Pedagogical Exercise; or, What I've Learned About Teaching from Spinning

Frederick Burr Opper, "Shakespeare Would Ride the Bicycle If Alive Today: The Reasons Why" (1896), Folger Digital Image Collection, Folger Shakespeare Library (ART Vol. e203).

Frederick Burr Opper, "Shakespeare Would Ride the Bicycle If Alive Today: The Reasons Why" (1896), Folger Digital Image Collection, Folger Shakespeare Library (ART Vol. e203).

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I tend to tweet about two things: early modern books (#biblionerd) and spinning (#quadzilla). While I try to keep my twitter feed mostly about research, pedagogy, and other professional matters, every now and then I tweet about a challenging early morning bike class or a no-holds-barred instructor.

While the silence and stillness of the freezing cold library reading room and the pounding bass and motion of the dark sweaty spinning studio have little in common, believe me when I say they have both been sites of personal—and professional—growth for me over the last academic year. Yes, you read that correctly: I count group exercise classes as a kind of professional development—but maybe not for the reasons you think. To be sure, spinning helps me structure my day; it results in a burst of endorphins that beats any cup of coffee; and it tests my limits in a way that helps me to put other challenges in perspective. But the spinning studio is also a classroom that has reminded me (and taught me afresh) of what it means to teach well.

As a less-than-graceful student in desperate need of guidance, practice, and reinforcement, I have come to appreciate certain approaches to instruction over others. (Let me assure you that there are a lot of ways to teach a spinning class, and those that work for me may not work for others.) All that said, this post is not actually about spinning, per se, or about how exercise is essential to staying sane and handling the pressures of academia (even though it is that, too). Rather, it’s about accounting for some of the ways that being a student again has made—and will make—me a better teacher.

¶ MAP THE RIDE (MOSTLY) | The best instructors (for me) set expectations at the beginning of class. I like this because it helps me prepare myself mentally and physically for what’s ahead. Will we be climbing a lot? Sprinting a lot? Do I need to think about taking a sip from my water bottle more often than usual? At the beginning of each song, I want to know if we’re going to be sprinting for 45 seconds twice, three times, or more. How much resistance do I need on my bike for each drill? How many turns on the resistance knob to the top of the hill? But I also know that if I knew exactly what to expect each class, I would count down the minutes until the end, rather than staying engaged by what I was learning and doing. An instructor doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel (!!) every time, but changing things up just enough to keep it interesting seems like good pedagogical practice—both on the bike and in the classroom.

¶ FORM MATTERS, BUT EVERYBODY (EVERY BODY) IS DIFFERENT | Explaining to your students how to do something matters more than telling them what to do. In spinning, form is crucial to achieving a good workout and to preventing injury. My spinning instructors don’t all review proper form every class, but I’m always pleased when they do. Even if you think you know what you’re doing or have been doing it for a while, it’s helpful when to be asked to check whether my shoulders are down, my elbows are unlocked, and my center of gravity is over the saddle and not in my arms. Bad habits are quick to form.

That said, the instructors I admire most recognize that every body is different (“If I go somewhere you can’t or don’t want to go, don’t go there...”) and offer modifications (“ this instead.”). It’s never about not being able to do something because you’re not good enough, but rather about recognizing (1) that some of the drills take practice before they can be done properly; or (2) that invisible injury, disability, pregnancy, or other circumstance might make a certain drill challenging or undoable. Doing the modification is NBD. To me, this is akin to offering real choice in assignments and on exam questions, such that the skill or knowledge being assessed is not different but the mode of getting there is. Assigning a critical essay is not the only way to evaluate whether a student has grasped a concept or developed a reading of a text. And if a student wants to choose the “modified” assignment, I say: “Do it.”

¶ ADMIT WHEN SOMETHING IS HARD, EVEN FOR YOU | The thing that bugs me the most in a spinning class is when the instructor asks us to do something particularly difficult[1] and doesn’t do it with us. I love instructors who struggle up the hill or through the ninety-second sprint and admit that it’s hard for them, because if I’m struggling with something, I want context for that struggle. If what I’m trying to do is hard even for the instructor, then I feel more inclined to work through the difficulty instead of giving up.

I’ve seen this a lot in my teaching, especially in my Shakespeare classes. Students begin the semester with the notion that everyone understands “Shakespeare” and that they’re in the minority who find the language of the poems and plays really hard. One way I address this is to ask my students to choose a random number between 1 and 154 when we’re working on the Sonnets. The idea is that they choose a number of a sonnet that I’ve read maybe once or twice but don’t know nearly as well as, say, Sonnet 18 or 23. And then we work on the sonnet together—on somewhat more even ground.

¶ BREATHE | “Rule number one is that you must breathe. This is non-negotiable.” Sounds silly that an instructor would remind you to breathe during an exercise class, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve found myself out of breath not only because of exertion but also because I’d been concentrating too hard on finding the beat of the music or on whether I was at the right resistance level. But it turns out that oxygen is important—and breathing is actually therefore an important thing to focus on. While classes that are high intensity from start to finish can be great, I’ve learned the value of “active recovery” to my overall well-being on the bike. I can climb a bigger hill after a minute of active recovery than if I went right into that hill after a set of sprints.

I’ve thought a lot about my instructor reminding us to breathe while exercising and how that translates into my own work as a teacher. Allowing two excused/no-questions-asked absences is one way of acknowledging that my students need to breathe once in a while. I’ve also experimented with allowing every student a one-week/no-questions-asked extension on any major assignment before the final one. Many of my students concentrate so hard on jobs, family, school, and extra-curriculars (if they have time) that they forget to catch a little bit of down time. And while they’re certainly at college to work hard, it’s worth reminding them that they may be able to face the hills better with a little bit of rest after a sprint.


[1] For example, three minutes on a heavy hill in the saddle—trust me, that’s hard.