Friday, June 13, 2014

Texts and contexts

This is our classroom, at least most of the time; it came with enough furniture to seat eight, which was exactly the number we needed. Sometimes we go outdoors, or into the games room at the student apartment complex if we need to use the TV, and my colleague will be holding her class in the pub on Monday. (I plan to do the same for our very last session, once we are back in the capital. I figure the writer we'll be reading that day would have approved.) But most of the time, here we are hanging out in the living room / kitchenette.

And students talk. My God, do they talk. They argue about whether the Revolutionary Poet was a hero or an idiot, and whether the Playwright-and-Memoirist views the rural villagers he writes about as a separate, lesser order of people or whether he really gets them and their culture. They say smart and insightful things about the gender politics of personifying the nation as a woman. They make awesome connections to things they're learning in my colleague's class, despite the fact that her material ends about 700 years before mine begins. Some of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that they are an exceptionally self-disciplined and committed group, as evinced by the fact that they managed to scrape together $5,000 for this trip in the first place. But I also think that we have, quite accidentally, stumbled upon the ideal setting and context for a college class, and achieved something that is supposed to happen but very rarely does: students are talking to each other as much as to me, and they feel comfortable enough around each other to take up opposing positions. And there are too few of them to hide behind each other and let a tiny minority do most of the talking. It probably also helps that we have drunk beer, scrambled over rocks, and wandered through cow pastures together, all of which tend to dispel any notions that professors are a separate species.

I wish there were some way to bottle this atmosphere and bring it back with us. Maybe if we capped all of the courses at ten and installed comfy couches in every classroom, that would be a start; but I think you also need the sort of group bonding that comes through shared experience, and I don't think there is any way to make that happen artificially. (I realize that the "learning communities" trend is supposed to achieve this, but I'm skeptical about whether it actually works.)


Unknown said...

Love your tale of teaching success, and you are right about it being a function of the small size. One of my classes is a small seminar in a resident program. It always has the highest participation rate. Unfortunately, it is the outlier. The rest of my courses (at a large public university) are increasing in size as the Regents try and get the best bang for the buck. A class of 10 or even 15 will get cancelled.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I suspect another key is that they're able to concentrate on the experience, and (mostly) only the experience. From your "scraping together" comment (and others -- except that many of my students have been abroad, to their/their parents' home country) I suspect that your students are much like mine, and that probably means that, at home, they're balancing school and more paid work hours than they really should, at least from the perspective of getting the most out of the educations they're working so hard to pay for. Current retail/service industry scheduling practices (variable schedules, often created on a week-by-week basis) make the situation worse. We tend to blame electronic distractions for our students' lack of focus, but I suspect that the pull of paid work (and family duties, where relevant) is at least as big a factor (and the two can combine; I've had a student explain leaving class early with "my boss texted me; I have to go in to work." I'm actually sort of used to that behavior, thanks to my father, but my students aren't in high-level government positions, dealing with global emergencies, as he was; these days, low-level workers seem to be expected to have the same sort of availability once limited to relatively high-level professionals, such as doctors).

Whatever the underlying reasons, I'm glad they're having the experience (though it's sort of sad that they have to travel to do so).

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yes, I think that is probably true, unfortunately.