Monday, December 8, 2008

"Not as bad as I expected": some final musings on the Brit Lit survey

Yes, this is another teaching post. Yes, the semester is over, grades are turned in, I have wine and Christmas music and a nice beef stew simmering on the stove, and I really should be posting about something other than teaching. But I can't resist one more post about the Literature Survey from Hell, even though I should have exorcised it by now.

On a whim, and because I wanted some feedback about what to keep or toss next year, I threw in a three-point extra credit question on the final exam: What was your favorite piece we read this semester, and why?

I discovered three things: 1) Twelfth Night and The Canterbury Tales were the runaway favorites; 2) a significant minority of students, perhaps half a dozen out of a class of 24, chose not to answer the question even though it was a complete freebie -- I don't know whether this means they couldn't think of anything they'd enjoyed, or they resented being asked for some reason, or what; 3) the ones who did answer the question had some interesting and quirky responses, many of which revealed more engagement than I would have expected from this group:

My favorite piece we have read this semester is "Lanval" by Marie de France. I loved it because I read it to my 14-year-old sister the first time I read it. I was just going about reading it nonchalantly and all of a sudden I got to the point where the mysterious woman is in a sheer gown trying to seduce Lanval. Both of our ears perked up because it seemed like some sort of medieval soap opera...

My favorite piece was Twelfth Night. I like the irony in the piece. I like how at the time women were not yet allowed to act, yet here was a women acting like a man so well. She fooled everyone. I also liked how Shakespeare made the men look so dumb.

... The Dream of the Rood because there was so much emotion that came from it ... I cannot seem to forget it. The trials that the man goes through internally with the sacred tree is very memorable, and I believe I'll always remember that story.

... I really liked the York play because it showed the men who crucified Jesus as humans, not monsters. I am a Christian, so I feel as though I have an obligation to view the men who crucified Jesus as monsters. But I also must remember that as humans, we make bad decisions, and sometimes those decisions have consequences far beyond what our minds can grasp. And that seems to be what happened to these men. They were doing their job and will forever throughout history be looked at as monsters because of it.

... Thomas Wyatt's poetry. His words helped me with a situation I had been dealing with for some time now. It was truly inspirational to walk away from previous bad relationships and look for something better out there.

... I can even relate to poor Malvolio. We both like things to be just so, and we try out best to follow the rules. If Malvolio was real, I imagine that he and I would get along very well -- if Malvolio gets along with anyone, that is.

My favorite work was Canterbury Tales ... I also like the fact of that they are on a trip and just telling stories to past the time. It reminds me of what my family does when we go on long trips. Hearing each others stories some serious, and some funny.

I would have to go back to the beginning of the semester and go with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It had a great story and lesson that kept my interest ... I am not a literature fan at all, but this class was not as bad as I expected.

Ringing praise, that last one. But it was a useful reminder that most of them didn't want to be there and felt out of their depth in the literature classroom, that their silence wasn't necessarily about me -- and yet, so many of them seem to have been touched or intrigued by something we read. And that is good news, perhaps the best news I can hope for.

I have a great many reservations about the value of gen ed, at least as it's handled at Misnomer U., which has a huge and inflexible set of core requirements. It's rare to see a student taking a class for pleasure or curiosity; they have so many requirements, and so little time and money, that they can't afford to. I'm also skeptical about the value of giving students a smattering of a dozen different disciplines, usually in introductory courses watered down to the lowest common denominator, rather than encouraging them to pursue upper-level coursework in a field that genuinely engages their interest and complements their major. Besides, on a purely selfish level, I'd rather have classes that are half as big and filled with students who actually want to be there.

For the most part, my freshmen didn't share this skepticism when I brought up the subject in the comp classes; they were firmly convinced that Well-Roundedness Is Good, and many of them offered examples of required courses that had turned out to be useful, or interesting, or not as bad as they expected. So evidently this model does work, at least for some of the students some of the time -- and it also translates into more jobs for English PhDs, so I really shouldn't complain.

And who knows? Maybe, if three-quarters of the class can name a text that they found memorable or funny or moving, from a long list of texts that they didn't know about or care about before, the gen ed lit survey has done what it's supposed to do for those students. I'm not sure that making them all into literary critics would be a desirable goal even if it were possible, but I think it is desirable to make everyone aware that men and women who have been dead for centuries might have something interesting to say to us (and might even be worth reading aloud to your fourteen-year-old sister).


rosarosae said...

i think three-fourths is great. it sounds like such a good class. congratulations!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Thanks, and welcome.