Man. Those 8 a.m. students are a tough crowd.
They will, mostly, rise to the challenge if they're given a specific assignment and they know they're going to be called on. (This week, they know they're responsible for looking up a particular word in the OED and telling their classmates about what they found. They're prepared, and sometimes they come up with pretty smart stuff) But they don't volunteer for anything, ask questions, or even laugh much, with the exception of one older student who's less self-conscious than the rest, and one English major who occasionally decides to throw me a lifeline, even though she seems to think my questions are painfully basic. (They are; honestly, I've resorted to throwing out softballs like "OK, what does it say in the footnotes about this line?" in the hopes that someone else will feel confident enough to volunteer. Anyone? Bueller? All right, moving on, then...)
Man. Those 11 a.m. students are a delight. I didn't expect my favorite class this semester to be a gen ed class, but this one has just the right mix of personalities: a core group of five or six really sharp English majors, and the spacy theater dude who sometimes appears to be completely stoned, but when he gets stuff, he really gets it, and the girl who blurts out the oddball questions that everybody else is probably wondering about but afraid to ask. They're energetic, and easily amused, and generally a pleasure to interact with. They get Donne! And Herbert! (Herbert is amazingly easy to teach when you're in the Bible Belt anyway -- even the 8:00 class did a pretty good job working out what all those references to wine and corn and thorns and fruit might imply in a Christian context -- but in the 11:00 section one of the students asked whether it was significant that the big shift in "The Collar" comes at line 33, and I was drop-dead stunned because I'd never noticed that before, but of course he did it on purpose. That's the kind of stuff these students come up with.)
It's not as simple as that, of course. I experience my students mostly as a group with a particular dynamic, so I tend to think of them collectively and lose sight of their individuality, especially in the first weeks of the semester when I'm still linking names, faces, and personalities together. And it's in those first weeks that impressions are forged, and solidify. Meanwhile, there are students in the 11:00 section who are quietly drifting away from the group, but I don't notice that until later, after the first set of papers and the midterm. And there are students in the 8:00 class who are thinking interesting thoughts and might even secretly want to be called on, but I won't know that, either, until after the class dynamic has set. It's a lot harder to change the way we do things in mid-semester.
By now, registration has started for next semester. I'm checking the class lists obsessively, looking for names I recognize (oh, she's good, I'm glad she signed up for the Shakespeare class ... hmm, wasn't that the guy who dropped in the second week of the semester, I wonder if he's got his stuff together this time?) and wondering about all the ones I don't already know, because who signs up for the course is a matter of crucial importance, and it's the one thing I absolutely don't get to control.