course preferences

When I was a college student, I always loved the week when the course registration booklet would come out, and I'd sit and go through it and imagine how great and interesting all my courses the following semester would be -- just at about the time when my current courses were seeming kind of dreary or exhausting.

Somehow the way the calendar has worked out this year, our students are registering for next semester at the same time that faculty are filling out the "course preference form" for the 07-08 year. It's not quite the same fantasy energy that taking courses used to generate, but it's good nonetheless -- particularly right now, when my enthusiasm for this semester is starting to wane. (Though I do have one really fabulous bunch of students who I'll really miss when that class is over.)

I'm going to put in a request to teach what would be a new course for me, an undergraduate theory course that's different from the ones I've taught before. Sure, it will be a lot of work to put it together, but I'm excited at the idea of it. I can only hope that there won't be a lot of competition among my colleagues for that section. We turn in a ranked list of our choices from the lists of offerings generated by the program administrators (grad, major, lower level) and then the Chair decides who gets what, factoring in things like curricular distribution needs, teaching loads (which are somewhat variable), and how likely a given faculty member is to pitch a diva fit if not assigned his/her top choice. (Funny, but the worst divas in my dept are all middle-aged men...)

The thing I've been confronting this time around as I work up my preference list is that I'm just not feeling a lot of love for teaching graduate students these days. Graduate courses are what most of my colleagues want to teach more of, not less -- but I don't share their arrogance about the importance of our graduate program or my own contributions to Knowledge via some sort of legacy through the students. Many of our graduate students are fairly competent, and a few are smart -- but they're not intellectuals or scholars. I do what I can to teach them about research practices, and about my content areas -- but if they don't bring an innate love of reading, & a strong curiosity about what they're studying, it's hard to inspire that. And that inner drive is what graduate study really requires.

Now, my undergraduates bring lots of different things to the table -- not all of them love literature either -- but they are mostly pretty clear about what they hope to get out of a college degree. And a large number of them do, in fact, love what they're studying. There are few other incentives to become an English major, in this vocationally driven culture. A large part of my job as a teacher of undergraduates is simply to expose them to new things -- new texts, new ways of thinking -- and this is something I enjoy. Teaching at the graduate level is supposed to allow you to explore more sophisticated kinds of analysis, to move beyond the superficial introductions to a field. But too often I feel that I'm just rehashing my undergrad teaching in a differently structured class.

A truth: in terms of "teaching my research" I think I've learned far more from my years of undergraduate teaching in my reseach area than from any of the graduate seminars I've taught. Perhaps I'm a lousy teacher of graduate students -- it's not as if my teachers in graduate school were good models -- or perhaps my deep ambivalence about the institutional structures of our graduate program, and graduate programs nationwide, interferes. I don't know. But I can't fill out my so-called "preference" form with only undergraduate courses, without losing my status as "research-oriented faculty," which in my department gives you a better teaching load.

Next semester, it's just undergrads for me. And summer, too. So maybe by next year, whichever semester I'm assigned a grad course, I'll have managed to readjust my attitude. Revamp my graduate pedagogy. Right now, I'm just ready to be finished with the grad course I'm currently teaching. . .