Monday, April 25, 2011

and there an end

a bad omen: my Chaucer book fell apart this semester
by J J Cohen

I've just finished teaching my undergraduate Chaucer class for the sixteenth time at GW. Sixteen. So many journeys from Southwark to Canterbury, and yet the course has remained my favorite: dedicated students bonding over difficult but alluring material. Stories that have yet to seem stale, no matter how many times discussed.

This year, though, offered challenges I've not faced previously. For the first two weeks I referred to "Chaucer" as my zombie class. Despite every pedagogical trick in my hat full of pedagogy, I could not get the students to do more than gaze at me with a silent stare that might have been hunger. It was disconcerting. Some of my strategies for convincing them not to leap their desks and ingest the hapless prof: learning their names in record time; a game (I agreed to bring them cookies if I failed to know everyone's name by class five); bringing them food (I had all 25 names memorized by class four, but I thought it best to celebrate by bringing the baked goods; nothing builds companionship like eating together [provided the professor is not the one being devoured]); some group work; gifts and surprises; rearranging the furniture to be more conducive to seeing each other; jokes, including unintentional physical humor as I once dodged a falling light fixture; long pauses that hovered between fruitful and uncomfortable; calling upon students at random.

None of these strategies really worked. Eventually I made peace with the fact that the class was a quiet group, far more taciturn than any I'd taught previously. Hands would infrequently be raised in response to my queries; few wanted to argue with me, or with each other. I'm not used to this dynamic, and it could get tiresome, but the class was overall a success. They composed excellent papers and exams; they listened attentively and thought critically and wrote cogently. From what I can tell they enjoyed the course (they are eating chocolate and composing their course evaluations right now [<-- coincidence], so I will discover soon if I am correct). Individually, I am fond of each one of them, and can even state that I got to know them personally and well. But as a group their chemistry was lacking and I'm not good enough at mixing magical pedegogical elixirs to have changed that, even after four months of intensely being together.

Still, I will miss them. Many are graduating. Five have been my students in the past (they even spoke back when they were younger); two are my advisees. When I left the classroom today, I realized that I won't step back into one again until perhaps January of 2013. That's a long time, long enough to worry me about losing my anchor ... but also to make me realize that when I return I do not want to teach the same Chaucer course that I have been conducting for sixteen years. I expect to change things profoundly when I return: candies instead of cookies, for example; and going paperless. But also becoming thematic. I'd love to teach an eco-Chaucer course, maybe even in tandem with another on green and blue [earth and sea ecologies of] early England.

Question, if you've read this far: what else might I have done? When you are faced with a quiet class, what strategies do you employ?


Paul Halsall said...

I don't think it's your job to entertain them.,20130/

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Paul, very funny indeed.

But you know, the failure is just the opposite: not that I should have entertained my students more, but that they should have entertained me. By not challenging my arguments, by not making me defend my interpretations, by not challenging the theses I was putting forth ... Well they made it a lecture class, and a sedate one at that. Such is not my style, even when I teach 90.

Norman Hinton said...

I know the feeling -- but from what you have said about the class I'd be happy anyhow. The first time I ever used a primitive e-mail for class discussion I discovered the quietest, sadddest loking guy in the class knew the most about it (HRL).

Rick Godden said...

I have a similar schtick in class in terms of using humor, and trying to mix things up. I rely on this too much perhaps, but I often start class with some in-class writing. It gives them an opportunity to digest their thoughts and the text (as opposed to their prof) and then they should all theoretically have something to say.

For me, I am just hoping to get out of this semester alive.

iLikeToBake said...

I wonder if it might be a generational thing. You say that some of the students are graduating, but how much of a mixed class was it? Have you had this with any other groups? I am finding that many in this new batch of students are very difficult in terms of getting their engagement in class. They just want to sit and absorb information rather than discuss it themselves no matter how many critical questions and ideas are posed to them. The older students are more engaged than the younger students. Maybe I should ask them quiz questions and they can buzz in with the answer (but that requires technology I certainly don't have the departmental money for...)

Anonymous said...

When things get too quiet, I turn to in-class group work as some students are more likely to participate in groups of 3, 4, 5. I circulate around the room and join in the conversations (and sometimes just listen).

Another tactic: I send students a question before class (preferably 48 hours before). At the beginning of class, I repeat the question or put it on the board and ask the students to sketch out possible responses in writing (I emmphasize that I will not collect what they write). After about five minutes I ask for a volunteer or two to read or paraphrase the response, which usually gets a conversation going (silence is sometimes a result of being put on the spot----as in Pericles, patience is key).

-a more desperate tactic and one that I´ve only used in upper level classes. I start the class by saying that I´m not going to talk for the first fifteen minutes or so. Instead, I want to listen to what they have to say and take notes. What´s really great about this is that students start speaking to each other and, after a few awkward moments, they stop raising their hands. I´m often amazed (and slightly dismayed) at how lively these conversations can become without me.

SEK said...

If I've got independent evidence -- from their blogs, for example -- that they've done the reading, I've always found a staring contest helps. You want to be quiet? Two can play at that game!

More seriously -- not that I'm not serious about the above, but more seriously -- I find that my quiet classes are typically the result of me having pitched the material too high, and it's usually the result of the accumulated detritus of having taught a particular text too often. It may be a hidden blessing that you won't be teaching the course again for a while, because it'll give you a chance to strip down your notes, or scrap them completely and start from scratch. (For me, it wasn't Chaucer, obviously, but Watchmen: I'd taught it seven times in three years and accumulated so much material that when I went into class, I was trying to find "short cuts" to get to points that the students likely wouldn't fully understand anyway.)

Jeffrey Cohen said...

These are great comments. I do admit that one factor may fatigue: I have taught the course too many times without changing the texts around. That's why I'm looking froward to a post-leave reinvention. But the class was also silent from day 1; that was its personality.

I did not try in class writing assignments or pre-circulated questions as potential catalysts. Next time!

Slbavaro said...

Hmmm. I am a high school english teacher and focused on the Medieval (under Patty Ingham) and I think it is NCLB's fault. The kids are trained up to be test driven and not so critical in conversation. At least, that's what I tell myself when their 12thgradeeyes glaze over when I teach The Pardoner's Tale.

BUT, they did love creating Faux-Facebook pages for the Wife of Bath.

prehensel said...

I tend, in a quiet class, to follow SEK. More than once, I have told a class that wanted to sit and be told what the text was about or how to read it: "Fine. Don't answer my questions. We'll sit in silence--because I get paid either way."

But I'm beginning to doubt that approach. I think next time I will slip in an interpretation so outrageous, so speculative that someone will have to say something. The first person to challenge tends to embolden the rest of the class in my (albeit limited) experience.

Karl Steel said...

I'll just reiterate what D Wallace suggested (as a joke?) at the Siena NCS: start with the Physician's Tale. I did it in BOTH my Fall 2010 Chaucer classes, and it really made for a fascinating class. We also read ONLY what we absolutely needed from the GP (the opening frame to follow shifts in POV and knowledge), the contest of masculinity and class in the straw-drawing, and a few portraits along with their tales. Did this make them talk more? I dunno; but it made this Chaucer experience (my 3rd and 4th time teaching the CantT) much better for ME.