Despite my firm assertion otherwise, I’ll admit it can be extremely difficult to avoid pandering to students. Especially lately. I’m not a big fan of the class I’m teaching right now, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the students. For as tempting as it is to rail against the stereotypical student at my university, I can say in complete honesty that in five years of teaching (well over 350 students worth) I have only ever disliked one student. One. Them’s pretty good odds, I’d say. And I’d even go so far as to include my first three years, too. So eight years=one bad apple.
My concern this semester is the class itself. English 112, entitled “Composition and Literature,” has so many flaws that it’s almost unteachable. First, most students resent the hell out of the class itself. I don’t care how much students “love to read for pleasure,” it doesn’t matter. As second semester first-year students, they’re tired, they’re overwhelmed. They made it through their first semester of college and are now fully aware of the time and effort it takes to do well. They see that they are no longer “the smart one” from their school—universities like mine are ROTTEN with “the smart ones”—and they’re ready to get down to business… IN THEIR CHOSEN MAJOR. Screw English 112. Screw literature (pronounced, for those who don’t frequent an English department, “li-trit-ure.”) I would guess, for the vast majority of these students, they simply want a B in second semester chemistry, or accounting, or whatever the heck pre-requisites mean something to their chosen field. Unless these students plan to become English majors, they tend to doubt the necessity of the course.
And I don’t blame them one little bit. I can remember absolutely loving my English 112 teacher, but also wishing I didn’t have to read so much because I really, really wanted to do well in my other classes, the ones that would count on my transcript. (As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I was a Microbiology major until I added English as a second major my senior year. I recall very clearly realizing, even at that early stage, that I needed to dedicate more time to my major than my other classes. That’s just how it is.)
Before I go any further, I should say that I’m not about getting rid of English 112. And I’m also not for a strictly “writing across the curriculum” approach. It is not the job of the English department to teach students to create lab reports, or to format in APA, or to understand the conventions of composing a memo. We can certainly help out, and I think we should, when our assistance is requested, but it’s not our job. Furthermore, literature does have a place, it is our job to teach students to read and analyze text. I’m just not sure it should be set in stone that students need to take the class second semester of their first year, that’s all. What if they signed up for the 112 course during their junior or senior year, when they know a bit more about what they’re planning for their future? Then, a course in close reading, genre conventions, exposition, critical analysis, rhetorical analysist, life writing, etc, etc, etc. would be a choice, not a hassle.
Which brings me to my point. Obviously, I love teaching. Even after days I feel terrible about my own teaching, I can’t wait to get back into the classroom to interact with the students again. But trying to teach to an audience that, at times, thoroughly resents the class itself can be depressing. I love writing and thinking about writing and reading and thinking about what I’ve read and talking to others and theorizing and just the whole experience of working with langauge. But it can be a challenge to teach, to get in there every day and be the cheerleader.
And there’s the rub: should I be the cheerleader? Should I spend so much time and energy trying to get them to love it? To love li-trit-ure? Or should I simply go in there expecting that they’ve read, expecting that they’ll respect this material (despite the flaws of the course), that they’ll recognize the worth of the class?
Tangent # 657: Most of my students, when asked to write about their past experiences with reading, cited a specific moment in time when they began to HATE reading. With few exceptions, this moment occurred when they were forced to read something against their will, under a deadline, and with a test or writing assignment attached to it. Good God it was a sad bunch of papers to read and respond to. I felt guilty on behalf of every well meaning teacher out there (and seriously, seriously pissed off at a few not-so-well meaning ones.)
So that’s it. Do I pander? Do I cajole? Do I try to inspire them to enjoy the reading? Do I momentarily set rigor aside to ask: “If you were casting this book as a movie, what actors would you seek for each character role?” and then let them have at for 15 precious minutes?
I don’t know.
Or maybe it’s just me.