Monday, February 1, 2010

Improbable Questions

Brit Lit II this semester is taking an odd turn.

Things are going well, overall--don't get me wrong. We've analyzed Romantic poetry half to death and are on to Pride and Prejudice (although I always find the first day of a novel difficult in the largish survey--it feels like we're leaving so much out, and it's hard for me to be organized. Whatever, though; it'll sort itself out).

But it seems like every day I get one of those left-field questions. Or at least quasi-left-field. Like, okay, I can see why you'd want to know that, but I don't know everything, people.

This isn't necessarily a problem. But someone in Brit Lit I wrote on hir evals last semester that "sometimes when a student asks a question, [I] say 'hm' and ask the rest of the class what they think, which makes [the student] think that [I] don't know the answer" (not hir exact words, but very close). So, pedagogical blindness of the comment aside, I'm feeling a little sensitive about revealing ignorance.

Examples:
  • What, exactly, does the word "plastic" mean in the context of [a particular Coleridge poem]? Yes, I should know this. But we read like ten pages of poetry for that day, and I read past the word with a sense of what it means, and it didn't occur to me to look up exactly how he was using it. In hindsight, I should've used this as an opportunity to demonstrate OED online, but they were in small groups and time was almost up. I should also call myself out on having a "sense" of something's meaning and actually look it up, especially when I'm teaching close reading. Lesson learned.
  • To what extent is [that recent quasi-biographical movie about the author we're currently reading]* based on her real life? Dude, not much, I expect, but maybe a little. It doesn't really matter. I don't go in for biographical criticism, okay? And you shouldn't either.
    *edited to avoid Googling, since I did tell the student to find out and let us know.
and finally,
  • How common was wolf's-bane in late eighteenth-century England? I sincerely hope that my ignorance of THIS doesn't reflect badly on me, but who knows.
Anyway, I'm actually NOT an 18th/19th-century specialist, and I wish that I could tell them that, sometimes, without totally undermining my legitimacy. Because really, I am legitimate in here, even if I don't know [author's] biography in full and don't know the etymology of "plastic," or have a working knowledge of pre-Victorian botany. And yes, I will admit that I don't know, but it'd be nice not to have to do that like every day, right?

4 comments:

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh. If it's any comfort, the students in my Brit Lit II are in the habit of asking things like "What country do they speak Flemish in?" At least yours seem to have some vague connection to the text (well, maybe not the wolfsbane one!)

Bardiac said...

These sorts of questions make our orals seem like coherent and reasonable, don't they?

meg said...

When I get an off-the-wall question, I say I don't know, make a note of it, and come back the next class with the answer. Every single semester, at least one eval mentions this approvingly. I think it makes them all feel like their questions are taken seriously, even when the questions themselves are wack.

-meg at xoom (because blogspot will only let me post under my blogspot name)

Horace said...

I sometimes take the opposite approach, which is to say, I narrate precisely where my expertise is/isn't, as well as how likely anyone's expertise would give them certain kinds of information at their fingertips. I do contemporary British, so I make a running joke about getting smarter as the semester goes on. When I say "Hm. what do you all think?" I will follow it with, "I have thoughts, but I suspect you all do too."

And when they ask things like "Do you think Burke would consider S/M sublime or beautiful?" (seriously. got that one Tuesday), I am am absolutely clear that that question is from left field, and answer it in a self-consciously speculative way, and sometimes equally left field way--I alter said to the same student, "I wish I had eaten some peyote before we discussed Blake: I might have had a better sense of how to answer that question."

My point is, I don't think students DO expect us to know everything, but to at least know what we say we know. And narrating our own reactions to their questions, and tagging our own knowledge can be a good way for them to get a better sense of how one goes about attaining this expertise, and what the limits of "expertise" is in the first place.