Thursday, March 8, 2018

Clueless Class

So, I have just finished calculating midterm grades (they are due at 9 a.m. on the Friday before spring break for some reason), and the results confirm my impression that one of my two comp classes is the Kingdom of the Clueless. Thirteen of them, out of twenty, have a grade in the C range or lower. One of those is a classic "ghost student" who showed up to the first day of class and then disappeared, but the rest have fully earned those grades. I don't think I'm that tough. There are three students in my other section of comp with Cs, and none with anything lower. They've had the same instructions, the same activities, mostly-the-same everything. This particular section simply ignores all directions, spoken or written, and all examples.

I can understand how visible bad habits, like arriving to class late or doing the bare minimum in peer workshops, spread among a given group of students. If you see other people doing something, it becomes normalized, and you figure you might as well do it too. It's a bad dynamic from the instructor's point of view, but at least I understand how it works and where it comes from. In this group, though, all but a handful of the students seem to have become identically clueless in ways that ought to be invisible to each other. For example, one of the assignments in this class is to read, summarize, and evaluate an academic journal article in your intended major field. I've been using some variation on this assignment for over fifteen years. They see multiple examples from previous students. There are some predictable places where most students have difficulty -- no freshmen are very good at the evaluating part, and lots of them struggle with identifying main ideas and central arguments -- and the occasional one-off error (there's always that one kid who decides an alternative-medicine website is a journal article). But mostly, they sort of do what they were asked.

This semester? An amazingly high percentage of students -- but only in this one section -- seem to have interpreted this assignment to mean "Write a personal essay about why you're interested in your major." I have literally no idea how they GOT this notion.

And why is the Clueless Class always the one that meets at 11:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Is that time slot jinxed?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Athletics comes to Misnomer U.

So we have an athletics program now. This is new; or rather, new-old, since the program has returned after a hiatus of fifteen years or so, but at any rate, this is the first time I've had to deal with student athletes since I was hired.

I was hoping it would be better than I remembered. It isn't: there are still lots of annoying bureaucratic forms to fill out tracking athletes' progress and grades, even though they're mostly online now, and all of these absences that we MUST accommodate, even though the student is inevitably missing important stuff. And there is still an astounding level of apathy among most of the student-athletes toward anything remotely academic, coupled with an insistence that they MUST MUST MUST get at least a B. (Back in the good old days, the apathetic students were as apathetic about grades as they were about everything else; adding athletics to the mix seems to amp up their extrinsic motivation without doing a bloody thing about the intrinsic part, which is the part that counts. So, for example, they will insist loudly that they don't want to do peer review in comp class because they want MY opinion, and then flake out on a round of required conferences which is their big opportunity to get my opinion because they can't be bothered to complete a draft on time.)

One of them stole a paper draft from his roommate, which is a type of academic dishonesty I haven't seen before. (He "rewrote" it, but not well enough to cover his tracks.) Somehow, this seems like a much, much more serious level of wrongdoing than ripping a paper off the Internet.

And it feels like there is a kind of, I dunno, cult of performative apathy in the one class I have that's majority-athlete? That happens sometimes -- students feed off each other, and a small critical mass of visibly participatory or non-participatory students can set the tone for a whole class -- but it's noticeably worse with this group. (Due to the demographics of Misnomer U., it's very rare to have a class that's majority-male; this one is, and I feel like there's a crucial difference between the way guys act when they're trying to impress girls and when they're trying to impress each other. At any rate, I occasionally read complaints from people at other schools about male students talking too much and dominating the classroom, and this phenomenon is so utterly foreign to my own experience that it feels like a dispatch from Bizarro World. Where are all of these guys who WANT to talk in class? Can we please, please get a few of them over here?)

Grump. These kids today!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The new Norton Anthology, by the numbers

Years since the last Norton Anthology: 6. This seems awfully short, and I can't help wondering if we really NEED a new edition at all, but on looking up the publication dates for the last three editions, I guess it is their usual interval.

Versions of the Norton Anthology I will have used in my entire teaching career, once the new one comes out: 3. This is making me feel old.

Number of werewolves, compared to the last edition: +1. Yay! Who doesn't love a werewolf?

Number of plays about living with integrity in a world where the king is old, mad, and capricious, his vicious and venal children and children-in-law are running the kingdom, and the world is lashed by violent storms: -1. I will grant that I would never actually teach Lear in a survey course, and its replacement, Othello, is undoubtedly more accessible, but the timing seems unfortunate.

Number of gay Elizabethan poets with a taste for elaborate mythological allusions and silly wordplay: -1. (What the hell, Norton? Am I the only one who likes Barnfield?)

Number of other texts I will miss: No idea. They mark the stuff that's new with stars, but they don't call attention to the texts that have quietly disappeared. However, it looks like this revision is less of a bloodbath than the last one, in which at least FOUR pieces that I used to teach regularly, including a full-length play that is still under copyright and not available online, suddenly vanished.

Number of texts that survived the axe, but I have no idea why: Several, starting with most of the longer works by nineteenth-century poets. Like, does anybody actually teach Manfred or "The Scholar Gypsy"? (Undoubtedly, after the last edition, some Victorianist somewhere wondered whether anyone actually taught Richard Barnfield. Sigh.)

Number of texts I asked for on Norton's faculty survey that actually made it in: Two! "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" and A Christmas Carol. Woo hoo!

Number of new short stories by contemporary writers whose works I have actually read voluntarily: 3. (I don't know any of the stories, but given that I dislike most contemporary "literary fiction" and haven't really taken to ANY of the Norton's prior selections, this is a hopeful sign.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Jeopardy and hazard

In my two lit classes this semester, I'm doing ... not quite full-on-game-based-learning, but something close to it, with a few competitive role-playing activities, some theater-games-type performance stuff, and, in the case of the Brit Lit survey, a few days set aside for playing actual historical games, and thinking about what they reveal about the cultures that played them. (Plus, we'll be reading a lot of texts that are essentially gamey -- from Anglo-Saxon riddles to the storytelling contest in The Canterbury Tales to George Herbert doing fun, playful things with words.)

It's fun and creative and energizing, and I need that after ten years of teaching these classes -- but it's also deeply scary. I'm starting to understand, on a gut level, how apt it is that our modern English words jeopardy and hazard come from medieval gaming terms. (And Jeopardy!, of course, is a game today as well!) You can't always control how a game will go, even if you're theoretically the one in charge of the game. Just ask Chaucer's Host. The stakes are sometimes different from what you thought they would be; ask Gawain.

I'm hoping that this will all coalesce the way I'm envisioning, on a thematic level -- that we'll have enough time to talk about the physical and moral hazards of play (sometimes the Baron steals your hair; sometimes you're so busy dicing in the tavern that Death catches you unaware), as well as the ways it can work as a proxy for bigger cultural issues and culture wars (Herrick's holiday-games are particularly good for this). I'm not totally sure I will manage to pull this off, because I have a tendency to get distracted while teaching, caught up in the moment like Chaucer's squabbling pilgrims, and often never do reach the bigger points I intended to make; I feel like I lack an inner Parson to illuminate our pilgrimage's larger meaning.

In the meantime, we had a nice lively round of jeux-partis today, which meant everyone at least got used to talking in front of the class and defending a position; and we will be trying our hand at hazard in a few weeks (with handmade replica medieval dice, which are one of the many awesome things you can buy at Kalamazoo).

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Some sensible rules to keep me from getting hopelessly muddled

1) If your legal name is Michael but you prefer to be called Jacob, please introduce yourself as Jacob and put your name on all your papers as "Jacob." It will be much easier for all of us if I never learn the name "Michael" in the first place.

2) Do not change your hair for the first month. Exception: if you have exactly the same hair as the two girls sitting next to you, please cut or dye your hair IMMEDIATELY, before the second class, and don't change it back for at least another month.

3) Hayley, Bailee, and Kayleigh are not allowed to be in the same class.

4) Identical twins are forbidden to have matching names. In fact, identical twins are forbidden.

5) The ENTIRE BASEBALL TEAM is not permitted to enroll in the same section of freshman comp.

Now, if people would only follow the damn rules. Grump.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

On teaching Caesar in the age of Trump

So I have been in Green Country for almost three weeks, and one of the nice things is that the time difference and the geographic distance mean I'm not bombarded with American news first thing in the morning. In fact, while I haven't absolutely unplugged from American politics, it all feels less urgent and outrage-making here.

Until the latest culture-wars outrage du jour turned out to be about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is always urgent around here. (OK, I'm sort of amused and baffled that a production that has been running for three weeks without anyone paying much attention is SUDDENLY urgent as far as the rest of the world is concerned, but whatever.)

Other, better Shakespeare scholars have weighed in on why nothing about the Public Theater's production of Julius Caesar is particularly new or outrageous; I will note, however, that this play definitely seemed to have more bite when I last taught it, a few weeks after the election, and I plan to teach it again this fall, and probably again every year for the foreseeable future.

It is, in fact, really HARD to get students to read Caesar's assassination as justifiable, so I doubt that a "go assassins!" reading of this play is likely to come naturally to anyone. They don't, as a rule, want to see the conspirators as people they should like. (Particularly Cassius. I really like Cassius, but students in general do not -- they tend to accept Antony's judgment of Cassius, and the other conspirators who aren't Brutus, as acting "in envy of great Caesar," without considering that Antony has political reasons of his own for holding up Brutus as the Great Exception. What we actually get in the text is more nuanced; Cassius is so damn right about most of the questions of strategy, and perceptive and clearheaded about the consequences of letting Antony live and speak, and any successful political movement needs manipulative pragmatists as well as idealists.) As a rule, students tend not to see small-r republicanism as something worth killing to preserve. Politics, at the grand history-making level, are not quite real to them. Friendship is real, and they tend to fixate on the "Brutus literally stabbed his friend in the back!" part, even though Brutus and Caesar's friendship is something we're informed about rather than something we actually see. It's not clear that the Caesar we do see on stage is capable any more of friendship, in the sense of a relationship among equals. (Contrast with the Brutus / Cassius friendship, which is messy and stormy and tender and substantive, to the point where Cassius is the only person with whom Brutus gets to be really human by Act 4, and Cassius noticeably doesn't exploit or take advantage of that vulnerability.)

The idea that reasonable people might be willing to die or kill to protect a tradition of self-governance feels more charged, these days, like something my last crop of students could feel on a gut level.

I don't mean to suggest that the conspirators are right; the point is that we don't know whether they are right. Brutus agonizes over the unknowability of the future; he can't be sure whether Caesar will hatch into a poisonous snake until it's too late to do anything about it. We see farther than Brutus does; we know what he will choose, and what the consequences of his choices will be. But what we don't, and can't, know is what would have happened if he had chosen differently. It's a play about the difficulty of choosing and acting rightly when the information we have is necessarily imperfect (even in a world where omens and soothsayers and prophetic dreams are real, they can pretty much all be read in multiple ways, stymieing everyone's attempts to foresee the future; how much more difficult it is in our world). Moreover, the really fatal choices, from Brutus's point of view, are not the big ones but the little ones, not should we kill Caesar? but who gets to speak last at the funeral?

Some students have a hard time with this, too. They want the messages about right and wrong, and what people should have done, to be clearer. They aren't. They never will be. And I think we desperately need to know that, in a culture that tends to overvalue confidence and decisiveness and undervalue questioning and thought.