Andrea Kaston Tange’s post on ‘the chastising professor‘ at Curiouser and Curiouser was timely: on the very day it went up, I had started my intro class with a brief
rant pep talk about last week’s disappointing attendance and lackluster participation. It was a subdued occasion: no hissy fits, I promise! My intervention was very much along the lines of Andrea’s “Sincere and Concerned Speech on Investment in Your Own Education,” with a dose of “We’re Talking About Things That Really Matter.” We were reading Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, for crying out loud! This is not material to be encountered passively.
I share Andrea’s concern about whether these speeches are in fact motivating. In the moment, they are guaranteed to be downers: nobody who’s been publicly criticized is going to feel a lot like cooperating with the person who just chastised them. I thought hard over the weekend about whether to bring this negative energy into the room, but in the end I decided that it was important for me to make a public statement about expectations, and about what real success and productivity look like in a discussion-based class. It’s not like you get a lot of positive energy going anyway when people are arriving unprepared, or at any rate not prepared enough to contribute to discussion, or are putting their heads down on their arms to nap during discussion, or not showing up at all. We have been going along pretty well all year and the recent slump has been conspicuous – not for all of the students, of course, but for enough to make a significant difference in the overall class experience. I don’t know if it’s feminism causing them to disengage, or midterm exams in other classes, or what — but it seemed wrong just to press on as if nothing’s the matter, as if it’s quite OK to treat our class as a time and place when they can just show up and that will be good enough.
Things seemed a bit better yesterday. We’re working our way through A Room of One’s Own, which is not an easy text to make sense of, but I had given them a couple of specific things to think about beforehand (as I almost always do), and I also let them warm up in small groups first before we came together to talk as a class. We focused on the two college meals Woolf describes in such detail in the first chapter, working out the connections she makes, both implicitly and explicitly, between eating and writing. Then we went with her to the British Museum and considered her attempt to find “facts” — and the resulting analysis of the angry Professor she discerns behind the studies she reads. We’re reading Chapter 4 for tomorrow and I’ve asked them to focus on her comments about Austen and Brontë, especially about her idea that in great writing we are unaware of the writer’s state of mind. Since a lot of them don’t know Austen and Brontë well or at all, I suggested they think back over our course readings for examples of writers whose state of mind is or is not conspicuous in their work, and whether they agree that when we become aware of it, it deforms the writing the way she thinks Brontë’s anger deforms Jane Eyre. Martin Luther King is one of the first of our other authors that occurs to me: I’ll be interested to hear what they came up with. A follow-up question, of course, will be whether they think Woolf’s own quite discernible anger (beautifully controlled though it is) in any way diminishes the artistry of A Room of One’s Own.
In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve moved on to Lady Audley’s Secret. I was a bit petulant yesterday when my questions for discussion elicited very little response. Maybe I need to give them the “Sincere and Concerned” speech too! But actually, in that class I think I probably just need to back off a bit more than I have been doing. When I have a lot to say, student passivity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think I’ve just been too quick in the last couple of weeks to fill in when their answers weren’t forthcoming. Lady Audley’s Secret certainly gives us plenty to talk about. So for now, I’ll do my best to stay upbeat, and hope that their apparent inertness is just fallout from the hour we lost with the time change.