This Week in My Classes: Setting the Tone

maskWelcome back to another season of “This Week in My Classes“! This will be the 8th year for this series. Sometimes I wish I’d given it a snappier title, but “This Week in My Classes” does have the advantage of being perfectly to the point. In case anyone forgets — or never knew — why I started writing these posts, there’s an explanation here, and in case anyone wonders why I keep on doing them, everything I said in this post still stands. You can track the posts through the years here. They range from very matter of fact updates about course content to broader pedagogical considerations or meditations on the meaning of it all.

One thing you’ll know if you’ve been reading these posts (or realize if you browse through the archive of them) is that I teach the same classes pretty regularly. Almost every year, for example, I teach Mystery and Detective Fiction, which sometimes strikes me as odd (because it’s not a “core” class in any way), but which serves my department well (because it’s a relatively large and consistently popular class). It’s also really fun, so I’m not complaining! Almost every year I also teach one or the other of our courses in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, either the Austen-to-Dickens one or the Dickens-to-Hardy one. My other teaching duties routinely include sections of our introductory classes, one of our core survey classes (British Literature Since 1800), one of our core methods classes (Close Reading) and a range of upper-level or graduate seminars. All of these kinds of classes involve different problems and rewards. First-year classes are not always the most willing, for instance, though they can sometimes be the most surprising, and the most vigorous; surveys can feel like pulling intellectual teeth or like soaring over a fantastic imaginative landscape; advanced seminars can be either the most frustrating or the most electric experiences of your day.

The funny thing is, though, that not a lot of this has to do (in my experience, anyway) with the actual content of the classes. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter what we teach, or that there aren’t some works that pose their own special challenges (Waverley, anyone?). But overriding everything else, I’ve come to think, is the relationship we establish with our students. If they trust and respect you — if they believe you are bringing your best self to the table — they will be willing to at least try almost anything, whether it’s scansion, peer-editing, building wikis, or close reading passages of Middlemarch. If they think you’re intimidating, that might help in some ways but hurt in others; if they think you’re a bit (who am I kidding – a lot!) eccentric, ditto; if they look at you with skepticism, resentment, indifference, or outright hostility, that can only be a bad thing for their classroom time and yours.

How can you set yourself up to succeed on these terms, though? I always brood about that as a new term approaches. It’s not a one-sided thing, of course: you can bring the best attitude and intentions to the room but if a student’s mind is already made up about you or the course, or if you accidentally or on purpose rub them the wrong way, that’s probably that (though we have all probably had the experience of seeing a student turn on to a course, or a reading, unexpectedly). You will never please all of the people all of the time (a reality we all lose track of when we obsess over the two most negative evaluations in a pile of otherwise perfectly fine ones). Still, if you don’t do everything you can to establish a good relationship from the start, you won’t be able to comfort yourself when things go sour by saying “well, at least I did everything I could.”

Is it an urban myth that students make up their minds about you in the first five minutes of the first class? I remember first hearing this frankly terrifying claim during one of the many thousands of angst-ridden conversations I’ve had with colleagues about course evaluations, as if had been established scientifically. Honestly, though, there’s really only so much you can do about how you come across in that first five minutes, which are often spent setting up recalcitrant technology or handing out pieces of paper. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: I guess I could do something more theatrical or innovative for five minutes and then get down to business? But no matter how hard you try, you will still look like you, and sound like you — and, not incidentally, think like you. “Behind the big mask and the speaking trumpet,” as George Eliot sagely observes, “there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” It’s true that teaching is a kind of performance. But after all these years I’ve figured out that the only role I can really play is myself.

Well, it’s too late to worry any more about that for this term, since we are well past our first five minutes! I think (I hope) that the tone I’ve established so far is frank, friendly, and firm. I’m encouraged by seeing a lot of familiar faces, and by what seems like a general atmosphere of good will. We’re already deep into Villette in the 19th-century fiction class, and Friday we start on The Moonstone in Mystery & Detective Fiction: as Joe Gargery would say, “Wot larks!”

2 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Setting the Tone

  1. SteveS September 12, 2014 / 7:06 pm

    I am a great fan of both mysteries and 19th Centry English literature. I enjoyed this post and your thoughts on teaching. I think I will send it on to my niece who is a music instructor in a public, elementary school.

    I’m going to start following your blog more frequently.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 13, 2014 / 7:18 pm

      Nice to hear from you, SteveS! Sounds like we have a lot in common. Kudos to your niece for doing important work, too.


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