Well, it's probably better that I did not share with my students that I became engrossed in a novel yesterday instead of grading their papers. But the novel, Waterland by Graham Swift, is written in the voice of a soon-to-be-in-forced-retirement English high school history teacher, and illustrates the back-and-forth of the pedagogical mode--what the role of the teacher is. There's a character in the novel, Price, a bright young student dressed in death-punk gear, who interrupts the "pedagogical mode" of the narrator. He interrupts in class, asks critical but seemingly (at face value) impertinent questions. The narrator is in a difficult position: be the teacher, and control, explain, lead; or be a real teacher, and engender curiosity in Price regardless of whether or not the student is controlled, "doing what he's supposed to do," and so on.
I was always (but perhaps this is academic boasting) the student curious and bright and "in the know" outside of the classroom setting. My theory was that this knowledge--outside the classroom knowledge--made me a better student than do-as-you're-told Dick and Jane. I remember feeling somewhat acerbic about the Harlan Community High School students who got higher GPAs than me. There were only fifteen or so of those people, most of them by-the-book folks, not exactly restless souls searching for meaning. Accountants, maybe. I didn't stress about grades as much as these people (although I did--and why?).
Unfortunately this "I didn't do my homework, but I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and it was awesome" mode doesn't work as well in graduate school, but it still sort of does. The point being, in this discussion of pedagogy, what I try to do in class is bring about curiosity--the kind of curiosity that goes beyond the constructed edifice of "education"--classroom authority, grading, all that bureaucratic-type stuff.
That's why I'm not "prepared" in the same way that another teacher of English might be, and why I am less interested in "the correct answer" than some of the teachers I've had in the past. And why English gave me the opportunity to talk about ideas, and think about thinking, in a way that really suited me, and makes me a "vocational" teacher, but not of the sort that would seek to reform or inculcate students into the genius thinking of the Left, or the Right, or whatever. I want my students to be able to apply critical thinking in their daily lives to make themselves restless, curious, and serious in their search for meaning. As opposed to doing what everybody else is doing, and assuming that that's what's the thing to do, and what'll make "me" happy.
Thus, these things which inform my teaching are really hard to translate into the classroom. It partly makes me "laid back" regarding things like turning in papers late. And I wrote in earlier entries that my dreamed-of anarchic classroom, with me denying my classroom authority, failed like a burning house. But today it went well. I did the awesome "generational reference" activity, where I draw a line between the year the students are born (in this case, 1986) to now (2006) and ask students to name "major historical events" in the time period. They name things like the Iraq War, 9/11, the growth of the internet, and so on. Then we turn the line back to when I was born, 1981. An extra five years. Harder to name things--Reagan Revolution? War in Grenada? Lebanon, where 200+ US soldiers got killed in a bombing of a barracks? Then back further, to when the students' oldest professors were born--probably the late 1930s (my uncle Robert S. was born in 1943).
Anyway, this activity is great because it makes students get interested and curious with what they already know and reify, or make real, the fact that there are very different audiences towards which they'll be expected to persuade others in their college careers. A way to mix the pedagogical with the everyday.
It's also hilarious to try to name the year for completely random stuff, which I often do successfully, because my memory was developed by memorizing Major League Baseball statistics from age four to twelve. Challenger crash? 1986. WWII? 1941 to 1945. Star Wars, 1977. The Reagan Star Wars, later.
So I think the activity went well and "synthesized" (in the language of the Writing Program curriculum directors) my pedagogical goals and my preferred role as a teacher. That's nice .
The rest of the class time, hmm, I dunno. I think it's okay to expect students to work together when I tell them to. If they talk about how their cell phone is not working, or how they couldn't get a spot to park, and so on, I don't think there's any problem at all. College, at the undergraduate level, is as much about assimilating into a certain middle- and middle-upper class social stratum as it is about hard facts and knowledge. Someone who can't talk to another person socially will be at pains to find a decent job. So the students talked about their group presentations on a writing topic, like using transitions, enough for me.
And I also described the major assignment for this unit (boring!) and the schedule of this unit (also boring). Oh well. You do the job to get paid, as well as to highten these young people's curiosity and minds.
Next class will be in the Science and Engineering Library, room 308, and we'll be searching ("trolling") around the UofA library website for decent research sources. --adam s.