Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Tale of Two Classes

So this semester has been a doozy, one that has really left me a little demoralized. Both classes (a 200-level drama class and a 300-level Commonwealth Lit. class) have suffered terrible attrition, so that initial enrollments of 23 and 25 respectively are now at about 14 and 15--that's a 60% retention rate which is absolutely awful. In the case of Commonwealth Lit, some of that is the sheer volume of work I asked of the students: 6 response papers, plus 2 majors papers seemed manageable enough, until the response papers started ballooning to 3-4 pages... Still, I came in with high expectations about a fun semester teaching texts I find invigorating and came out the other end feeling not only not particularly invigorated, but actually kind of hopeless about the good that my teaching can do (that's an overstatement, perhaps, but not a gross one).

For the Commonwealth class, I handled it mostly like a postcolonial lit class, but considered England-as-empire as a crucial component to theorizing the lit. The beginning of the semester was promising, with some very very bright students, some sophisticated discussion questions, and booklist full of texts I enjoyed.

Perhaps too full. Six novels, a play, a couple of poems and a few short stories, with all of that writing was simply too much for this student body. I do not think it would have been too much at other places I've taught, but here? too much. Plus, several of the brightest students left the class, one early on because he realized he needed a different class to graduate, three others to medical issues--all bright, all contributors. Then several who remained who were very strong writers did not participate.

I am typically good at eliciting discussion, but not this semester. Perhaps the high reading load meant that too few students were prepared, maybe they were all just quiet.

I do think that part of it was that the room was done in hideous shades of institutional green, had poor ventilation (hot and humid in the summer, hot and dry now), and sported old fluorescent lighting: nothing remotely energizing about the room. The whole class looked seasick.

By the end of the semester, getting a discussion going was like pulling teeth. In fact, even though a large plurality of students are writing their final paper on Zadie Smith's White Teeth, our last novel, a vibrant, funny text, I actually sent all of the students home early last Friday because I couldn't get them to say anything. it's been that kind of semester.

What gets me about it is that I worked my ass off for this class. The field is a bit outside my general expertise, and I used it to teach new books. In the end, 90% of the material was stuff I was prepping for the first time. I prepped all summer for this course, and prepped hours and hours during the semester for individual lesson plans: staged debates, fishbowl discussions, whip-arounds, free writing prompts, grading grading grading. And in the end, Even students who profess to loving me won't say a word. I had to resort to the threat of tap-dancing twice (a little comedy bit that almost always loosens up a tight class and starts a bit of chatter), with no effect. And it will show in the evals. I worked extraordinarily hard at the course and it fell flatter than any course I've ever taught (save one section of comp my second year as a TA).

The other class, an intro to drama class, I was less hopeful about, despite the fact that i'd taught that course before a couple of times with good success. Early on, the class level of discourse was pretty low, and the disparity between the students with the most preparation and those with the least was extraordinary. Writing samples were generally abysmal early on, and every one of the first three texts we read (Oedipus, 2nd Shepherds, and Faustus) was met initially with complete bafflement about how to even read them. Oddly, I went into autopilot with this class, putting them in groups to summarize important scenes, talking off the cuff, not re-reading texts to teach.

And yet with this class, something almost magical happened. They were having fun, and so I was having fun. Several (actually manymany) of the weaker students disappeared (as happens around here, usually right around paper due dates), and so the 14 that remained all wanted to be there. Discussions, while never super sophisticated, were energetic, engaged, sometimes intense (we had a discussion about representing rape in Sarah Kane's Blasted that ended with one student pulling out a rape crisis hotline number to share with her classmates that blew me away). Group projects reported almost utopian working processes, their last papers, while technically no better than any average group, were creative and fun. And I winged the whole semester virtually.

So when I look at it this way--I work hard for one class and the thing goes abysmally, I mail it in for the other and it turns out to be a dream class--I'm not reall thrilled about what this means about the ratio of effort to results. I know that it's never a simple exchange here, but it's hard not to see it that way. Even the "You just got a bum class, and the other one just happened to be good" makes me think that chance has a lot more to do with how a class goes than does my teaching.

Next semester, I'm teaching the grad class and the survey class I teach. In some ways, there's less risk on the table here for my sense of myself as a teacher. I'm hoping that I can find myself coming out of the spring semester feeling more hopeful, and more effective than I do at this moment, when I feel, well, mostly like a functionary of chance.


Jenny said...

Have you done the thing where you teach the EXACT same class to two sets of students the same semester and they go wildly different? I taught the exact same material to two acting classes and one thought my class was the most fun they'd ever had, worked so hard, and really formed a community I miss, and the other just... floundered. Even when I threw out a whole unit and we created a new one together. And my CIS forms showed it. What could I have done differently in the floundering class? I still don't know. I think chance does have a lot to do with it. You have more teaching experience than me, but I think teachers live in a spectrum. A good class raises you to the highest end of your teaching ability and the bad class to the lowest, but it's your range. No class is going to make me as great a teacher as some of the senior scholars I've had (not now at least) and no class will make me as bad as the teacher I was when I taught my first ever college class (sorry guys). So it's not all chance.

Matt said...

I've had similar experiences.

Putting aside the fact that class dynamics are ultimately more inscrutable than Queequeg's tattoos, I think it's possible that when we overprepare for a class (or when we feel nervous/uncertain/anxious about the material we're teaching), students perceive and respond to that anxiety with bewilderment or fright (and, eventually, with apathy). Overprepping can make us anxious to convey all that we know, rather than listening to what the students want to tell us. Such situations can turn quickly into a kind of pedagogical quicksand: the harder we try to rescue the class, the deeper it sinks.

I tend to do my best teaching when I am most relaxed, when I am most open to student input, when my students and I are able think, off the cuff, through issues and texts together.

I'm willing to bet that if you taught the Commonwealth course again, it would go swimmingly, at least in part because you'd be so much more comfortable with the material.

Sisyphus said...

I always really liked the statement at the top of your blog about teaching being an art; it really helps me when I have a shitty class experience (or, as jenny says, two classes prepped the same way and with opposite outcomes).

It's good to remember (especially in light of your posts on assessment and outcomes) that teaching is not like the scientific method, where one gets the exact same results if one duplicates the same setup, and it's not even really like baking --- or maybe it is; it's like baking but where random ingredients change qualities or become explosive at whim. (Shouldn't this be a sponge cake? Why is it like a rock?)

The problem is, you feel kinda bad about quietly throwing a batch of burned students in the trash, spraying around some air freshener, and trying again.