on teaching

All of George's prompts for the upcoming Teaching Carnival are excellent questions . . . a variant I've been thinking about is "how do you teach differently now than you did in your first year(s)."

I'm currently teaching a newly reworked version of a survey course that I've taught many times since taking this job at Large Urban, and I'm pretty excited about its new incarnation. I usually enjoy teaching the course -- many of the texts I pick are things I love -- and I've only had one truly dreadful semester with it, a mixture of a bad novel choice, a horrible classroom, and a dud bunch of students. That was 3 or 4 years ago, and I've had several good runs with it since.

Unlike some of my other, more focused courses, this one is definitely a juggling act, in which I have to balance all the literary genres, mixed media, and historical context, for students who mostly know nothing about the nineteenth century when they first walk in the door. But as frustrating as that ignorance can be sometimes (try asking them when the French Revolution was, or the American Revolution for that matter) their freshness or openness allows them to see things in these cultural objects that they might not otherwise connect with.

Because this is the only course many students will take in my area of expertise, I feel a certain responsibility to include some texts I wouldn't otherwise choose to teach. They have to know Browning, for instance, even though there are many other poets I prefer. But comparing this year's syllabus to the one from my very first semester, it's clear that I've altered the course to suit my interests. It's better for the students if I teach texts, ideas, and issues that I'm passionate about, rather than slogging through things I think I "ought" to teach.

What do I do differently? I'm much more directive than I used to be. I give my students explicit, written guidelines on how to begin approaching the texts, what to focus on in the reading, and how to prepare for the assignments. I used to do this in class, and I'll continue to tailor my presentations that way. But this year I'm trying out a more structured approach to the day-to-day work of reading and discussion.

Now, as compared with 14 years ago when I began teaching, I'm much more likely to begin a sentence in class "I think that..." rather than only presenting what other critics have to say, or hiding my thoughts underneath blandly neutral language. I want my students to be easily able to distinguish my critical opinion and arguments from the historical facts about a text, or its formal features, or the critical tradition. I'm at a place in my publishing and teaching where I know that I have opinions and arguments, and their position relative to other scholars'. I actually now also believe that some of my opinions are worth conveying to my students.

I'm more likely to talk to my students about which poems I love, and why I love them. I try to find out which texts they love, too.

I've set up my courses so that I don't have to hear excuses about late or missing work. My students know from the beginning what the consequences are of such things. I don't like to have to play King, judging all who come before my throne, weighing the stomach flu against a court date against a sick grandmother. So now I don't have to.

I know why I'm a hard ass about some things and generous about others. I've figured out my reasons for doing a lot of the things I used to do instinctively. So even if some of my practices haven't changed, my thoughts about them have.

One thing that doesn't change: the buzz of adrenaline I get right before a class, or the floating high after a good class finishes. There's not much else like that.