Monday, September 14, 2009

Thoughts on Theory - Teaching It, Reading It

As you all know, I've taught theory courses before. I've taught a feminist theory class to undergrads, as well as the undergrad required theory class for majors. This semester, though, is my first time teaching theory to grad students (a) as well as my first time teaching in our new-ish MA program (b).

Now first, let me say a few things about our MA program. Some might say that it shouldn't even exist, what with the state of the profession and the realities of how things are in my discipline. Now, I'd agree, except our program is clearly targeted to high school teachers looking for a bump in pay grade and to people who are not interested in pursuing academia full time. So on the one hand, I think the existence of this program is justified and justifiable. I also think it was the right move for our department, because prior to having our own MA program, our department was expected to serve other grad programs in a way that was invisible, which meant we had little control over curriculum/the administration of the courses that we offered.

That said, the above facts dictate the kind of students that we attract and the kind of program that we offer. For example, the entire program has to run at night because the vast majority of our students work full time during the day. This means that even the full time students are not really full time grad students - they are people going to grad school full time while they work part-time. This is a challenge in that if one is going to teach in the program, one can't just design a grad seminar that looks just like the ones of one's own misspent youth. On the other hand, one has to do one's best to offer a course that really is graduate level - if the program is going to have any integrity.

So anyway, I'm teaching a seminar in theories of gender and sexuality, and now that I'm about a month in, I feel like I have some things to say about it.

First, and I think this indicates some things about our student population, the students in the course are all women. To be fair, the vast majority of the students in our program are women, but I also think that in another context, you'd get one or two (at least) men in such a course. So I didn't design the course thinking that I'd be teaching only women, and the fact that I am has been interesting, and in many ways I think a really positive thing. I haven't had to deal with some of the classroom management things in terms of interaction that typically occur in a class with one or two men, and I think that students have reached a comfort level with one another more quickly because we are a group of women talking about gender and sexuality. So far so good.

Second, in designing the syllabus I felt very aware of the fact that I needed to hit a sweet spot between very challenging and manageable enough for them to do the work. This involved thinking very carefully about which readings I should choose, the order of the readings, and what things I could only afford to include as recommended readings. In terms of choice of readings, I couldn't expect that students would have very much theoretical background, if any at all. So I had to include some foundational things that I probably would not have done were I teaching in another sort of program. I also felt very aware of how the readings would fit together from week to week, which I suppose we always should do when designing a course, but in this case to pay very close attention to that seemed crucial: I needed to make sure that the momentum of the course would make sense to the students and would keep them on board even if during a particular week they felt daunted or weren't able to get through all of the reading. This involved thinking about how readings would reference one another, as well as building in weeks that would be more and less challenging in a way that was very conscious. In many ways, this dictated what ended up on the "recommended" reading list, and, contrary to my own experiences, I very clearly link the "recommended" readings to a week on the syllabus, so that students are totally clear about what relates to what. (In my own experience, a big long list of things were just put on reserve and we were expected to have at them. This, I think, would be a totally unrealistic way of handling supplementary readings in my context.)

Third, while it is clear that my students don't have the sort of background in discussing theory and the sort of familiarity with theoretical trajectories that I would expect from people at the grad level, I'm seeing that they are very smart, and I see them quickly getting up to speed - much more quickly than I'd anticipated. This is incredibly rewarding, and it's making the class a joy to teach and to attend. There are still some kinks to work out (especially in terms of how they manage their presentations) but I'm not feeling discouraged, at least not yet.

Perhaps more interesting to me than any of the above, though, is my relation to the material as I'm reading along with them. See, I've not read any of this stuff in a concentrated way - in its entirety - since graduate school. I made the conscious choice not to choose an anthology for this course, precisely because the excerpts included in such anthologies generally offer very slim representations of the theoretical pieces with which I'm expecting students to engage. To my mind, if you're a graduate student, you should read ALL of Gender Trouble - not just an excerpt - to give just one example. So this course is forcing me to sit with the theory in ways that I have never had to do since graduate school. It's also forcing me to learn how to be quiet and to let the students direct the conversation - rather than spoon-feeding them the "this is what this means" stuff. All of this has been really exhilarating for me as a teacher.

But going through the readings with them has also been really exhilarating for me as a scholar. First of all, as I do the reading for each week, I find myself congratulating myself on the syllabus design, because the readings are really interconnecting in fantastic ways. I'm talking about the kinds of interconnections that make little explosions of insight go off in your head. I didn't really know that this would be the case ahead of time, and it's been a sincere pleasure to read this stuff as I've organized it (and I didn't organize the syllabus with reference to anybody else's, so this is a very happy accident). But also, as I'm doing this reading, I'm also discovering a lot about how I think as a literary and cultural critic. I'm seeing the trajectory of my own intellectual development, and I'm seeing the foundations for how I view the world - foundations that are surely informed by the theory that I've read.

This has already contributed in substantial ways to the project that I'm envisioning for my sabbatical (for it turns out I'm reading all of this with an eye toward that project), and for the first time I understand the difference between teaching your scholarship to an audience of undergraduates vs. teaching it in a grad school context. I still think I enjoy teaching undergrads more (there's something about introducing ideas/concepts for the first time, as opposed to socializing already introduced students into a particular discourse), but I also see how the work I'm doing in the grad classroom is infinitely more useful to my scholarly endeavors. Basically, it's like I'm getting the opportunity to take a grad seminar again, knowing now what I didn't know then, and I'm remembering the feeling of having bursts of ideas while a conversation happens and I'm remembering what it is to be passionately excited about my ideas, without having to tamp down that excitement to make it palatable and understandable to an undergraduate audience.

Also, and this was unexpected, I'm realizing where some of the misunderstanding on this blog last week came from. I'm realizing that I've been operating under the assumption that you all are in my head and that you're all reading the theory that I'm reading and that I have this (unwarranted) expectation that readers of this blog come to my posts with some sort of a handbook for understanding that when I post about various things I'm doing so with a particular theoretical underpinning. I'm not part of any "Mommy wars," yo. I'm not out to attack anybody. I'm thinking things through. But because I'm not "showing my work" (as I always describe the use of theory to my students - that it's like offering a proof for a geometry problem) that's not what people are reading. People aren't seeing the discourses that I'm (unconsciously) engaging, and so they can't engage with those discourses. So to some extent, any misunderstanding that occurs is my own damned fault. This is only to some extent, though. Last week I think that there were a slew of other contributing factors in play, only some of which had to do with me or what I wrote here. So I take responsibility for my part, but in no way do I take responsibility for all. But so anyway, I've got a plan formulating that will address my part, though I'm not sure when I'll get to it.

But anyway, these are all of the things that teaching this theory class is bringing to the surface for me. And it's really exciting, as nerdy as that sounds.


Shane in SLC said...

Hmmm. No one seems to be commenting. Maybe I should make a gratuitous crack about how children are icky?

Just kidding. Anyway, I've found teaching MA students much harder than teaching undergrads, because the range of skills and prior knowledge is so wide, and because my impulse (in the early years, anyway) was to make the classes as rigorous as my doctoral seminars were. And at least at my institution, that's just not a reasonable expectation.

I'm glad you're having such a good experience with the theory class! Wish I could be a fly on the wall for a couple of meetings.

Sisyphus said...

Yay! Theory!!! Yum!

Janice said...

Our M.A serves a similar demographic -- students who're topping off their B.Ed., or preparing for it, with an M.A. in history. (We find that most of our students who've gone on to work as teachers are too busy to do the M.A., at least for quite a few years.)

When I teach the graduate students, I almost always teach theory: historiography and methods, pure and simple. I've never taught my specialty since no students pursue the M.A. in my sub-field. But even with that I do find the graduate teaching especially rewarding as it causes me to think deeply about how and why I approach matters the way that I do. (It's also inspired me to branch out of my original sub-field by exposing me to so many other aspects of the discipline.)

Your discussion of the dynamics in your gender seminar is interesting. I'd love to compare notes as the term moves along. I have three men in my "Gender in Early Modern Europe" seminar. It's a new course for me and I was quite disappointed at that, since I'd worked hard in preparing the course to incorporate topics and ideas that I thought would be broadly appealing. But gender = girl-stuff in most male students' minds (I expect that most if not all of my three male students are in the class due to scheduling conflicts with the other options.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Janice, I understand your disappointment. This is often the feeling I have in any of my courses at the undergrad level that have to do with gender and sexuality. I gear them to a general audience on purpose, and yet, the audience that self-selects in refuses to be general. Often, though, I do tend to use this as a teaching opportunity early on, to talk about this self-selection and to consider the value of these courses when they end up "preaching to the choir."

I will say this, though, from past experience, that typically when I've had female-dominated undergrad classes (both as a student and teaching them) the male students have tended to be quite careful and respectful because they never have experienced being in the minority before (a) or because they didn't intend to be in this position because they just enrolled for the required credit in the right schedule slot (b) or some other answer? (c)

In contrast, I was in the same situation (as a student) a lot in my grad program, and those guys who opted into these courses often appeared like they were out to prove something, and there were major issues with dominating behavior in discussion, shutting down their female classmates' comments in very derogatory and aggressive ways, or talking negatively about certain female seminar members socially, etc. Actually, I don't think I commented this on my "dick-slapping" thread, but somebody had asked whether I could give lessons. What immediately came to mind when I read that comment was, "Oh, you don't need me to give those lessons. Just enroll in my former PhD program and you'll start doing it as a means of survival!"

BrightStar (B*) said...

I'm curious: How does the fact that most of your students are school teachers impact your pedagogy / course design / goals for your students, if at all?

ProfSeeman said...

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Professor Emeritus,
City Univ. of New York

Prof. Seeman

Dr. Crazy said...

BrightStar, that's a great question. On the one hand, it doesn't. They're getting an MA in English, and an MA in English it should be. (I'll also note that I feel like if they've chosen the MA in English, that's what they want, as opposed to going the path of the MA in Teaching program which our university also offers, and which would give the same salary bump.) On the other hand, I did think about it as I designed the course, and while it didn't affect the reading assignments (other than in pacing) that I chose so much, it did affect the assignments-for-a-grade things that I designed. In my MA and PhD experiences (both programs aimed at producing college professors), most grad classes had only two to three components to the grade - participation and seminar presentation and discussion lead (either both collapsed into 20% or one worth 10% and the other worth 20%) and a final seminar paper (either worth 70% or 80%, depending). In my context, I did not feel like that was appropriate, or necessarily giving my students what they'd find most useful. And so. There is a presentation/discussion lead assignment, worth 10% of the grade. But also there is a participation grade (20%) reading journal (15%) proposal and annotated bibliography (15%) and finally the seminar paper (40%). I thought it was crucial that I give my students more bites at the apple of the grade than just two or three (a) and I also wanted to design assignments that are things that my students could adapt in their own pedagogy (b). I didn't feel like I could achieve those two things if I weighted the seminar paper as basically the pass/fail component of the grade.

I also notice, since this is a theory class, that I am able to allow for discussion that connects the material to classroom experience without it being a digression (and actually, this is something that I probably would have benefited from in my own grad school experience).

So I wouldn't say that the substance of the course is dramatically different because of the audience, but I would say that the frame of it facilitates the inclusion of that audience, if that makes any sense. And no, I'm not sure how I'd handle this if it were not a theory course. If we were talking about literary texts and students wanted to talk about their teaching experiences, I think that it would be pretty off the point (only because of the texts that I would teach, though, 'cause I don't teach stuff that is regularly taught in high school settings).

BrightStar (B*) said...

That's really interesting. Thank for sharing your perspective. And, yes, I agree that if they wanted a master's in education, they could have gone that route.

I think breaking up the course like that makes a lot of sense, particularly for professionals who are not in school full-time, but also so that learners can engage in the ideas through a number of tasks (and get credit for doing so).

Bavardess said...

I'm a history grad student, but I've done some Women's Studies papers too, and I love grappling with the theory stuff (unlike some of my fellow grad students, whose eyes glaze over at the mention of Foucault & Derrida - those crazy Frenchies!)
You've mentioned Gender Trouble, but if you don't mind sharing, I'd be curious to know some of the other key readings/theorists you're using for your course.

Dr. Crazy said...

Bavardess: if you email me I'll be happy to send you the syllabus. reassigned at