This Week In My Classes: The Value of F2F

The Student (Dixon)Last week I cancelled two regular class meetings for my Introduction to Literature Class and instead set up individual conferences, 15 minutes per students. (If you want to do the math, of the 26 registered students 24 ended up meeting with me, so that was six actual contact hours in place of two, and since it wasn’t possible to run the meetings entirely consecutively, overall I had about eight hours of my schedule taken up with this exercise.)

In a previous post I wrote quite a bit about my motivations and goals for these conferences. It will be a while before I can tell if they made much difference in terms of how students respond in the classroom. Many of them set as one of their goals that they would like to participate more in discussion — yet on Monday things were not especially lively, even though I thought the readings (Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” and Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred”) were reasonably provocative. Whatever happens, I think the process had value for them, because it prompted them to reflect on their work for last term and to consider what role they might have in making this term successful. All of them seemed to take the exercise seriously, and some of them realized important things about their work habits or about relationships between different course requirements (such as reading journals) and outcomes (such as understanding of material or grades on papers). So that’s good!

And the process had value for me too, not least because meeting with them face to face renewed my conviction that teaching is a very personal activity. “Content delivery” is not nothing, but it’s far from everything; skills development is also something, but it too is not sufficient. Education is an internal process as much as anything: something has to change within, and while no avid reader is going to say face to face interaction is the only route to inner transformation, I really believe that there’s something special about speaking directly to another human being who takes a sincere interest in you. I was at a faculty meeting today where we were invited by our university’s president to imagine the program we would create if we could do anything we wanted, without constraints. It was an ironic suggestion, really, as the meeting was about dealing with a looming budget crisis–it was all about constraints! The problem is that what I imagine is a program in which that kind of personal interaction is routine–if not throughout a student’s entire degree, at least at key moments, and I’d consider their first year just such a moment. My “blue sky thinking” always brings me back to something like a “freshman seminar” model, with maybe 15 students around a table with a dedicated, experienced instructor with plenty of time and attention for them. But I can’t figure out how such a dream is compatible with our need to (as our Dean put it) “do less with less,” especially when the only recipe for financial flourishing appears to be more students and fewer faculty.

Anyway, I’m glad I worked these meetings into my plans for this term. If nothing else, they know there’s one person on campus who’s really paying attention to them! And it’s a rarity for me to have any class, much less an intro class, small enough to make this logistically feasible.

Now we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming, with another week of poetry before beginning Elie Wiesel’s Night next week. This week’s poem are something of a build-up to Night, in that they all deal with difficult realities, from Randall and Hughes yesterday to the horrors of trench warfare on Friday, with Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est.” One thing we’ll talk a lot about with Night is how (and even whether) to transform suffering into art, and how choices of literary form and representation are also choices about the meaning of real events. After that we’ll move on to The Road — so basically we’ll all be depressed for about the next month.

In 19thC Fiction I won’t be having conferences, but I am having the students write regular reading journals, and that gives me at least a little sense of them individually to add to what I can glean from class discussion. I’ve had just a few submitted so far but I like reading them: they seem to be just formal enough that the students have put some thought into them, but not so high stakes that they (or I) need to stress out over them. That said, I’m going to be reading a lot of them this term: if every student submits the three required entries for every novel, that’s 630 journal postings at approximately 150 words each, for a grand total of … eek, about 94,500 words. Will I end up regretting not just assigning more standard essays? But these have other purposes, and they come in small and so far quite tasty doses. And if any students in this class want to meet with me one on one (which I will emphatically encourage them to do when they are working on their longer papers), they’ll be welcome — and, in case they need any extra incentive, I’ll let them know that I have a stash of extraneous books in my office from which visiting students are always welcome to help themselves…

8 Comments to This Week In My Classes: The Value of F2F

  1. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    January 16, 2013 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Do you know Naomi Seidman’s essay on the publication history of Night? Interesting stuff, especially some of the differences between its ending and the ending of the earlier, much longer and more political, Yiddish text. My students are always a bit shocked at what Wiesel wrote there (for example, looking for girls, as Wiesel and his fellow newly liberated young male prisoners are said to do, is, in that other text, raping German shiksas…)

  2. January 16, 2013 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    I’m sure you won’t end up regretting those journals. I used to use them for one of my Children’s Literature courses and at the end I felt I knew those students better than any others, with the exception perhaps of my practical theatre courses. What was possibly more important was that it was clear the students felt they had much closer contact with me and as they journals developed not only did they become more proficient at expressing their opinions and backing them up but they also became more confident in their right to hold those opinions. Mind you, it might help if I send you a box of matchsticks to hold your eyelids open:)

  3. January 16, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I really applaud your courage and your work ethic here! The best thing about teaching at Cambridge was that it was mostly face to face, in groups of one, two or three students. The huge advantage is that the students have nowhere to hide. They have to engage with the process. As soon as you have a crowd, there are always students who, for different reasons, will effectively drop out then and there and turn into silent ghosts. Once they know there will always be a point of reckoning when you are going to test their knowledge and they won’t be able to wriggle out of it (and even in a supervision of three, some will try!) they pay so much more attention to everything else you do. But I do feel for you with EIGHT hours of contact time – that must have been exhausting! The journal exercise sounds really productive too – I just wish I could send you back-up when it comes to the reading…. It’s not fair that you have to put so much time into it – I do so hope you get some pleasure out of it too.

  4. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    January 16, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Dorian, is this her essay “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage’? I have downloaded it but have not read it yet. We will talk some about truth and memoir and fiction and genre and perhaps ‘truthiness,’ even, but in a first-year class we probably won’t go too far into these issues.

  5. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    January 16, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    That’s the one. Questions of genre aside, the changes described in Seidman’s essay help me to think about the way Wiesel is choosing to present suffering and victimhood. So I found it quite helpful for thinking about his portrayal of the Holocaust.

  6. January 17, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    The flipside of the quiet students is the noisy ones like me. From a personal point of view I’d be a little less visible/vocal in class I think because of the feedback and relationship that the journals and the one-to-one establish – not a bad thing if it lets other people come forward a bit more. :)

  7. January 19, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    It’s great to hear of a lecturer who is thinking so much about what would benefit students most. Increasing contact time does seem to go against the trend at least here in the uk where I a few universities students protested they were not getting enough lecture and tutorial time. Now that they have to pay increased fees when will academic management boards realise students are customers who have rights and a voice.

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