Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teaching in Style? Wearing Jeans, Talking about Language

I'm surprised how much fun I've been having with my 1st-year classes this term. Anyone who teaches university English will tell you it's not a particularly desired gig, and I've ended up with four sections this term: three of University Writing (a composition/rhetoric course) and one of a Literature Survey). There is a ton of marking, the students are rarely there by choice, and the work isn't obviously connected to my own scholarly interests.

But we're free to put together our own curriculum, and I always build the foundation for the term's research project around some topic of broad social concern that interests me and that has implications for citizenship. This term, I blithely decided we'd think about the politics of the English language, fanning out from Bill Bryson's history of its evolution to a consideration of living in ESL, the debates over descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar, language and class, disappearing languages, the purported degeneration of language in the face of technology, David Crystal's book on Texting etc. Then towards the end of summer, I started panicking over my choices, worrying that student would perceive the topic, and Bryson's book, as dry. ("Yay," one student rolls her eyes at another, "We're reading a book about the evolution of the English language. I bet that's going to be fun. NOT!")

 But from the first day of term, I'm delighted to report, students have been surprisingly enthusiastic. We've debated the need for strictly correct grammar, using this charming animation as a starting point, written short autobiographies of our lives in language, considered the implications of English competence as academic barrier via this Ted talk, and read, analyzed, and summarized scholarly articles on pedagogy around text-speak vs. standard English. One major reward has been noticing the ESL students in my classes paying particular attention and then finding space in our discussions to bravely join in -- and to see the native-speaking students listening carefully, having been alerted by Patricia Ryan's talk to some of the challenges those international students have had to overcome.

My Literature survey course engages and cheers me as well, and I'm currently trying to move our lively in-class conversations about poetry onto the Moodle forum where I might be able to capture part of them in all their fluid glory.

Meanwhile, though, it's my work-at-home day, and I'm trying to make a dent in those fall lists. Worked on my essay for an hour this morning and am determined to start drafting a proposal today AND to finish my Leave Report. Have to fit in my run as well. You're probably busy as well. So I'll stop now, leaving you with this photo of What I Wore to teach one day this week: my new ACNE boots, brilliantly comfortable; my favourite jeans, Denham; a black 3/4 sleeve, v-neck T; chocolate gold beads, my double-tour watch, carved silver First Nations bracelet; pose by Wendy B.


  1. So glad that your students are responding so very favorably since that makes the classroom time such a delight. Thanks for the brief overview as well....makes me want to audit your class myself. And yes, I find myself in one or two at most stances for blog pics.

  2. I am not familiar with that line of jeans mater. They look great on you.
    i am happy that you are not grading my grammar in my rants and posts or comments for that matter. I type so quickly and am certain that I have erred on many occasions!

  3. If my son is any metric, kids these days are very interested in language, precisely because they write much of their social communication, and are therefore more aware of the Language as an entity. Very interesting.

    Oh, and I like those beads. I also kind of like your photos on the steps of your house, best, if I can be honest because we are friends. A lot easier to see what you are wearing and how it really looks, when you have more light. But I guess for those you need a photo taker?

    And I will gladly take whatever photos you give us:).

  4. I enjoyed the videos, have never really thought before about English as a barrier, the challenges facing ESL students or the rate at which languages are dying. I'm so glad to hear your students are engaged and that classes are cheering and fun for you too. Martin's not having the same luck, the students seem particularly difficult to engage, though he's been trying to get them more engaged using online tools.

    I love your outfit, the boots especially.

  5. Sounds fascinating. Our Poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, said recently that texting is a modern form of poetry. And I thought this was quite a good way of looking at it/engaging young students.

    Love the Acne boots!

  6. Did you happen to see The NYT Magazine from last Sun.? I can't get this article on "Extreme Schooling" out of my head, and it contains some illuminating experiences re learning in another language.

    Your assigments sound interesting; I'd enjoy completing them.

  7. early on in my father's teaching career (this was at Auburn in the mid-1930s), he was "stuck" with those intro classes....

    He loved them--as he said, with a devilish grin, "because I could do whatever the hell I wanted." And so he did, and the students responded to his creativity and did very well....

  8. Ha ha! Excellent pose! I must tweet it.

  9. How awesome that you've got a good group. I don't want to brag - but when I was in high school, I was part of (what was considered to be) the best class ever. We were fabulously engaged. And we had some great teachers.

  10. I do love the combination of classics, with a wry twist (of the waist)
    I, like you, pretty much chose my curriculum, anything for Frank Stella to Aboriginal dot paintings. It is these very lose structures that have kept me teaching long after I imagined I would. I really cannot imagine what it must be like to be told what to do and how to do it PLUS what to teach. Yes, I am getting a bit of the former at present, but the pleasure of researching new artists and working out how to get the students involved is the more pleasurable part of my job. Marking too I like; I just struggle to find the time.
    I am big fan of Bill Bryson; I am wading through his tome on Home and am now replete with silly but very quotable facts.

  11. Jane M: I had a quick peek through your blog and I notice that you also have learned Imogen's (InsideoutStyle) trick of keeping the arms away from the body so as not to create too much bulk at the middle. I've been trying to remember that and it really does work!
    Hostess: As I tell my students, it's all about context. We write and/or speak differently depending on when, where, why, and to whom. You allow yourself some latitude on your blog, and when I visit, I'm hardly there to judge grammar! Still, I often find that people get self-conscious about speech or writing around me once they know I'm an English prof, when really, grammar's not my field.
    Lisa: Thanks for the honest feedback. But yes, one of the weak links here would be the photographer's willingness to head outside while still in his bathrobe -- that photo was taken spur-of-the-moment in my morning rush to catch the 7:55 ferry. As well, we've descended into our months of eternal rain, so the outside photos may be few and far between. But I'll keep your comment in mind and try for them whenever possible.

  12. Susan T: It's a fascinating topic to consider, isn't it? Such a wide impace from something we take for granted.
    TNMA: I've seen some examples of the texting poems that have won various competitions and the creativity is astounding within the limitations of the form. I've got that Duffy article (the Guardian, wasn't it?) favourited somewhere.
    Duchesse: Wow! That article haunts! I'm quite sure I wouldn't have been able to persevere in those parents' position, but the results are very rewarding. And, of course, so many of the world's children, refugees for many reasons, don't have the choice. Well worth reading -- thanks for pointing it out.
    Jean: Sounds as if your father was a wise, engaging -- and just subversive enough to be interesting -- teacher (and person, father, as well, of course)
    Wendy B: Yes, you might like this pose; you should try it! ;-)
    And thanks so much for tweeting my post.
    K: I've no doubt that you would have made many of your classes "the best" -- Class dynamics are fascinating, though. I have three sections this term of the same material, and everyone of them will move in their direction, will evolve into an entity distinct in every way from the other iterations. It's so exciting when you get to be in one of those fabulous classes -- you sense the power of that very particular coming-together.
    Alison: Yes, if I had to teach according to a set curriculum, I would probably retire.
    As for Bryson, this is the first time I've read him -- he really does package a lot of information into an entertaining package (I have some problems about inherent biases, but the students and I are having some fun identifying and reading aruond those).

  13. Oh, I am so glad the intro classes are engaging and it sounds like the classes would be fascinating. I would enjoy them, and also smiled at your comment on Bryson: informative and entertaining although I was somewhat put-off by his rather strong biases. Reading around him, thereby making it a bit of a game, sounds fun. And I am glad to hear students are interested in language. The girl I recently interviewed for my alma mater was very interested in language and how it shapes thought and world-view. Her enthusiasm tickled the part of me that was accepted to a graduate program in linguistics, which I alas never attended. Alas, it was just another of my intense, but short-lived, passions.

    Oh and you look fab. I too adore the beads (and the boots) and agree that the steps are best, but seeing as how I rarely get photos on my own steps due to inclement weather, I understand completely.

  14. Mater, I giggle to think what your class might think of a t-shirt my husband purchased in Portland at the
    Saturday art market. The front features a familiar portrait of the Bard ... with the caption stating "You discussed me". The young man running the booth said it was his favourite because he was an English major.

  15. Mardel: Linguistics is a fascinating field, and I can imagine you excelling in it . . . but then there is so much else in life to be fascinated by: music, literature, knitting, sewing, fashion. . . . aren't you lucky to have had so many passions?!
    Kris: That's perfect! What a clever t-shirt, and it will be fun to wear it and watch people gradually work out the pun.

  16. You are very productive! When my precious three "launch," a decade or so from now, maybe I can get to all the ideas that I furiously jot down in my journal . . .

  17. Miss C: Funny, I see you as being amazingly productive. As for myself, I feel I do much more jotting down of ideas than seeing them to fruition. I still consider my own precious four my best production ever, and when I get frustrated that I don't get as much done as I think I should on my academic CV, I admit to resting on those laurels occasionally. . .


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