Wednesday, November 26, 2008

End of the semester!

Yup. Classes at Misnomer U. ended yesterday. Take that, those of you who were out on the beach in August while I was teaching my classes. Yay!

There's still a week of exams after the break, followed by an astonishingly early deadline for submitting grades, but in practice it's over.

Random observations about the first semester:

-- I shall miss my Awesome and Fabulous Shakespeare class. I really liked that group. It was a required class for many of them, but with only about three or four exceptions, they were also very much into the material for its own sake, and a few of them expressed an interest in taking the other Shakespeare course in the fall, even though they're not required to have more than one. I think I may make banana bread for the final exam. (Every now and again, I get a group that inspires me to bake.)

-- My morning freshman comp class reminded me a lot of the kids in the Summer Bridge program at the University of Basketball: very social, pretty chatty, better at talking than writing, eager and excited about being in college if sometimes clueless about what college-level work actually entails. This is mostly good, as I really liked working for Summer Bridge, but some of them do seem to need a level of discipline and general cluing-in about academic life that is difficult to provide during the regular semester. The afternoon comp class was pretty similar in terms of background, but without a core group of three or four excellent students to model good class participation and behavior, and I think the other students definitely needed that core group. But at least it is a very, very different dynamic than at New SLAC, where I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle every single day.

-- In general, this place has a very different vibe than New SLAC, despite being roughly the same size and having similar average ACT scores. I miss some things about the campus culture at New SLAC -- it was, I think, more engaged, more community-oriented, the sort of place where faculty showed up to the English Club poetry reading and everybody turned out for the choir concerts and theater department productions. On the other hand, I don't miss feeling like the unwritten requirements for tenure included being seen at these events (and, quite possibly, being an extravert). There has to be some sort of middle ground, right?

-- In lots of ways, though, the community vibe at New SLAC was illusory; it didn't necessarily encompass the commuter students from Desperately Poor City up the highway, for example. The same class divisions apply here, only more so: there are plenty of middle-class students who live in the dorms, work 10-12 hours a week if at all, participate in campus activities, and have a good-sized social support network among their fellow students. And then there are lots who commute from other counties, work such long hours that they fall asleep in class, and barely have a chance to talk to their fellow students, and they're visibly hurting from the lack of time and energy and, most of all, community. I don't know what to do about this -- maybe there is nothing we can do -- but I am very, very sure that the administration's current push toward distance education is going to make the problem worse, not better.

-- At any rate, there is good and useful work to be done here. And maybe that's the most important quality in any job, really.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mysteries of freshman comp

1) When one is teaching two identical sections of freshman composition, and taking care to teach them the same information in identical ways, why is there always a good class and a bad class, and often a dramatic difference between the two? More puzzlingly, why are my bad classes always the ones that meet later in the day? Shouldn't I be better at this when I've already had a trial run in the morning?

2) What's up with students who get busted for plagiarism on an assignment worth a whopping 5% of their grade, plead that they didn't know any better, and then proceed to skip the next week of classes, ensuring that they will get no credit for the course? If I were trying to convince the prof that I was a good student who had made one unfortunate mistake out of ignorance, you can bet my ass would be in that chair. Indeed, why is it ALWAYS the ones who are already struggling who choose to skip? Do they somehow think it's better to ensure that they'll fail instead of spending the rest of the semester worrying about it?

3) Why does there seem to be an upswing, this year, in students who want the university to police their behavior? I swear, I am getting so sick of reading argumentative papers about how smoking should be banned on campus, and alcohol should be banned on campus, and all campuses should be gated communities where visitors have to get a permit from the campus police, and colleges should return to the principle of in loco parentis*, and faculty members should conduct monthly searches of dorm rooms to make sure none of the students have alcohol, drugs, weapons, matches, or candles (!) Is it a deep South thing? A post-Virginia-Tech thing? A reflection of the fact that Misnomer U. already has rather overprotective policies, so students of a libertarian bent tend to end up somewhere else? Whatever, back in the last millennium we would SO not have stood for any of this. I feel old.

4) Why is the end of the semester so close and yet so far away?

* Yes, the student used the phrase in loco parentis. At least she genuinely learned something from her research!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Courseblogging: random bullets o' catching up

I'm still not dead. Just busy. Did I really intend to write a blog entry for everything we read in the Shakespeare class? Oh well.

-- The Merchant of Venice remains my favorite play to teach, though Titus was threatening to elbow it out of the way for a while. It's just so thorny and knotty, and students always want to argue about it, and the elaborate game of bluffing and entrapment that Antonio and Shylock are playing in 1.3. is so much fun to walk students through. (This is the scene that I used for my teaching demo at Misnomer U. -- it has plenty of drama and tension and gamesmanship to make it immediately compelling, but also lots of subtler language stuff that students don't get until it's pointed out to them, like the significance of the moment when Antonio shifts from "you" to "thou" and the extended wordplay on "kind." And then there are all the broader questions about money and identity and whether Shakespeare means for us to notice that Shylock is a moneylender because Christian Venice has forced the role upon him, or whether he's deliberately erasing that fact. Man, I love that scene.)

-- Conversely, the Henry IV plays are among my favorite bits of Shakespeare to write about, but I don't think I've found my way to a good teaching rhythm yet. We skipped Richard II, which I think was a mistake, and we will not have time to finish off with Merry Wives either. I liked it better in the spring when we read the whole pentalogy, but that takes up half of the semester, and there simply isn't time when you feel obligated to cover tragedy as well. But at least the students in this class really get Falstaff, and think he's hilarious, whereas my students at New SLAC seemed to want to throw him in a river long before Mistress Ford's servants did the job for them.

-- I always feel like I'm tipping my hand too much with the history plays. I do not like Hal. I am aware that I might feel quite differently about Hal if the two major influences on my scholarly life were not Freshman Shakespeare Prof, who has been known to call him a prick, and Graduate Advisor, who is a much gentler and more even-handed sort of person but still a Hal-skeptic. If your first contact with a play is a professor you greatly admire saying, "Hey, get a load of that duck over there!" it's always a wrench to make yourself see a rabbit instead, especially if you are temperamentally inclined toward ducks and don't particularly want to see a rabbit. I keep trying not to tell my students which one to see, but I can't resist pointing out the little hypocrisies, and before I know it, I have pretty much told them what I want them to see. (It doesn't help that I've spent a lot of time pondering small moments in these plays, and I can never help mentioning the results of these ponderings, even though I know objectively that Justice Shallow's servant Davy is not in any way an important character, and it would probably be just as well if I never mentioned him at all.)

-- I look forward to the Obama administration for many reasons, but mostly because it will once again be possible to teach Henry V without anybody comparing the title character to Bush. (N.B.: I have never tried to encourage this comparison. They come to it on their own.)

-- Whoever put Chimes at Midnight up on YouTube in its entirety is AWESOME. I want to marry this person, despite not having a clue about his / her gender.