This Week In My Classes: Writing and Talking

escher12“‘It’s the season when the s–t hits the fan,” I observed to the students in my Intro class on Monday. And that’s the truth for all of us: from this point on in the semester, if we want to stay in control it’s all about setting priorities, managing time, and getting things done. For this class in particular, this week they turn in the first fairly heavily weighted essay (they’ve already done two short warm-up assignments, for practice and to clarify expectations). Today they brought in drafts and did a peer-editing exercise. I was pleased that everyone seemed to be taking it seriously. As I told them several times, even professional writers have editors, and editing is a crucial part of the writing process. I think it’s also interesting for them to see how their classmates have approached the same assignment. Sometimes it seems that students believe there’s One Right Way and if only they could guess what it is they could get one of those magical A things, but of course there isn’t, and that’s exactly what makes this kind of work both challenging and interesting. In any case, even those who might think they got little out of the workshop itself will benefit from having almost three more days to review and revise their own essay. I hope they take advantage of it!

The essay they’re working on is a comparative one on Night and The Road. This wraps up our mini-unit on horror and despair. Friday we start on A Room of One’s Own, which we’ll follow up with Unless: I was very pleased with this pairing last year, despite some fretting about the particular challenges of teaching feminism, and I hope it works as well again this time around.

In Women & Detective Fiction, we’re part way through our discussions of Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Discussion was so sluggish on Monday that I left class feeling quite fed up with everything! I even came up with a cunning plan for today in case I had the same pulling teeth sensation and decided drastic measures were called for … but they weren’t, which is definitely the happier outcome of the two. Still, there is a much larger cohort of non-talkers in this group than I’m used to in a seminar, which is an ongoing frustration. I have long had an explicit policy of not doing cold-calling in seminars: there are incentives built in for participation, and usually that’s enough even for quite shy students. Also (despite what some people may think) I go out of my way to be receptive and respectful: I hope students feel that when they do contribute to discussion, they are listened to and encouraged. I suppose that being really listened to may itself be a bit intimidating!

In this class too, deadlines are looming: they will be submitting paper proposals next week, so if I’m smart I’ll mark the first-year papers very promptly so I don’t have two sets of assignments on my conscience. The past couple of weeks have been very busy with administrative work, but after this Friday the schedule of meetings will lighten up, which will help me keep my mind on these tasks. I’ve also more or less completed two short-ish writing projects I agreed to do for a website being created by the British Library (I’m pretty excited about being involved with something for them!). They were harder than I expected, but also interesting. I was actually working on one of them last night, and as I struggled to fit in all the parts I wanted while not going too wildly over the proposed word limit, I felt a real kinship with my students, out there somewhere laboring over the drafts of their essays! I don’t know if it means anything to them, but I often mention in class now that I too have writing deadlines and challenges and editors. I even pass on little tricks I’ve developed that help me work through the frustrations of producing that “shitty first draft” — putting stuff I’m not happy with in different colored fonts, or surrounding it with XXX’s, or including editorial questions to myself in brackets, for instance, all of which frees me (at least a little) from thinking that because it’s not perfect yet I shouldn’t move on to write the next part. I know that for me it has been helpful to realize that I’m surrounded by writing that did not in fact magically appear in all its current erudition and elegance but had to be done by someone, worked on by someone, edited by someone … In our own ways, we’re all in this together, just trying to put words in the right order and contribute to the big, disorderly, kaleidoscopic conversation about literature!

7 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Writing and Talking

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End March 13, 2014 / 1:53 pm

    It’s good of you not to do cold-calling! I had a professor once who called on me constantly (and I was NOT a non-talker), and I didn’t always have something useful to say. I asked him one time why he did this with me, and he said, “You always look like you don’t believe what I’m saying.” 😦


    • Rohan Maitzen March 13, 2014 / 2:39 pm

      Ha! A professor once said to me, “I always wonder what you’re thinking when you look that way,” and I swear, I wasn’t thinking anything at all. Projection. I’m sure I do the same with my students, assuming all kinds of wrong things about what’s in their heads.

      I bet worrying about being suddenly called on didn’t actually help you concentrate on the discussion! That has always been my rationale. And yet I’ve been trying some cold calling in my intro class, and I think it has generally improved the atmosphere, so I’m wondering if I should reconsider that policy more generally.


  2. Karen March 13, 2014 / 5:33 pm

    I do co,d call on people but I’ve found its best not to call out the person who looks disengaged since it just makes the embarrassed when they fumble through an answer which clearly shows they haven t a clue what you have been talking about. Instead I call on the person sitting next to them. For some reason it seems to wake up those sitting either side


  3. Dorian Stuber March 13, 2014 / 6:32 pm

    I too cold call. I like Karen’s idea a lot and will definitely try it. But I also think a little embarrassment isn’t the worst thing in the world. Besides, I usually find that students who think they have nothing to say always have something to contribute.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 13, 2014 / 7:43 pm

      I like that idea too – and I agree that students usually have more to say than they think. Something I’d want to take into account is that some students really do have fairly high levels of social or performance anxiety. What I might do in the future is make clear from Day 1 that students will be called on — but at the same time, invite very shy or anxious students to meet with me privately and work out a strategy for them. I’d still want to encourage regular participation, but some of them might be better off left to pick their own moment, while others might find ice-breaking opportunities like, say, reading an example aloud, a good way to ease into actual discussion. I’d also always be fine with a student who’s been called on simply saying “pass” or “I don’t know yet but come back to me later.” It’s not a pop quiz, after all.


  4. Dorian Stuber March 13, 2014 / 11:50 pm

    Students know from the beginning that I cold call. Hendrix is a small school: everybody knows. But I’ve had those students who genuinely have anxiety about speaking in public. I’ve worked out various solutions in the past, including having the student send me a short email before class with a thought or two about the day’s reading. That way I can reference them in our discussion as they come up. Asking students to read aloud is a good one, too. And, yes, I’m fine with “come back to me later”–I try to do so!


  5. Susan messer March 15, 2014 / 2:38 pm

    Can’t fully express how interesting for me, who never taught, to get insight into how much thinking goes on behind the scenes and in the hearts of those who stand at the front of the room. Wondering what your plan was, Rohan, if the students had not spoken up that day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.