Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why I Prep at the Kitchen Table

I don't have to be anywhere in particular today, astonishingly (other than office hours at 2, but we all know how vital those are), so I'm sitting at my desk in front of my laptop prepping for tomorrow. Normally I don't prep this far in advance anymore--only 1.5 semesters in and I've developed the habit of prepping at 7 am the day of class--but I (again, astonishingly) don't have much vital work to do today, so I'm trying to do what I can ahead of time.

Normally I prep at the kitchen table, because normally it's 7 am and I'm eating breakfast and drinking my coffee as I work. And at 7 am, that's the only spot in the house that has access to any kind of natural light, which makes it a little more pleasant to be up and working.

My god! I can't prepare when the computer is available. I write down a discussion question, note a single passage, and then go through the Internet Cycle (two email accounts, bloglines, statcounter, blogger comments). There's nothing new in any of these places, or very rarely anything--I'm running through the cycle every 5 minutes, after all. When I do get an email, I am now replying with shocking alacrity, for normally I am not a good email-responder. This is wildly unproductive. No wonder it used to take me 4 hours to prep for a 50-minute class back in the early days, when I did all my prep at my desk.

Part of my problem, too, is that I still have it in my head that I need 4 pages of notes (handwritten, peppered with questions) to get through a 50-minute class. I established this ratio back when I adjuncted my first class in 2005. I probably established it, in fact, the very first time I prepared for a class: that was what I needed that one time, so that is what I have needed every subsequent time. Never mind that I've now clocked in more than 250 class hours at this new gig (a 4/4 load does beef up one's experience pretty damn quick). And these days, in this class in particular, 2 pages of notes really seems to get the job done--I rarely finish up everything that I want to cover anymore. But I still have the 4:50 ratio in my head, and I don't feel at peace until I have all those pages filled and/or an Emergency Backup Group Activity jotted down in the margins. (I almost never need said activity--which is good, because they're usually kind of stupid.)

Here's the thing. I have no idea how other people prepare for classes. I have no idea what their notes look like. Now, I'm sure that different things work for different people, and that modeling my prep on someone else's wouldn't be a good idea. But it troubles me that I'm essentially working from an only slightly evolved version of what I did the very first time I ever taught (by which I mean the first *day*, not the first course). True, I have more discussion questions now and a whole lot less leading the students through the narrative, unless we're dealing with something particularly tricky. And this class is going really well, so I think that my discussion/lecture method is working--it's the literal preparation, what I'm putting down on paper and how I'm organizing myself (and how much time I'm putting into it), that I sometimes suspect could use some improvement.

So, what do you guys do when you're prepping a class? Literature classes would be most obviously relevant to my own needs, but I'm interested in whatever you've got.

On a related note, I haven't been to very many undergraduate classes since I was an undergraduate (as a TA, I just attended lectures, which is not what I'm doing), so I've completely forgotten what kinds of things my professors used to say to get us talking. Once in a while I find myself asking a question that I really don't endorse: "What does this poem mean?" "What point is the author making in this story?" "Why did the author choose that particular image?" What I'm getting at is legitimate, but the questions themselves (as I phrase them) make me really uncomfortable, as they seem so...reductive. And based in authorial intention in a way that I find troubling. But often I can't think of another way to phrase them that the students will understand. (When I'm working off the cuff, I have a tendency to ask really wordy, convoluted questions that utterly baffle my students (and they should baffle them--they baffle me half the time), so I usually end up rephrasing them in a way that goes too far in the other direction, as in the questions above.) So, as a secondary, extra-credit question, what kinds of questions do you ask students to get them talking about the "deeper" levels of a literary text?

12 comments:

Sisyphus said...

Ooh ooh! I can avoid more of my last day of grading! Someone has posted something! ;)

Yup, I feel you.

The last time I did prep for a lecture class I was leading myself, it took forever and I had pages and pages of typed single-spaced notes. And it was not in my field, so if I ever do get to lecture in my field, I get to start from the bottom again.

Since right now I'm a TA, I prep as I do the reading for that week --- skim through marking both in the margins of text and random questions on a piece of paper. Then if I have time (and let myself) I go back over that sheet to see what themes or patterns are in my question and I retype all my stuff so that my questions/observations go somewhere and have some sort of point. Other times I can successfully remind myself that I am not being paid enough to prep hours and hours and hours for section and I go in to wing it with the notes as is.

Does any of this help you? Probably not. It's great that "pedagogical training" in grad school is generally focused around comp and writing training --- not that we don't need to do that, but there is almost _no_ systematized or written out explanation of how to teach _literature._ And everyone assumes that because you can teach comp and have taken a lot of courses in the content of your field, you know how best to teach that content to others. It's all weird.

OTOH, I TAd for someone (not my field) who once said her best discussion ever came from asking the question "what is lust?" No, why is it not *that*? Why is it not *that*? What about this? Ok, how do all your comments apply now to *this* text?

Just thought that that question (if not the format maybe) would be a useful one for your field there.

Dr. Crazy said...

Some things I do when prepping lit classes:

1) I read for teaching, i.e., the notes I make in the margins are about what students need to know and are designed to help me find things in the text easily. Quick comments of plot summary, summaries at the ends of chapters, notes about stylistic things, quick interpretive notes on sections that we'll talk about. The point of this is that when i teach that text again, I won't necessarily need to reread at all, or if I must, I can easily skim and remember how I teach it.

2) Even if you do handwritten notes on the first go around (I do), type them into the computer and save them with a file name that is totally obvious (i.e., not ENG 100 10/26, but rather, "first half of Hamlet notes and discussion questions") so that you don't re-prep the same texts over and over again. Obviously you can (and will) update the computer file, but you probably don't need to be doing the kind of prep you describe for each and every class meeting of each and every course that you teach.

Questions for getting them to talk about the deeper levels of a literary text:

Well, I usually start with their responses to the text (general, personal - can be a question about a particular passage or a description of how the text made them feel, whatever), actually, and then follow up with questions/commands like the following:

"Why does that matter?"
"Why is that interesting?"
"How does that relate to the novel as a whole?"
"Say more!"
"Why do you think this is important?"
"What associations do you have with this image? Could it be possible that we should be making these associations here? Why/why not?"

kermitthefrog said...

What helpful comments (for me, at least)!

I'll add that I've gotten good responses with the kind of negative questioning Sisyphus mentions at the end: i.e., why does an author use THIS word and not THAT word; why is your interpretation UNLIKE this other statement? It helps students realize that they're working in a field of different options, rather than just a nebulous realm of general response.

Hilaire said...

JUst to say, great questions!!! I always wonder the same things...what do people *do* in their undergrad classes?? Yes!

I can say that my notes are essentially full sentences, but in bullet point form.

I'm not usually teaching lit, so I don't know if I'm any help on the questions. I also know that I'm notorious for asking really difficult and abstract questions - students are forever saying to me, "Can you repeat that??" Oops - so much for clairty. In some classes, I get a lot of response from asking them, "What are the standouit issues for you" and - after I've said everything I want to say about a text, "What leftover questions do you have about the text?" (I'll tell you, this last one always generates stuff in my current upper-level theory class, because they actually come to class having prepared critical questions - it's an assignment. It's awesome in terms of making sure we always have stuff to say.

VirtualProf said...

Sorry, I don't get writing pages of notes to teach a class. I've been teaching in the classroom for a long time (undergrad Eng, lit, writing, soc, cj) and I go into class with nothing but an outline. I don't even carry the textbook. I teach by discussion and NEVER lecture. I use a lot of peer teaching and group work during class time. I don't grade many papers either because we do a lot peer review for several class sessions prior to an assignment due date. So when I get final papers, they're darn good. I am very active in the classroom and move from group to group and I sit in the back and take notes when students are "teaching" their expert assignments or reporting on group work. My class is all student-centered. I give them notes and "lectures" that they download from online and they are expected to KNOW that stuff when they come to class.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Wow, four pages of notes?!? I think I might have, like, a page and a half on a good day. On a bad day, I have a couple of links to YouTube clips of the play we're reading and some half-formed ideas for discussion, which I may or may not have written down.

But if I'm being good: I reread. I take notes as I'm reading, mostly quick impressions, potential discussion questions, passages that look good for close-reading. I might also jot down a few notes about dates, family trees, and other factual stuff, so I can lecture on the fly if necessary. Sometimes I look for links to images or video clips. I come up with a question suitable for the five minutes of silent writing with which I normally kick off classes (these are often improvised on the fly). If I'm being really good, or if the text is way out of my field and I'm stuck for things to say, I might do an MLA database search and skim a few articles.

That said, you have a tenure-track job and I don't, so you might not want to take advice from me :)

heu mihi said...

I should say, so that I'm not misrepresenting my diligence, that my 4 pages of notes are 4 pages of handwritten, scrawly, listy notes--not typed or organized or anything like that. I usually start off with a little list (Topics To Cover or something) and then base my subsequent notes on that list, but a lot of my notes are things like "See stuff from 2 pages back" or "Talk about XX here, not before," with lots of big confusing arrows. Shifting to a typed system would in fact be a helpful development.

And thanks for the great suggestions! This is definitely useful. I'm particularly interested in what kinds of questions work best in discussion; I seldom lecture for more than a couple of minutes at a time (and then it's historical or biographical background, usually), and my discussions seem to go pretty well, but there are days when I'm really struggling with how to phrase my thoughts as questions so that they'll reach the conclusions that I want them to reach. When I'm struggling like this, in fact, it's usually a sign that I'm trying too hard to direct them towards a particular conclusion, and that I need to back off. All the comments above have some useful ideas; I'll be adopting them soon, I'm sure! Perhaps even tomorrow!

Dance said...

I did a long boring post on this, actually.

Basically, I type up everything--discussion questions and sub-questions in bold, with the answers I hope to get, key quotes I want to discuss, notes for mini-lectures, list of necessary announcements, etc.

I re-read every time, or try to--if I'm diligent I type notes on the reading, pretty complete ones, bolding neat quotes or key ideas. I think by now I've got mostly complete notes on my main textbook, so I just re-skim those notes instead of re-reading, and edit my notes for primary texts. The ability to do that makes the pain of typing the notes once worthwhile, for books I know I'll use again.

I haven't really changed my approach since I was a grad student, actually--that is, it's evolved, but it was pretty much always, "here's my list of questions I'm going to ask them", and it's pretty much still that, just with more supporting material. And I always have more supporting material than I get through.

What Now? said...

Along the same lines as "why this word and not that one?," I find that students compare and contrast well because it gives them concrete things to look at. So, if applicable, I'll have students analyze the two narrators or two different settings in the novel or two different relationships the protagonist has or two explanations provided for a single event or two character foils, etc. We then have to move from that concrete analysis into the significance of these similarities and differences, but students usually do that better once they've started at the concrete level -- and they then have oodles of textual evidence at the ready to talk about those significances, which is always a plus. I won't give examples here because they'd all be from American lit, which wouldn't be helpful to you, but you see what I mean.

heu mihi said...

Ooh! Yes, that's a great theorization of some specific things that I've found work well. Possibly the best discussion we've had this semester was about the different relationships in a certain Austen novel acronymed P&P: we compared and contrasted a whole bunch of romantic relationships in order to figure out what Austen thought worked and what didn't, and why. The students were totally into it, wrote some good papers out of it, and I didn't need my notes at all. So yes, I'd say that the comparing and contrasting works well--I'll have to build that in more consciously in the future.

Dance, you've added the final evidence to persuade me that typing up notes is worthwhile. I'm going to at least do that for the courses that I'll be repeating next year; it should save me lots of time in the long run.

ms. baby said...

inspiring thread!
sometimes i like to start by asking them their general impressions, as dr. crazy suggested, and working down to specifics from there; i also like to ask them to pick a passage that struck them and then figure out what's going on in that passage that's so important: this works better as a group exercise, i've found (although as the quarter goes on, they come to expect and be prepared to work a macro out of the micro of a passage or line).

i also find it useful to have the typed up notes of the text, less to lecture from them in a pinch but to quickly find what my students are referring to and see if i can link that to a question i might have come up with for that moment-a nice security blanket for when discussion goes in good directions i hadn't planned on.

Mike Shapiro said...

I have only taught for a few years—TA: 19th/20th-century lit, Shakespeare, some comp—but from what I can tell good teachers prep in the way that is best for them.

Hence VirtualProf enters class sans script and sans text and leads an excellent discussion; were I to do the same, my students would laugh me out of the building.

I do 3 to 4 pages of notes, typed, in outline form. But other than page references and sometimes carefully turned questions, I tend to teach off the notes: they serve as a jump-start to my thinking so that I can be 5 or 10 minutes ahead of the students.

Your experience asking questions you don't endorse is entirely familiar to me. I often find myself glad that I've asked those questions, even when they fall flat, because they can break students away from the logic of the text to begin thinking about the motivation and context of the author.

I taught for a prof. last semester who is regularly ranked among the strongest teachers at our university. I found the questions she asks in her literary toolbox easy to work with and great fodder for 50 minutes of discussion.