"This Class Would Be Just Perfect Without All the Students!" (and other complaints of the novice professor)



About a week ago, an article was published on Book Riot entitled “The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature,” focusing on a brief career teaching college English as a TA: http://bookriot.com/2014/08/26/joys-sorrows-teaching-literature/#comment-1568114287

Of course, the title is misleading: the article is only about the sorrows and the thesis consists largely of this: students don’t love reading the way you do, and if you want to keep loving literature you should quit teaching immediately (or better yet, don’t go into the field at all).  This young teacher was disillusioned by the incredible disinterest of her students, particularly when she tried to share her love of language and metaphor to students who simply wanted to pass a class.  This is indeed disturbing to any teacher in love with his or her subject, but of course not surprising at all: why should students made to take a required class be expected to love it the same way as the professor being paid to teach it (or in this case, the TA)?  What bothered me about the article—and I’ve read several like it—is the sense of pervasive defeat in every sentence: you can’t teach literature to students, they don’t care, the profession is full of jargon, so I’m going to retreat into a book club and simply enjoy reading again.

Okay, fair enough, but the article really should have been entitled: How I Realized Being a Teacher Wasn’t For Me.  Because this article is really about trying out a job the writer was ill-suited for and lacked the requisite passion/interest in.  Loving reading does not necessarily translate to loving teaching English.  Bottom line, it’s a job, and requires enormous amounts of time, patience, experience, and sheer hard work.  You can’t just say “my God, look at how Henry James writes a sentence—isn’t it divine?”  You have to find ways to translate older works into a modern context, and slowly give students the critical ability to appreciate poetry as well as plot; style as well as substance; and in short, to understand how art gives meaning and purpose to our brief existence on earth.  This isn’t learned in a day—or a semester.  It sounds like the students did her brief TA assignment and threw up her hands.  I can relate—it’s a tough gig.  However, I’ve been teaching now for 15 years and have had many peaks and valleys, and have slowly learned to formulate my own pedagogy, and have learned to translate my love of literature into a practical, engaging series of classroom discussions and activities.  Again, this didn’t miraculously happen the first time I walked into a classroom, or even the first year; it took years and perhaps as much as a decade to really solidify into something I could make sense of.  Here’s my timeline of coming to a sense of teaching adequacy:

Years 1-2: GA (Graduate Assistant) in my Master’s program: loved teaching immediately, but didn’t remotely know what I was doing.  It was all experimentation: if I try this what will happen?  Can the students read something this long/strange/complex?  How do I grade this kind of essay?  What makes an “A” paper?  An “F”?  One student wrote in an evaluation, “teacher is very disorganized, but that’s okay,  he’s young.”  I took that criticism to heart, realizing I still had a few years to screw up without penalty.  So I did!  

Years 3-4: TA (Teaching Assistant) in my Ph.D. program: the crisis.  I thought I knew what I was doing after 2 years, really felt confident.  My first class was like reinventing the wheel.  Nothing worked like it had before, the students were different, the school was different, and I temporarily lost all confidence and believed that everyone else was smarter, wiser, more clever than I was.  Taught some of the worst classes of my career, classes where I was fumbling in front of an audience, students were sighing, and one student wrote on an evaluation, “day after day of endless, forced, discussions.”  The students largely didn’t get why these works were relevant, how it related to what I was asking them to write about, and what any of this remotely had to do with their major.  I was ready to quit.  To make matters worse, the Composition Director at my university had very prescribed ideas on how to teach and disagreed with everything I believed.  She said I spoke too fast and made too many hand movements (which she understood, she explained, since I was Italian). 

Years 5-6: more TA in my Ph.D. program: the breakthrough.  It finally occurred when I had the opportunity to teach my first 2000 level survey course in British Literature.  I taught literature in my comp classes, but only as a way into topics and ideas—never for the historical/cultural aspects of the text.  I had a large class (about 30 students) in a stadium-seating style room.  Yet I was excited to simply teach the literature without worrying about teaching writing as well.  I taught what I loved and what I felt was significant about each work and it was night and day compared to my previous classes.  I got to know the students much better and the discussions were productive and enlightening.  One student told me he left class feeling “inspired.”  Not as much as I did!  This changed how I taught everything, even writing courses.  Despite one more setback (a Comp 2 class which bored the hell out of most students) I started to find a way to balance what I loved about literature with what I felt they needed to know for each class.  I ended my career at this school with a PhD in hand and a much clearer sense of what one did as a professor.

Years 7-10: an Assistant professor at a small university.  At first, it went swimmingly; I felt confident and well-prepared, and classes went quite well as a result.  The challenge came by the sheer freedom I found at the university: I was expected to teach classes I had never taught before and had never imagined teaching even in my loftiest daydreams.  Ultimately, I had to do a lot of research, reading, and re-training to meet the demands of these courses (for myself, at least).  These four years were the equivalent of a new PhD, and I feel that the classes I taught were my qualification exams all over again (I also wrote enough articles afterwards to compile a rag-tag dissertation).  However, I was learning so much new material that I often had trouble digesting it for the classroom.  I made powerpoints with 20 slides full of text and images and ideas.  It was too much and I had to realize that I was trying to cram every  morsel of learning that excited me into a single class (and often, a single hour).  If I spent 4 years learning and regurgitating everything I knew, I had to spend the next 4 decompressing and simplifying my approach.  However, I now had so much material at hand that I could pick and choose at will, without having to do anything completely from scratch (though I often did for the sheer challenge of it). 

Years 11-14: Associate Professor with Tenure.  Getting tenure made something click in my head.  I felt that I had earned something and proven myself, at least to myself.  I also thought, “okay, now what?”  The answer was to streamline my approach, thinking consciously about what I needed to communicate and what could come out spontaneously through class discussions.  Less powerpoints.  More close readings in class.  More discussions.  More spontaneity.  Less planning classes to the letter and more “let’s see what happens.”  I taught my first ‘great’ classes in these last 4 years, classes that I continue to think about with pleasure and student seems to remember even years later.  I also took the most risks, going against a former professor’s advice to “never teach your favorite book—your students will ruin it for you.”  I taught all my favorite books and authors.  But I wasn’t naïve about it; I assumed they wouldn’t like or understand them, so I had to convince them of their worth and interest.  Increasingly, I learned the fun in designing a class and how assignments could develop the themes that class discussions and small assignments simply didn’t have time for.  I also rekindled my interest in grading, which had started to become laborious.  I tried new methods of grading, wrote more, wrote less, graded on-line, graded with hypertext comments, used numbers, used paragraphs, etc.  I finally found a happy medium that combined speed with content.  However, I’m still modifying it.  Too many professors complain about grading, which I understand; but grading is where some of the best teaching occurs.  Your grading should exhibit your personality and ideas in a way that is clear and helpful for the students.  They won’t all get it, naturally, and a bad grade will always be a bad grade; but in the end, some of them will see the time you put into each paper as a mini class in itself. 

I’m now in my 15th year of teaching and I’m still figuring it out.  It’s still hard.  Sometimes I want to quit in frustration.  Other days I feel like I’ve cracked the Rosetta Stone.  The fault, though, doesn’t lie entirely with students too indifferent to appreciate Jane Austen’s exquisite prose.  It’s simply how willing  you are to show up each day and do your job.  To be prepared to do that job.  And to have no illusions about how hard it can be or how little different you might make in the grand scheme of things.  Because, yes, who needs a teacher of literature?  It's not like they’re saving lives.  Yet a teacher of literature inspired me with dreams and ideas that led me to my own career, which has not only fulfilled me, but helped provide for my family and set others on the path to become qualified, successful teachers in their own right.  And you know what, that matters.  That’s worth having a classroom of students who don’t read and don’t believe a word you’re saying.  Because they’re young—they shouldn’t believe a word you’re feeding them.  The job of college is to inspire them to find their own answers, and to gradually come to accept you as someone who’s trying to help them along, rather than yet another roadblock.  The best evaluation comment I probably ever received was from an anonymous student who wrote (approximately), “I was very skeptical of this man at first and didn’t care at all for the subject, but he convinced me through his passion and humor that I actually loved it.  It’s a class I’ll never forget.”  Not a bad reason to teach college, is it?  

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