What Have You Learned From Your Students So Far?
by Jeff Oaks
It’s the third week of teaching here, which means the window for painlessly adding or dropping classes is over. The syllabus we spent our time arranging, thinking about, imagining, scheduling, is our musical score, our contract, our travel guide. We have the students we’re going to have for the rest of the term.
Now come the tests of all of that. My students are beginning to push back in small ways against the requirements of the first big essay assignment. I’m getting the occasional email with the “I had a question about the assignment…,””Would it be okay if…?,” or “What format do you require?” Sometimes the answer is Check the syllabus; sometimes it’s that sounds interesting; sometimes it’s a longer exam plantation of what I was thinking a student should practice in the piece.
The texts, which looked so promising in the summer, so full of life and potential, have become blocks of utilitarian weight, things to be talked about, explicated, worked through, struggled with. God, they have to be re-read!, second-guessed, frisked for triggers and difficulties, inspected for deficiencies. Everything has now become The Work. Everything now will be expected to contribute to The Class, The Goal, The Product.
Mostly, that’s perfectly fine, and as it should be. But I was thinking the other day of the kind of anxiety that descends upon us teachers about now because of that quiet pressure that will surround everything we’ll do from now on. So many of my friends have gotten sick, reported “nervous breakdowns” (not the real kind, of course, but that kind of anxiety that’s been waking us up in the middle of the night), and just generally become grumpy, prone to one word answers, lingering in public places, asking everyone How are you doing?
I’m in a department that loves to “conceptualize” everything we do. It leads to some amazing teaching but it’s also fucking exhausting right now. It implies that everything is conceptualiz-able, and implies that it can be controlled or sculpted ahead of time if only the instructor is smart enough, the concept rigorous enough. “Rigorous” is an important word in our department too.
But now is the time when that the hopefully irresistible force of the syllabus meets the possibly immovable object of the class. Which one will change? If you’ve taught for a while, you know the answer is both, but even if you’ve taught for fifty years, you can’t always predict how or where or when or why. It becomes part of the joy to see what happens.
If you’ve a new teacher, it can be terrifying because you don’t yet know that you can handle whatever happens. When I started, as I’ve said elsewhere, I thought I had to keep control over everything. It took a few years before I realized I could survive even when everything I’d planned went wrong. I learned to do something fairly simple: I turned and asked the students what was going on for them.
And if I called on the most quiet student first, I could usually get to the heart of the trouble. And there are many kinds of trouble that can be going on: for freshmen now homesickness is setting in, the full import of their multiple class work is setting in, illnesses are beginning to sweep through the dorms (listen for the sniffling during in-class writing sessions!), they are struggling with their identities, majors, love lives, social lives, alcohol consumption. It can also be, in even the advanced classes, that the students need to adjust to the requirements you’re making on their abilities to read, write, think, speak, and imagine.
So, what if you shift down your expectations a bit? What if instead of covering three things that day in class, you cover one thing? What if you ask them to write instead of talk? Or vice versa?
I sometimes think that any teacher training program ought to include lessons in improvisation the way any theater program will, because much of what any teacher does is perform. You might have then at least one resource if a class plan fails horribly. I also think it wouldn’t be a bad idea if teachers took some time to actually talk to their students, which many often do, afraid that asking questions might lead to an unproductive intimacy or a diversion from the syllabus which is so over-scheduled that to divert from it is to almost guarantee an unrecoverable disaster to The Product.
It’s hard to believe that a bad class doesn’t mean the end of your teaching career. I think that every time I’ve had one. Oh, it’s over. I’ll never be able to face them again. I had the same problem with dating early on. And with friendships. And with publishing (if a journal rejected poems I sent, I never sent again!). Over time, with experience, I learned that things fall apart and you can almost always find a way to make things come back together. Maybe it’s just a change of approach. Maybe it just needs a conversation with a friend or colleague, so you get out of yourself. It might take a little time. If things go really bad, you always let the class go early; almost nothing will earn you more points with the students than letting them out. Very often, one of them will email you later to say, “you know, I’ve been thinking…”