If you goof, clap your hands and try again. The waveform of a handclap looks like a crisp vertical line through a mass of squiggles—a lightning bolt amid hills and valleys, if you will. It’s visually and audibly hard to miss, making it super-easy to get my attention…and to edit.
It’s also ridiculous. Who claps their hands while recording audio? Why on earth would anyone do that? But the authors have been good sports, playing along and clapping their hands. Again. And again. And again. The best moments happen when someone comes up against something particularly meddlesome to say. When something becomes a tongue-twister, it’s a reach struggle to say it clearly on the recording. And by their third attempt, an author can get really frustrated. But by their third attempt, the author has now clapped for themselves three different times, and it starts sounding like applause—a celebration of failure. That’s even more ridiculous and awkward, and every time that happens, the author re-starts the reading with a smile in their voice. They’re less serious, more lively, and more entertaining.
Planning to Expand
By asking authors to do something simple to help me edit, I’ve inadvertently given them a tool to help break through tricky phrasing and improve the quality of their speech. And for me as an editor, it’s been a gold mine. Any time an author has clapped three times for the same text, profanity and laughter have accompanied the third clap, which makes me laugh out loud while listening to the work. We share a moment across time and space where the frustration of the work is converted directly into joy. As I continue with this project, do I actively wish for authors to make mistakes? No, not really. But they sure are fun to encounter.
This semester, one of my classes is working with audio recordings and will start editing their own voices. As part of this process, I’m going to intentionally suggest using this accidental pedagogy as a way of making the recording less intimidating, more fun, and more effective. I’ll encourage students to basically applaud their goofs and celebrate re-takes. If the authors I’ve worked with are any indication, students will appreciate the help.
Looking for More
I would love to hear from other educators about the #AccidentalPedagogies they use in class. What spontaneous decisions have you made that had such unintended benefits that you’ve adopted them as standard practice? What minor choices have taken on outsized importance because of the joy they bring to your classes?