Showing posts from August, 2008

I Heart the Iliad

Next Wednesday we start the Iliad in my freshman Humanities section. I can't wait. Once, years ago, I was teaching an intro to literature class at night. It was a long class, too (6-9:30 pm). Teaching such a long class can be a real killer. It was so long in fact that I usually gave everyone a ten minute break about 7:30 or so. Anyway, one night it was just before break and we were beginning to read the Odyssey. I had gone over the characteristics of epic literature, rehashed some of the scholarship on whether there was a real Homer or not, and explained that the Odyssey had a back story that was told in Homer's Iliad.

One of the students asked what happened in that epic. In reply I began to summarize the story. The Iliad is actually a difficult story to summarize because you can't start where Homer began. You have to go back even farther so that your summary of Homer's story makes sense. Each event depends so much on others that it's difficult to leave anything ou…

The Reading Problem

Had my second night class. The students were to have read The Apology and Crito, texts that deserve about two or three weeks of full engagement. But I have eight weeks and seven texts. My evening sections are mostly populated with working adults, a demographic I really enjoy teaching. They tend to be somewhat more careful readers. My traditional undergrads often struggle with reading. I don't mean that they can't read. It's that what academics call reading and students call reading are two separate things. For them it's having run one's eyes over the page. For us it includes some level of critical engagement.

Indeed, about two years ago a bunch of my colleagues and I were in a big gathering and asked to list our number one problem with teaching. We each wrote something down on a piece of paper. The amazing thing was that we all cited the same problem: "students don't read the assigned material before class" (or some variant of that). So the guy leadi…

Looking Up

During my first year in college, I took a course in British poetry. I can't say that I had much use for poetry before that, but there was something about the professor's reverence for the subject that really caught my attention. I recall going to class each day, laying out my notepad and pencils, and carefully writing the date at the top of the page. Then a few minutes before class, the professor (always in coat and tie) came into the room, sat before us without making any small talk, and stared down at his notes. At precisely the top of the hour, he would glance at his watch and say, "Let us begin..."

When the class was over I would glance down to see that I hadn't taken a single note. The way the guy spoke about poetry I didn'tneed to take notes. He spoke as if it were the most important subject in the world, and I actually began to think it was. This professor was aloof in the classroom, which made me wonder what he was like outside of class. He was carefu…

Day two

Had two courses back to back this morning and things seemed to go well. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach a senior capstone course for the liberal arts core. I dispensed with the welcoming PowerPoint this morning and just sat and talked with the students as we waited to begin. I don't know why, but I feel more at ease in the capstone course than I do teaching my freshmen Humanities section.

Each semester I look out at the students and wonder if this will be a great class or one that frustrates all of my efforts. After all these years, I still fail from time to time. But when it's good, it's very good. I suppose I have my share of cynicism about the possibility for meaningful change in higher education, but I only feel this way when I step back from the whole thing and wonder about the larger implications. On a day-to-day basis, I am a lot more optimistic (some might even say sappy) about the prospects of education.

Do I rail about the brute indifference of 18 years-olds who …

Once more onto the breach...

Don't know why I am so nervous about starting this semester. This is my seventeenth year of teaching, but I feel completely uneasy after being away from the classroom for a few months. Last summer at a conference a number of us began talking about how much fear permeates the job of teaching. You are afraid of bombing in front of students; you are afraid of your colleagues evaluating your teaching. You are even afraid that you don't have anything to teach.

But it is time to trot my bag of tricks into the classroom. The students this morning looked unsure, a bit tired already. I tried to lighten the atmosphere. Someone gave me a list of things to do the first day to set the right tone. The first two were

Project a welcoming PowerPoint

Arrive early and greet people.

So I get to class early but spend 10 minutes booting up a recalcitrant LCD projector. So much for greeting people. The room was so stuffy, the desks squished together, and I was feeling a bit anxious about setting the ri…