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Thursday, September 3, 2015

...some days, it rains.

Little Bull Durham reference there. Some days you win, some days you lose....

And today was a mix. If I'd written this post after the SF class, I would have been sure the day was a dead loss. Now, I see wins and losses--and I have no idea what accounts for the difference.

Back story: I gave the literature electives a detailed explanation of how to read literature, both in terms of what to look for but also in terms of how to look: specific techniques for reading with analytical attention. I put the SF students into groups, with the directive to share with each other what they had gotten out of what they'd read and to come up with a few things they wanted to share with the class as a whole. They seemed to be engaged in relatively task-oriented conversation, and when I got the sense that their attention was starting to flag, I got everyone's attention and asked someone to start off the whole-class conversation. A young man raised his hand: "I thought that 'talk to the text' thing was weird. Do mean, like, literally talk to the text? 'Cause I don't think I've ever been reading something and said out loud, 'wow, I wonder what's gonna happen next."

You will understand my despair when I say it rather went downhill from there.

Apparently, the students had absolutely zero clue what I was trying to convey through what I'd written--and they are still completely, totally lost about what they're supposed to put in their written responses to the readings. "You mean, like, whether we can relate?"

Oh gawd. So, lots of explaining on my part, lots of whacked-upside-the-head-with-a-two-by-four looks on student faces, and I finally thought, OK, maybe they need the paper topics to help them have a clue what kinds of things to look for. Reminded them that they may find things that are not in any of the topics--which is great, as there is always a "student choice" option. "How am I supposed to get 5-7 pages out of what I see in the reading?" Well, not right away: that's what the responses are for. You write responses and they build into a paper over time.

I honestly think I've completely lost them. And one young man is unbelievably, unbearably hostile. At the end of class, he came up to me and--almost as if he were slapping me in the face--spat out, "I got Frankenstein, and I've read the first four chapters, and it's boring." He wanted to just walk out on that, but I called him back to talk about it a little, and he said, "I mean, like, it made me want to go to sleep: boring. All he's doing is talking about how his parents met, we don't even know anything about him yet." I explained that yes, unfortunately, sometimes we do have to read something that is boring, but the job as academics is to keep our minds engaged by trying to figure out why all that stuff is there: what's its purpose? He kept glaring at me; I think maybe he took a tiny bit of that in, but the waves of "I hate everyone" were all but palpable. He was followed by the guy who asked about the 5-7 pages thing--and who, by the way, had walked out of the room when I was about to let the class go, even though I was trying to call him back: seriously, dude, you can leave in 20 seconds.... But I did wonder what planet he'd been on during the entire class discussion. And the awful thing is, I don't think he's alone.

So, for that class, I may need to reboot. Apparently, the vast majority of them are dim enough that they need more concrete instructions--which is sad, but OK, if that's where they are. I'll see what they come in with on Thursday next week, but I did tell them they'd learn partly by doing. I am, however, extremely apprehensive. If Thursday is enough of a train-wreck, I'll ditch the second half of Frankenstein and spend one day on the beginning of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, talking them through what kinds of things would go in a reading response.

The one piece of excellent news is that I asked for a classroom change--and got it, fast. So the class is now in a room with enough desks to hold all the students without some breathing room around the desks--and an air conditioner that works. I'll take whatever I can get on that one.

I then went to a workshop on the scheduling software for seminar hours, for those of us who are fulfilling all or part of our hours doing advising/mentoring in our offices. Two of the faculty there were clearly completely unable to navigate even the most basic steps of this computerized scheduling software--and it's incredibly user-friendly and easy to figure out. Poor William was sitting between them and had to keep helping them, and they were just glacially slow. Both of them were older faculty--both in terms of having been in the department for decades and in terms of their chronological age--but there are plenty of other faculty in the same basic demographic who could certainly grasp this very simple stuff with no problem at all. Maddening, but there you are. William also brought up the problem of contact hours versus clock hours--which the committee got twitterpated about over the summer: these are the questions Scott is going to have to field over and over and over again. I am beyond grateful that he's chairing the committee: he's very good at looking at the whole mess from a purely pragmatic, problem-solving point of view, and it's keeping us focused and even marginally sane.

I will say that after the demonstration of annoying incapacity on the part of several of my colleagues (not William but others--at least one of whom shouldn't have been having the problems he was having), I was not entirely looking forward to the Mystery class--but they were great. I mean, seriously, wonderful. They got into their groups and the talk was energetic, focused, engaged--loud--and I didn't really want to interrupt them but I wanted to allow plenty of time to try to sort out the kinds of confusions I'd encountered with the SF class. Turns out, I didn't need it. They got it. There was one young woman who has been seated in the corner both classes, hidden behind classmates, and she has a rather expressionless demeanor, so I was a bit worried about her. To my surprise, she came up to check in with me at the end of class--and then surprised me even more when she showed me what her process had been and it was absolutely fucking perfect. Awesome. I really was rocked back on my heels. Just goes to show that the whole book/cover cliche has basis in reality (as do most cliches). The Bright Young Activist from last fall's 101 also hung out to talk with me about responses: she said she really liked the way we'd done things in 101 (the two-column approach, which I'm not insisting on this time out) and asked if she could continue with that. Hooray! Of course, yes. Then the other student who'd hung out to talk after class last time wanted to hang around a bit again this time: I guess I'll call him the Brazilian Intellectual (he is from Brazil, and he is clearly intellectual). He wanted to ask if there is a clear boundary between horror and mystery--so we got into a chat about how genre lines are blurry at best, and are really created more for academics and booksellers than for writers. A couple other students also had quick--and intelligent--questions after class. All I could think, walking back to the office, is that I'm glad that's the note my week is ending on.

But it got even better: I got a very polite, formal, apologetic e-mail from a student who was absent from SF, sending me her assignment (unnecessary but nice to know she's on top of things) and wanting to meet with me to explain why she'd missed class (also unnecessary, but I'll listen if she wants to explain): she's clearly very concerned to stay on top of her school work and to do well, and I have a good feeling about her.

If I can encourage her to step forward, keep the guinea pig under control, and either placate the hostile student or chase him out of class, the class chemistry there may start to shift. There are a few obviously bright and diligent students in the class, so I'm baffled to explain why the class as a whole comes across as such a mess--but that's the mystery of class chemistry. I'd guess that, in terms of raw intellectual chops, the two classes don't have much difference, but somehow the one is already falling apart and the other is pulling together like a drill team.

Go figure.

And now for a long weekend. I don't want to get into the habit of taking work home with me, but I think I will, just to stay a little bit in front of the curve for a bit.

So, now I'll spent a little time figuring out what to take home (and I'm sure it will be more than I'll actually accomplish, but that's OK), and then I'll figure out whether I want to take myself out for dinner or would just as soon be home and, metaphorically speaking, in bunny slippers. And I'll be back in the trenches on Tuesday. Stay tuned for more exciting developments.

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