|Underdog saves the day
I've written here before about the Code of Courtesy included in each syllabus I create (see also here). Like many readers of this blog I'm now back in the classroom -- summer, how could you be so fleeting? -- and yesterday had occasion to discuss the code with my new crop of 90 students. It's a large class, and because it lacks the intimacy of a seminar students sometimes imagine they are invisible and text, surf the internet, or whisper to nearby friends. I always frame this code positively: students owe each other the creation of a community where the focus is upon the speaker, whether that speaker is me or a fellow student; we possess few contemporary spaces in which we can be truly present to each other, and the classroom is one of them; paying attention in a world full of distractions takes practice and has rewards. Yesterday I pointed out to the class that I was keeping track of time on my iPhone, sitting on the lectern: I am as easily sidetracked as anyone, I admitted, and for that reason 75 minutes of focus in class is actually a pleasure.
Who knows how many I convinced. This semester marks the fourth time I've taught the course (Myths of Britain), and I have had success with its being a class in which the majority of those who attend pay attention to me and to each other rather than their cell phones, Facebook, and nearby friends. I'm hoping my luck holds. I was also thinking yesterday about how I am asking them to be docile, in the sense of "apt or willing to learn" (from Latin docere, to teach); I am also asking them to be disciplined in their bodies and comportment (arrive on time; don't leave the room; be focused and attentive). What I do not want them to be, though, is docile in the sense of intellectually submissive. As I talked about the Code of Courtesy I emphasized its closing lines: Never hesitate to ask a question, to express a doubt, or to request clarification. I told them if they always believe me, if they never challenge me to defend what I declare, then they are being intolerably passive, and should be ashamed. College is not a place where you swallow the knowledge that your teachers place in your mouth with a long spoon; I want them to tear their books apart as they debate with me. That would be taking the class seriously -- especially because the course is in large measure about how to formulate and defend an effective argument.
I'm writing all this because docility was on my mind yesterday, and only partly because I am always a little embarrassed to read the code of courtesy (I wish it were not necessary, even as long experience has taught me the good having it on the syllabus achieves). When I returned home from my own first day of class, I was greeted by Katherine, who'd had her first day of first grade. She was a little quiet, already engrossed in her homework, an exercise in which she had to write about herself and her family. She told me more about her day later, and although I knew she'd mainly enjoyed it, the change from kindergarten was weighing upon her: in first grade students do not move around all that much; the teacher has an eagle-eye and can spot inappropriate whispering, giggling, and bodily movements from across the room. It's a class, in other words, that teaches docility in every sense of the word. And I suppose that is what must happen when you are six and about to be launched into twelve or sixteen or more years of sitting at desks and listening and learning.
I felt better, though, when just before dinner Katherine asked me to cut two dog-ear shaped pieces of paper for her. She disappeared into her room for about twenty minutes, then emerged with a cape fashioned from a cloth napkin, on the back of which she had drawn a giant U. She was wearing the ears attached to her headband. Katherine had become Underdog, an animal who can fly, punch villains, and save the hapless from the machinations of world that puts them in places they'd rather not be. The hour she spent "flying" from chairs and beds was the perfect antidote to docility. Long may Underdog reign.