Here it is readers, your chance to help me design my courses. One of my goals over sabbatical is to read some new work to help me reinvigorate a few of my classes. At the top of my list are two classes I’ll teach next year, Contemporary Poetry and Advanced Poetry Writing. I of course have a huge list I know that I can draw from and I’ve got a pretty good working list of things I want to read that might be useful for the course, but I’m hoping people might suggest some things so that maybe I get pushed in some new directions. Go ahead, all you avid street parade poetry readers: what do you like? What do you think I should be reading/teaching? And blah, blah, blah as far as debates over whether it’s “great” poetry or not (whatever the heck that would mean)or whether it serves some ideological agenda or not. What do you think is fun to read, or what would be fun to explore in a classroom?
Archive for the ‘pedagogy’ Category
Yes, yes, I know we’ve been there, and it’s humorous because it’s pretty accurate of beginning writers. But this whole series also seems kind of mean to me. I mean I think most writers exhibit at least some of these characteristics when they’re young and starting out. And, more importantly, if this is how a writer feels about teaching (oh, the burden of having to grade intro composition papers!) then I have to wonder why do it. Teaching is not necessarily the best place for a writer to be anyway, so why not just find another profession? (frankly, I was a much more productive writer when I was a cook, but I shifted professions because I valued the chance to work with young writers). Yet, year after year, MFA programs churn out an overload of writers who will never find a job in academia (yes, most writers say they get that MFA to improve their writing, but the reality is we then expect a teaching job–even publishing is far too often seen as a step towards that job) and the result is an insular community that supports such cynicism–“yes, we know how overburdened the poet is, how no one appreciates the work we do, etc.” Yes, I speak from the “inside”–I have a very nice tenure-track job. But the issue in this video seems to be that it’s about the visitor, perhaps the teacher that hasn’t landed the TT job yet. But I’ve had this conversation far too many times, seen it on search committees too many times–a cynical and superior view of students that is really just the result of being overworked as an adjunct or visitor and would somehow disappear if only the teacher could land that TT job. Hmmm, really?
Been away from the blog for awhile. A few things on my mind to write about–most notably a few comments on the loss of J.D. Salinger–but I just don’t seem to be able to get to the blog very often these days.
If you’re interested, though, my current class is on modern poetry. They’ve got an interesting blog going at http://modernpoetry.wordpress.com/ Check it out sometime. Yes, that means you!
Today was Cornell’s graduation. A glorious end-of-May day here, but frankly I”m just glad to be done. A brutal year teaching for a variety of reasons, and it really wore me down. But all the grades are in, just a few committee meetings now, and I have the summer to relax, drink some good beer, and try to get some writing done.
This weekend we also celebrate Walt Whitman’s birthday. The great American poet was born May 31 1819 and in his honor, here’s a short poem:
WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Now, I’m not sure what my choice of this poem says about my state of mind right now. It’s true that graduation gives me a good feeling about what we do as teachers. Then again, I feel a bit disillusioned after some of my experiences this year. I also often feel more in line with Whitman here, wondering what it is we really do in the face of experience itself. I suppose I have the summer to think about it, though; perhaps reading Leaves of Grass again would do me some good.
I am slowly regaining my sanity and composure after one of the most challenging classes I have ever taught. Over the last month, I have been teaching an Introduction to Environmental Studies course that I developed and taught in collaboration with a Biology professor. In reality, the course was designed by committee as much as it was by the two of us–the Environmental Studies Program committee decided that the program really needed an introductory course. What started off as a fairly straightforward course became a very exciting new model for Cornell’s block plan: we would use one “theme” (in this case, the theme, or issue, was salmon) to highlight the interdisiciplinary nature of any environmental issue. We would discuss science, politics, economics, arts, culture, in relation to the issue (with other issues coming in to play at the same time). To do this, we decided that we needed to have the course taught by two people from different divisions; in this case, we had a biologist and a creative writer (next year, a geologist and an economist are slated for the job). At the same time, we would bring in people from different fields as the “experts” to help us make sense of the broad range of material we were covering. So for instance, as we discussed the issue of economics concerning the salmon fisheries, we would bring in someone from the economics department. I say it was designed by committee, but I mean that the general vision was–it was up to the two of us to figure out the logistics of it all. All told, we had 8 other faculty come into the class. We also had a visiting writer, and we all went to hear two lectures, EO Wilson at the University of Iowa and Jared Diamond at Coe College. We also went on field trips to see the landfill, the waste water treatment plant, etc. As I say, this is an exciting new model for what we can do on the block plan at Cornell (the “block plan” refers to the fact that we teach, and students take, one course at a time for three and a half weeks and then move on to another class rather than taking several longer courses together at the same time).
At the same time, though, it was incredibly challenging to pull all this together into any cohesive or meaningful fashion. It’s challenging enough for a biologist and an english professor, with their radically different world (and classroom) views, to work together efficiently, but then to bring in all of these other people adds an entirely new dimension. The course was a logistical nightmare and physically and mentally exhausted me. While I am excited by what the course represents and the potential that it holds, I will have to think long and hard about whether I will do it again. On the other hand, what this course consistently did for me was force me to evaluate and articulate my teaching philosophy and methods. I could take nothing for granted as we planned this course, nor as we taught it. Some of my thinking has changed; some of my thinking has remained the same but I have a clearer sense of the why’s. I hope that we can convey both our successes and our serious challenges to the next team to take on this course so that we can help shape it into a more productive experience for faculty and students alike. I am confident that, no matter how exhausting and frustrating this course was, it will make me a better teacher in the long run.
So, here’s my problem: I’m working on a syllabus for my upcoming introduction to creative writing course and I’m trying to respond to comments made in my recent pre-tenure review about academic rigor. I’m apparently not seen as “tough” enough. Now, I have nothing against academic rigor. My problem, though, is that I’m convinced that this term has started to become synonymous with learning, and that seems dangerous to me. Rigor is perhaps one way to achieve a learning environment, but I’m in no way ready to concede that it’s the only one. I’m plenty tough in many courses (in fact, I’m ashamed to admit the times I believe I’ve made students cry due to workload), but creative writing doesn’t work that way. I ask students to put themselves in a vulnerable position as writers, to open doors that are not easy to open and can be quite scary once they’re open. Fact is, if they’re worried about the grade they’ll get for that process, then the doors never even open. Academic rigor in this context is counter to the experience I want them to have, the process I want them to learn. Besides, can’t some incredibly important learning actually happen in the midst of putzing around? If we replace learning with rigor, we cut ourselves off from important pedagogical experiences. So, I guess what I’m supposed to do now is add extra reading to the syllabus–just because. Or, maybe, god forbid, more quizzes or exams to make sure they’re learning–but what, I ask, am I attempting to evaluate if the testing process actually runs counter to what I want them to learn? I think that to read and write well actually demands that we read less. If the student is motivated to do what I ask of them, it’s actually an incredibly challenging course; if the student isn’t motivated, it’s true they could probably slide by. But do I add to the workload to make sure the less motivated student works hard enough or do I make the environment productive for the student who is actually going to really work through the reading and questions and writing that I pose to him or her? I will always vote for the latter. More reading or more writing does not make better reading or writing, does it? The debate reminds me of the silly “Gordon Rule” in Florida, by which writing was evaluated on a word count, 6,000 a semester to be exact–you know, as long as they write enough words they’ll learn to write. Hmmm, garbage in, garbage out. In any course, the question should always be how much does a student learn, not necessarily how hard does the student work.