Perfect is the Opposite of Good

Alisa Roost, Associate Professor and Chairperson
Humanities Department


After participating in the CUNY Mindset Workshop in December, I had planned to share the exciting approaches. That seems like a world away, and I feel hubristic sharing any pedagogical advice given the amazing work everyone is doing as we are all unprepared with too many demands.

However, the Mindset workshop has guided my overall pedagogy in this transition time.  The work on Growth Mindset is well known, and I have incorporated that in my classes for over a decade.  The brain is a muscle, the differences between skill and talent and how the U.S. overemphasizes talent and devalues skill.  In Public Speaking, a lot of students come in with fixed mindsets and do not think of themselves as good speakers. Emphasizing the public speaking is as much a skill as playing the violin and focusing on what a beginner speaker can control instead of comparing oneself to practiced speakers like Obama or AOC have been important elements of my course.  Students do not need to be perfect to be good.

The Mindset workshop, however, emphasized other elements as equally important: nurturing students’ belonging; emphasizing their ability to succeed; and clearly demonstrating how course material helped in achieving real-world goals.  It is clear that students like ours (less privileged, often first generation) underestimate what their professors’ think of their abilities and potential. They need to know that professors believe in them.

I also realized in my course, I had started to slide into a bit of nagging.  The first day, dedicated to the syllabus, was all about what students must do. Because it never occurred to me that students couldn’t do the work if they wanted to, I didn’t think about whether they thought they could do it, or whether they thought I thought they could do it.

In re-evaluating my course, I got rid of the syllabus and focused the first day on community building.  I shared my own experience, of being the only kid in the first grade so poor that we didn’t have running water or electricity, which left me not fitting I and feeling like I didn’t belong. I subsequently nearly failed the second grade.  Showing where I struggled made more room for my students to share their struggles.

Moving my first day of class from “you have to do this” to “I know you can do this and here are the resources I have to help you” has improved retention greatly in my course (as measured by participation in the first speech, a traditional point of losing students in my class).  I have tried to keep that focus on “I know you can do this, and here is how I can help you do it” in the transition to the on-line class.

What I didn’t expect was my own sense of perfectionism sabotaging my class. I decided to go with short videos, lots of discussions on Blackboard, weekly writings and the speeches.  All of which went fine, except the short videos. I wanted to keep each one to about 5 minutes, and to speak with only a post-it next to the camera to maintain eye contact. But invariably, I would stumble over a word, restart a sentence or have a run-on in those 5 minutes. But when I tried to write out more detailed notes, it interfered with the delivery.  I teach Public Speaking—how can I stumble over a word? How can I post videos with blatant flaws?  But I keep telling my students that you don’t have to be perfect to give a good speech. I finally realized that posting good, but not perfect videos, is its own lesson.  It is still painful to go from my ideas of what the videos should look like (can you believe I don’t have a wind machine or a make-up artist at home?) to the very simple, straight-forward, imperfect videos. But my hope is by demonstrating my own flaws, it gives my students permission to relax and know that, indeed, you don’t have to be perfect to be good.


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