Monday, January 19, 2009

Courseblogging: Well, I see we are a small and select group

So, add-drop is over, and it appears that my medieval lit class will be small. Very small. Like, count-all-the-students-on-one-hand small.

I have mixed feelings about this. I knew it was going to be a niche course, but I was hoping for two hands. It looked like I was going to achieve that goal, but three of the students who were enrolled on the first day never showed up again. On the one hand, I really like the idea of being able to give all my attention to a tiny handful of bright, focused students, and I'm already picturing classes held in the coffeeshop by mutual agreement, plenty of easy chitchat, a cozy book-club atmosphere. (Not to mention less grading! Can we say it again, LESS GRADING!)

On the other hand -- I feel a little unpopular. I wonder if I could have done more during our first class to make students welcome (did I send the wrong signals? do I come off as too nervous, too socially awkward, too stiff? should I try to develop a more linear, lecture-centered style instead of leaping straight into free-flowing discussion?) I also wish we had a more diverse group (the one non-English major, who was also the only non-white student enrolled, dropped after the first day, and ideally, I would have loved to have a few people with a background in history or fine arts or social sciences). This probably reflects some institutional issues rather than problems with this particular class. Because of the way the curriculum is structured, there are some strong disincentives for students at Misnomer U. to take upper-level coursework outside of their majors, while there were some equally strong incentives for students at the Beloved Alma Mater to do so, so I grew up thinking of a big cheerful seminar table surrounded by English and history and philosophy students as the norm. Still, I worry that I might have pitched the first class too high, assumed too much knowledge, scared some students off.

I'm trying to remember whether I ever took a class that was this small. I don't think so; even in grad school, even in second-semester Anglo-Saxon poetry, my impression is that there were always a few more bodies to hide behind. I suspect this will put a pretty heavy burden on the students to prepare and participate -- which isn't a bad thing at all, but it can be exhausting to have to be on all the time.

Well, we'll see how it goes. Wish me luck.


Susan said...

Good luck! As a long term thing, it would make lots of sense to build connections with the people in history who might have students interested. As a historian of Renaissance England, I'm always really peeved that people think they can major in English, and even specialize in the Renaissance, and NEVER TAKE A HISTORY CLASS.

But cheerfully sending your students back and forth is a good thing for all concerned!

moria said...

I was a little appalled when I walked into a course on my M.A. to find that only I and one other were enrolled. It was awkward at first - though thank god my classmate, H., and I enjoy each other, and became friends through the experience. As term went on, somewhat at the prompting of our instructor, we gradually hit a rhythm something like that of a research seminar. H and I would do different kinds of work on a given topic, or the same kind of work on different topics, or whatever, and then casually present our findings. We had a really good time, and I learned a lot -- the course really shifted my direction in the field, and I got to develop a close relationship with a professor who became a dearly important mentor.

So, just by way of encouragement and to reinforce your notion that you can probably run a smashing class in so intimate a setting. I would definitely recommend considering opening out the syllabus a bit as you move forward, so that your students can do a bit of work on their own and share it with each other -- because there are fewer of them, it will feel less intimidating to them than formal presentations in bigger classes do, and such contributions needn't really be graded. They'll feel empowered and like they have a personal stake in the class, and they'll learn a ton from the experience of independent work. Non?

(Susan -- I stand shamed. Two degrees down, third begun, I've never taken a history class. Well, not history qua history, anyhow. And yet I still call myself (sometimes) a bit of a historicist. ... I felt I should 'fess up, for some reason.)

Fretful Porpentine said...

Susan -- Ooh, maybe I should ask our ancient / medieval / early modern historian (as it is a v. small college, they are all the same person) to guest-lecture.

Moria -- That sounds like a fabulous, if intimidating, experience. I've got some presentations on research-in-progress pencilled in for late in the semester, as well as some response papers on topics of the students' choice to be shared with the class, so I'm hoping their interests will drive a fair amount of the conversation.

Anonymous said...

just delurking to say that while there are certainly drawbacks to your situation, at my school we can count the *English majors* on one hand--so at least the few you have are motivated students!

Anonymous said...

Did you see Bitter and the Sweet? She is collecting advice on such here.

Anonymous said...

Several aspects.

1: It's not just a humanities problem: When I still did study biology I was 1 of 2 student participants of a semester long lecture series (just us 2 plus 1 prof.).

2: Low enrollment figures here seem to be less connected to the popularity of the teacher than to the expected work load.

3: How to teach such a class? Well, the lower the number of participants, the easier it is to take the participants individual preferences into account.

4: Good luck!

P.S.: Did you receive my 2009-01-15 email?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heinrich -- Got it now, thanks.

dance -- Thanks for passing along the link. Good to know I'm not the only one in this particular situation.

R -- Yes, the ones who are left seem to be the motivated ones, so that's one good thing, for sure.

Susan said...

Oh, do invite a guest lecture -- but even more think about ways to send students to each other. Or even concoct a swell team-taught course....

Susan said...

P.S. to Moria
You are at a university with a good early modern British historian. So take a course. It's never too late!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I had a class with only 2 people in it during my undergrad at a SLAC in the midwest. The only thing that sucked about it was you really couldn't miss class unless someone died because, obviously, the teacher would notice and the other person in the class -- a good friend of mine -- would resent being alone and on the spot. But we managed, and it was fun.

During my PhD studies, I asked one of my profs to do an "independent study" on Theory of Drama, and one other person asked if she could be included too. It ended up being one of the most intense, rigorous, and rewarding class I ever had. Of course, you can get pretty deep with two PhD students. We met in my editorial office every week, and had coffee and lunch together. Definitely a happy experience.

Oh, and I'm with you on the small amount of grading. My Shakespeare class last semester had 8 students, and it seemed like a breeze grading those papers. Compared to my comp class, it seemed like no effort at all.