Last Week In My Classes: Where’d They Go?

middlemarch-first-editionI’ve been feeling a bit downcast since Friday, because attendance absolutely plummeted in the tutorials for my Close Reading class and I can’t stop worrying about why — and wondering what to do about it.

My particular cause for concern is that last week, as you might recall, we started working on Middlemarch. I brought all the positive energy I could to our two lecture meetings, and I expected a good turnout for the tutorials (which, just to be clear, are regularly scheduled class meetings, not optional drop-in sessions, but smaller and structured specifically around hands-on exercises and group discussions). After all, it’s a big and perhaps somewhat intimidating novel for first-timers, while those who’ve studied it before know it’s an inexhaustible treasure trove of riches. In both cases, surely more time to work through it with my encouragement and expert guidance is highly desirable — but no, apparently not, as both tutorials were at barely 50% full, an unprecedented low.

I know there are lots of tricks for getting people to show up, from regular small-scale on-the-spot assignments to literally giving marks for attendance. I actually have some things like this set up for these tutorials, though, so students who skip them already know they are taking the chance of losing 2% of their grade. I’m frankly sick of doing this kind of coercive micromanagement, even though I acknowledge that it can have some peripheral pedagogical benefits. I resent the implication, and hate sending the message, that showing up for class is something you have to be coaxed into, or should be rewarded for. I also resist taking the blame for absenteeism myself: imagine me as boring — suppose the uses I make of our class time as tedious and unproductive — as you possibly can, and even then, even if the worst is true about what goes on in my classroom (which I am morally certain it isn’t, but let’s grant the hypothetical), it should still be a basic expectation that students show up and make the most of the opportunity.

penguinmiddlemarchBut that is a general pet peeve that’s probably never going to get resolved, while Friday’s collapse is a specific instance that I’d actually like to get to the bottom of. Is it because we’re spending so many weeks on Middlemarch that this first tutorial seemed expendable? (But why would anyone think that, given how much material we clearly have to work through? It isn’t as if we’re going to spend all those weeks on Book I.) Are a lot of students finding the novel difficult to engage with? (But wouldn’t that be an incentive to come to class and learn and talk more about it, rather than opt out — to increase the odds that you’ll enjoy the next 4 weeks?) Do some of them figure they’ve got this covered and don’t need to do the tutorial exercises? (But in that case, they could still come and help out their classmates with their insights, raising the quality of the experience for everyone — and maybe even learning a little something new themselves.) Is the pay-off from our tutorial work in general not clear enough, or actually less than I fondly imagine? On Friday we worked on tracking the movement of point of view in particular passages — but we also just talked about the themes and characters set up in the first section of the novel: both activities seemed pretty valuable to me, at least.

I probably shouldn’t be fretting about it so much, but I was so excited to settle in with Middlemarch that it was hard not to take it personally when so many of them blew me off (which, however irrationally, is how it feels when you look around a room that’s usually crammed and see a lot of empty chairs). I have been wondering how or if to address it in class tomorrow. I could just let it go, but actually our time on Middlemarch is not infinite, and in my view (and according to my experience) most of them need all the support they can get to reach a good working understanding of it: I don’t want tutorial-skipping to become a trend! I think I will approach them mostly with carrots — but I also have one big stick they may have forgotten about, which is a general course policy stating that students with frequent unexcused absences can’t submit assignments. I should make sure they know that absences from tutorials fall under this policy too, and that I’m going to be keeping careful track. Then I’ll turn my attention to this week’s tutorial: if I’m going to scare lure more of them into showing up, it had better be good.

2 Comments to Last Week In My Classes: Where’d They Go?

  1. October 24, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Rohan: We have a Wednesday Seminar group for grads of our core program and to some extent the curriculum is designed to accommodate the interests expressed by students as long as we stay true to a FYP model of chronological, core texts. This year they are doing Russian literature and start Anna Karenina this week. We too are anticipating a drop off, so the prof coordinating the program, Paul Bowlby (retired from SMU) is going to start with a discussion on what it means to read a big book. Granted,the situation is not quite like yours (no credits, no degree requirements, no testing) but I am curious to see what comes from the discussion. I think many of the students find the first year (pretty much 2/3 FYP) so interesting, that they come to expect an entertainment value in all of our programs. So they may lose patience with spending weeks and weeks on one book (which is my personal idea of Heaven).
    So I will share Paul’s summary with you after he has this discussion. In our very first Seminar 10 years ago they did the Odyssey and then the Iliad, 4 months on each. The group was small but committed and it was a beautiful thing: about 12 people, most on welfare, many with mental or physical disabilities, reading with intent and focus and even joy. I will never forget it.

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