Friday, November 17, 2006

Research in an Upper-Level Class

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.


Anonymous said...

After reading Gerry Graff's book, Clueless in Academe, last year, I started to think about what my students really know about academic writing. I think it is very little. Though some of that may be related to the institution (regional, comprehensive) and the students' background (primarily first-generation college), Graff's students were from University of Chicago-- certainly they are bright, dedicated students. So, I started to demonstrate how I would go about choosing my topic for writing. Now, in an ideal world, I would do what one of the faculty at my alma mater said he does every time he teaches-- produce a paper related to the topic every time he teaches (but he was teaching doctoral students!). Still, by taking a student's comment (e.g. "I find it interesting that...") and showing how one might develop that idea (read: passion) into a thesis for an academic paper, students found it very helpful. It helps them learn what to look for in the text (I call them the "knots"-- the problematic, pithy areas that need exploration) rather than just focus on their favorite parts. We put the idea on the board then use a variety of graphic organizers to pull at the knot strings to see where there might be paper topics.

kfluff said...

Dr. C, I'm stuck on your description of the conflict between your personality and your intellect. Beautifully articulation of the problem--and one I don't think you're alone in. I've never described it that way to myself, but I think you've hit it right on the head. To that end, it might not be about stifling your student's passion as much as it is about coaching her on how to redirect it. How did you learn to do it?

Shaun Huston said...

I think that training students to push past their initial, first look and maybe visceral, reactions to books, films, TV shows, etc. isn't so much a matter of reigning in their passions as opening up new windows on the things that they love. I don't believe that passion and critical inquiry and analysis are at odds with each other, but are, ideally, mutually constitutive. I should add that it must just be a joy to have a student who appears to be so thoroughly engaged with the class. Particularly when teaching courses on film, I am constantly having to struggle with the disappointing reality that most of my students are relatively blase about a subject, and individual works, that I absolutely love. Many of these same students are also, in ways both passive and active, resistant to learning theory and methods for the critical analysis and interpretation of movies, and particularly do not enjoy films that challenge their ideas of what movies should be. The students who have been most open to new experiences and critical exploration are those that do have a passion for film.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it is contradictory to being an English Professor to rank one book above all others: surely it is passion and taste which leads one to that profession, and could also lead one to have favourites? I qualify that last statement because I know from my own reading experience that it is very difficult to pick one book out of the many that I love and say it stands superior to all others in my affections. My own English Professor of the past two years, however, has been up to the task: I worked through Ulysses with him over the course of a year, and he was quite open in saying it is what he considers to be the most fantastic novel of the 20th century. His sheer joy in the text pervaded every class and added an extra dimension, one which was really helpful in getting what was going on.

MaggieMay said...

There's so much I want to respond to in this post... but I'll just pick up on the personality/intellect issue: I think this is a very common concern, especially for female academics. However, I've come to think about it this way: having a fabulous personality AND being an intellectual is a bit like learning another language-- you *know* you've learned a language when you can tell jokes in it. I've come to think I'm a "worthy" intellectual *because* I can have fun with it-- I'm fluent enough with the material that I can improvise and let my personality into it.

saxifraga said...

Delurking to say thank you for articulating the personality/intellect conflict so precisely. I think about this issue a lot, and like you, have a tendency to respond to my own strenghts and weaknesses when I see them in the students.

I don't think it is possible or desirable to detach completely from ones own experiences. I get a lot of positive feedback from my students because I remember (and admit that I remember) what it was like to be to be in their situation. I am very honest with them about my own experiences and use my experiences to push them forward, but I am afraid that i am more succesfull in doing this with the students who are closer to me personality-wise. I am afraid I do not "see" or pay enough attention to the students who are very different from me and that I do not see how to push them in the right direction or how to challenge them in the best way according to their particular personalities.

Your post made me think about this again.