From the Life of a Fanatic

Cliff Arroyo made an interesting comment (because  his comments always rule) that made me remember a funny story from my past as an undergraduate student:

I once had a supposed advanced intro-ish course taught by an excellent and insightful professor but rather than prepare the ground he zoomed right into the very latest hotness and we were all lost.

I remember a course like that when I was an undergrad. It was taught by a visiting star scholar from Spain. The course was on Golden Age drama. The star professor said at the beginning of the course, “I’m not going to analyze Calderón’s plays here, you’ve all read Life Is a Dream a hundred times, so it’s boring to keep talking about that. Instead, we’ll talk about the history of reception of these plays.”

That was the first time in my life I heard Calderón’s name, so I was absolutely terrified. Half of the people dropped the course immediately. The professor didn’t care because he is such a star that student evaluations or retention were of zero interest to him.

I, on the other hand, immediately ran to the library and spent the entire semester sleeping 4 hours a day, catching up on Golden Age drama. There were so many crucial works of literature from that era, and I had only been learning Spanish for 1,5 years by that time. Eventually, I wrote my MA dissertation on Calderón’s reception. But I’m a fanatic, and most students aren’t. Don’t we all wish we had a classroom full of our little clones to teach? Gosh, what wouldn’t I do with students like me!

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Where I Fail As a Teacher

I’m a very good teacher but I’m far from perfect. There is a lot of room for improvement in my teaching. One thing that I consistently fail at is mixing students up as often as I should. In a language course, students tend to choose one or two partners they are most comfortable with. Since most of the in-class work happens in groups, students want to work with their buddies.

This is very detrimental to their learning because they settle into the same roles and their language skills do not develop as well as they could. To give an example, if one person in the group is good at conjugating verbs, s/he will be put in charge of conjugating by the group, and other people will not get to practice their own conjugation skills.

The best thing to do is to mix them up and place them with new partners all the time. I know that I should be doing it but it isn’t easy. Students really resist being separated from their friends and placed with strangers. They get sulky, whiny, and sometimes have to be almost forced to change groups. This is disruptive to the learning process and creates an unpleasant atmosphere in the classroom. So I forego this practice most of the time.

This semester, I’ve had two buddies in one of my courses who threw actual tantrums whenever I attempted to separate them. I stopped trying and just let them be. Of course, the result is that now each of them is lacking a crucial skill because he’s been relying on the friend to provide it. Both run a serious risk of not passing the course.

Maybe I should explain at the beginning of the course why working in different groups is important. It always feels like students get really bored whenever you start explaining the methodology of teaching to them.

What’s Up With These Students?

My Advanced Spanish students are very special. There is a lot of grammar in the course, which always makes me feel apologetic.

“I’m sorry for all these grammar activities,” I told them. “I know they must be boring.”

“No, no!” the students responded enthusiastically. “We LOVE grammar. Can you bring some more grammar exercises? We got together and made a list of topics where we still need some practice.”

This is an Advanced Spanish course, so the grammar we do is very complex. The students, however, can’t get enough of it. They even enjoy learning the terminology.

“When I think about the uses of subjunctive in the adverbial clauses,” one student says in Spanish, “I always enjoy considering how perfectly they transmit shades of meaning.”

It isn’t just grammar that they are good at. As a lab activity, they have read a short story by Horacio Quiroga and analyzed it. The absolute majority of the students came up with such interesting and unexpected readings of the story that I truly enjoyed grading that assignment. Usually, you get one or two people in a classroom who can engage critically with a text. Here, I had one or two people who did not manage to do that and wrote responses that were not very creative. The rest did great.

These students keep coming to my office to practice, to ask questions, and to discuss the subjunctive. I keep harping on the subjunctive because it is probably the most difficult grammar topic in the Spanish language. Normally, people’s eyes glaze over whenever the subjunctive is mentioned. I, however, am a great fan of the subjunctive and even have dreams where subjunctive and I go to the beach together. (Seriously, I do.) Students in this course make me happy because they share my enthusiasm for the subjunctive.

“Do you want me to turn on the subtitles for our movie?” I asked.

“No!” they responded. “We need to practice listening comprehension.”

I know that my readers are probably now waiting for a punchline where I will reveal that these are imaginary students and not the real ones. At least, when I share this with people I know, that’s their reaction. There are so many articles coming out every day that present the generation of today’s students as over-entitled, lazy, and whiny.

The truth is, though, that these are real students. I have no idea why they are so motivated, engaged and enthusiastic. I just hope that this is some sort of a new trend that will continue for a while.

Perfect People and a Sense of Humor

So yesterday we finished watching the movie Nine Queens in the two sections of my language course. One of the sections enjoyed the film. People laughed, one student clapped, another student made enthusiastic “woo-hoo” noises, everything went great.

In the other section, however, as the credits started to roll, I perceived a gathering tension.

“What could possibly be wrong now?” I wondered. “There is no sex, no nudity, no politics, and there’s a happy ending. Why are the students uncomfortable?”

“So did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Nah. . .”, was the response.

“Why didn’t you like it?”

“We thought Juan was a good person but he turned out to be dishonest.”

“Well, the only person he tricked was a con man who had hurt a lot of people,” I tried to argue.

“But he lied,” the students drawled.

“He only wanted to restore to a young woman and her teenage brother the inheritance that was rightfully theirs.”

“But he lied.”

“And he was desperate to help his elderly father,” I persevered.

“BUT HE LIED!” the students chanted.

So now I’m looking for a movie where fully clothed angelical human beings go around being perfect all the time. Any suggestions?

P.S. No, I’m not inventing these stories. If I had that kind of imagination, I’d already be a bestselling author.

>Trivialization of Literary Studies

What I hate the most about today’s language and literature departments is how easily they believe in their own irrelevance and how apologetic they are inclined to feel about their own existence. While going through my daily blogroll I just encountered the following announcement:

Professor Scott Calhoun of Cedarville University in Ohio has found a modern approach that avoids the pitfalls of Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. Old stories don’t have the messages that resonate with the modern college students. They’ve found other spokesmen for the current generation.All are welcome to an academic conference scheduled for October 2 at North Carolina Central University in Durham. No coincidence that U2 will be performing in Raleigh, NC, that weekend. The academic conference is all about U2.U2: The Hype and the Feedback will feature guest speakers delivering lectures that relate to English literature studies, but without the great white whale.

Academic conferences and doctoral dissertations on rock stars only turn our field into one huge joke. With all due respect towards U2, what they do has nothing to do with literature. We can “analyze” their lyrics for fun (say, at a drunken party this type of “analysis” always entertains people). But trying to milk their songs for enough content to be discussed at an academic conference is pointless.

The idea behind this joke of a conference is that students find classical literary texts “irrelevant.” This attitude betrays the pedagogical impotence of the teachers who are incapable of helping their students discover the beauty of these texts. Such professors think that conferences on rock stars and classes dedicated to analyzing the lyrics of what are in reality very silly songs will make them seem cool and hip to the students. Of course, they will achieve some easy popularity with the C-students who want a course where no work needs to be done and no intellectual effort expanded. But I don’t think that smart, motivated students who actually want to get an education and not just have a good time will be interested.

As to “irrelevant” canonical texts, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet too much here, but when I was teaching Cervantes to high school kids ages 13-16 (as an extracurricular course), I couldn’t force them to go home 45 minutes after the end of class. Even after I started walking away from the classroom, the students kept following me and trying to continue the discussion of Don Quijote. If it’s possible to make Cervantes relevant to a 15-year-old, I don’t see why it would be all that hard to make The Scarlett Letter relevant to a 19-year-old.

I hate it when people try to present the younger generation as stupid and only interested in texting and Facebook. Today’s students are great. They are smart, motivated and they are dying for someone to introduce them to the finer things in life. They are perfectly capable of finding out everything they need about U2 on their own. It’s our help with understanding Cervantes, Jane Austen, Flaubert, and Thomas Mann that they need. Let’s not let them down and substitute real education with senseless blabber about equally meaningless songs.