Thursday, February 21, 2013

On getting out of the way, or, What to do with a boring class

I'm in my (gasp!) 6th year of teaching the Brit Lit surveys--both halves. And, dare I say it? I'm getting bored.

This was my fun class for my first few years at Field College. It was a lot more engaging (and engaged) than comp, and less daunting than my upper-level seminars. I relaxed into it; discussion was pretty good, and I got to know the readings very well.

But now--well, I think that my standards for a good discussion are higher, to be honest. And my notes are, for the most part, 5 or 6 years old (and I just don't want to take the time to take a whole new angle on prepping the same texts!). I've changed up a few of the items on my syllabus, but with a 4/4 load, I need to keep this class pretty much ready to roll.

So I've been bored and mostly unimpressed with student participation, even though it's a smallish class--usually no more than 20 students (which is still my biggest class). I largely (if not entirely) blame myself for the middling participation; I'm pretty directive in my comments and questions, and EVERYthing that they say passes through me, in true Lame Discussion style (where the professor comments on every single remark that students make, and they only ever look at the professor as they speak).

The other day, sitting on the bed watching Bonaventure play with his xylophone, I decided to try something new. And today I took the first step towards what might be an improved survey experience.

Inspired by What Now?, this morning I tried something like the "written discussions" that she's written about on her blog: I put a question on the board asking them to compare and contrast an issue in a couple of texts, told them to write about it for 5 minutes to get their thoughts organized, and then told them that I wasn't going to speak for the next little while. Instead, one of them would talk about what she/he had written, and I expected others to jump in when something in the discussion connected with what they had written or gave them a new idea.

What took place over the next twenty (!!) minutes was the best discussion that they'd had all semester. It was great! I took notes, so that when they finally ran out of steam I was able to go back to topics that I thought we could look at in more depth. They had excellent things to say. They argued. Nearly everyone spoke, including a couple of students who never speak. And they talked to each other, not just to me.

So next week, we're rolling out Phase Two. I've asked them to keep an eye out for things that interest them in the reading and to think about what kinds of interpretive questions we might ask of the text. Then--I've warned them--we'll start with a 10-minute period in which I will not speak, and they will be responsible for discussing their impressions and coming up with some critical questions for discussion.

This probably isn't radical in the least, but it feels vaguely scary to me--to step away from my tried and (sort of) true agenda. But it might really inject some energy and life into a class that was feeling a little dead, without requiring me to actually do more prep work (although it will mean that I'll have to be more on my toes in class--which is great! An end to the boredom!). I'm sort of absurdly excited about this.

The thing is, as I told my students this morning, one of the main goals of the course is to help them develop the ability to have interesting discussions about literature and ask good interpretive questions about texts. I haven't been letting them do this. By getting out of the way, maybe I can create the space for them to really learn.


Good Enough Woman said...

Oh my gosh. I could have written this. I teach both halves of the Brit Lit survey (just one section each spring). I have been teaching the classes for about 9 or 10 years, and I have been feeling exactly as you describe in your post! Like you, I lead discussion that is quite directed, and I've been trying to figure out how to mix things up without resorting to traditional group work (since in the lit classes, I like the energy of a full class discussion). Your approach sounds very scary and interesting. Next Tuesday, we are getting to the end of our Middle Ages unit with Morte d'Arthur. Maybe I will try your technique! The timing might be just right--it's the end of the unit when they can really work on putting pieces together. Now I just have to think of a good question to put on the board.

Thank you so much for this post. I'm excited. And definitely also terrified.

Belle said...

Good for you! Yeah, it's scary, but it's those discussions that will make a difference in how the students learn and remember the class. Try extending the times for those discussions; you'll be pleased by the results!

Flavia said...

This is really inspiring. I've been feeling a bit the same way with my Shakespeare class. I'M not bored with it, but it's a late-afternoon class, and I think the format isn't varied enough to keep everyone's energy level up. But I've taught it this way for so long that it's easy to just keep going.

You've inspired me to mix it up a bit, so thanks!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

This is a great exercise. I've done this before, where I didn't talk for twenty minutes. (I think another blogger put the idea in my head.) It was a fantastic experience. I actually can't believe I haven't done it since teaching at warm-and-fuzzy school. I should try that again!

Yeah, I think it's easy to get bored after you've taught something a few times. Six years of the same? Yawn. It's time to spice it up a little!

What Now? said...

Hurrah -- I'm so glad that it went well! I hope you'll post about future adventures with this class.

undine said...

Agreed--what an inspiring post! I'm keeping it mind for next time. You and What Now rock!