Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to Place "Humanities" Next to "Future" Without the Adjective "Dire" (or, Why Entry Level Courses Matter)

by J J Cohen

Last night we had twenty 12 year old girls in our house, screaming and eating pizza, popcorn and cake and having a dance contest. We live in a small house. My ears are still ringing -- as well as infected by earworms of various atrocious pop songs. In a moment of relative quiet as the group watched a movie and experienced a sugar lull, I sipped some wine and browsed some social media and came across this article from Inside HigherEd, on a study correlating good first experiences of a course within a field and student desire to major in that field. I've been thinking about the study all morning, especially when (to clear my head of pop songs and cleanse my body of pizza and cake) I took a long run in the unseasonably cold air.

Students will gravitate towards majors that align with their current interests as well as their imagined futures. So, here at GW we get many freshmen who think they will major in Political Science, International Affairs, or Economics ... often until they discover that to do so they may spend two years seated in large auditoriums, lectured to via recycled PowerPoint by a professor who will never learn their name. Students want to be treated as more than seat occupiers awaiting those assessments that will determine scores, grades, credits -- and so the majors towards which they gravitate at first are often not the ones they ultimately declare. Most young men and women -- most humans -- want to have affirmed that there is something about them individually that matters, something that is worth the world (in this case, in the embodied form of their professor) attending to, something worth challenging and intensifying, creating the conditions for thriving. Blog readers will no doubt nod their heads in agreement with that last sentence, I suppose, but placing that teacherly attentiveness into action is difficult, time consuming, and seldom rewarded professionally. In large and research universities, this undergraduate pedagogical mission is for entry level courses typically placed in the hands of graduate students and adjuncts, yet without providing those instructors the pay, resources, permanence and support that they require and deserve to fulfill that mission. Everyone loses.

Like many English Departments, we at GW have seen the number of our majors decline alarmingly over the past six or seven years -- so much so that we worry that a time of faculty contraction is nearing. The nationwide reduction in English majors no doubt has numerous causes, but I believe that it is linked at least in part to literature courses no longer being a specific component of the general education requirements at many universities, as well as the fact that existing requirements are often easily satisfied by high school AP and IB transfer credits. Think about what happened at the University of Maryland. A broadened humanities requirement meant that fewer students enrolled in English courses. As a result fewer students got to see the excellence of the teachers in that department, and the number of majors declined (just as the Insider HigherEd piece I linked to above would have predicted). Many high school students do not moreover have a good experience with English from the classes that pass under that name before college: it's enlightening to see how little literature is actually read in such classes, at least in public schools, and from what I can tell quite a few students depart happy to be finished forever. We cannot therefore count on students enrolling in English courses out of a predisposition to enjoy them (and really need to partner better with high schools than we do).

I do not believe that the solution to the decline in the English major is to bring back literature requirements. That ship full of Shakespeare, Eliot and Milton sailed from the dock long ago and I am OK with its being far at sea. Our colleagues in other disciplines would rightly argue that what they do is also important and ought likewise to be mandated -- and yet the best way to scare students away from classes and get them to seek the easiest way out is to tell them that they must take them for their own good. What we should do -- and what many of us are in fact doing -- is to rethink the introductory and gateway courses that we do offer, and to give up on believing that the Intro to Brit Lit 1 & 2 of yesteryear still serve us well (especially when at research universities we offer these courses mostly as apprenticeship for graduate students and failing that, hire adjuncts to teach them but then pay an abusive wage and refuse them resources and job security). Our most accomplished teachers -- who are often (though by no means not always) our mid to later career teachers -- should be routinely leading these courses for non-majors, and leading them well. Full disclosure: I think that at mid to late career, I am an OK teacher who is constantly striving to be better (I know we are not supposed to declare such things, but I have worked hard at this part of my job). I love teaching heterogeneous student populations in reconfigured introductory level literature courses. So maybe it's too easy for me to say all this. And yet I suspect one reason the English major now often fails to attract a diversity of students is the proliferation of hyper-specialized upper level courses that are mainly a working through of the professor's research topics. I would like to see more intensification and nurturing of students within broader classes that focus upon finding ways to engage them passionately with difficult and varied materials; attending to their development as intellectuals and as complicated individuals; inspiring them to think beyond their own ambits rather than reaffirming the contours of their familiar world; urging students to discover the pleasures of surprise, sustained attentiveness, hard argument, close reading; and emphasizing the multimodal craft of writing (if the aim of every undergraduate class is to produce a nicely footnoted research paper, I think we are not really thinking enough about what students both want and need). It is often difficult for such courses to flourish in a research university -- and sometimes wonder if the compliance of the humanities in the current fashioning of that research university (a category to which most every institution now aspires, and arranges its reward system around) has not been in part a reason for their declining ability to attract students. Now before you think I've gone all conservative or something I want to emphasize that the place for queer, feminist, postcolonial, and critical race studies enabled reading practices is in the introductory classroom, and more of the rewards for such instruction should be there as well. The freshman and sophomore classroom is the space for demonstrating these practices in action. I also think it is a good practice to offer courses on topics that students want to study. All these courses are the place for teaching the skills and techniques at which the humanities excel: critical reading; excellent writing in a variety of genres and forms; thinking so hard it hurts; the frustrations and pleasures of community; the weight of tradition and the building of the future.

I've tried to place this credo into practice through an introductory course I teach at GW, "Myths of Britain" (you can download the most recent syllabus here). Well, I should say co-teach. I've blogged about this course a great deal over the years here at ITM, but I feel like "Myths" did not realize its potential until last year when my colleague Ayanna Thompson and I started to teach it together -- and even though, only after we realized that the best way to do so is through modeling for our students what engaged attentiveness looks like. And it looks a little different from what they perhaps imagined in a course about British Literature: when a black woman and a Jew are together inviting them to an exploration of works from a tradition that is not really "ours" and yet one we love to think with, interrogate, converse about and reflect upon, then they seem to find a variety of ways into their own passionate querying of these texts. For most of the class Ayanna and I sit on the auditorium's stage, a coffee table between us (I keep threatening to place a fern and two tea cups on that table). We push each other to think about whatever we are reading from new angles, often playfully, always turning frequently to our 63 students for their thoughts, objections, insights, ideas. The class really clicked in this, its second iteration, because we realized that things work best when stop worrying about attempting to impress each other and ignore our own limits and anxieties (try teaching Othello with the person who composed the definitive introduction to the play...!) so that we can focus on the students and what we want them to be engaged by and with, what worlds we want to open with them. The students also meet once a week in small writing intensive sections overseen by two graduate students, who are our partners in administering the class. The four of us meet every week to discuss student achievement, problems, and more than anything effective pedagogy. Ayanna and I observe the sections and offer feedback leading them well. Because our graduate program offers no course in pedagogy, "Myths of Britain" has been structured to ensure that graduate students depart from it as well trained, confident, student-focused instructors. I should also add here that since the class was initiated in 2006 it has been its extraordinary good fortune to have had as GTAs some of the most talented young teachers I have ever met. "Myths of Britain" has, not surprisingly, also been a good recruitment tool for the major. Last year so far as we can tell about 10 of our 60 students became English majors or minors; many others who did not at least took additional, non-required literature classes. It is as well a great class for increasing the diversity of who enrolls in literature courses (last time we had about 30% students of color). In the summer of 2015 "Myths" was officially assessed for its success as a General Education requirement and to evaluate whether it was achieving its learning outcomes. The fact that it is in fact doing both very well enabled me to talk a dean who does not like its size and structure out of tampering with the class (I think he suspects it should not be co-taught unless it is much bigger, and that graduate students should have a more subordinate role in instruction). That the assessment had been done by his office made its findings difficult to argue with, despite the unconventional nature of the course.

I am writing this afternoon at such length about this local and minor success because I believe that we need to share more stories about how to make the humanities flourish at the undergraduate level, even if they are stories that come weighted with local context. I don not expect that my local endeavors are generalizable. I know that most educators work within vastly different systems and do not necessarily have much freedom in determining what courses they might teach, or where they may place their energies. I am inspired here by Arthur Bahr, who offered his own local story about teaching and choices, a blog post that I return to frequently for sustenance. The attenuated state of the humanities and their dire future offer manifold reasons for despair. Yet submitting to despondency (or, worse, blaming our students -- undergrad or grad -- for the current state of the field) is not going to widen possibilities or alter shared affects. If we resign ourselves to bleak years ahead then we have already lost the potential for anything better. Resignation is easier than future making. Lecturing with Powerpoints and reducing students to examination scores is less difficult than getting to know them, cultivating them as particular, idiosyncratic beings. Yes, those few of us fortunate to have full time jobs are already busy all the damn time. A thousand things pull us in other directions. The reward system in the profession is based on research productivity, not cross-generational world making. And yet many of us are also devoted to doing just that in our undergraduate classrooms. Could we have more of those success stories, for inspiration and catalysis and community? Could we talk more, all of us, about how to succeed, persevere, foster, and invent?


Rob Barrett said...

At this point in my career, I'd say that 50% of my teaching load in any given year is basic 100-level courses: Lit of Fantasy on the one hand and Comics and Graphic Narratives on the other. I prefer it this way (to offering 400-level seminars as many of my colleagues hope to do but nevertheless end up scrabbling to put together a last-minute 100-level course when the seminar falls through due to low enrollment).

A.W. Strouse said...

I couldn’t agree more with the gist of this piece: full-time faculty should chill out with their esoteric research agendas, teach more intro courses, and use those courses to instill excitement for the humanities. But I’m a little weary about this caveat: “Don’t think I’ve gone all conservative!”

In my own intro courses, many of my students are fairly conservative, and it’s important to teach in a way that serves those students. I’m not saying one has to teach a conservative viewpoint, but one should at least have enough compassion not to so flagrantly betray one’s biases.

I teach in NYC, which despite its reputation for being liberal is still the home of Trump and many Outer Borough softcore conservatives, not to mention the NYSE. When I teach upper-level English-major courses, students skew pretty far to the radical left. (My sense is that the intro courses tend to teach students that “English” is synonymous with left-wing political positions, and very few conservatives therefore become English majors.) But when I teach intro courses, there’s a wide range of political views. These classes have many average Joes from Queens who support gay marriage but are still perfectly happy being heterosexist themselves; and there are plenty of first-generation Americans who are ardently patriotic and just want to work hard for their slice of the pie—people who don’t necessarily want to imperialize and oppress, but who came to college to become middle class and aren’t interested in criticizing the system—they just want to pass the course and go on to study science or law or some field that will please their folks. These small-c conservatives pay their tax dollars, too, so there's an obligation not to discount them.

In my own intro classes, I often teach Troilus & Criseyde (Chaucer, Shakespeare, and a little bit of Chapman’s Iliad), and this arrangement greatly appeals to the conservative imagination. Many students desperately want to learn about “great authors” and “grand narratives.” (I find that this is the case in a non-raced way: students of all different backgrounds have an intuitive, working-class common sense, whereby they want to learn “the best.”) At the same time, such common sense says that an English course should focus on the meat of potatoes of reading and writing, and not on “teaching the conflicts” of the latest culture war.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be totally uncritical about these constructions, but some conservative formulations need to be seriously entertained in the intro classroom. In my intro classes I try to create plenty of opportunities for thinking critically about gender, class, imperialism, etc.; and some of my more radical students write their essays about how Chaucer depicts sex as a matter of male conquest, etc. But I also spend plenty of time talking about grammar and style (topics fairly well neglected by many intro courses). And I encourage the dude-bros from Astoria to write papers about how Homer’s Achilles is a real hero and Shakespeare’s is a wimp, etc. I want them to feel like there’s no place for them in literary studies. They might not become English majors, but they are going to vote for the legislators who decide the English Department's budget.