Friday, June 3, 2011

Apparently the semester is over

I've started many a blog post in the last few weeks, only to discard it, dissatisfied. I'm in a bit of a strange lull lately, despite having the usual gigantic heap of work on my hands. I submitted an essay relatively recently, but not the essay, and I'm on the fence about how deeply to revise the essay right now (versus after I hand it to some readers). Common sense tells me to cobble together something remotely worthy of a response and send it out for feedback, because I've been staring at the thing for too long. Reading the essay tells me to scrap the whole thing, go vegan for three weeks, maybe seek enlightenment, and then try again.

I'm hoping for some middle ground, since abandoning cheese just isn't going to happen.

I've meant to do some critical reflecting on the course I most recently taught, Didactic Modernism. I've actually written pages on the subject (scrapped). Partly those pages veered into reminiscences about books I've read, courses I've taken, things I wish I knew.

How you never really know what your students are thinking. How you, as a student, often only find out what you're thinking after the lapse of years. As a teacher, likewise.

How strange course evaluations are. How Alan Jacobs argues that course evaluations should be given at least a semester after the course has ended. How a student said that my expectations for the final exam made me "as pompous as Ezra Pound." How I chose to read this as evidence of the student's having learned that Ezra Pound expects you to know a lot, which is true. Also that Ezra Pound could be pretty pompous. Also true.

How another student said that Berkeley should give me tenure. How this saddened me for a variety of reasons.

In short, I seem to be too near to it still to do anything but ramble.

The essence of it is that it seems difficult to separate one's teaching methods from one's memories of being a student, even when you remember that you were by definition an atypical student. And I can't kick the belief that what makes a course a great learning experience is incredibly arbitrary and contingent. It is the lot of an English major to sit through many sub-par discussions. The trade off is that you've read Moby-Dick, and carefully. You forget the one, and remember the other, and return to it for the rest of your life.

How do you create the conditions for that? Well, you assign Moby-Dick, for one thing. But of course there's more to it. But what is that more, and for whom?

I was the kind of student who responded well to being set tasks. Given something hard to do, I rose to the occasion. I was a nerd; that's how I ended up in grad school! This is clearly not the case for all students. I've heard many students say that as soon as something is an assignment, they don't want to do it; it sucks out all their creativity and they stop trying. Also that if something isn't required, they won't do it.

This may be the first semester I've given an extra credit option. The option, in this case, was to do something slightly more onerous than a standard course blog post, in order to make up for missed blog posts of past weeks. Here was an interesting scenario. You couldn't lose credit, but you could gain it. There was no penalty for trying. (There is, some might point out, never any penalty for trying, insofar as getting no credit is always worse than getting a low grade. This seems to be beside the point when it comes to the psychology of grades.) Several students decided to do extra credit. Some really really needed it; some only sort of needed it. One asked if she could do it when she did not need it. There were easier and more difficult ways to do this extra credit, and some chose more difficult ways.

How can you rig a course so that it all seems like extra credit? Would it even be wise?

I once memorized "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" "for" a course, while studying for the final. The course was a pretext; I memorized it for the poem.

You never know when your students are doing that, or doing something like it for a different class--not that you necessarily want to know.

The pedagogical uses of grading continue to puzzle me. Clearly it functions differently for different people. In some ways it's a form of gamification, which some people find motivating and others find stressful and demoralizing. Grades certainly confuse the issue of learning.

These are, of course, questions I've been pondering precisely because my students this semester were so very excellent. It so clearly wasn't all about carrots and sticks for most of them. So then--what? Did I already do my bit by assigning Gertrude Stein? Will my students remember Tender Buttons forever?

On these matters my course evaluations are silent.


Ryan Shaw said...

I still haven't willed myself to read my course evaluations yet, and the semester ended a month ago.

Natalia said...

Probably wise.

I don't think students tend to be aware of what an issue course evaluations are for teachers. It doesn't surprise me at all that Heather M. Whitney wrote not one but two ProfHacker posts in the Chronicle about "when student evaluations are just plain wrong." I thought the recentish Onion article about course evaluations was hilarious.

In the end, what makes course evaluations so maddening is their total inadequacy in the face of the questions you really want answered.