Monday, April 24, 2006

BAD teacher, BAD BAD teacher!

One thing I neglect in composition courses, or at least have for the last couple of years, is class discussion, especially of controversies and current events. Yes, even current events. Two reasons, lame as they may be: 1) out of a class of 25-30 students, about 5 will be sufficiently informed to contribute anything to a discussion; and 2) I do not want to know any more about my students' 'thought processes' than their essays and assignments already offer. Clearly falling down in my duty as Warrior of Critical Thinking but it is self-protective--far too often, I have ended class discussions shaking with anger, dismay and fear for not only the distant but immediate future b/c of what was said, what was not said, what was known and what was firmly believed despite all evidence, contradiction, common knowledge, etc. Last week, I made the necessary mistake of having my comp students search the textbook for issues of interest to them. I got the usual 10% wanting to 'write on abortion' (including a student who submitted the same abortion 'idea' that I rejected last session), a few listing the death penalty, at least one advocating stiffer punishment for juvenile offenders, a few on racial profiling in post-9/11 America, and one young woman who explained she'd like to write 'about evolution,' something she admits she 'knows little about' but is interested in researching to see why on earth it is taught in schools. (Not hers, obviously.) My advice: choose another topic. I imagine an argument like one proposed a few semesters ago by a young woman (the University is overwhelmingly female) who wanted to change her topic, 3 weeks before the portfolio was due, 4 weeks into the research period, to the 'fact' that most Americans want NO separation between church and state. As incredulous as I was, she was more so when I told her that no poll done in recent memory shows those results and that most people, religious or not, benefit from the separation of church and state and that she would find little support for that that was trustworthy or that was not right-wing, semi-fascistic propaganda (I didn't pull 'semi-fascistic' on her) and she would end up failing the paper. She wanted to argue that Americans want a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia. Did she think she belonged in a burka? Or should be denied a university education? Or permission to drive? Marry whom she pleases? Not have her genitals carved to represent some fucked up ideal? She dropped a week later.

My students want to proselytize or Jerry Springer-ize in class. And I do not have the strength, the patience or the instant recall of facts (Robert Olen Butler says a good fiction writer has a terrible memory and I fit that 209%) to deal calmly or educationally with such moronicity. I need to learn. At least until I have a plausible Plan B to make the same salary I get teaching elsewhere. No mean feat. There is still no middle class to speak of here.

Summer creeps toward me. I think my body has suddenly realized that, unlike the past few years, nothing is winding down now for the long-needed, long-ago-earned and 2-months-too-late summer break. I can't concentrate, I can't make lesson plans, I panic at the thought of Sunday b/c Tuesday is on the way and I fear this week will end like the last 4, with me immobilized by back muscle spasms, tension building all week until it explodes in my back and shoulders. And nothing helps teaching like not being able to sit up or move your arms.


Blogger Professor Zero said...

Hey, I feel the same way, and I skipped classes yesterday because of it; I was afraid I'd blow up at them.

This having been said, my institution still seems better than yours, the load is 3-3. I think you should join us.

Tue Apr 25, 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think the only way we can have conversations about current events in my classes is if there is some sort of assignment that more or less forces them to do research.

I leave current events stuff for toward the end of the class as well -- and then I have them present research on the topics.. since they are afraid to actually think critically enough to find/make an argument, they tend to stick to a good explication of the facts and let me make a few arguments at the end of their session.

Tue Apr 25, 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Bardiac said...

You have SO hit the mark, especially with your sense that many students just really aren't prepared to think through issues relating to current events very fully. But that, after all, is why they're in college, so we need to try.

A friend of mine gave me an absolutely great essay assignment she's used. It asks students to focus on age of consent and parental notification laws re abortion.

They have to find out what current state law is, and what other states are doing. (That learning is in itself, incredibly valuable to my students, though some know the law pretty thoroughly ahead of time, I think.)

Then they have to propose a class law. Usually this involves age of consent and some form of parental consent/notification or judicial bypass for underage women/girls.

Then they have to argue for adopting or amending or rejecting the class law.

They were able to focus on the age they think people can make decisions for themselves, and that got them thinking in terms of their rights and responsibilities, and really helped them think well about the specifics of a law.

They had to find outside sources (and practice using those), and address the specifics of the law they wanted to support, amend, or reject.

It's the only time I've ever felt really positive about a current event issue discussion in my writing class. And I have my friend to thank for the suggestion.

Tue Apr 25, 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger G Bitch said...

Research is key--they need to know things, to consider things, to actually have some evidence in their hands before they start moralizing in my damn classroom.

Bardiac, good idea. In a normal semester, I might try it, with something other than abortion but a similarly hot-button topic of which they have no factual knowledge. (Maybe same-sex marriage.)

Prof. Zero, 3-3 sounds like a dream come true.

Wed Apr 26, 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Bardiac said...

I agree, G Bitch, research and actually gaining knowledge before they start writing is key. I wish I were better at communicating that in my classes.

The idea wasn't mine, but I'm sure my source would be happy to have you share whatever you find helfpul.

Thu Apr 27, 11:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across your blog by following a google link to a post on my own, titled "Bitch is Beautiful."

Comp students' mind-boggling ignorance is one of the reasons I switched from teaching comp to journalism decades ago. With journalism they don't get to pick their topics or have an opinion. They HAVE to do research. If they do have an opinion about the subject they still have to do background and interviews with people whose opinions differ, and they have to present all sides fairly, without distortion.

A suggestion -- pick two or three general topics yourself, give them some ideas on how to narrow them, build the research into the assignments step by step. Provide some "starter" bibliographies. Have everybody read a couple of pieces from those biblioigraphies.

Require that they write one piece on the subject without expressing any opinion whatsoever. THEN, if they do a good job, they earn the right to do an opinion essay on that topic.

And if they do a decent job with that, they earn the right to choose a topic of their own.

Comp courses long ago turned into navel-gazing courses. That's why I ran as far and as fast away from them as I could. But you don't have to be stuck with that.

I've told my students it's not my job to give them what think they want. It's my job to give them what I know they need.

Of course, if you are an adjunct or untenured, you need to get your department behind you on that!

Dr. Georgia NeSmith

Fri Dec 29, 11:57:00 AM  

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