Another semester has gone by, and I'm moved to reflect again on teaching. I enjoyed teaching "Poetry and Language" a great deal, in part because of the subject matter, in part because of my great students. The rubric "poetry and language" is intentionally vague; I wanted to teach a variety of poems in modern English, focusing on style without necessarily having to create a thematic narrative. I think a certain amount of freedom from narratives, both within works and across them, was good for the class. On the simplest level, less plot means less plot summary!
My students were often frustrated, especially by the poetry from after 1900 (of which there was a lot, it being my area of specialty), but those who were game learned a lot, and those who were hostile perhaps learned even more, at least when they aired their hostility and were asked to defend it. Many of them wrote especially smart blog posts, and some of the best posts were written by students voicing frustrations. To complain of the absence of punctuation, for instance, is to recognize some of punctuation's functions in general. To complain of too few stanza breaks is to notice stanza structure and have an opinion about it. To complain that T.S. Eliot's allusions are pretentious is to join a great critical tradition!
I think what frustrated my students the most was the impossibility of mastery, the absence of pat Cliffs Notes digests that could take the place of the poems. It was not a way of thinking in which they had much training.
Around the time of Spring and All this semester there was a general demand for a lecture that would Explain Things. Ultimately I gave a short lecture, maybe fifteen minutes, that contextualized modernism and gave a few brief readings of poems, and I think that was the right decision. I had assigned difficult material, and the class needed some frameworks for thinking about it. But the very fact that the students had to demand a lecture and discuss it with me forced them to reflect on what it was that they hoped to get out of class, and how they hoped to get it.
Although some students remained firmly in the pro-lecture camp, others rightly pointed out that unlike lecture, discussion forced them to take positions and formulate responses, and that this was as important as absorbing content, if not more. It was that kind of class; usually when somebody said something ridiculous (and this happened a lot -- the class had a strange obsession with the possibility that various poets were on drugs), another student would pipe up to rebut it.
I think I'm so happy with this class because I really feel that a large percentage of the class got on board with the whole "learning" thing in a serious way. I don't just mean that they took my class seriously, but that they seemed to commit themselves to the idea of intellectual integrity, something that I hope they'll hang onto in other classes. Of course, I haven't read the evaluations yet! But I did read the exams, which showed heartwarming evidence of real studying. (I also have to commend two of my students for their well-turned sarcastic remarks, produced on the fly on the final. They have learned well!)
It wasn't all roses, but it was a good class.