...that will probably never get crossed off the list, at least as long as I remain in (or trying to be in) the teaching racket.
Teaching was one of the big reasons that I disappeared from this site for as long as I did. Last semester turned out pretty well, though, all things considered. The syllabus itself is awful, and it is not at all clear on the first go-around how the various component parts of it are supposed to fit together into a cohesive whole, and that caused me great headaches and much angst at times.
One thing that I discovered, though…and it worked well, at least with my style of teaching, such as it seems to be…was that, if I was a loss about something, syllabus-wise, and didn’t know how to best move forward, it often wasn’t a bad idea to simply tell my students that, rather than trying to fake it and act like I knew what to do next when I didn’t, and to ask them what they thought. They actually respected me more, I think, for doing that, and since the purpose of the class is to teach them, getting their input on how best to do that actually seemed to get them more involved and more invested. Especially because, a lot of the time, I took their suggestions, and when I didn’t I explained why.
It was still kind of a train wreck, as a cohesive whole, ultimately. So starting over this semester, I spent some time rethinking the syllabus, and thinking about how to restructure it and how to tweak it and how to be more conscious about how all the component parts fit together so that I could try to integrate them better from the start.
This semester, now, turns out to be kind of a train wreck, too, but in different ways. Some of my innovations worked kind of brilliantly, if I do say so myself…the first unit is rhetorical analysis, and the first time I taught it it wasn’t clear to me that we were supposed to be teaching the students about rhetoric as writers as well as readers. So this semester I gave them a diagnostic essay (the first, ungraded assignment) that wasn’t open-ended, but was shaped so that they would have to write a persuasive essay. Then, when the rhetorical analysis essay came around, I didn’t allow them to choose readings to analyze…instead, I had them rhetorically analyze their own diagnostic essays. It was kind of great, because it taught them not only how to read critically for rhetoric, but also to examine and become aware of the fact that, whenever they’re writing, they are themselves using rhetoric, whether they’re conscious of it or not. It also made them more self-conscious about their writing, in a good way, because of that realization, and maybe even helped them build an intellectual bridge between the act of reading and the act of writing.
On the other hand, I also spent about a month at the beginning of the semester on issues related to the writing process in general. I don’t think I did it very well, and some of the readings I chose were disastrous in the field, but I think it was maybe kind of useful. At the same time, now here I am at the end of the semester, and it turns out that because of that month at the beginning, I don’t have quite enough time to cover the full ground that I’m supposed to cover with them on the last unit, which is argument (where they’re supposed to kind of put together all the stuff we covered in the other units). There are three major assignments that are supposed to be part of the argument unit, and we have less than a month left until the end of the semester. I sort of tore my hair out (such as it is) for a weekend, before concluding that there just wasn’t enough time. So I scrapped one of the assignments, which would probably bring hellfire down upon me from the English department if they knew about it. But, well, it’s what needed to be done. We live and learn.
Anyway. We got started on argument this week, and aside from the necessary dispensing of certain departmental requirements for the course, I’m thinking it’s probably going to turn out okay. My students seem to be really psyched about getting to write a paper of their choice (it’s been pretty regimented up till now), and they seem to get at least the rudiments of argument reasonably well, and almost all of them seem to have their topics more or less chosen, and for the most part they don’t suck, and with the jettisoning of one of the intermediate assignments I think they’ll have the time to do their final papers right, and thoroughly, and well. Not all of them will, of course…they’re going to have a lot of research days in the next few weeks, where I’m not going to hold class but they will be expected to be doing stuff in the library and whatnot, and no doubt many of them will just take those days and fuck off and frolic in the burgeoning springtime (for which I can’t entirely blame them), but I can’t worry about that too much…they have access to me if they want it, and they have ample time to do their research, and they know what’s expected of them for the final assignment, so…
I dunno. It’s possible that I’ll be teaching at least a couple of sections of this class in the fall, as an adjunct, and if I do, I’ll be inclined to make further radical changes based on what worked and what didn’t this semester. It’s always different, it seems, because the students are different, and there’s always going to be stuff that works once and so one assumes that it works, and then it turns out that the first success was just a fluke, and all that. On the whole, I think I am a better teacher of this stuff than I was my first semester, but I’ve also learned a lot about what doesn’t work over the course of this semester, so there will be more tinkering to do before the semester after this one rolls around. And I expect that, if I’m actually engaged and paying attention, that will turn out to be true every semester. And if I stop being engaged and paying attention, and learning how to do this better and discovering new ways of achieving that, then I should probably stop doing it and find something else. I don’t think I’m going to lose that engagement, though…teaching is hard, and frustrating, and worrying and demoralizing and all that other stuff, at times. But it remains the best work I’ve ever done…it’s a good thing to do, and on days when what you try to do with your class actually hits, well…there’s no feeling quite like it that I’ve ever run across. So.