This Week in My Classes: Year 6 Begins!

I find this hard to believe, but 2012-13 will be the sixth year for my series on ‘this week in my classes.’ I began this series as a straightforward attempt to document and reflect on what goes on in an actual university English class, as opposed to the phantom indoctrination factory some people seemed to imagine we run. Though I still run into occasional examples of ‘bad old English professors talk nonsense and/or ruin all the fun’ comments, I’ve been thinking that there’s a different context now that makes it newly relevant for me to think about what it means to be ‘in my classes’: the much-hyped, much-debated, perhaps much-exaggerated disruption that is online teaching, and particularly MOOCs.

All summer there’s been an endless stream of commentary about what MOOCs can and can’t do, what they’re good for and what they aren’t–and, directly or by implication, about what, if anything, is the special value of actually being in a classroom face to face with a professor. Often, especially on the pro-MOOC side, and sometimes even in pieces that aspire to be even-handed (like this one, just yesterday), there are a lot of casually dismissive generalizations about the so-called “sage on the stage” model of teaching that supposedly dominates the contemporary academy–just for example, that recent piece talks about in-person education as “a classroom-based activity with a tweed-clad professor at a lectern.“ I read these comments (which are then used, more often than not, to argue that face-to-face teaching is old-fashioned and overdue for disruption) and wonder whose teaching they are talking about. It’s true there are huge lectures, mostly (but not altogether) in subjects other than English, and that it is a stretch to call such classes “face-to-face” if one of the faces you mean is the professor’s. But it’s also true that there isn’t a lot of nuance in the claims I’ve seen about which classes might as well be scaled up to 10,000, or 40,000. Humanities classes raise significant pedagogical challenges for the MOOC fantasists; for a thought-provoking chronicle of one university teacher’s experience as a student in an online literature class, see here (I’m tempted to add “read it and weep!”). But it’s early days yet and who knows how things will develop.

At any rate, as I head back into my physical classrooms for the start of term, inevitably I’ve been thinking about whether I’m justified in believing that it’s not just more sociable but also pedagogically valuable to spend a few hours a week actually with my students, looking at their faces as they listen and react to what I say, watching them as I listen to them and respond to what they say. I believe it’s possible to build relationships, form communities, share ideas and knowledge, and get work done online–because I have done all these things myself. Maybe it’s because I know how much reciprocal effort and logistical precision is involved in a successful online venture that I can’t imagine undertaking it on a large scale. Or maybe it’s mostly that, as my grandmother always said, I’m a “people person,” which means I thrive on being around, well, people. I flatter myself (or do I?) that my students would (with exceptions, of course) rather be in a room with me–even on the occasions when I do just lecture (which are pretty occasional)–than watching a video of me (heaven forfend!) or posting on discussion boards. But maybe they wouldn’t! It’s probably salutary for me to have in mind that whatever exactly I do in my classes, it should be something more–more interactive, more spontaneous, more attentive, more in-their-faces–then they could get if they weren’t actually in the room. As a good first step, I can honestly state that I have never, to my recollection, worn anything tweed, and that I am rarely, if ever, sage.

As for specifics, this week is mostly about starting up. Last Friday was the first day in this term’s three courses: Introduction to Literature, Mystery and Detective Fiction, and The Somerville Novelists. Everything seems fine so far. The one I’m most preoccupied with is the Somerville seminar, and I will admit I found it unnerving today, in our first discussion of some readings, when I came up shaky on answers to a couple of straight factual questions–such as when, exactly, Testament of Youth was first published! I should have been ready with this detail, and I thought I knew, but in the moment I wasn’t sure I knew (I said I thought it was published in the early 193os, and the precise date is 1933–so I was OK!). This is the kind of thing I know pretty much cold in my 19thC fiction classes, in which I have taught the same two dozen or so novels in different combinations for about 17 years! I guess I shouldn’t expect to be as good at this new material right away, but that disconcerting moment was a good reminder that when preparing for these sessions, I need to pay as much attention to the basic facts as I do to the larger questions I’m trying to raise, because though they are certainly somewhere in my notes, I can’t count on their being cemented in my memory.

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