|a bad omen: my Chaucer book fell apart this semester
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?