My students in my upper-level class just submitted their research paper proposals. This class has been a pleasure for me this semester, but it's also been... unusual. First of all, the class is entirely made up of women. What's odd about this is that the class is not designed as a women's studies class or even as a class focused on gender/sexuality in any overt way. The syllabus is equally balanced between male and female authors, and in fact much of the material of the course is often considered "misogynistic" in feminist critical circles. And yet, here I am with this group. The group itself is very comfortable and participation is almost universal. (This is the other unusual thing.) This is pretty awesome, I've got to say. Also, the level of discourse in the course is great. While I can attribute some of this to me, I think a lot of it just has to do with that ephemeral thing of "class dynamic" that one can't control. I've only had one of these students in a course before, so it's not at all that they're just used to me.
The thing that's weird/interesting to me about their paper proposals is that so many of them have chosen to write on one particular text in the course. On the one hand, we might ascribe this to proximity - it just so happens to be the most recent text we've read. But on the other hand, I wonder: is there something about this text that is in some way more compelling than the others? Or is it that this text is particularly compelling to me and that this is in some way compelling my students?
(To give some background, this is the very same text that I chose to write about in a very similar course when I was an undergraduate. It is probably what I'd say is my most favorite novel ever, if I would ever admit to having such a thing, which I wouldn't, as I'm an English professor and I refuse to admit to such pedestrian things as having One True Favorite Novel.)
But here's the thing: this is probably the most difficult of all the texts in the course on which to write a research paper. There just isn't as much critical material on this particular text, and this is going to cause the students problem, particularly when it comes to book sources. Now, they are all pretty close with one another, and I know they will share books. But still - the course that they are setting for themselves will not (probably) run smoothe. I don't want to discourage their interest, but I know there would be topics that could be easier. I don't know. I suppose I'll just respond honestly and see what they choose to do.
Also related to this is that I have a student in this class whom I absolutely love but in whom I see characteristics that I myself have and that actually have worked to my detriment as a critic. The problem is this: this student is incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about the texts that she reads. Why is that a problem? Well, because often that passion and enthusiasm is contrary to the demands of literary criticism. How do I know? Because this is my exact problem as a critic. It's also my strength, but it's more of a problem than a strength, at least initially. Now, we can discuss the problematic nature of this - why is passion BAD? - but in my experience, I've had to work not to stifle my passion about texts but to channel it into something much more... tempered. That has been my success - that I've been able to do that and yet to retain my voice. Or at least I hope that's been what I've been able to do.
Now this student is awesome in class discussion. She always participates, and she has really bright things to say. And I really like her, which I suspect has been the case with her other instructors as well, as she's very likable. But I fear that if I don't push her that she will never move beyond being merely likeable and being merely a pleasure to have in class.
What worries me about all of this is that I am afraid I'm responding to her too much out of my own experience. I don't want to stifle her passion - I just want to teach her to master it so that she can go deeper than she would do naturally. No other instructors have forced her to do this - I suspect because she's so likeable. But what is gained by me doing this? What good does this do her? Am I doing this for her or am I doing this for the me that I was before graduate school? And if I'm doing it for the me that I was before graduate school, is that what this student needs?
One of the things that troubles me most about my identity as an academic is that my personality trumps my intellect - that I am where I am not because I am worthy of it intellectually but that I am where I am because I've charmed people into letting me into the club. I say this not to be arrogant - I fear it comes off that way - but because I know that I do have a strong personality and that this can sometimes get in the way of people seeing what I think. Or what I think doesn't come through in a clear and sophisticated way because my personalty somehow blocks that. This is a weakness in me, but is it a weakness in this student? I see it as that, but I'm not sure that I'm fair in perceiving it in that way.
I guess the thing I'm trying to navigate here is that chasm between my own experience and what is best for the student. It's hard to detach and to separate from my own experience. I don't think that I'm wrong in critiquing her in the way that I have been, but what if I'm wrong? I really don't want to stifle the passion that she feels initially for what she reads. I'm afraid of doing that because I think that passion is so important. It's just a difficult line to walk.
3 years ago