April 13, 2011 § 16 Comments
Probably the single best part about the actual instruction involved with teaching is the motivation, the encouragement. I love it. I thrive on it. It happens all too infrequently.
Yesterday was a great teaching day. Class clicked along swimmingly (although discussion was a bit one-sided for my tastes), I had a few opportunities to demonstrate my generous benevolence, and I met with a few students in my office a full gasp! nine days before the paper is due! (That’s not meant to be read as sarcasm…I am truly astonished and thrilled.)
This paper that my students are writing is an experiment. All semester, I have asked them to consider the theme of “Identity” throughout these World Literature II texts. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve done a stand-up job. This final paper condenses a semester’s worth of lectures and thoughts into a single moment, a single exploration of the Self. I have assigned my students the weighty and nigh-on impossible task of crafting their own identities. They will interact with the literature, though, analyzing the authors’ approach to identity-making and mimicking as best they can the approaches that work best for them. I expect some creativity. I want some sparkle. This could be the last paper I read for quite some time (and at least until August–since I won’t teach this summer), so why not go out on an experimental high note? So far, I believe they are enjoying the journey. Many of them are relieved to find out that I’m fairly loosey-goosey on this particular assignment…unlike the first one which was very rules-y. (We must all learn to write in specific landscapes, yes?)
Yesterday’s good teaching day allowed me a moment’s meditation (and only a moment) on the loveliness of helping. And, in light of that, I’d like to write a short open letter to students everywhere.
To all students present and future:
To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, please help me help you. Give me the chance to demonstrate to you my knowledge. Allow me the opportunity to attempt to motivate you. Ask me questions. Open up. Be honest. Reveal your insecurities, your concerns, your fears. Be receptive to my advice, my recommendations, my suggestions. Take notes while I expound on my answers to your questions. Demonstrate to me that you are actively listening. When I see you take notes, feverishly writing to keep up with my fevered counsel, a fire burns in my heart and I become proud. I become confident. I realize that I have something of value to offer you. Give me that chance because the more often you do so, the better my advice will be.
Let me celebrate with you. Tell me about the times when you broke through your Writer’s Block. Share with me the harrowing tale of your 2 a.m. Dorito’s and Mountain Dew bender at the library and the genius that pored forth from your fingertips to the keyboard. Recount for me the time you showed your classmate a rough draft in an impromptu peer review, and how it helped you. Give me the gift of collegial joy. I’m a writer, too. I can revel in your successes, too. I can live vicariously through your victories, your triumphs, your battles hard-won, too.
Help me help you.
Offer me a moment to teach you, to feel a burst of confidence when you promise to get it, and to experience the utter, bone-deep pride when you actually do.
February 7, 2011 § 10 Comments
Tomorrow, we will be covering the first 25 sections of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As I reread those sections tonight to lesson plan, I remembered a line that has never failed to evoke a tear from my eye, a prickle in my nose.
from Section 13
“My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing within me,
And consider green and violet and the tufted crown intentional,
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.”
The poet (the poet who is himself and herself and all of us all together) describes traipsing through the country, disturbing the country and the animals within it. He (I’m choosing a pronoun here) imagines those disturbed animals flying away, passing judgment on him (the bay mare in particular), but he does not (cannot?) pass judgment on them.
I love the line I emphasized here. This is the line that has always grabbed my heart and given a good tug. Here, the poet promises (and admonishes those who do not follow this advice) not to pass judgment on the tortoise when she is not a bird and full of fluttering colors. He goes so far as to say that he will not call her “unworthy.” “Unworthy” is such a loaded word, full of the most painful implications. “Unworthy” of what? Consideration? Life? A line in a poem? Being seen? Being appreciated? Being loved?
I am that (un)worthy tortoise. I see myself as that tortoise. I spend too much time telling myself that I am not worthy because I am not something else. (Better, thinner, stronger, prettier, kinder, smarter, funnier, more loving.) But what we are asked to do here is two-fold. First and most obviously, we should not pass judgment on something because it is not something else. (“Damn you, chair, I hate you because you are not a horse!” Ridiculous, yes?) The second is that we should not pass judgment on ourselves or each other because we are not something else. If we are tortoises, we will never be hares. If we are hares, we will never be dragons. If we are dragons, we will never be the sky. At the end of it all, we had better love and let love (or live, depending on your mood, of course), because otherwise we sure have wasted a precious lot of time.
So, here’s a promise, to Amanda from Amanda: I will not call you unworthy because you are not something else.
Whitman also reminds us in Section 20:
“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.”
Isn’t it enough to just exist? It shines all new meaning on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), doesn’t it? Let us all alone to think and exist, and let us all alone to be content in that existence.
Also, before I go, I found an audio recording of Lucille Clifton reading Section 3 online, and I plan to share it with my students tomorrow morning. For those of you who might be intrigued by the prospect of this reading (and believe me, you really ought to be), then please follow the link, press play, and read along (Section 3 is reproduced on the website): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20277.
January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments
“Mrs. H!” a student hollered over the general din as students packed up after dismissal. “What about our Pushkin reading for Tuesday?”
“What about it?” I responded, my voice not quite as loud as hers because it carried greater authority and made students quiet down.
“Well,” she said, embarrassed by the sudden quiet, “I can’t find the book. Do you think you’ll upload it to Blackboard for us?”
I sighed, annoyed. Yes, I allowed my students to see that I was annoyed, but it was clear that I was not annoyed at her…just the simple situation. I ultimately decided that, yes, I would upload the Tuesday Pushkin poems.
After I did the job, my fourth uploaded reading assignment at this point, by the way, I made a decision. Strange as it might be, considering they are still struggling to obtain the required book and will need it for Thursday as well, I decided that the upload for Tuesday’s reading will be the last one I do. I sent my students an e-mail letting them know it was available…and that it was the last one they can expect from me. I reminded them that it is their responsibility to obtain all of their textbooks on their own. If the bookstore does not have it in stock, then they must themselves make arrangements–borrow the text from a classmate, order it through the bookstore, order it online, check the library’s holdings. It dawned on me that what was originally a gesture of good will had so quickly devolved into coddling.
I’m not a coddler when it comes to my students. I want them to take responsibility for themselves; I want them to struggle to find sources, and then feel triumphant when they finally do. I want them to fret over delivery deadlines versus homework deadlines. These are part of growing up. My book list has been available to view from the university bookstore website since November. The snow did not incapacitate the southeast (and, incidentally, our main delivery hub) until January. My students had plenty of time to acquire the books on their own without my assistance.
This is why I was so hesitant in the beginning to upload the first reading. I worried that I would succumb to their pouty little faces and their needs…and be drawn to upload absolutely everything. But our delivery hub has thawed out, and the snow has melted. I am no longer interested in helping them figure this one out.
So, what do you all think? Am I being too hard on them? How would you handle (or have you handled) a similar situation?
January 27, 2011 § 5 Comments
Today I had an incredible day. Class was amazing. My students were engaged, alert, talkative. I went in and explained my agenda (as I always do), and then said to them, “So, I was reading your blogs and I noticed a common theme…so I wanted to turn today’s class over to you.” And boy did they deliver.
Days like today leave me feeling like a confused Sim. Instead of a giant green diamond hovering dangerously over my fragile cranium, I’m shaded by a massive gray blunt question mark. Although the sharp diamond, if dislodged, would crack my skull and finish me in mere seconds, the edgeless question mark would cause severe trauma if it came crashing down. At the least, I would suffer a concussion. At the worst, I would be left to live with the recollection that I was beaten down by my own confusion…and that it still exists.
Here’s the trouble, friends: I don’t want to be a college professor. I know this to be true. I don’t like writing, I don’t like the idea of publishing or perishing, I don’t like the political nonsense that is guaranteed in any department. Although I’m competitive, my competitiveness seems to begin and end with myself–I mean, I compete only against my own accomplishments. If I made a low grade on the first paper, I would compete with myself to improve upon my grade for the second paper. I couldn’t care any less about the grades of my classmates. Class standings meant nothing to me in high school–I can’t even remember what my class rank was when I graduated. I know it was high enough to allow me to graduate with honors, but I only cared about that because in a class of over 600, it gave me the opportunity to graduate before the average students with last names that started with an A. I was a W. This was significant mostly for my family’s sake–nothing’s worse than alphabetized graduation when you’re waiting on a W to graduate. In college, I didn’t compete with my peers, not really. I didn’t care how they did on an exam. If someone performed better than I did on an exam, I buddied up with them to help me study for the following exam. I wasn’t trying to reduce their score. In graduate school, I cared even less about my fellow classmates’ grades. (Well, and to be fair, in English graduate programs, grades mean very little. As long as you are performing above a C, then you’re fine.) The only time I showed any flare of competitiveness to a classmate was when she attempted to poach my topic for a seminar paper. She actually invited me to reconsider the topic and graciously offered me “to tell [her] if [I] didn’t think [I] could do the topic justice.” Bah. That paper was one of my favorites I’ve ever written, and it also ended up going to a conference presentation.
Other than that, though, I am not motivated by competition among my peers. I can see this as a potential drawback in the academic world. Oh sure, your college professors probably (for the most part) exhibit a standard of professional collegiality at the undergraduate level that would leave you with the impression that the department is one big happy, respectful family. That’s their job. Of course, when you get to graduate school…that’s when the claws come out. As a graduate student, I did not expect this sort of shift in the rosy presentation of academic life. There were really no warnings to speak of. Sure, everyone sort of dissed on this one creepy journalism teacher, but he was a creepy journalism teacher. (No, I’m serious. I didn’t like going to his office alone and would often ask one of my male friends to accompany me and wait out in the hall if I had to go to a meeting with him.) He was a creepo. But I just figured that the other professors generally disliked him because he was just a creepo. Maybe there was more below the surface. When there was a shift in the department head position at my undergrad, it didn’t feel like the coup d’etat that it felt like when my department in graduate school did.
With that impression of the gritty underbelly of academia fresh in your minds, you must be asking yourselves, “Well, if that’s really what it’s like and you’re so committed against it, then where’s the confusion?”
Thanks for asking. It’s brought me back around to my point.
Today was an amazing class. We discussed cross-dressing, social standards, sex(uality) and identity, gender. These are among the buzz words used in my dissertation, so of course I was flying high. My whiteboard looked like a frenzied mess. Something akin to an English version of Russel Crowe’s windows in A Beautiful Mind. My insides were trembling with excitement. I was at my peak! Here I was, an expert in this specific field, making my expertise matter! For God’s sake, I was finally doing IT!
“So…what’s the confusion?”
Yeah. Well, I want to feel THAT all the time. But I know I won’t because that’s not real life. Today is the last day of our eighteenth century texts (and, really, socially speaking the eighteenth century shares so much in common with the seventeenth century). Next week, we move quickly on to the nineteenth century. And I will no longer be an expert. Sure, I may have another fully-engaged, attentive, alert, and excited class session. I expect to. But I won’t be The Expert that I’ve truly enjoyed being these past two weeks.
How is it that I can enjoy THAT so very very much and despise the other so very very much? I’ve said to many friends and colleagues over these past few months that my ideal job would be one in which I could teach the cool things I learn about cool books but in which I would not have to grade or evaluate my students’ performance, or compete against colleagues, or be forced to publish my research.
I fear that that job does not exist. And this leaves me confused.
Anyone hiring a seventeenth-century expert to come and talk about the cool things about that period? Anyone?
January 21, 2011 § 8 Comments
I’ve been asked a few times about an assignment that I’ve started to incorporate in my World Literature classes: blogging. The idea struck one day after Spring semester last year, sometime in May probably, late at night while Robert and I lay there drifting off. “Blogs,” I mumbled. “Huh?” Robert replied, not sure he heard me right or at all. “Blogs. My students should write blogs. Like movie reviews. They should write book reviews on blogs.” “Yeah,” he said, his voice soft and heavy. I fell asleep happy in my creative lesson-planning.
That sleepy conversation blossomed over the next few weeks while I researched blog hosting sites, FERPA requirements, and worked on developing an actual assignment sheet. Choosing WordPress.com because of its functionality (it’s super easy to create a private blogging network), I set up all my little blogs. I do recycle the blogs semester to semester because it’s easier than being the owner of fifty-thousand blogs. (I’m the owner for the simple fact that I want to recycle the blogs…and I also have access to tricky things like checking the word count box and the timestamp.) I’m a bit of a control freak, really.
WordPress.com allows you to add users of different administrative levels; at this point, I add a single student per blog as a fellow administrator (so they can change the appearance of the blog if they so choose). Also, if you choose to write a private blog, you are able to add up to 35 registered usernames (for free) as permitted readers to the blog. Fortunately for me, my classes are capped at 30 students, so that’s perfect. It takes some time to set up at the beginning of the semester–for thirty blogs, I have to add one new administrator as well as 30 permitted readers.
The assignment is fairly straightforward: my students have three blog posts due every week for a total of 900 words a week. They are due on a specific schedule:
Monday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Tuesday’s class (250 words).
Wednesday at midnight: an analytical blog post in response to the reading assigned for Thursday’s class (250 words).
Sunday at midnight: a reflective blog post in response to a specific assignment I give in class on Thursday (400 words).
The blogs factor into their daily grade and weigh the same as reading quizzes. By the end of the semester, they have had the opportunity to accumulate up to 590 blog points (this is the equivalent of 5.9 quiz grades–fairly significant, I’d say, especially considering that on average I only give 10 quizzes a semester). The way students get the 590 points is by meeting very simple criteria for completion:
1. Blogs must be on the correct topic. Book reports or plot summaries are not accepted.
2. Blogs must be turned in on time. They cannot be made up and late blogs are not accepted.
3. Blogs must meet the minimum word count. Short blogs are not accepted.
4. Students must comment on each other’s blogs according to a comment schedule. Comments not made on schedule are not counted.
5. Comments must be meaningful (they must continue the conversation). Lame comments like “I agree” or “Lol” are not counted.
I had a real mean student last semester who really shook me up–I remember one of his blog posts criticized my grading criteria. He made some sort of remark about how the word count is obviously the only indicator for quality. Obviously, his impression is entirely incorrect. The blogs are meant to be an easy way to earn completion points while simultaneously extending the analytical conversation beyond the classroom. I grade it on completion rather than content for a couple of reasons. The first is that they already have argumentative papers they have to write during the semester that are graded on content. The second is that I want my students to practice analyzing literature in a low-stakes environment. It’s extremely nerve-racking for an insecure student of writing to have only one or two high-stake chances to write an analytical response to a text in the form of a long-ish paper. (Remember: to the undergraduate college student, a 4-6 page paper is considered long.) If they only get two shots at analyzing a text in writing, then we (their teachers) are essentially setting them up to fail. I don’t like that. I prefer to set my students up to succeed and then leave it up to them whether or not they do succeed.
When I get into my rhythm in the semester (not quite there just yet because I only just finished setting up blogs for new students), my normal practice with the blogs is to quickly peruse them before class to get a sense of what the students found compelling, intriguing, confusing, or interesting so that I can steer class discussion in that direction. I like to continually mention specific student blogs (never referring to the writer him- or herself, of course, for the sake of anonymity–but instead I’ll say something like, “one of you said…”)–I do this so that they know that I’m reading the blogs. They’re not just throwing words out into the ether for nothing.
Generally speaking, I think students find the blogs interesting. They’re better than other forms of writing responses because their classmates get the opportunity to read their thoughts and remark on them. This facilitates the learning environment and fosters a trusting community of students of literature. I know that as the teacher, I really enjoy having them blog–I don’t feel quite as burdened by having to force interpretation and analysis from my students. By the time we meet in person, they’ve already started to think analytically.
The blogs are now instrumental in my literature classroom. It’s safe to say that I’m securely addicted to them.
January 19, 2011 § 3 Comments
Before I begin this post, I want to remind you that you were previously warned this would happen.
Right now, the only thing on my mind is Molière’s The Would-Be Invalid. This is the text we’re reading this week for World Lit. II, and I have never read it before; naturally, I’ve never taught it before either. If you’ve also never read The Would-Be Invalid, then you are, like I was, truly missing out! If a World Lit. II professor chooses to include Molière on the syllabus, the chosen text is normally Tartuffe. I’ve taught Tartuffe before, and it was pretty good…the students were able to grasp the themes pretty well. But I truly wanted this semester to challenge myself and my students–I wanted to teach works that are not popular in the anthologies, authors who haven’t been anthologized in a while or at all.
Molière, though, probably doesn’t have a single bad work in his entire collection. The Would-Be Invalid continues Molière’s brilliant mastery of the farce, choosing as his victims of mockery this time seventeenth-century physicians and pharmacists (or apothecaries, as they were once called). These people received little education compared to the rigorous training they can expect today. (Having a sister in a Doctor of Pharmacy program has certainly opened my eyes.) A seventeenth-century physician would educate himself in the theoretical practice of medicine (probably like an early-year pre-med, pre-pharm student these days)–most medical students in the 1600s would not have ever even encountered a human patient by the time they received their doctorate in medicine. As long as they could speak and read Latin, could quote the Ancients (particularly Hippocrates and Galen), and composed a thesis on humoral theory, then they were apparently equipped to diagnose patients. (And some, the barber-surgeons, would even operate–oh, the Sweeney Todd-like horror!)
Using humoral theory, physicians would diagnose patients entirely on a system of guesswork for the body’s level of four fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The bodily fluids were associated with the four elements (air, water, fire, and earth), the four seasons, and specific organs (liver, brain/lungs, gall bladder, spleen). Judging on your symptoms (feverish, chills, aches, coughing, etc.), the physician would then diagnose an imbalance in one of the bodily fluids. The common methods of treatment were bloodletting, enemas, purgatives, leeches, and herbal concoctions. (I suppose the herbal concoctions were the closest things to real medicine that we have today.) If a patient died by one of the treatments, oopsy-daisy! If a patient miraculously healed, then it became evidence that treatment worked properly.
Molière had tuberculosis, which eventually killed him with a lung hemorrhage. He actually played the lead character in The Would-Be Invalid–Argan, the would-be invalid himself. Unfortunately for the Parisian theatrical world, Molière succumbed to a coughing fit during the finale of the fourth performance and died in his home a few hours later. Molière was highly critical of the physicians and apothecaries of his time period, which becomes strongly evident in The Would-Be Invalid. Argan, the hypochondriac “invalid,” not only buys into the therapies and treatments recommended to him by real quacks, but he also seems to revel in them, delighting in the tallying of his bill for many enemas and purges. He looks forward to his stomach cramps brought on by the purgatives he is prescribed to ingest; he eagerly climbs on his bed and assumes the position when his apothecary arrives to perform the enema.
Argan’s family, however, voices Molière’s real opinions. In the third act, Argan gets into an argument with his brother Béralde over whether or not patients should trust their physicians in the first place. When Béralde tries to speak some sense into Argan, explaining that he really isn’t as ill as he seems to be and that his physician is really just a kook, Argan fires back:
Argan: That is to say that all the knowledge in the world is shut up in your head, and you think you know more than all the great medical men of our time.
Béralde: In speech and action, your great medical men are two different sorts of people. To hear them talk, they’re the most skillful people on earth; but in action, they’re the most ignorant men alive.
After a long-ish argument and a great deal of folly to prove Argan wrong, the play ends with Argan receiving his own doctorate in medicine by speaking fake Latin in front of a fake panel of doctors. It’s really quite the perfect deal. Argan is the worst kind of (modern) patient (always seeking unnecessary treatment, shorting his physician and apothecary on the bill), but if he can be his own doctor, then the problem is resolved. If all it takes for proper doctoring is the ability to speak gibberish (in this case Latin) and to possess a charismatic spirit, then Argan is destined to be an amazing doctor. He actually strikes me as the textbook example for why medical (and psychology and pharmacy) students should avoid the temptation to self-diagnose. When you know all the worst possible symptoms and the worst possible scenarios, it’s really easy to imagine that a simple tickle in the throat is actually the early stages of pneumonia.
Read the play–at the very least, you will appreciate the advancements made in modern medicine. I have to go now. My leeches are starting to fall off.
January 15, 2011 § 7 Comments
I’ve received several e-mails from my students in the past 36 hours, each one worried to death that they can’t locate our first two books listed on the syllabus. And why can’t they locate the first two books? Because the “Snowpocalypse of 2011” has created quite a backlog in air deliveries of textbooks to our local bookstores. (Oh, and by the way, I didn’t make up that term…this is a word I’ve heard from a few of my friends who actually saw snow during this so-called disaster. We only had a little bit of treetop ice.) At this point, I’m telling my worried students (who have had the book list since November and the syllabus since last Saturday) that they really don’t have much more of an option than to try checking it out at the library or to get in touch with a fellow classmate to see if they can buddy-up on a book.
But here’s what I suddenly find myself considering: maybe I should scan the required reading pages into our Blackboard program for my students. Is this a little bit of copyright infringement? Probably. Do I care? Eh.
I’m pretty sure that I’ll work on those scans tomorrow morning to help me wake up and get in gear for my day of writing.
Could it be that Mrs. H has suddenly dropped her bitchy, I-don’t-care-about-your-problems attitude?
Where did that attitude drop off to? When did I lose it?
Actually, I think it might have fallen off when I made a couple of decisions over break (I swear, more on that later…after next weekend, definitely), and I also think that completing my first set of writing goals (11 pages last week!) has put me in a slightly less gloomy mental atmosphere.
I wonder how my newfound good mood and generosity will affect my students this semester? How will it affect my marriage? My academic progress?