Thursday, April 8, 2010

Recalcitrant Student Tailz

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??


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

The #1 comment I get on student evals over 16 or 17 years is, "I dreaded taking this class but it was much more interesting/fun than I expected." So, yeah, as you've noted before, we have the same job.

Since I've spent a lot of time on the personnel-and-policy committee, I have read a lot of my colleagues' evals, and there are differences by period; also differences by other qualities that cannot be controlled for. We joke about the advantage of a foreign accent, for example. BUt mostly, when we read written evals, we look for patterns: do they reveal consistent complaints about lateness and rudeness, do they say things like "this was so hard but I learned a lot," do they mostly rave enthusiastically and then one student says something about "too few papers," so we check the syllabus & realize the enthusiastic ones are rooting for a gut course . . . We also "read through" certain kinds of negative comments: it's clear when one or two people are working off hurt feelings because they wanted an easy grade without doing any work. One famous eval in my dept, from over a decade ago, was "He uses to [sic] many big words"; another, more recent: "He's a terrible teacher, everything I learned I had to work out for myself" (of a prof who won LRU's biggest teaching award).

If your colleagues are reasonable, they will look at your evals and say, "OK, she's getting through to them." I don't know if there's anything you can do about people who dismiss other people's fields---and we all have our favorites. If you, or a colleague, could teach a class in medievalism, that might help students and faculty see connections between the MA and later periods.

Ooh, captcha is "perle"! Plesaunt to princes paye . . .

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Funny you should mention Margery Kempe. I've assigned her book in history classes, and everybody hates it. I cannot figure out why. I mean, she's irritating, sure. But isn't that also interesting?

Sisyphus said...

Well I can pass along tales from friends, and basically, your comments are nothing compared to the crap women of color get when they teach woc literature of any sort. Not only that, but they get direct hostility in class too, so the eval comments of "this isn't _real_ literature," or "why aren't we reading real authors like men" or "nobody cares what a bunch of black women think" get spoken out loud in front of the other students. And then other people nod along.

So you should be glad they just think it's boring, instead of a direct attack on their selves or a leftist form of indoctrination!

Janice said...

When I was dithering between pursuing a history and a literature major, the fact that I'd have to work through multiple classes on 19th and 20th century literature was the killer reason in not opting for the latter. History's breadth requirement was more geographic than chronological (although I willingly took courses in 20th century topics as a grad student).

So I can sympathize with students who don't love some aspect of the full spectrum of literature. But they need to realize that the breadth requirement is there for a reason. If they can't see that, they should definitely not be planning to pursue this into graduate studies. They also shouldn't blame the teacher for the fact that they're there, in the course -- it's either an elective or a breadth requirement, not a torture chamber!

Good Enough Woman said...

Well, if it makes you feel any better (and it probably doesn't), I totally fly the early Brit lit flag at my community college. I'm am in the unique position of teaching both halves of Brit lit (I alternate each year), and I love medieval-c18 lit, and I let them know it. I'm sure some (or many) of them are thinking the same thing as your students, but I'm a total cheerleader for the stuff. Beowulf? Action-packed. Margery Kempe? Funny and honest and smart (with some crazy thrown in, of course). Gawain? He rocks. Book III of the FQ? Britomart kicks ass. Book I of PL? Holy Pandemonium--the images, the drama. The fallen Satan blows me away in that book.

The first half of Brit lit is such good stuff--love, faith, politics, and so much interesting gender stuff.

I know this post isn't very analytical, but I just wanted to let you know that there are those of us out there who are not medievalists but who still see early Brit as something beyond compulsory and, in fact, teach it as if it's a treat to enjoy.

And Sisyphus makes a fabulous and sobering point.

Contemporary Troubadour said...

"Tranquilized wildebeests" -- HA!

I was that student who was totally surprised to find that her classmates hated the pre-17th century requirements for the English major. And there were no other era requirements! Just Brit lit survey plus two extra pre-17th century courses; the rest was up to you. Clearly I didn't get the memo that I was supposed to prefer works from later times? ;)

I'm sorry the students are so unapologetically prejudiced. I was lucky enough while teaching intro gen. ed. lit to be able to spend time helping students examine their prejudices about certain kinds of literature, which opened up all kinds of discussion (always a good thing, right?). But in a course for English majors, where the understanding is that your students chose this field of study (and all it entails, from medieval to modern works), it would seem odd to have that kind of meta-level discussion.

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medieval woman said...

Ugh - Sis, that's horrifying! In our department, WoC lit is extremely popular. But you're right, it isn't just early literatures that start off in the basement - it's extraordinarily difficult not only to have to teach a body of literature each semester, but if you also have to spend time convincing students that the literature is worthwhile, or even "real" (as your example suggests), then it's insane.

I wonder if this also has to do with the fact that I and my colleagues (with whom I was discussing this) are young women? Is literature of any kind more legit/palatable coming from an older male professor? I'm not talking about all students, but to those who might write "I didn't expect to like this..."


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Well, I'm not young anymore. I have gray hair and, for classroom use, always wear it up in a twist like a Lady Professor from 1950, and dress more or less accordingly. I do think students respond well to this persona . . . or at least, better than they did to the younger Real Me.

Susan said...

For what it's worth, I get the impression in history (in most places)that pre-20th C is a hard sell. Non-US pre-20th C is also a hard sell. Sigh.

kermitthefrog said...

As someone who entered (and to some extent left) my undergraduate years with a similar reluctance to engage with "old stuff," I wonder how much it has to do with how and whether such literature is taught in high school. I went to a great HS and Shakespeare was the only thing taught in English classes between Sophocles and the 19th c., except for Gawain in an AP class my senior year. And a large part of Shakespeare teaching in many HS is parsing the language, which in the wrong hands can be like applied vocabulary rather than analysis. So part of it might be a knee-jerk reaction that the material will be taught in a boring way, or that (if they didn't encounter any in HS) it has "nothing to say" to their lives.

I definitely renounce such opinions now, but I look back on my own prejudices entering college and recognize some of these reactions.