This Week In My Classes: Back to School Edition

September-Calendar-ClipartI haven’t been in the classroom since December 2, 2014, so I guess it’s no wonder I’m experiencing more than my usual start-of-term jitters as well as a general sense of disorientation! It’s not as if I haven’t been thinking about teaching a lot since then, especially in the last several weeks, but I can tell it’s going to be a challenge readjusting to the rhythm and relentless pace of the teaching term after the relative freedom (in both my mental life and my schedule) of my sabbatical and then the summer months.

I’m fortunate to be teaching only two classes this term. The oscillation between them will be interesting, as they are at the two extremes of our curriculum: one is a section of English 1010 (Introduction to Prose and Fiction), while the other is a graduate seminar, English 545o (George Eliot). I have taught English 1010 quite a few times, most recently in Winter 2014. This time, however, I have a significantly larger group: then, I had one of our special “baby” sections, capped at 30, while this year my section is capped at 90 (enrollment is currently hovering around 70). This means I will do a bit more semi-formal lecturing, though most of the time I will incorporate some back-and-forth discussion; it also means that I will have teaching assistants who will each work with a smaller tutorial group once a week (as will I). Tutorials obviously help make the class a more personal experience for the students, and they enable us to do the kind of hands-on work on writing skills that is essential to a class like this one (worksheets, drafts, peer editing, and so forth).

Durade GEI feel pretty sure that I know what I’m doing in English 1010. But I haven’t taught a graduate seminar since 2010, and I feel somewhat more uncertain — not about the day-to-day activities of this year’s version, but about its overall purpose. One reason I stepped back from graduate teaching was my own disaffection with some aspects of academic research, writing, and publishing, as well as with the whole teetering structure of graduate studies in the humanities. What was I doing — what were we doing — or what should we be doing, when carrying on blithely with what was (is) more or less an apprenticeship model seemed wrongheaded? I have never really been able to swallow the argument that our graduate programs still make perfect sense even if most of our students aren’t going to continue into academia (see my post on The Ph.D. Conundrum, including the comments thread, for further discussion about this) — or that if we tweak them by adding some discussion of “alt-ac” or non-academic careers, we’re fine.

At the same time, I certainly see the intrinsic value of advanced study in our discipline, and I know that graduate degrees are not dead ends. Many of my reservations fall away when we’re talking about M.A. students, also. Finally, finding new ways to use the specialized training I received myself has helped me think more positively about the whole process. So I put my name back on the roster and now I’m almost ready to go. One change I’ve made since the last time I taught a graduate seminar on George Eliot is building in some attention to her place in current literary culture: I hope that will broaden the conversation we have about her work in ways that complement the reading we’ll do in academic criticism.

I meet with English 1010 for the first time tomorrow, and with English 5450 for the first time on Monday. I think I have all the paperwork ready — attendance sheets, spreadsheets for keeping records, syllabi, handouts. I have built the Blackboard sites and, for English 5450, a (private) WordPress site. I have printed tomorrow’s lecture notes and done Monday’s readings. Now I just have to show up!

I’m not the only one starting school this week: my son begins at Dalhousie this term, as a student in the Faculty of Computer Science. I wrote an open letter to him for the excellent blog Hook and Eye that includes my general advice for all students just starting down this path. Good luck to all of them, including Owen, and may we all have a stimulating, thought-provoking time!

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