As of Tuesday, I have begun working on my presentation for Many Gods West. Actually, that’s not true. I began working on it a couple weeks ago when I received my notice of acceptance. On second thought – I began working on this session a few months ago when I initially sent in my proposal. Nope, that’s not right, either; I actually started sometime last year when I first got an idea for this presentation. And now that I think about it, I’ve been thinking about the purpose and value of devotional practices for…a very long time.
I’m being a little silly, of course; still, this illustrates my point that preparing to teach or present on a subject takes a whole lot more time than many people realize. More than that, every educator has a different system. This is a look at my own process.
All my teaching efforts – whether one on one, in a group setting, in a closed group, in invite-only collectives, at festivals, or at conferences – start with an idea. Sometimes it’s nothing more than, “Huh, that might be interesting to learn more about,” or “Hey, no one has taught that subject around here.” My classes and conference sessions frequently come out of research, study, and practice I’m already engaged in. I reach a certain saturation point when all the information is accumulated and the final stage of learning – passing it on – is finally reached. Even though there’s an element of cliche, it’s true that stepping up to a teaching role has taught me a surprising amount. It’s become more common during this initial idea stage to ask myself, “What do *I* want to learn?” because through the process of preparation and presentation, I also learn a great deal.
Once I have a couple ideas that sound appealing, I start turning them over in my mind. I look for patterns, for frameworks, for perspectives that are helpful to making sense of a subject. This is how I decided to approach devotional ritual through a thematic approach rather than a tradition-specific framework for my PantheaCon session. Often, this stage of pulling apart an idea reveals shortcomings or blind spots. I may have misunderstood my information, I might have made an error in reasoning, or something like that. These ideas have to be either abandoned or fundamentally reworked. Long ago I wanted to write a book on devotional practice specifically in a Norse polytheist context. Talking with a friend about the idea she brought up many topics that such a book should ideally address, including the complexities of a convert’s mindset and the expectations that one has upon coming to a new faith. I realized I had none of that information and terrified of the subject, I backed off from it. However, my desire to write about devotional practice and my observation of its themes on the spirit worker’s path got me around to writing Walking the Heartroad. So really, even abandoned ideas can be useful.
If an idea survives getting pushed and pulled in different directions and if it can be pinned onto some organizational framework, then I begin to refine its thesis statement. In my ritual training, I was taught that good (ie effective) ritual should have a clear, simple, coherent statement. Writing demands a similar key statement. This is the marketing statement that is used when submitting a proposal to present, shopping around a class to different groups, or pinning an event to a community calendar. It forms the basic copy and also serves to reorient myself if my research and material prep strays too far afield.
Once I’ve committed to a statement of purpose, I zero in on that purpose and assess what needs to be done to get me to that point from where I currently am. The first ritual and energy classes I taught only required me to organize my information and present it in an engaging way; I was so thoroughly familiar with the basics that, for the purposes of those classes, no additional material needed sought. This isn’t always the case. To use my PCon session as an example again, I spent about 18 months immersed in research, practice, study, and observation to suss out the deeper aspects of the themes I wanted to talk about. This wasn’t because I wasn’t unfamiliar with the subject; it was because I had so much information in my head that I couldn’t effectively organize it. Books are frequently a map through territory I already know. An author’s job is to present material in a way that makes sense, to lead a reader through ideas. The books helped me clarify and distill the ideas that were most important to my statement of purpose.
Throughout this stage I’m also writing a lot. I’m writing down notes on what I want to say, I’m trying different organizational approaches, I’m getting all the information out of my head so that I can move it around more effectively. Sometimes this stage is unsuccessful in that I discover that what I wanted to talk about doesn’t match the material available. For instance, I very badly wanted to write a submission for a devotional but wanted some very clear precedent for what I wanted to say. Failing to find that, I now have to either scrap the idea entirely for the time being (likely) or go back and rework my statement of purpose (probably less likely). Whether information is being drawn from books, statements of authority, your own memory, or whatever, you can’t force it to support your statement of purpose if your statement of purpose is simply a poor fit. Like I said, sometimes I base these statements on faulty reasoning or incomplete understandings. Often these shortcomings show up in the first couple stages but sometimes they become evident a little later. Either way, trying to mash together a statement of purpose that doesn’t actually relate to the material being used to describe it is a real problem. It’s doomed to failure and it will always feel fundamentally unsatisfying to me. I’m also in a less advantageous position to argue in favor of my statement if I’m misapplying what the source material is actually saying – yes, even if that source material is coming from my own mind and experiences.
Eventually the research stage slows down and the writing-it-all-down stage picks up. My notes get organized and material gets subtracted to clear a path towards that central statement of purpose (typically I don’t have to *add* anything more at this point!). If I’m making a PowerPoint or handouts I begin working on those, too. This is sometimes the first stage where everything starts to really look like an actual presentation or class.
I work on my class notes and visual aids until they’re as good as I can get them. I’ve likely polished and winnowed down sections to a fraction of what they started out as. Many portions I’ve dumped already in interests of time, clarity, and my audience’s anticipated interest. A couple times I’ve managed a trial run of material before it’s debuted. This lets me test for time and gauge the places where my audience just tunes out. The trial run gives me feedback required for another round (or two) of revisions and then – FINALLY – it’s ready for consumption.
But of course, it doesn’t end there. If I’ve spent all this time and effort preparing for something, chances are pretty good that I actually care about the material a great deal. I’ll keep working on it and changing it up to make it as successful and appealing as it can be. Generally this is a good thing: I feel I’ve improved several classes this way. However, one class I used to give on myths and sacred stories dealing with gender-variant figures, ended up suffering for my constant tinkering. Eventually I have to either let the material stand on its own as it is or allow its evolution in a slow, organic way. It can’t be forced into new molds too quickly.
I’m also always studying, always practicing, always learning. This information gets fed into old classes and revitalizes them. For instance, though I began teaching classes on devotional practice many years ago, I now have a much more nuanced perspective on the various outcomes associated with this practice. I’m now able to provide even more to my students than I was in the first place. These classes are even better as a result of my continued education.
My preparation for teaching, presenting, and sharing information involves a whole lot more than this. This process is just the collecting, organization, and fermentation of information. These three stages usually take between 12 – 18 months though smaller teaching commitments can take 6 – 8 or occasionally even less depending on the subject. There have been many false starts and dead ends along the way and I still have lots of points to improve on. I love this aspect of my work a great deal and the more frequently I get to do it, the better at it I’ll be. That keeps me moving forward.