I realized that I haven't blogged much about my students this semester - for the most part, they're awesome and totally funny and I dig them. There hasn't been any major ridiculousness lately (although I'm always on the look-out).
But as the semester winds down, I'm getting more and more annoyed at their laziness - it seems more pronounced this year. I don't think any of them want school to be over more than I do - I'd really just like to sleep all day and gestate Thing One and Thing Two in peace, thank you - without the hassle of having to, you know, shower, change out of my holey pjs, leave the couch...
But they're so dropping the ball that I had to shriek at them yesterday - how can they not eat Milton up??? Why were they looking at me like tranquilized wildebeests? Oh, they haven't read it. Even after I gave them a full sheet of specific passages and points we'd be discussing. People, you might be able to read a Donne poem on the fly in class and have something intelligent to say, but you can't do that with Satan's speech to Beelzebub in Book I!!!
But that's not the thing I've been thinking about most lately - I've been talking to a few friends/colleagues of mine who also teach early Brit Lit and we've been returning more often to the increased reticence of students to take and enjoy early Brit Lit courses (medieval and early modern for the most part). One of my friends got an eval last semester that just dripped with anger at having to take the early survey course - they wrote: "I didn't become an English major to read medieval literature."
I don't know what these kids think comprises an English major, but it sure as shit starts with medieval literature! They think Keats, Shelley, Eliot, etc. are literature. And sadly, some colleagues perpetuate this stereotype - i.e., that early Brit Lit is something to just suffer through as quickly as possible and then get on to the real stuff.
Another trend I've noticed more and more in my evaluations and those of friends and colleagues in similar fields is this comment: "I totally didn't expect to like early British Lit. at all - I've never liked it. But this professor made it interesting and fun."
Now, I'm extremely happy that I helped change their minds about the literature I teach - I don't expect them to change their concentrations, but I do consider that to be a small victory - I would have loved it if I had a teacher who'd made Algebra interesting and fun. But I didn't.
But what strikes me most is the fact that students feel like it's okay and necessary to use their prejudices and dislikes of medieval/early modern literature as a starting point. I'm willing to bet that no one writes, "I never expected to like modern British poetry..." - maybe they do - I never teach those classes, so I don't know. But more and more I get the sense that students think that 19c and on is the "real" literature and everything that came before is just tedious religiosity, brutish warfare, and the Oppression of Women (I exempt Shakespeare from this b/c many of them feel like they have to like Shakespeare - I like Shakespeare, too). I personally wasn't hugely interested in modern literature when I was in school - I found Faulkner et al. terribly boring. But I would never have begun my comments on an evaluation with a phrase like, "I've always hated this literature, but now I find it okay."
So, in the end, it seems more and more like I and my colleagues (and I only say this for the places I've taught - not in general) start consistently in the red and must dig ourselves out of the basement. I mean, I guess I'll take an evaluation that reads, "I didn't feel like poking my eye out with a fork when we read Margery Kempe, so she's a good professor" - but why can't we begin on the first floor an go from there? Does it mean that I'm a better teacher than others because they don't want to throw themselves in front of a bus? I don't compare myself with my 19c or modernist colleagues based on evaluations (because I honestly don't know what their evals are like) - but departments certainly use them as way to assess performance in relation to others coming up for tenure.
Does an "excellent" rating of a medieval professor count for more, less, or the same as one for a modernist? Are they assessing me and my specific way of teaching the literature I love and study or are they just saying, "She adds an extra spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down"?
What experiences with this situation have you all had??