Saturday, April 03, 2010

Relinquishing the floor

I've gotta admit: my graduate class is kicking my ass. I'm behind in my reading. (Which is okay, because we're even further behind in our class discussions--and because my syllabus has an entire week labeled "TBA" to cope with just this eventuality.) I'm behind in my grading of my students' shorter papers. I'm barely making it through some of the critical articles I assigned, just an hour or so before class.

But you know, it's a good kind of behind--the behind of having too much that I want to do. It's not unlike actually being in a graduate seminar: teaching an M.A. class means I'm responsible for knowing a hell of a lot more about the state and breadth of contemporary scholarship on Milton than I previously had, so I'm falling behind because I keep taking an afternoon to read a few chapters in a scholarly book I'd never previously gotten around to, or because I decide that I really do have to read every single one of the 16 articles my students chose to analyze in their short essays.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I felt a little off-balance in the classroom, as though I wasn't pitching the material quite right. That feeling has mostly evaporated, and though there are a lot of possible reasons, I think part of it is my getting comfortable with not being the center of attention.

Now, I don't exactly think of myself as being the center of attention in my undergraduate classes: they're all discussion-oriented; I rarely talk for more than a minute or two at a time; and when a student asks a question, I almost always turn it back on the rest of the class. However, I am the one standing up at the front of the room or perched atop a desk, and ultimately all discussion is directed by and goes through me. (A couple of years ago, when my Shakespeare class was reading Othello, I had a student declare that Iago's method was exactly the same as mine: I made them responsible for the ideas I guided them toward.)

But in my graduate class, that's not what's appropriate or what I want. I sit in the circle with my students, and I let them talk. Sure, I direct them toward particular passages and I ask questions, but much less frequently. I also listen more; in my undergraduate classes, especially those that I teach all the damn time, I tend to have an idea about what's most important, and what the likely range of student responses to a given question will be. That can be a good thing, by allowing me to frame my questions more effectively, but it can also mean that I slip into autopilot.

So although in my M.A. class the rhythm is much more relaxed--I never feel that I'm on the spot or that I'm performing a complicated high-wire act that might involve my crashing to the floor at any minute--I'm listening more intently and thinking more deeply.

Like I say, it's almost like being back in graduate school. Except, oh yeah: without the terror, despair, and paralyzing self-doubt.


Renaissance Girl said...

A wonderful reflection on what teaching a grad class, ideally, is like. I'd be curious to see your Donne syllabus, if you were of a mind to share it. I just taught Donne as a junior seminar. It went FAR BETTER than as a senior research seminar. So I'll be interested to hear how it plays out for you.

Flavia said...

RG: ha. I was thinking of asking for your syllabus.

My course making the claim that Donne is the quintessential Renaissance man, and a lens through which to examine some of the major issues of the Renaissance--but I've hedged in my course description about whether the course is basically going to be all Donne (with other authors thrown in only for flavor & brief comparison), or just mostly Donne.

My Milton class really is all Milton, but when I brought in longish selections from Pepys and Hobbes, my students remarked on how nice it was to be inside someone else's head for a bit. I suspect the same will be even more true for Donne.