Saturday, October 29, 2011

Learning, Writing, Teaching, Marking . . .

Still too busy to write much. Weeks 6 through 9 of term are always crazy, head down, keep marching.I handed back assignments this week only to pick up another batch, and will do the same next week. Weekends and evenings for the next two weeks, I'll be moving from my big leather armchair to my office desk to my kitchen table, trying to bring some variety to a seemingly unending task.

There will be a pause, though, and once the next batch gets handed back, I anticipate two relatively free weekends before the final papers, and then the exams, demand their time. Being familiar with this rhythm after so many years makes it manageable, but I still have to take care pacing myself -- it's surprisingly hard on the body, is marking, especially if one normally wears her shoulders up around her ears at the best of times. My elbow begins to complain, my neck stiffens, I get back twinges that remind me of the full-on spasm that locked me down for days several years ago.

I've had some lovely moments in my teaching lately that balance the tedium of marking. My 1st-year Literature and Culture students have been working our way through Richard Harrison's collection of hockey poetry, Hero of the Play. It's exciting to see them tentatively gaining confidence and competence in unpeeling a poem, working at its indeterminacies to construct a reading that can be shared convincingly. I've also found the emerging conversation about culture very satisfying, listening to their constructions of nation and nationalism, to their personal and collective histories of pop culture, their awareness (or not) of larger narratives that I've assumed as shared but that they're cut off from, generationally.  Names that continue to resonate for me, a non-sports fan with limited understanding and awareness of hockey, pass by most of them without a flicker of recognition, although the few hockey players in the class have at least heard of the most iconic players.

Equally interesting are the reactions of the several International students in my class -- with no knowledge of hockey whatsoever, they are nonetheless perhaps more ready than my Canadian students to associate it with our country, our flag, our nordicity. To appreciate the poems, some have even viewed the documentary on Rocket Richard, loaded up Youtube videos of historic games. Who would have thought this might be an outcome of teaching poetry?!

I'll leave you with my favourite teaching moments of the past week:
in one, the class was divided into groups, each group working on a set of approaches to an assigned poem. One small group comprised two young Canadian women and two young men whose English was their second language and who were studying here, far from their home country. The four were discussing a poem that foregrounded women's roles within the masculinist culture of hockey, and one of the young men was explaining that a certain female ambition or behaviour would not be accepted in his country. The other fellow agreed that it was the same where he came from, and both the young women were alternately incredulous and amused. Much laughter, animation, and fellowship marked the conversation, and I felt quietly gratified to have a small part in setting up the circumstances that allowed it. Despite the mountains of marking, much of what I do is truly a privilege.

The second moment happened outside of the classroom in an on-line discussion forum I set up on Moodle (a software teaching-learning platform) to allow students to ask questions and exchange ideas for an upcoming assignment. I check in from time to time, and last Tuesday or Wednesday was thrilled to note a conversation in which one student was recommending to her classmates that they check out the Writing Handbook's section on punctuation. She claimed it was brilliant for helping her edit her paper. Another student chimed in on behalf of the same handbook's pages on eliminating wordiness. Another answered that using it had helped her cut 94 flabby words from an 800-word paper. Independent, focussed learning -- I love it!

And finally, what a joy yesterday afternoon to meet with a tiny group of International students, European and Asian, to read and discuss the first of Thomas King's Massey Lectures, from the book collection The Truth About Stories. As I've mentioned before, this is a volunteer activity I initiated, and it can feel like a real sacrifice to drag myself back to campus on one of my work-at-home days. But reading King's words aloud, watching the students reading to themselves in accompaniment, waiting for them to recognize how the lecture's various elements begin to coalesce, enjoying their delight in King's wry humour, the way he moves from the apparently silly to the movingly relevant. . . What a way to finish my week, what a privilege!

And you? I hope your work week brought you some happy moments. I'm craving three days, even two, in which I could put work aside completely, but until that happens, I'm trying to remember that the busy-ness has its pleasures. I wish those for you as well.

Added: Thanks to reader/commenter/neighbour Liz H-K (who blogs here about Weaving on my Island) for providing a link to the CBC archives where you can listen to Thomas King reading the Massey lectures. I've heard these on CD and they're wonderful; didn't realize they could be accessed for free.


  1. I so appreciate your dedication and attention to your students. As I read, I thought of the teachers whose words, and even more, personal guidance formed the best of my education, and I am continually grateful.

  2. It was very interesting to hear more about your teaching process, especially as our No. 1 Son hopes to study English at uni. I did first year English at university many years ago, but I can't really remember classes or discussions anything like this - your students are very lucky! P.

  3. I think your student reviews of the Writing Handbook, has inspired me to read it ;-)
    And your students might be interested in hearing Thomas King read his Massey Lecture. I have lecture 5 on my Blackberry and re-listen to it from time to time.
    They can be found here:

  4. It sounds like you've got great students and they've got a great teacher!

  5. I remember being a student and thinking of how much work we had to do, but I never thought of it from the teachers perspective. You have lots more work! Good luck.

  6. Your posts on the teaching experience remind me very much of Martin's. He tends to put off the marking, waits for the weekend, then has to get up every half hour or so and do something else for awhile. He describes it as an exhausting process.

    It's great to hear that you're students are engaged, I'm sure it has a lot to do with your enthusiasm as a teacher.

  7. I can't believe I wrote you're not your. Geesh.

  8. What a lovely, wonderful post. Thinking back on my father the professor, I don't remember him ever discussing marking. It's possible that by the time I was old enough to notice he had grad students doing that for him. Or he just found it so painful he couldn't bear to discuss it:).

  9. I currently have a bit of a crick in my neck from marking in an airport this afternoon as I returned from my conference. I have a stack of exams awaiting me on my desk in my campus office and get two more batches of papers this week. Then I should have a week or so to catch my breath before final exams start rolling in.

    I very much enjoyed your discussion of teaching moments here. I'm always hesitant to share much about what goes on in my classrooms, but maybe I'm being overly cautious....

  10. Duchesse: I was thinking today about my Grades 9 and 10 English teacher, Mrs. Young. . .
    Patricia: I'm lucky to be at a small teaching uni where all our English (all the Humanities, in fact) classes are fewer than 34 students, fewer than 28 for 1st-year.
    Liz: Thanks! I borrowed the Cd's, but this free link is more convenient.
    Kristin: We're mostly having a good time (at least, they keep the complaints to themselves . . .)
    Debbie: I feel as if I work pretty hard, that's for sure, but I remember I felt that when I was a student as well.
    Susan: It is exhausting -- I'm always conscious of balancing their egos with their need to learn through constructive criticism. . .And just the act of editing is, in itself, a demanding task, and of course that's much of what marking is.
    Lisa: At his level, he wouldn't have been doing the marking that I am, especially since my institution is more teaching than research-oriented.
    Raquelita: I'm trying to write about my work a bit more -- do you sometimes feel as if academe's rather self-mystifying? But I'm like you in being cautious about writing about the classroom -- I don't think I'd ever write anything negative, for example, about any particular students or even a class in general.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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