Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Snow Days and Voluntary Classes

On Monday, we had the first declared snow day at this institution in eleven years, a combination of good fortune and sheer cussedness in the face of the moderate elements. But a new provost and fourteen-odd inches of snow kept us out yesterday. Today, we were back on, despite some lingering treacherous conditions.

Faculty had been urged to exercise consideration for students who might have a difficult commute, but I hate that particular judgment call. Nothing worse than getting an email from a student that they can't make it to campus, only to see them at the gym right after class. So on such days (when I can afford it on the syllabus) I take a different tack, and send an email to tell students that while I will be having class, I will not be taking attendance. I remind them of the value of the material, but the way I structure my syllabi, rarely is the material of any given day "must-know."

In effect, the day is a free absence, and the students who end up coming to class are the students who actually want to be there. No surprise, then, that the postmodernism class saw about 1/3 attendance, while the amazing survey from heaven saw 2/3 attendance (and many of those who missed were the less-engaged in this highly-engaged group).

But the ones who were there in the postmodern class ended up making it a banner day there. We were talking about Ashbery's "What is Poetry" and "Paradoxes and Oxymorons" both highly playful poems that play around with the way that language functions as pure sign. In fact, one student mentioned the ideas of Derrida (though she could not remember the name), which prompted a quick explanation of differance, in a 200-level class. As importantly, contemporary poetry is not my bag, so while I had a few bon mots to offer, I struggle through his poetry just as much as they do, and so the interpretation they arrived at as a class was ultimately more convincing (or at least more interesting, and maybe both) than the one I'd walked in with.

These were the last texts in a unit on textual play (Borges, Barth, Calvino, Stoppard, Ashbery), and we ended with a casual discussion of simply "what you thought of these texts taken as a group." The discussion ranged far and wide, and touched on nihilism, readerly vs. writerly texts, and the place of pain and anguish within formal play. And I suspect that this was due as in large part to who was not there as to who was not.

This is not so much a dig on those students who might be bringing the class down as it is a reminder of the intellectual joy that arises when you know that the people in the room want to be in the room.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

That is a brilliant solution, Horace, and I'm stealing it post-haste. I get so tired of fielding "please excuse my absence" e-mails this time of year...this is an easy, proactive way of preempting them.