The Tyranny of Chronology

Given that our department is doing a program review this year, I’ve been thinking about curriculum a good deal.  That has trickled down into how I think about individual classes.  It dawned on me this week that almost everything we teach, we approach chronologically, even when we don’t have to.  When I say we, I mean that quite literally, as I take the same approach as everyone else I know.

I mentioned this to a class this past week, and a student seemed honestly surprised that I would consider changing a class from a chronological approach.  She pointed out that she had learned how historical events had shaped many works of literature we’ve studied.  That’s certainly good to hear, given that that’s how the class is structured, but what I’m finding is that students only view literature this way (or, at least, initially view literature this way; they sometimes get beyond it).

This realization was reinforced when I started reading rough drafts of papers in two classes this past week.  In both classes, the dominant approach is to set the works in their historical context, then use that to read the works.  Such an approach is certainly valid and worthwhile, but now that I’m seeing that approach dominating, I’m beginning to get worried.  If students are only viewing the literature through one lens, they’re getting a narrow view of literature.

Granted, it’s not like we don’t use other approaches within a chronological setup for a class.  We can talk about gender in Tennessee Williams, though we almost always connect that idea back to how women and sexual minorities were treated in that historical time.  Rather than digging more deeply into sexual identity and politics, we revert back to an historical approach.

This approach leads us to talk about all works from certain time periods in the certain way, to jam literature into boxes where it might not fit.  If someone is writing just after World War I, she must have been influenced by the way to talk about the depravity of humanity, even though she could have been writing that poem because of her Uncle Joe or something she read in Shakespeare or the Bible or a popular magazine of the day.

Writers can be in conversation with writers and thinkers from all generations, and we limit them when we argue that they are only (or at least most importantly) influenced by the historical events of their day.  Just because I write in 2016 doesn’t mean I somehow fit with the other writers of my time, and it certainly doesn’t mean I draw my inspiration from events going on around me.  Sometimes I do, but I often don’t.

As long as we keep teaching our classes using this one method, students will continue to think it is the way we should read literature.  Not surprisingly, at least one of my classes this fall won’t be taught chronologically, and I’m considering changing another.  I’ll be curious to see how that changes how I talk about works I’ve taught before.  I’m looking forward to seeing what we all learn about the literature when it’s in conversation with something other than chronology.

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Would You Please Be Quiet, Please

I’m slowly reading through Contemplative Practices in Higher Education by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush.  I wish I could say I’m reading through it slowly because I’m putting into practice what they’re arguing, but it’s really just because the semester has started, and I don’t have time to read for long periods of time any longer.  Still, the fact that I’m forced to read through it slowly is probably a good thing.

I’m still early in the book, but there’s one idea that’s already popped out at me.  When it comes to teaching books at this point in my career, I’m usually happy with just one or two ideas.  I can’t say that I’m convinced with all of their argument or how that might show up in class, and I don’t think people will see significant changes to my classes after I’ve finished the book, but there may be subtle differences.  The one idea I hope to explore is that of silence. Continue reading

Blaming the Students (or Reputation, part 2)

I wrote about professors’ reputations last week and what we can do about those reputations.  I’ve kept thinking about that idea over the past week, but in a different way.  We have reputations with students, true, but we also have reputations among ourselves, and those are a bit different, though they’re definitely related.  We can control these reputations, as well.

First, let me acknowledge that we all have classes that don’t work, not from anything we do or don’t do, but, sometimes, classes just don’t work.  Sometimes, we have classes that won’t talk, despite our trying every technique we know, and, sometimes, we have classes that talk way too much and are unable or unwilling to focus on the material.  Of course, we also have classes that just won’t do the work, no matter how their grades suffer accordingly, no matter how many carrots we can find to use.

However, some professors have classes like this on a regular basis.  Every semester, their classes seem to be bad, and, often, getting worse than when they were a younger professor or when they were students (we don’t have to be very old to believe in a golden age; it’s just closer for some of us).

Good professors work to try to change those situations rather than sitting around complaining about it.  They read books on teaching, talk to successful colleagues, keep trying different techniques, do whatever they need to do to improve.  They still have some classes that don’t work, but those become the exception, not the norm, and their reputations change, not surprisingly.

What I have noticed that other professors (the ones with the bad reputation among their peers) do, though, is blame the students.  They do the typical “Students today just don’t…” or “Students today aren’t like they were when I was a student.”  They spend all of their time and energy talking about all the things that are wrong with students, none of which are things they, the professor, can really change, rather than focusing on the parts of the class they can change.

We all know students have changed since we were students, and they’re going to continue to change.  That’s how life works.  That means that we have to find a way to teach those different students, as that’s our job.  If students don’t know how to behave in class, then we have to teach them.  If students don’t know how to study, then we have to teach them.  If they don’t know how to have a fifty-minute discussion, then we have to teach them.

Students have to do their part, certainly, but blaming their ignorance does no one any good.  Our job is to help them see what they don’t know and motivate (or force) them to fill in those gaps.  We can only do so, though, if we are willing to change what we can about our teaching to meet the goals of the class.

When I think about professors I’ve worked with who have bad reputations among the faculty, the ones we try to help students avoid when we are advising, I think about professors who blame their students instead of doing the work they need to improve.  We never like it when students blame us for their poor performance; I’m not sure why we don’t see when we do the same to them.

Evaluations

It’s the end of the semester (or a week or two after the end of the semester for many of us), so it’s the time of year when people talk about student course evaluations, whether that’s colleagues or The Chronicle (see this article, for example, and see the comments to see just how energized this discussion gets people).  Almost all of that discussion is about how awful student evaluations are, how they are not useful at all, and what is wrong with the entire process (I would like to note that almost none of the conversation is about our personal evaluations, as we almost never share those with our peers).

I’d like to take a different tack on the issue.  I actually think student course evaluations are a great way to evaluate our teaching, and they have much to say to help us become better teachers, provided they’re designed reasonably well (if I only expect reasonably well from professors’ assignments, I won’t expect more here) and delivered properly.  Also, I’d like to point out problems with the main solution people tend to offer as a replacement for student evaluations:  peer evaluations. Continue reading

Endings and Beginnings

At the end of every semester/year, I think through what worked well in the past year and what will need changing.  Given that I taught a class we made significant changes to just this past semester and that my first-year composition class clearly hasn’t worked the way I would like it to, I know I’ll need to change a few things about next year’s classes.

The Western Literature class is making a transition to a World Literature class.  This semester, I added a number of writers from around the world, many of whom I was not familiar with.  I’m happy with the change, and I like a lot of the literature I’ve been able to add.  I’ll get more familiar with those works in the coming semesters.  However, I had a clear arc for the class the way it was, and I’ve lost that overarching narrative to hold it together, so I’ve been looking for a way to hold it all together.  I think I’m going to use the traditional question of the Humanities: What does it mean to be human?  I’m teaching the class this summer, and, so far, that seems to be working reasonably well.  It at least provides a common question the literature is responding to, as all literature is addressing that question at some level.

Also, I used to begin that class with a quiz and the biography of the author (or authors) we were talking about that day.  However, the biography added another 5-10 minutes, which I could use to talk about the work of literature itself.  I’ve changed the syllabus, so the students are now reading that bio on their own.  I did that in Contemporary Literature, as well.  So far, though, I get the impression that students aren’t reading them, so I’ll have to do something about that for the fall.

For the composition course, I changed it a few semesters ago, centering it around short stories, with a couple of novels.  When I had a strong class, this approach worked quite well.  However, when I had weaker classes (which happened two of the three semesters), they really struggled with the material.  Given that the goal of the class is to teach them how to write, having them struggle with the reading doesn’t help matters.  If this were a literature class, then I would approach things differently, but, since it’s writing, I need to make a change.

Luckily, a colleague of mine was donating some books to a book drive we had, and I saw a small anthology of readings on identity.  Students who take my classes routinely joke that all of my classes come back to identity (which is largely true).  Thus, I’m just going to embrace that idea and explore it more fully throughout the semester.  This theme should work well for incoming students, as they should start thinking about who they want to be as they enter college.  I’m looking forward to that change.

One last change is more basic.  I’ve been trying to cut down the amount of paper I use in classes, and I want students to focus on what’s truly important in a class; thus, I’m getting rid of my long syllabus.  Well, I’m at least getting rid of handing it out and going over it.  Instead, I’m putting it online for the students to look at, if they want, but I’m only handing out a one-page top 10 list of things they need to know about the course.  I’m hoping that will make the first day more streamlined (and we can get to more important matters then), save paper, and show the students what’s really important.

I’m sure some of these ideas will fail miserably, but that’s the nature of teaching.  We keep trying new ideas, some of which work and some of which don’t.  I know I’ll never find the perfect idea for any class, but I can at least continue to make the classes better.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or the opposite, perhaps)

I constantly tinker with my classes.  No matter how they seem to be going, I’m always trying to make them better, or at least different.  I’m not that professor who hands out a syllabus from three or four years ago, and there’s nothing different on it.  Even if I haven’t changed the actual content of the class, I’ve changed one or more of the assignments.  In each semester, I’m always thinking about what I’m teaching six months down the road or what I’ll do differently the next time I teach whatever it is I’m teaching.

Now, I know full well that I’ll never create a perfect class, as that simply doesn’t exist.  However, I keep believing I can make a class better or at least, in some cases, less bad.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s good just to change a class for the sake of changing it.  It’s easy to get in a routine of teaching the same material in the same way, and I cease to be open to new ideas that could come from the material or from the students’ interaction with it.

Freshman composition is probably the class that gets the most attention, as it’s a blank slate.  Beyond a few guidelines over how much the students write and two general requirements on the types of papers they write, we have free rein to do what we want.  I’ve tried so many different approaches to this class in my thirteen years here that I can’t even remember them all.

Currently, I’m trying to do a literature-based approach.  That went really well last semester when I had one of the strongest classes I’ve ever had.  The first time I taught it, last spring, though, it didn’t go as well, and this semester has been close to a train wreck.  I wrote an essay for InsideHigherEd.com about how badly this semester has gone, but the content of the class hasn’t helped.  I just haven’t been able to generate any productive discussion, and the papers haven’t been very good.  Literature-based classes also make it easier for students to plagiarize.

Before that, I tried having students read about people who performed experiments on themselves (think A.J. Jacobs, who has made a bit of a career doing so; if you don’t know him, think of Morgan Spurlock’s SuperSize Me, though we didn’t watch that).  Students would read excerpts from several books and write on those (one semester I had them keep a blog, which didn’t go well; the technological generation is only technological when it comes to phones, it seems).  Then, they would spend four weeks taking something on or giving something up as their project, then write about it (a mixture of research and personal writing).  This worked really well at the beginning, and some of the projects really affected the students’ lives, which is always one of my goals.  However, as the semesters passed, the papers got worse, partly because the students just couldn’t balance the mixture of personal and research writing.  Also, students didn’t want to imitate previous classes’ topics, so they came up with topics that either were riskier (and I was worried about someone getting hurt) or absurd.

Even in classes that are more traditional, such as literature surveys, I’m always looking for ways to change the structure of the class.  While teaching classes chronologically works on one level, it often doesn’t work in other ways.  Students lose connections between works when they’re taught three months apart, even if we try to remind them of what we talked about in January or August.  I’ve tried theme-based survey classes (I still teaching the first semester of U.S. Literature this way, though, not surprisingly, I’m thinking of changing it the next time I teach it).

In my Contemporary Literature class, which I love to teach, I started out by tweaking it after the first two or three times through it.  I would change one or two of the readings, and I kept adding a few new ones.  Given that there’s nothing approaching a fixed canon in contemporary writing and that people keep generating new material, such tweaking made perfect sense.  I found a set of readings that have worked well for the past two or three years now, as I really like the arc of the class.

That means, of course, that I’m completely starting from scratch when I teach it this summer.  I want to see if there are other works out there that might work better (in some way, and I don’t even know what that way is).  I’m trying all new novels and a number of new short stories and creative nonfiction pieces.  I have no idea how it will work, but I feel the need to try, then reasses to see what I want to do for the fall.

I feel like I’m one of those people who lives in the same house for decades, but who constantly rearranges the furniture or has painted a room since people visited three weeks ago.  This all might be because I used to move around quite frequently.  From the time I finished my Master’s degree to the year when I came back to where I am now (a total of 10 years), I lived in 7 different states, had gotten two more degrees, and had held 5 different jobs at 4 different schools.  Part of me still misses that, and changing courses seems to be my way of dealing with that.

Also, though, I think it’s healthy.  It’s too easy to go into a class and say what I’ve always said (or what my professors once said when I was a student).  In fact, I’ve thought about going into a class where I’ve assigned stories or novels I’ve never read, just heard about, and let us all discuss them together for the first time to see what happens.  I love the idea that I and a class can come up with new ideas together.  Maybe I’ll try that the next time around.  Odds are, I’ll be trying something.