Friday, February 03, 2012

Feeling the rhythm

Every semester, in my Shakespeare class, I begin with two weeks on metrics. Partly this is a way of doing something productive on the first day of class, but it's also a way of establishing, early on, that our course is going to involve attention to sound and language, not just plot and character. I think that I teach it well and most of my students respond gamely, but there are always a handful whose response is hostile puzzlement. They seem equally displeased by the restrictions of metrics and by the fact that there isn't always a single right answer: they sigh, loudly, when we're scanning a poem in class and I acknowledge that a particular foot could be either a spondee or an iamb--or just possibly a trochee, depending on how the neighboring foot is accented.

I sympathize, of course, and I tell them that my ambition isn't for them to become expert scanners, but just to understand that meter can affect meaning and to be familiar with some basic terms. But I also tell them that if they do it enough, or simply read Shakespeare aloud enough, they'll come to feel the rhythm instinctively, even recognizing when a word must have been pronounced differently in Shakespeare's day because the logic of the meter demands it. Iambic pentameter isn't something Shakespeare imposed on his plays; in a culture of sonnet-writing and theatre-going, it was just the back-beat of daily life.

Still, it takes a while to fully inhabit any rhythm. This semester RU has shortened all its class periods in order to add another period to the day and to free up more classroom space: we've gone from 60 minutes to 50, from 90 to 75, and from 195 to 165. Such changes are tough. I went from 75 minutes at INRU to 80 minutes at Big Urban, and then the next year to to 90 minutes at RU, and both those changes were disorienting. Even five extra minutes threw my rhythm off, and ten felt impossible; I was always running out of things to do, or dragging on a discussion past its natural life in order to fill time.

Over the years, though, I've come to love the 90-minute period, especially in my Shakespeare classes: we can do real and detailed scene work, have a free-wheeling general discussion or two, and even fit in a quiz or talk about administrative matters. I was totally in control of those 90 minutes, and losing fifteen of them feels like a disaster. It's not about content, it's about rhythm. I don't feel a 75-minute period in my gut the way I do a 90-minute period, and so I'm slow to cut off one discussion to move along to the next.

I'm off my game and I hate it. These new periods feel clunky and awkward and totally unnatural. But I suppose that I'll grow into them eventually--and that my brain and body will come to respond as they do to da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum.


Sisyphus said...

Nice little piece.

I first started teaching composition MWF, 50 minutes a pop. So when it came, after years of teaching lit at different spans and formats, back to comp, I have been completely flummoxed at dealing with anything longer than a 50 minute span. Of course, freshmen are themselves coming straight off of the high school 50 or 55 minute period, so it helps that they are programmed to that rhythm.

Janice said...

75 minutes? Oh, that's brutal. My U did away with 3x50 minutes a few years back. Now every timeblock is 80 minutes (although we can put two of those together for effectively 3 hours of class once a week for seminars).

Some subjects which I had taught in 50 minute blocks had to be totally revised to work in 80 minutes. Dropping from 90 to 75 would be similarly catastrophic to the rhythm. Good luck with your adjustment!

Anonymous said...

Last semester, I taught 170 minute classes; this semester, I have a 75 minute class. The last 30 minutes feel like teaching on a slip and slide! So, I sympathize on the clunky and awkward.

[and this is phd me - I don't know why Blogger won't let me post comments anymore]

Flavia said...

Janice: yes, the shift from 3x a week to 2x a week is also hard (though I'm lucky I've only had to make that shift, with the same class, on one occasion).

It's also true that different classes are better suited to different schedules. No one should ever teach comp, or intro to literary analysis, in a once-a-week 3-hour block (though we occasionally offer a section with that schedule, for the convenience of adult students who work full-time), and in fact I'm delighted that my comp class is now only 75 minutes--90 minutes is just too long for freshman non-majors, when the bulk of the work for the course involves writing. But I loved 90/295 min for everything else.