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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Why aren't they saying anything?"

I was pretty discouraged by today's 101, and ended up launching into a hell of a lecture about how they need to step it up, get engaged, pay attention, do the work, contribute to class discussion, blah blah blah, and one young woman in the corner keeps looking alarmed and shaking her head, so I keep going ... and finally a student stopped me, very gently: "Um, professor, it's over time..."

I'd kept them ten minutes past the end of the class period. I haven't done that in ages--maybe never. Over by a minute or two, or if I'm really caught up, maybe by five minutes, yes, but ten? I apologized profusely, told them to jump on me next time. Naturally, the response was, "I didn't want to be rude!"--and I told them that I was grateful for that, but truly, even just tapping the wrist to indicate time would be fine, not rude at all... The young woman from the back of the class was, I think, pretty angry and upset: I may have made her late for her next class, or late to work, so I understand if she was. But I feel, I confess, not just embarrassed but ashamed in some way. I feel I was guilty of "bad" teaching: I may have misread their silence--which could have just been "we want the class to be over--and I certainly was too caught up in my own thing to pay attention to the progression of the class.

I will say, however, that the particular "chemistry" of that class feels pretty leaden at the moment. I don't know what's going on, but I don't like it: it's frustrating. Students are in and out, showing up late, coming unprepared... One student came to the first class about 10 minutes before it ended. I gave him the handouts, and he wasn't there on Monday. Today he showed up about 45 minutes late. I talked to him in the hall: if he doesn't button it up immediately, he's not going to make it. And I know why: although he'd obviously done what he could to mask the scent, I could smell the pot on him, and as Paul says, pot makes you stupid. This young man might have all kinds of potential, but he's more attached to a "street" identity than he is to knowledge/education, and it shows. I will lay any odds you like that he won't make it to the second paper; he'll disappear or withdraw before we get there, I can all but guarantee.

But thinking back to those first-day judgments, there's a student in the class whose photo would suggest a lunk-head of the first degree--but he's fiercely intelligent, loves to read (E. R. Eddison was just part of the list), loves English classes, wants to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about what he's read, what he got out of it, why it's so cool.... He was judicious in his contributions to the class discussion, but I could see him almost squirm a few times, wanting to answer a question but knowing he had to leave that pocket of uncertainty for someone else to fill. I know sometimes I'll get impatient with him: I love the students who have a lot to say, but sometimes the monologues can get wearing. Still, I won't discourage him. For one thing, I suspect I was a lot the same when I was an undergrad. (OK, full confession: I still can be that way. True. That's probably why I'm not more patient with it: I don't like my own tendency to turn a conversation into a monologue.) I'll be interested to see if his writing holds up to academic rigor--and I may hold the bar a little higher for him than I would for other students in the class.

In any event, it's lovely to know there's at least one student in the class who likes how I teach and wants to do well in my class. And I will be interested to see how much attrition there is after today, and after next week. Of course, at this point, I don't know whether there really are 23 students in the class or only 18, which is how many were there today.

The poetry class went better, but even that one was heavy lifting. The students were there, which helped: only one missing (apart from a student who has yet to appear and whom, I suspect, I will never see). But they were a lot more hesitant to provide their observations or understanding--and again, perhaps because of bad teaching on my part. One student started off the class with a profound mis-read of the poem we were looking at: she thought Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "The Unguarded Gates" was about the speaker making his way through life as a "lone wolf," carving out his own path... based on the fact that the final image is of a wolf in a lair. I asked her a question or two and then said, "I don't think so"--clearly meaning "nope, you're wrong." And then they froze up. There was some good exploration once I started pointing to specific parts of the poem--and the others we'd read for class--but even so, they have preconceived notions about what poems will be about, including that every poem is just a poet's "self-expression." The idea that poems can make a social point, or a political one, or a philosophical one--or no "point" at all, just an image or thought--is apparently something they've never considered before. (Note to self: maybe I need to address this in the "how to read a poem" handout?)

It will be interesting to see what they make of Yeats' "The Second Coming." But I certainly hope they can start to relax a little--and latch on to the process better. I did stop at one point and say, "I want you to think for a minute about what we're doing. It seems obvious, but we need to pay attention to it. What are we doing?" "Breaking it down, line by line, word by word." Yes, dammit! Don't pole vault over the actual language of the poem: pay attention to the words themselves. The words, the phrases, the sentences...

Right at the moment, I feel frustrated, discouraged, and pretty down on myself, even though I know that a lot of this has nothing whatever to do with me. There's a conviviality gathering tonight, and even though I'm tired and cranky, I think I'll go: drown my sorrows with some empathetic colleagues. I usually give the gatherings a miss (my natural introversion), but tonight, it feels like the place to be, at least for a little while.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow: the T/Th 101 is proving to be a lot more fun and interesting--and consistent. (Connection? Cause and effect?) And I don't have to get up so blasted early, which is lovely to contemplate. I'll need a fair amount of time in the office to regroup after today (sort out handouts, figure out who has/needs what, that sort of thing), but I'll have the time in which to do the regrouping. Nice.

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