This Week in My Classes: Not with a bang but a whimper

Classes wrapped up for the term on Monday. Usually I feel deflated, if also a bit relieved, after my last class meetings. For all that the ongoing pressure to be ready and keep on top of everything can be wearing, the energy I get from actually being in the classroom more than makes up for it. Last term, 19th-C Fiction certainly had its challenges, and students were not as forthcoming in discussion as I would have liked, but overall I thought the course went well, and at least judging by their course evaluations, so did the students. But it was Mystery and Detective Fiction that felt like the most fun: it had great energy and a higher participation level than I have usually had in it, and I usually left the room feeling a dizzying blend of exhaustion and exhilaration. (I wonder if any of that was really due to how fiercely overheated our classroom was.) This term, however, the adrenaline buzz was rarely there after either class, and so now it feels more like stopping than concluding, if that makes sense — more like “we made it” than “we did it!”

This is not to say there wasn’t a lot of good, smart discussion in both classes, and in Intro especially there was a small core of students who seemed to be really present and engaged in all the ways I always hope for. But, as I’ve complained about before, attendance this term — in both classes — was erratic to poor, and in the 4th-year seminar, a context in which I’m used to the students really carrying the ball, it often felt like I was working awfully hard to coax any contributions out of them … which was especially odd because I know (from other classes and from one-on-one meetings) that you couldn’t wish for a nicer or brighter bunch of students. And in our seminar it’s not that they were (as far as I’m aware!) unhappy or bored or being sullenly uncooperative. They were just — on average — kind of quiet. In retrospect, I wonder if it would have helped to have assigned specific critical articles along with our primary readings. I don’t typically do this in undergraduate classes, because I’m usually assigning such a lot of reading to begin with (though for 4th-year seminars I always put a range of articles and books on reserve or on Blackboard) . In this case, though, the novels on their own were not that demanding, and I felt at times as if that had led the students to underestimate the critical work they could (should) be doing. When (if) I offer this particular seminar again, I may build that component in.

In contrast, I think that the next time I teach Intro I will dial back the amount of assigned reading and allow more time for in-class workshops, writing exercises, and group activities — more hands-on practice for everything from punctuation and citations to close reading. Last year I taught a full-year section, and for this half-year course I more or less just adapted the second term of last year’s syllabus. But even without the full week’s worth of classes we ended up losing to storm days, we were a bit rushed because I always forget how much time the logistics take up when you’re starting a course from scratch. Also, over a full year it’s possible to do more repetition and rehearsal of key concepts so that there’s more chance they will sink in, whereas with just one term I think different strategies may be called for. I don’t think we covered an unreasonable amount this term (and I think in many ways the variety keeps things interesting for us all); it’s more a question of shifting the emphasis a bit more next time from reading to writing.

We aren’t entirely done with this term’s classes, of course. I’ve received one set of final essays, which I’ve begun working my way through, and the other batch arrives Friday. Then the final exam for Intro is April 23: the one perk of having it so late in the exam period is that I’ll certainly have time to grade and return all the essays before then. After the exams are marked and final grades calculated and filed, it will be time for my favorite end-of-term activity: cleaning my office! And after that, it will be mental housekeeping time: sorting and setting priorities for summer research and writing projects.

3 Comments to This Week in My Classes: Not with a bang but a whimper

  1. April 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    My last class is Friday and I’m having a similar feeling–partly because I’m only teaching Academic Writing this term.

    This post made me realize in a way I never quite have before why Children’s Lit is the only 1st-year course I teach where I give them critical/theoretical readings (short excerpts from a textbook, so works for their level): it is precisely the idea that these are not difficult, complex texts, and a reluctance to subject something “fun” to criticism. I find it very, very helpful to have some basic critical/theoretical concepts about children’s lit to hang our discussions on. E.g. is children’s lit a genre, and if so, what are the features (our reading suggests a handful)?

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      April 10, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      That seems like a good parallel. And yet this is the 4th or 5th time I’ve offered this exact seminar with pretty much the same reading list and requirements — and it’s the first time this has felt like a problem, even though fully 75% of the students in the seminar also took a lower-level course on detective fiction with me (e.g. in theory they should have been really well prepped conceptually, or so I fondly hoped). Some of it is just the mysterious alchemy of the classroom, I suppose.

  2. RT's Gravatar RT
    April 17, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    Ending a term/semester is always bittersweet, isn’t it? There is relief about the past (i.e., the bad things), there is encouragement from the past (i.e., the good things), and there is hope for the future (i.e., the improvable things). In my case, in two weeks, my ending is more bitter than sweet. My adjunct teaching days are over. It seems as though my dispute with the university was doomed to disaster; my argument was that an adjunct should not be required to work between semesters without compensation. But enough about my bitterness. I always look forward to reading your postings. Now I will have more time to do so. Best wishes from the U.S. Gulf coast . . . RT

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