Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Four on the floor

So I'm taking that conversational Italian class after all. The catalogue description says it's open to anyone who has completed at least a semester of college-level Italian, but it's clearly imagined as serving Italian minors who want more speaking practice (and who are taking the course alongside a grammar or literature class).

For the first two meetings there were seven of us plus the instructor, and I was happy to note that my skills placed me roughly in the middle: there were a couple of minors who were better than everyone else, but there were also people who had only taken a couple of years of high school Italian or whose first exposure to the language was a semester or summer in Italy. Some had great accents and were prompt with basic constructions, but had limited vocabularies and didn't know much complex grammar; others were terrible, awkward speakers who--it soon transpired--actually knew a tremendous amount.

Then three people dropped. And with just four of us. . . well, my oral and reading comprehension are on a par with my classmates', but my verbal fluency is probably the weakest of anyone's. Extemporaneous speech has never been my strength, and even in English I'm prone to blurt and babble. But at least in my native tongue it's only the content that's insane. In Italian my mouth will just randomly produce the wrong phoneme or scramble a verb tense beyond all recognition. I make an ass of myself twice a week. It's awesome.

But this isn't really a post about that. It's a post about the four-person class, which this semester I also have the pleasure of teaching.

It's possible, I suppose, that a four-person class could be terrific, but it strikes me as a uniquely bad number: just big enough to be run as a regular class, but not big enough for it to work. Individual tutorials would be easier, since those can be adapted and adjusted to each student's needs and abilities. With four people, though, each student bears somewhere between three and ten times the responsibility that she would in an ordinary class--and unless all four are at the very top of their game, there are going to be problems. In my own seminar I find myself lecturing more than I do with a class of thirty, simply because I need to give my students a break.

The only upside is that I've been learning from my Italian instructor. Although our classes are very different, she's clearly having some of the same struggles, and handling them better. She's been mixing things up, trying different strategies, looking for what works.

Whenever she figures it out, I'll have it made.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Five is a pretty bad size too, I think. This semester in early modern poetry, I have four traditionally-aged students who are all fairly typical English majors: pretty smart, and with one exception pretty focused, but a bit on the quiet side. And then there's That Older Guy. I rather like That Older Guy in small doses, but he talks a whole LOT, and not all of what he says is on point (though some of it is), and he has a tendency to ask rather enigmatic questions like "What is the difference between lust and desire?" And this has a tendency to make the other students go quieter, because quite naturally, they don't want to be like That Older Guy.

(I have found, in the course of previous classes, that That Older Guy makes a lot more sense if you just assume he's residually stoned from the 1960s, when he was apparently in a commune with Walter Cronkite's daughter until he got kicked out. I can totally see him getting kicked out of a commune. But that doesn't actually make things easier when he's 20% of the class and does 50% of the talking.)

Anonymous said...

@FP That Older Guy in my classes is invariably racist and xenophobic. Fortunately he tends not to do his homework and stops derailing my math classes with xenophobic screeds by dropping the class before the midterm.

[Disclaimer: We have PLENTY of older students who are NOT That Older Guy. Most of them are wonderful and contribute the perfect amount to class discussion, asking great on-point questions.]

Fretful Porpentine said...

Ah, see, our That Older Guy is actually pretty liberal, in a northeastern blue-collar sort of way, and it is probably good for students to know him, since they don't have that much experience of old white ex-military guys who are NOT racist or at least ultraconservative.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...


AndrewSshi said...

I generally find that Older Guy tends to break in two ways. He's either a delight to have in the class, enriching everyone's experience with his wisdom and life experience--or he's absolutely insufferable because of his perceived wisdom and life experience.