by J J Cohen
Breaking pedagogical news: it takes twenty years to learn to teach an undergraduate course well. OK, I am a slow learner: it took me that long to reach the point where I end a semester thinking, this is the kind of classroom I want to be within from now on. The fall semester is nearly complete -- fifty five grades to enter and then I'm done. I won't be teaching at GW again until 2016 (I'm at the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring, then have a semester of leave for the fall as I work on two book projects I'll blog about soon). And yes, on the one hand, I like to complete things and move along ... but on the other, I'll miss both my classes, the most enjoyable and possibly the most successful of my career to date. Here are a few things I've learned, or learned again.
1. All hail the students.
I am fortunate: GW students are wonderful, and they make me feel a strong attachment to the place. The students who enroll in my classes don't necessarily share all that much when it comes to background: they are fairly diverse in race, religion, gender and sexuality, geographic origin, and economic circumstances (though the latter can be invisible, surfacing in painful ways). Yet these students generally share earnestness, engagement, a sense of play, and a desire to build supportive communities. They care about each other. I watched these strengths in action on the first day of Chaucer class when, as we went round the room for introductions, one student requested that they be referenced by third person plural pronouns. The other students simply nodded assent and the introductions continued apace (while I thought: I really like this group).
Don't get me wrong: I have taught courses that have been an immense challenge (the Quiet Chaucer Class of 2011 will live forever as a low point; but then again, I also had to learn from that group that sometimes pedagogy has to be adaptive to what students want as well as what the instructor believes they need). I have had experiments in teaching go badly wrong and I have reported my fair share of GW undergrads for violations of the Code of Academic Integrity. But in general I know that I can rely on them to make a discussion based class -- even one with an enrollment of 90 -- work well.
2. Throw away your book.
The Riverside Chaucer is now, due to the tyranny of Cengage, over $100 to rent in paperback. I've been teaching Chaucer from the Riverside since graduate school: my own hardcover is held together with duck tape. Its decades of marginalia have framed how I lead class discussion for years. I could not in good conscience ask my students to buy or rent the Riverside this year, so I joined them in using the edition edited by Jill Mann for Penguin ($14). I decided this was a good opportunity to rely no longer on my accumulated notes, and so did not refer to my venerable Riverside for course prep. The Canterbury Tales did not become a blank slate by any means (I have this thing called a memory, quite faulty but still useful from time to time) -- yet the text seemed fresher than it had in years. The unthought inheritances of my normative training as a medievalist are still very much with me; teaching without that heritage inscribed on the page was liberating in small ways, though. Another way of putting this: my Riverside bears the visual evidence of having studied with and been a teaching assistant for Chaucerians like Larry Benson and Derek Pearsall -- and the whole Riverside project is framed by Benson's general editorship. The edition has a personality that owes something to him, evident in its textual apparatus, glosses, and its mediation through the community of colleagues and friends he chose for the editing of specific tales. That's good in some profound ways, but it is also a fact that I have not thought sufficiently through for the kind of Chaucer studies I want my students to have versus what the Riverside (and my training) offers. Using a clean edition of the text helped open some distance that I did not know I needed. In a semester during which speaking about sexual assault in class resonated profoundly with an ongoing public discussion of rape culture on campuses, not using the Riverside proved especially useful for framing rape in Chaucer's life and texts -- and for opting out of the long history of normalizing sexual assault into a familiar fabliau device, a motif of long history, or a joke.
3. Enough with the assessment.
It's remarkable to me how much we -- how much I -- have internalized the demand from accreditation bodies to assess everything, as if the success of a course in something as blessedly inutile as Middle English were readable from a series of metrics that mapping student achievement. In the end I don't care all that much if students can identify passages, explicate themes and key terms, compose a properly formatted bibliography. These things are nice but what I really want is to stoke their imaginations, get them to realize that the world is big and strange, expand their conceptual possibilities, and discover the pleasure of sustained attention to a work of art. I'm not sure how to assess wide-eyedness. I stopped aiming for coverage and started intensifying the time we have in class together, as a fellowship. Towards the end of my Chaucer class I realized through our conversations that all my students had reached proficiency in Middle English, had a good command of the Canterbury Tales, and were adept at making connections among the narratives. Instead of a final exam that would assess retention and promote coverage, I gave them a take home with two questions on it: a prospect that invited them to write about all the things we did not cover in class (what was left out? where might we have gone next? what futures have been opened up for study?), and a retrospect that invited them to collect their course materials, ruminate over them, and speak about the ground they had tread with the their classroom companions and with Chaucer, the changes in their understanding of the tales (and if they wished, themselves), along the way. I've never enjoyed reading finals so much.
Not every Chaucer class has to arrive in Canterbury. What about lingering along the way? Enough pretending that the humanities must be vocational training. My students repeatedly commented in their course evaluations on two things: how liberating it was to start at the same point as their peers in learning Middle English (shared vulnerability), and what a relief it was to have a class that embraced useless knowledge.
4. A closed classroom door cannot keep the world from entering.
This was a semester when gross miscarriages of racial justice unfolded repeatedly in the US: black men dying needlessly and white police officers exculpated. Rather than pretend a classroom is a temporary shelter against an unjust world, in both my classes we had discussions of race that touched upon Ferguson and its aftermath. In Chaucer our conversation on the day after the verdict became a rumination over community-making and inclusion: my students kept going back to the threats against the Pardoner and the kiss that reintegrates him. In Myths of Britain, we spoke repeatedly of the long history of racialized brutality, evident in many of the texts we read together: Othello and Isle of Pines, most strongly, but also Beowulf and Mandeville's Travels. We have many students of color in that class (about 20 of the 60), but we would have been talking about race in the course no matter what. I'm Jewish, my teaching partner is black, and in collaboration we teach our students the complexities of a literary tradition that was not written for us, that can often offer violence towards those we identify as being part of our own history, but a tradition we want to grapple with and think deeply about all the same. And we want to do that with our students -- an invitation to dialogue that they happily accepted.
5. Collaboration is scary when it works.
This year marked the sixth time I've taught Myths of Britain, a slowed down version of Intro to Brit Lit that focuses on close reading, slow looking, and better writing through repeated revision. But it's the first time I've co-taught the course, and that collaboration changed everything, leading to a complete reinvention. It helped that my teaching partner, Ayanna Thompson, happens to be a close friend. It also helps that we both gain a great deal of intellectual energy from challenging each other. That dynamic played out well in the classroom, where we worked out a back and forth that modeled for the students (we hope) how to disagree respectfully, playfully, with evidence, with passion. The student evaluations for the course were terrific, and one comment sticks with me: that Ayanna and I execute a Bonnie and Clyde routine well. I think that means we dress well and rob banks. Actually, what I think it means is that when it comes to reaching for some comparison for the team Ayanna and I formed, the student could not find an adequate model, since this collaboration crossed gender and racial differences in ways that don't happen enough in the academy. And I will admit, I was nervous teaching with a friend, especially one I know is so good in the classroom. It felt vulnerable, and the course will never be the same.
6. All hail the students.
None of this semester's experiments in pedagogy would have succeeded without a committed group of students. In Chaucer they happily did the work of tying Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book and Simon Gikandi's essays on the conditions of literary production to the Canterbury Tales. They were with me when I tore up the syllabus and let the end of the course become much more free form than the beginning. They experimented. And the same with the Myths of Britain students. As Ayanna and I attempted to find the best way to frame the class, they never abandoned us. Even when they disliked a text, they came to the lectures with plenty to say. They were there for each other: challenging, encouraging, companioning. It's rare, I know, when you can trust your students so much that you can play with the structure of the course as you are teaching it and know that they will respond well to the opening up of possibilities. Here's to more such rarities.