Friday, January 29, 2010

A Class is its Students

At the beginning of every semester, I tweak the syllabus, look at the roster, check the room out beforehand, and think about which lessons will still work and which need to be revisited, or created from scratch.

And despite all of that work, how well a class goes often depends not on that immaculate preparation but the ten or twenty-five, or forty people in the room. Take for example my later British Lit survey. In the past five years, I've taught roughly 11 sections of the class. I've had some really solid ones and one or two stinkers (and even those had bright spots). But I'll admit: even after switching up some themes and texts last fall, I'm still kinda bored with the class. Evals have been very good, but have sort of plateaued off, and the occasional negative or even constructive comments I get are of the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't variety (seriously, the two lowest aggregate scoring ones said, on one hand, "more open class discussion," and the other said, "more lecture"!). The point is, I feel like I've kind of maxed out my own personal reward from the class.

Until this semester. I expected the same-old-thing, but the 27 people in the room are totally rocking it out. I didn't need to do the whole "Crazy Ol' Blake" routine, and when I started up my riff on Wordsworth's sorta self-serving and kinda arrogant criteria for the poet (Really, you think your soul is more comprehensive than mine?), the students totally stepped up and defended the entire project--using evidence from the preface to the Lyrical Ballads. I mean, that's the ideal scenario, but it's never gotten even close to happen. These folks have ideas about texts, and the backbones to express and defend them. I'm totally in love with them.

Meanwhile, my course of postmodern lit (a gen-ed) is only in its second iteration. The first one started off fairly roughly, but ended up being a lot of fun. So I made some fairly substantial modifications to the beginning of the course, and was really excited to get back into it this semester. But after the very full first day of class, and I discover that most of my students think postmodern lit is written by Stephanie Meyers, Jodi Picoult, and Nicholas Sparks. I've been pulling all of my best tricks out of the bag in the first three weeks, and I'm dying here. I got a moderately good discussion out of the conflation of reading and sex in Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night..., but I had to resort to some pretty cheap tricks to do that.

So I thought I'd have one great class, and one just-ok class this semester, and so far that's turned out to be true. But with the actual classes flipped around.

This reminds me that students themselves have a responsibility for how classes proceed. My sense is that we often enforce this with participation grades and such, and there are a variety of lesson-planning strategies built around hedging against this fact (several usefully noted in a recent post at ProfHacker). But I also want us to think about how we can convey that responsibility to our students.

One way that I do it is that when I do midterm evals, I ask students to make a column for things I can control, but also things that they can control, and then suggest that some of those suggestions will become specific criteria for class participation. But this is still a bit more whip than carrot. If you're reading, and have other ideas, I'd love to hear them. Once we've exhausted our own tactics for livening up a classroom, how do we convey to student their responsibility for doing so?


Jeffrey said...

I was a student not (too) long ago and I remember some of the bad classes. Students who just wouldn't read material, or felt inadequate to discuss in plain terms the loftiness of Pope or whomever. I remember a really crappy group of students like that in a neo-classical/romantic lit survey and the professor couldn't be faulted. He was almost comically animated and energetic about the material and really brought out the beauty and cleverness of the era. I didn't (and still don't) seek poetry out on my own, but I remember my interest then being bouyed along by the neverending swells of his own enthusiasm. One thing that stuck with me was his (and other profs) pet themes and research -- like this prof was in awe of John Clare. The poet is painfully obscure now but my prof was able to fill up the room with his importance and relevance and beauty and history. Don't be afraid to explain your own stake in some material.

Sisyphus said...

I didn't even know who Nicholas Sparks was, so I googled him. Ugh. Sorry. How did they get that idea about your class?

And thanks for the profhacker link, which I am filing away for future reference --- it seemed very useful!

Horace said...

You didn't know who Nicholas Sparks was? That's like not knowing what H1N1 is! Darlin' you've got to PROTECT yourself from this drivel.

Emily said...

We've got a small, core group of majors and minors, all of whom have taken multiple classes with me. I've had a couple of days where I felt like I just wasn't as prepared as I would have liked to have been (I've lost a lot of time to service obligations and various banking issues that required a lot of phone calls during business hours ...) -- but the students were really into it. They did the reading and they did the journal exercise like I asked them to, and they helped push the discussion of Wordsworth along.

On the other hand, I cannot convince some of the students in the 102 course (comp and intro to lit) that actually reading everything for the course and coming prepared to talk about it makes the class time much more effective/interesting/productive. Some of my 102 sections get that, but I've got one where they're either not reading or they're really too intimidated by the reading to discuss it.