Friday, January 19, 2007

And So the Semester Is Underway

I know I've been a bad blogger of late. It's not that there hasn't been anything to write about (there has) but all of my writing mojo has gone toward other things, and so I've been doing more blog reading than blog writing as a result. (I point to this as evidence that blog writing is, at least in my case, deeply linked to any other kind of writing that I do, even if I am an academic who blogs vs. being an academic blogger or whatever way we're marking that distinction these days. Maybe I'm not writing a literary critical or theoretical blog, but the blog surely keeps me in a writing groove in a way that no other kind of less formal writing has, and so when I have to direct my attention to the formal stuff, the blog suffers.)

Anyway, though, this isn't a post about my stupid blog - I want it to be a post, rather, about my sense of what this semester is going to be like. I'm two weeks in already, I've graded one set of papers in my writing class, I've graded one set of quizzes from my lower-level lit course, and I've seen some online discussion responses from my upper-level lit students. In other words, I think I'm at a point where I can project how things are going to go and where I want to go from here with these classes.

First things first: at least at this point, I think I'm pretty lucky with the writing class. Sure, some of them are terrible writers, but at least so far, the class discussions have tended to be quite dynamic, and they seem to be really engaged with what I'm doing with them, or at least willing to put up with what I'm making them do. I've tried to make more of an effort to put each thing I'm asking of them into context with my broader goals for the course, and I think that doing that jedi mind trick stuff seems to be having a positive effect. Now, there is one girl with a sour expression who has NEVER been on time, and I think she may become a problem if she doesn't get it together. I've called her out on the tardiness thing - I start on time, so you've got to be there on time, etc. - and what she said last class was "at least it was only five minutes this time." That kind of response totally does not bode well. I've also got a couple of the kind in there who like to tell you even though you don't know them yet about all of their woes and troubles - but I think I've headed them off at the pass. And then I had another who commented on my age in the "you're not old enough to be a professor" way. I suppose I'll miss that when I start looking old enough to be a professor, but at this point it still really pisses me off. I'm not exactly the Doogie Howser of the professorial track, you know. But, in spite of the above, I'm actually feeling pretty ok about the writing class. I think that I will manage through the end of the semester, at any rate.

The class I'm most excited about is the upper-level class. The initial drop/add period is done, and it looks like I've only lost 2 of those originally enrolled, which is pretty awesome, given the amount of reading and work I expect in my classes. So far they seem to be a really good and engaged group, although they do seem to want me to spoon-feed background to them and to tell them what a text "means" more than I'd like. I'm hoping that this is alleviated once they start giving their presentations. I'm also going to have to start arranging them in a circle for discussion, and luckily I've got a room that will accommodate this. Another reason that I want to do the circle thing is that in contrast to last semester, when I had the Class of Women, this class is pretty evenly divided between male and female students, and the male students tend to be quite dynamic. One problem that I know I have is that I respond to dynamic, and so unless I'm careful, I will let those three or four students dominate the discussion and it will become a really bogus class. (I think the issue is that I myself was a dynamic participator and so I don't really understand the non-dynamic kind of student. Nevertheless, because I understand the dynamic participators, I also know that they can be a bunch of blowhards who don't really have substantive stuff to contribute, and so I know that as a teacher, however much I might like to listen to them (and myself) talk, I've got to open the discussion up to the quieter ones in the bunch and to make sure that the women don't get shut out of the conversation.) At any rate though, I'm wicked excited about this class, and I really do have high hopes for it.

Finally, in a weird twist, the class I'm most concerned about and potentially least excited about is the one that is usually my favorite course to teach. It's big - which is part of the issue but it's no bigger than usual, really, just I don't know as many students from previous classes so it feels bigger - and there were some late adds - another part of the issue - and well, they all seem really tired. I mean, I open the semester with some pretty shocking stuff, and normally students have a lot to say (which is the point of opening with that kind of thing). These ones just looked at me like their sensibilities were offended and like I was a lunatic. I toned things down last class, and they all looked at me like they were zombies or on drugs or something. They did better when I had them do group work and then we reconvened, so we'll be doing more of that, but that's not a solution to this problem. I've got to do something to get the whole class more engaged. I think one thing that may be catching me up is that I don't have as many "frequent flyers" in the class as I usually do, and with the number of students in there I'm having a hard time learning names. (I always feel like it's easier to control a class dynamic once I know who the students are.) I don't know. They all just seem really passive. Like they are less interested in talking about the content of what we've read than they are in doing discrete tasks like scanning lines of poetry. (We start with poetry, and yes, I still teach how to scan a line.) Also, for the first time ever, I've had to tell that class to take notes. Usually in my classes, students take notes furiously. Without my telling them to. I don't know. I suppose I'm feeling a bit unsure of what will happen with this group. And it sucks because usually this course is one that I don't need to think too much about.

Then there is the Quasi-Admin gig I'm doing, and that hasn't really gotten off the ground for the semester, though I suppose it will in the coming weeks.

So anyway, that's all of what I've been doing/thinking about instead of writing on the blog. Ok, now to get myself in gear and go teach.


Anonymous said...

maybe they are on drugs. :) or maybe they are just sensitive.

Anonymous said...

This last class you talked about sounds exactly like my morning class last semester. Mine warmed up (a teeny bit) as the semester progressed, but most of them looked sleepy or high. And, there were a lot who didn't take notes (I too think that's really annoying). I think that our classroom (which was small and hot) had something to do with it. Could that be the problem in your course? Is there some sort of environmental hazard?

Dr. Crazy said...

I don't think it's the room (it's pretty spacious - the same room I teach the upper-level class in) - I think it's perhaps just a weird mix of students. Also, the two repeat students in there are both kind of quiet, so they're not really helping me to set the tone the way that a less quiet student might.

Anastasia: They may be both sensitive AND on drugs. :)

itinerarium said...

Try this one - "They stared at me like a dog that had just been shown a card trick." I'm trying to get the phrase into more general circulation. Because, quite clearly, it's brilliant.

Off to get ready to stand at the bottom of a large fishbowl and talk about old books to young people. Are they not clear on the fact that if they can see me, the rules of optics suggest I can see them?

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh no. They don't know that you can see them, because they think you're like the TV. They also don't think that you can hear them, which means you will often be privy to conversations that they'd be MORTIFIED to know you'd listened in on.

Will definitely have to work the dog/cardtrick comment into my class next time if they don't liven up :)

Anonymous said...

It makes no sense to me that you guys are belittling your students. You'll always get a good mix; remember the bell shape? I used to draw that on the board and say, "20% will get As and Bs, 60% Cs and Ds, 20% Es and Fs. AT midterm I'd say, "Get out of mediocrity and move up or move down!" Then went on with my lectures.

Dr. Crazy said...

If I seemed like I was "belittling my students" that definitely wasn't my intention (and actually, by reading back over the post and my comments, I don't think I was, although yes, I did joke a bit in the comments, which I suppose to some might come off as belittling, though I'm not sure I get that).

I'm concerned about the lack of energy in a class, and I'm trying to think of ways to energize them. That's not belittling them - it's, I think, good teaching. And sometimes there IS a weird mix of students - haven't you ever had a class where the dynamic was just strange? While of course not all students in ANY course will be stellar, I know I've had some classes where the mix does seem "off" in some way - not necessarily in terms of performance on assignments, just in terms of how the class flowed. Also, yes, there's a little venting going on in the comments, but some venting doesn't necessarily equate to "belittling."

If there's one thing I've seen in teaching as much as I teach at my institution, and in teaching the wide range of classes that I teach and teaching the same course repeatedly, it's that it doesn't all come down to objective measures and the math of the bell curve. If it did, there'd never be a reason to change one's lecturing style, to incorporate new activities, to lead discussion in different ways. You could just go in, teach according to the formula, and always get the same results. Maybe that is the approach that some take and maybe it does work in some contexts. I honestly don't know. All I can say is that for me, I can't see such a strategy working.