Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Class-ified . . .

Alright, so we've finished with January, and February's a short month. Before we know it, March will be here with its lions and lambs. Term ends in April, and then . . . ta-da! I have a little trip to tell you more about later. . . flights have been booked, hotel rooms and apartments, even a sweet little house in Bordeaux, reserved.

Meanwhile, though, I'm having fabulously satisfying discussions with my 4th-year class in Canadian Fiction. My only . . . hmmm, not quite complaint but rather challenge . . . is that we meet from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, so although I have a free morning and afternoon that day, I spend it fairly consumed by performance anxiety, checking my notes, revising them, looking for one more article. . . And then I come to class after an hour-long Pilates class that ends at 5:15. Probably a good centering in the present, as well as a way to stretch out muscles that are a bit too keen to do that foetal curl, but it means I'm chomping a sandwich in the car, arriving at my office at 5:30, scrambling through materials one last time, and feeling just a bit discombobulated as I enter the classroom.

Still, I start each evening aware of my inner shy girl being prompted out of her shell by my more enthusiastic scholar/reader self who wants to share observations. . . . and I get swept up by the students' willingness to share their own, to build an understanding of the text together. So rewarding. We always seem to be trying to do so much, often leaving texts still pulsing with possibility, and I'm hoping students will begin taking advantage of the on-line forums I set up each week so that the conversation can continue there. I noticed today that one has done just that -- a very thoughtful and quite productive comment that's switched my perception of a novel by a degree or so. Now I'll wait to see if others chime in.

Another problem with the late time of the class is, of course, a tendency to fatigue, although adrenaline generally takes care of that. And it might not have been fatigue to blame last night when I felt myself freeze at a student question. I had referred to the way feminist writer Daphne Marlatt's writing style (elliptical, on the borders between prose and poetry, shifting pronouns, switching from past to present without warning) is an expression of her feminist politics. Most just nodded, but one young man wanted to know what it might mean to consider regular sentence structure as "tyrannical" -- a term I'd thrown out loosely.

Of course, once I got home, I could think easily of how to take him through a few steps to a reasonable understanding of what Hélène Cixous calls écriture feminine, but on the spot, I could feel myself inclined to stammer, and my immediate reaction was to look at the clock. The class laughed at the obvious reference to how long it would take for an explanation -- and the difficulty of fitting that in within the time we had left -- but I did manage at least to fumble a roughly-shaped account, to promise to provide some readings should he want to develop his understanding, and we moved on. What was instructive for me was the near-panic I felt at a perceived demand that I be an expert, at an instant and gut conviction that I was being exposed as a fraud. This despite my knowing I'm well grounded in my field (I have those pieces of paper, after all), and, further, believing strongly that it's always okay to be human -- to forget, temporarily, or to need time to gather one's thoughts before attempting an explanation or defending an argument. Indeed, it's okay not to know!

At any rate, this morning I saw the young man who'd asked the question, and I told him I'd begun next week's class notes with a commitment to clarifying the point for him.

Meanwhile, my other two classes (both different sections of a 1st-year Literature course) are writing in-class essays this week -- which always has two contradictory effects: one, this week's adrenaline and prep load are minimal, as I simply sit and invigilate rather than teach; and two, I'll be a marking fool all this weekend. . . .

Still, we're scheduled to have sunshine coming up, possibly as high as 10 degrees (Celsius) . . . . foolishly optimistic here, that spring is on its way. . . .

14 comments:

  1. I'd be curious to know what materials you are covering in your Canadian Literature course. My other focus during my French degree was Literature (with a little medieval history thrown in).

    I took a third-year course (Introduction to Canadian Literature) that covered the topic from the early days of Canadian writers, which was interesting, but I felt it lacked in the later years. No Atwood prose (a little poetry), no Munro, no Davies, no Ondaatje, etc. Curious, I thought.

    Those pieces of paper don't say that you know everything about your subject: they say that you are a lifelong learner and know how to find answers.

    It's shaping up to be a great weekend, weather-wise. I hope you get out to enjoy it in spite of the required marking.

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    1. This course is in contemporary Canadian fiction and I put together a reading list to let us focus on representations of the urban. Timothy Taylor's Story House, Lawrence Hill's Some Great Thing, Diana Brydon's What We All Long For, Kathleen Winter's Annabel, plus several short stories and theoretical readings.
      And yes, we're supposed to get some good weather, and I'm looking forward to it. Right now, the foghorns are blowing somewhere out in the grey wool. . .

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  2. It sounds like you handled yourself perfectly well. The question your student asked is an intriguing one.

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    1. Thanks. His question was also fairly predictable and next time I'll be ready . . . ;-)

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  3. Oooh, a trip!

    Agree with Susan Tiner, response was fine for that moment and you might devote an entire evening (or part of one?) to a collection and exploration of tyrannical sentences. (Would love to be there!) When I re-read this, I'd say you were hard on yourself, ma.

    Today, early morning put ice crystals on every tree up the mountain, then the sun came out. Wish I'd had my camera- absolute magic.

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    1. I think I'm always hard on myself re teaching, but I also think that's part of what helps me be better. . .
      Oh, that view of Montreal, thank you!

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  4. Teaching block night classes can be weird. Last spring I taught one that met from 6-9:50 on Tuesdays. I decided to make an online component to the course so that we only met from 6-9 in person each week. I probably also struggled with it because I'm a morning person, so I felt a bit off my game even at the beginning of class.

    It sounds to me like you handled the question well. When I'm caught off guard, I always think later of ways I could have better articulated an answer.

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    1. Yes! So weird! And that's a really long stretch, your 4-hour one. How sensible to make an online complement.
      Sounds as if you've been there as well with the on-the-spot questions. Part of what I love about teaching upper level, keeps me on my toes!

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  5. So interesting to hear this back story. I wouldn't have guessed, I suppose, that teaching was such a live wire act. But of course it is.

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    1. Yes, it's a performance every time -- Elaine Showalter begins her book on Teaching Literature with a chapter surveying profs' anxiety symptoms. We have dreams of being onstage naked or forgetting all our lines. Some vomit before first classes every new term, even after teaching for decades. . . Some just wear their shoulders permanently attached to their ears (that would be me!)

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  6. Your schedule sounds remarkably similar to mine although my 3 hour class is on Wednesday evenings teaching the second half of American Literature. Over the years I have learned to be willing to admit that I don't know when I don't...and follow a practice similar to you, to look up the answer and explain the next week.

    How wonderful if I had a trip like this to look forward to.

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    1. I find the turnaround from my night class to my next-morning one very tough. I get home about 9:45, then have to be on the 7:55 ferry the next day to be ready for my 10:00 class. . . .
      Yes, I'm also quite willing to admit what I don't know. Frustrating in this case was that I do know this material very well -- it was just being able to articulate it at student level. . . .and yes, it's good to have the trip ahead. . .

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  7. Teaching lower down the food chain as I do, places little in the way of intellectual challenges such as that one. The ability to think so quickly probably comes with umpteen years of experience and then some that late at night.
    I am only just discovering the challenges of academia at college and I am probably the one that throws the very questions that lecturers dread, not so much because I need an answer, more that I think some things should be questioned and not taken as read.
    I agree with Duchesse you were very hard on yourself, but that I guess it’s because once you relaxed the answer came so easily. I often really struggle to sleep after a late lecture as my head is swimming with new concepts just like the ones you’re delivering, so rest assured the students too will have been restless, won’t they?.
    A cottage in Bordeaux sounds wonderful.

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    1. There is a big difference between my 1st-year students and my 4th-years, and the brightest 4th-years can ask tough (and wonderful) questions indeed! And I love having things questioned and not taken as read . . . as long as there's a genuine interest in a dialectic exchange and not a need to grandstand (some students are just always obstructive, rather than productive)
      And yes, it's the whole debriefing at night that makes the evening class weird -- I spend the night going over it in dreams . . . if I manage to sleep!
      The "cottage in Bordeaux" is actually right in the city of Bordeaux and is a small house -- one of those you walk in right from a sidewalk two feet from the cars on the street -- not terribly picturesque, but very convenient for urban life.

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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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