Showing posts from March, 2014

Failure! The very word is like a bell...

The "what am I doing with my life" crisis is by no means exclusive to teaching, but teaching sure is conducive to it.  I've been eyeing an unappetizing stack of student essays for nearly a week now.  It's just been sitting there on my dining room table, and I have been finding multiple ways to put off grading it.  This isn't garden variety procrastination.  No, I've been avoiding this stack because I intuitively know that somewhere--maybe two or three papers into the pile--resides my annual existential confrontation with failure. 
It's something that happens every year (and increasingly every semester). Sooner or later, I must face the fact that I fail far more often than I succeed.  Sure, anyone who's taught for a while can point to a few success stories. But so what?  The truth remains that the majority of students who have passed through my classroom have been singularly unaffected by the experience. 
Only a fool would think otherwise.    

You're not getting it.

One of my students came up to me this week just as class was ending and said, "Maybe I'm just dumb or something, but I try to read and it doesn't make any sense. I just can't get it."

Unfortunately I had to race to the other end of campus to teach another class in less than 10 minutes, so I didn't have much time to talk to him.  All I could do was reassure him that he  wasn't dumb and that I knew the texts I had assigned were challenging.  In the past eight weeks he's had to tackle sections of Saint Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Machiavelli, Luther and now Shakespeare.

I told him I don't expect him to be an expert on this stuff, but I do expect him to read and come to class ready to discuss what he didn't understand. The more he reads and writes and discusses, the more he'll understand.  It's a process.  I go over all this the first week of class, but students' mental models change slowly.  And this guy--like many of my students--o…

" I permit to speak at every hazard..."

So we finished Gulliver's Travels in the first-year honors seminar on Friday, and my little project to get the students talking more seems to be working.

On Monday I had them discuss the second voyage, especially the Brobdingnag King's declaration that we were the most "odious race of vermin nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth."  I split them into four groups and gave them 25 minutes to mount a defense of humanity to a race of aliens who had decided we were verminous.  Each group got five minutes to defend while the other groups gave them alien rebuttals.

On Wednesday they went into groups again to compare technology today to the crackpot schemes Gulliver encountered in the Academy of Lagado.  I mean really.  Is getting ethanol from corn any less crazy than extracting sunlight from cucumbers?   On Friday I asked them to propose their own questions and lead discussion over the fourth voyage.  Me?  I stood around a lot, listening, watching them a…