Telling a New Narrative

We’ve been talking about making some changes to classes in our program, one of which is a core Western Literature survey.  In talking about the move to World Literature, several people (including me) have said, at one point or another, that the change will be difficult because the current narrative of the class works (or makes sense).

What we mean by that is that there’s a clear overarching structure to the course that frames the way we talk about the readings.  For example, in the second half of Western Lit., which is what I teach, I used literary periods to frame our discussions.  Since it starts in the Enlightenment (even the subtitle of the class, Enlightenment to Postmodern, reinforces the frame we’re using for the class), I talk about the debate between reason and passion, which leads into the Romantics, the Modernists, and the Postmodernists.  It’s true that this structure works.

When we’ve been trying to change to World Literature, though, there are a number of pieces that don’t fit into this narrative, save for perhaps as background or contrast.  One could talk about the Enlightenment, then essentially say, “Meanwhile, in Japan…”  That doesn’t present a coherent narrative.  Not surprisingly, some people mentioned this problem as a reason not to make the change.

However, what I’ve come to realize through this discussion is that this narrative is just a construct.  There are a whole host of ways to structure this and every other course, which means there are ways to structure it to include the writings in the new textbook.  We can do so in a way that doesn’t make them seem secondary to what we’re used to talking about.  For example, next fall, I think I’m going to use a more thematic structure to have students talk about major ideas (love and truth and so on), leading them to compare and contrast how someone in 19th century Japan thinks of justice as opposed to someone in 20th century France.  That means I’ll cut some writings I currently teach that don’t fit as easily into that structure, but it also means I’ll get to include some works that don’t fit with what I’m doing now.  The difference is that I’m choosing based on ideas that are more interesting to me than simple chronology.

Lest it sound like this epiphany has already led me to make changes in all my classes, part of what helped me realize this problem is my current U.S. Literature course.  I’ve prided myself in recent years on my inclusion of diverse authors (which is why I want to make the change in World Literature).  However, in looking at a colleague’s syllabus for U.S. Lit., I realized that my approach was not nearly as diverse as it could be.  Not surprisingly, that’s because I’ve let the chronological approach take control again.

I start with Realism and Naturalism, then move to Modernism, then on to Postmodernism.  Let’s be honest, such an approach, given the anthology’s set up, is the easiest one.  However, I’m not convinced it’s the best one.  If you look at a list of major Realists and Naturalists (James, Twain, Howells, Dreiser, Norris, Crane, London, Wharton), you’ll quickly notice that they’re all white and almost all male.  There are some “local color” writers who are largely presented as minor authors who aren’t as respected as those bigger names (they’re almost all female, for the record), so that provides a bit of diversity, but at a cost to how students perceive them.

However, at the same time, there is a wide variety of writers of color, including Asian-Americans, whom we almost never talk about until Amy Tan comes along, writing at the same time.  Because we focus on the literary periodization, we completely miss authors who speak to the American condition and tradition in very different ways.

Also, such an approach changes the way we talk about the works.  As in the case with the “local color” authors, we only talk about Twain in terms of Realism or debate whether Wharton is a Realist or Naturalist when those authors have so much more to offer.  Then there are cases like Robert Frost, who wrote during the Modernist era, yet clearly doesn’t fit with his peeers.  Thus, we end up spending a chunk of time talking about why he doesn’t fit based on when he was born rather than talking about why his poetry is great, no matter when it was written.

We need to write new narratives for our classes that go beyond some structure imposed by textbooks and anthologies or the simple fact of when or where someone was born.  We can’t ignore those facts, but they shouldn’t dominate.  Instead, we should spend our time and energy talking about what makes the work great, what in it touches our humanity, what speaks to us.  Essentially, we should talk about why it still matters to us today, not what it once was.

I’m Not a Bad Patient

A couple of week ago, I had to go to the dentist because I had a crown come off.  I’m used to going to the dentist, as I have bad teeth, and I didn’t take care of them when I was younger.  However, this time was different.  They treated me as if the crown’s coming off and everything associated with it was my fault, despite the fact that they were the one who had put the crown on.  For example, the crown didn’t completely cover the remains of the tooth underneath, yet they talked about the breakdown of the tooth as if I should have done something differently.

Even after they had given me a temporary crown, they kept telling me not to do things I’ve never done.  I have several crowns (I’ve actually forgotten which teeth are real and which aren’t in some places), so I know how to manage them, and I’ve never had a problem with them before this one.  Needless to say, I don’t have any desire to go see them with other problems, nor do I have a positive image of them right now.

This experience made me think about the way we talk to students, both individually and in class.  We often chastise students for what they might possibly do wrong rather than allowing them the opportunity to do assignments or take exams, giving them the benefit of the doubt.  Because we have had a few bad experiences in the past, we assume all students will behave the same way.

This approach is more obviously true when it comes to cheating or plagiarism.  There are professors who behave as if every student is trying to get away with something.  They set up draconian measures to terrify students into staying on the straight and narrow, while using elaborate procedures to make sure students don’t try to slip something by them.  They spend more time and energy on preventing the rare student from cheating than they do on actually teaching the vast majority of students who have never and would never do such a thing.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with two students early in my career.  The previous semester, I had a student who was in one of our musical groups, and she didn’t do well.  She missed 22 out of about 42 class meetings, and, not surprisingly, she failed the class.  One of our Vice-Presidents called me to talk about her performance, making the point that they worked hard to recruit for our university and that they were expected to miss 9 days.  When I gave him the actual number she missed, he said, “I suppose that ends this conversation.”

You can make of that conversation what you will, as far as administrative “interest” in students’ performance, but it affected how I treated students the next semester.  At the end of the first day of class, two students came up to me to tell me they were members of the musical group and that they would have to miss a few days.  I was fairly stern with them, telling them I had had problems with members of that group before and that they were going to have to take class seriously and blah blah blah.

I was holding them responsible for something they had not done wrong.  They both turned out to be excellent students, which I would have learned if I would have simply acknowledged their comments, then waited to see what kind of work they would do and what their commitment was to the class.  Oddly enough, one of them went on to win a Grammy in songwriting.  The other was the daughter of the director of the musical group.

That encounter, as the one with the dentist, reminded me that we need to evaluate students individually, not blame them for things they’ve never done wrong.  Each student should have the opportunity to create his or her own impression based on the work he or she can actually do.  I remember how angry I was in the dentist’s office and how that appointment made me not want to go back and see them again.  I want my students to come to me when they have problems, so I need to create an environment that will make that happen.

Syllabus Matters

I was listening to a podcast last week about teaching, though I won’t mention which one in this case.  I didn’t enjoy it, not because it wasn’t helpful (though it wasn’t very helpful), but because it was quite consdescending to students.  I don’t mean that it talked about students how all of us faculty do from time to time, complaining about them as we do about the weather, then moving on to more important matters.  Instead, this one treated them as if they were willfully ignorant, almost stupid, at times, and that’s an approach to students that I simply can’t abide.

The episode I listened to was about syllabi: what to include to help students through the class and even how to set it up.  That would have been fine, though I got the impression their syllabi were twenty pages long, given the amount of information they felt compelled to include and the detail they seemed to go into.  Then again, given the way they thought about students, that makes sense.

The part that really stood out to me, though, wasn’t about the content of the syllabi at all.  Instead, it was about getting students to read syllabi (or, I suppose, remember what’s on syllabi).  I’ve heard such ideas before, but this time, I was particularly struck by this approach.  They mentioned the traditional ideas, such as having students sign the final page and turn that back in to prove they read it (when, in fact, we’re just reinforcing the idea that syllabi are contracts, which makes the relationship between professor and student a business one, though we often get angry at the consumer mentality of students).

One idea was the quiz over the syllabus, whether “open syllabus” or from memory the next class.  The assumption behind this approach is that students will then read the syllabus and remember it.  The real goal is to have students not ask professors any questions that are covered on syllabi, a sin akin to Judas or Brutus, to hear most professors talk.

The problem, though, isn’t that students don’t read syllabi or listen to us when we present various policies concerning our classes.  Some don’t, of course, but many do.  I’ve watched students highlight their syllabi as I’ve talked about various parts of the course, and many keep it in the front of their notebook for that class.  The problem is that we’re all human, and we forget what we read two months ago (and in five or six different classes with rules and regulations that can be quite different) unless we go back and refresh our memory.

Lest we criticize students for not refreshing themselves, we should simply start paying attention to how faculty talk and all we forget.  I’ve sat in too many meetings where faculty ask questions about material that has already been covered (sometimes in the same meetings) or that is readily available in the faculty handbook or on the website.  Professors come to meetings having been asked to read various documents we will then vote on, only to have one person after another ask questions that are clearly contained in those documents.

The problem isn’t with students; it’s with humanity.  Many of us don’t do what we’re supposed to do, certainly.  Even when we do, though, we forget material.  We shouldn’t be those professors who wear t-shirts that say something like “It’s in the syllabus.”  Instead, we should answer their questions the same way our colleagues do when we ask about material clearly covered in our meetings.  At worst, we should kindly explain that the answer can be found in the syllabus, not in a way that supposedly teaches them a lesson, but to remind them that we’re all doing research all the time.

No Soul

My wife is currently in a Master’s program, so we needed to go to a local state university library this weekend.  They have recently built a new library, so we were both excited to see it, especially given that we both really like libraries.  They’ve recently suffered some damage to their lower floors, but I still thought it would be an enjoyable afternoon.

I had forgotten to bring any work to do, but I thought that I could easily find a book or magazine to read.  It turns out that I was mistaken.  Many of the books (which were on the lower floors for some reason) were damaged, and I couldn’t find any area where magazines had ever been.

The building seems to be much more of a meeting area for students, not a library in the sense that I would think of it.  Granted, students do research differently these days; I know this fact.  Cicero once famously said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” and this building feels soulless.  I would think we could find a middle ground between providing them space to meet and do work and providing books and magazines for those students and faculty who still seek them out (and there are more of us than one would think).  Perhaps that would encourage some of those meeting students to use a book or two when they’re doing their research.

Breaking the Cycle

I’ve been thinking about diversity in our classes a good deal lately.  Part of that is because our department is undergoing program review, and part of that involved all of us faculty putting together a list of authors we teach in our classes.  I went through that list to see how we do with diversity, and the results were not good (I’m including myself in this assessment).

I’ve spent some time thinking about why the results were what they were, especially as there have been a number of discussions about diversity in the next lately.  We all seem to be aware of a need to expose students to authors who aren’t like them, whether that’s because of gender, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Part of the problem is that we don’t have a diverse faculty; all of us are white, straight Americans.  I think there’s another problem, though.  I think we’re lazy.

When we’re given a new class to prepare, whether it was back when we were first hired or just this past semester, our first approach is to teach the same material we were taught when we were undergraduate or graduate students.  Even if we don’t remember exactly what we were taught, we have that template in our minds, and we start there.  Some professors don’t go at all beyond that list, but, if we’re honest, we all at least begin at that point.

For example, when I first taught the first half of what was then called American Literature (it’s now U.S. Literature, which is more precise), I worked from the syllabus in my head from when I was a junior in that class.  My professor didn’t include any of the Native American writings, Frederick Douglass, or any other slave narratives.  I don’t even think he taught Phyllis Wheatley.  We did cover Emily Dickinson, the lone non-male author in the entire semester.  Granted, this class is challenging as far as diversity goes, but it doesn’t seem he made much of an effort to make it so.  I added Douglass, but that was it, as far as diversity went.

Similarly, I had the same professor in a Contemporary Literature class (which he started in the late-1800s, a definition of contemporary I’ve never seen anywhere else).  I only remember one white female author (Sarah Orne Jewett) and one African-American female (Toni Morrison).  Instead, we read authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Franz Kafka, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth (Jewish-American, so I suppose that’s a bit of diversity).  I did better the first time I taught this class, as the time period alone helps provide more diversity, but I’ve had to consciously work over the past few years to make the class more representative of the changes that have happened over the past thirty years or so since I took the class.

Even in a class with a professor who would have openly spoke on behalf of diversity, most of the authors were white males.  In a novel course, we read Twain and Dickens and DeFoe and such writers, with only Virginia Woolf and Fanny Burney as females.  None of the authors were ethnic minorities, as if there are no novels written by anyone who’s not white.

While I focus on English because that’s what I teach, the same is true in all disciplines.  How often do we show students art by racial and ethnic minorities?  Where do they see sociologists or psychiatrists who were gay or lesbian?  Can they name scientists from before the twentieth century who were women?

Women and minorities need to see people who are like them in their courses.  White students need to see people who are not like them, to read and learn about experiences that are not theirs.  Our country and our world is becoming a more diverse place.  We are not giving our students a complete education if we leave out wide swaths of that world simply because it’s easier to teach what we were taught.