It was a strange teaching term, at times hard, awkward, and demoralizing, but also at times invigorating, engaging, even restorative. This is true of every term, I suppose, but I really felt this emotional ebb and flow this time, probably because I am still grappling with what it means to carry on with my “normal” life after Owen’s death: I can’t really take any aspect of it for granted, and the more normal things seem in the moment the more vertiginous the return to my new normal. I am also just less stable myself, more susceptible or less resilient, meaning that while the highs are welcome, the lows can drop me, however unreasonably, into the Slough of Despond. I’ve had waves of plagiarism before, for example, but never before have they reduced me to tears or made me wonder how much longer I can keep doing this work.
Some of the challenges of the term (and the year), though, are not specific to me and my grieving. Every academic I talk to is dealing with high absenteeism, unusually uneven levels of student engagement, overwhelming demand for accommodations and support services, and confusion around expectations about what is reasonable, appropriate, possible, responsible—on both sides, for students (from us) and also for us (from students). The consensus seems to be that we are in a transitional period, for better and for worse. Because of the disruptions of COVID, our current student cohorts have had a different experience of both high school and university than earlier generations. One consequence seems to be that they do not recognize or understand (or, arguably, accept) the intrinsic value of showing up to class, of being present for it, tending (not universally of course) to equate “taking the course” with completing the required assignments. While of course we all want our assignments to matter, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that they are not the point of a course and that they are far from the most (or at least not the only) meaningful modes of engagement with the course material, at least not in an English course. The work we do collectively in the classroom is always going to range more widely and offer more ways to think, more questions to answer, more practice at thinking and answering questions well, than any individual component, however ingeniously devised.
I have always worried that students who attend irregularly are missing out on that broader learning experience, and also that sporadic attendance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you just show up occasionally, you might not recognize the value of what we are doing or know how to join in to get the most out of it. The most obvious policy response is to require attendance, and I do believe in a version of “if you build it, they will come”—if you mandate it, they will (maybe, eventually, hopefully!) start to see the value of it. Mandatory attendance creates its own problems, though, from the administrative burden of recording it (especially with large classes) to the difficulty of having and applying fair policies that take accessibility and other issues into account and don’t lead to constant wrangling over what counts as a “legitimate” absence. For many years now I have not required or graded attendance, though I do always take attendance, so that I have some sense of who is or isn’t showing up and can reach out to anyone who seems like they might be in trouble. Before COVID, I also experimented with a range of different in-class exercises for credit, using them both for low-stakes practice at key course objectives and to “incentivize” being present. I think this is the approach I will go back to next year.
Another reason to return to more in-class work is the relentless encroachment of AI. Other people have written well about what it means for those of us whose life’s work is helping students learn to read, think, and write better, and about what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, do in response. (See this thoughtful article in Public Books, for example.) My main practical and pedagogical concern is the way its ready availability serves the unfortunately widespread but hopelessly misguided idea that the point is to generate X number of units of “writing” in order to get a course credit, not to learn the things the writing expresses, to go through the mental and intellectual experience of grappling with questions and thinking through answers, of weighing evidence and arguments and reaching conclusions you, personally, understand and believe in. It has always been possible to substitute other people’s writing for your own, and in fact the majority of the plagiarism cases I submitted this term were of the old-fashioned “copied from the internet” kind. Students in these cases sometimes seemed surprised when I emphasized in my statements that the words and ideas they had used came from other actual people, not from some abstract entity called “the internet”—when you Google something, what comes up is (or was!) the product of someone else’s effort to do what you’ve been asked to do. AI is a stranger kind of thing: nobody “knows” what the bot generates. At the moment students seem naïve about the bot’s capacity in ways that help us spot its presence and intervene: “AI wouldn’t make this kind of mistake,” a student in a recent hearing insisted, but in fact the bot makes a lot of mistakes—or, to put it more accurately, it generates a lot of nonsense. I’ve been running tests on ChatGPT and it has offered up some remarkable howlers, including this hilarious answer to a prompt asking it if the narrator of Middlemarch is judgmental about Celia and to give a specific example from the novel (this seems to be a good strategy, btw, to expose its limitations):
Actually, I kind of love the idea that the novel’s narrator “would rather have tea than everything else in the world” (me too!)—but of course this is absolutely not a passage from the novel; it’s just a jumble of nonsense. Students are already willing to put in a remarkable (to me) amount of effort “hiding” or “fixing” material they have copied from other sources, to conceal their reliance on it, but I doubt most of them are up to the task of getting crap like this into passable form. Mind you, to know it’s crap, they would need at least some familiarity with the novel: what shocked me with the ChatGPT cases I had this term was that they included quotations that were simply not in the actual assigned text, and the students didn’t even notice. As students get more familiar with the bot’s limitations, they may (may!) find it is actually less work (and less risk) to just do the reading and assignment themselves.
But of course the real answer to this kind of subversion of our teaching and learning goals is to convince students of the value of the work itself. Lots of folks giving advice about ChatGPT emphasize this. I couldn’t agree more, but I think it’s naive on their part to just say this, as if, however good our intentions, our circumstances don’t militate against it. Good writing pedagogy alone, without even worrying about plagiarism, ought to be reason enough for small class sizes that would enable real working relationships between professors and students, that would make process work (outlines, drafts, revisions, portfolios) feasible and meaningful. For the last few years my first-year writing classes have had 120 students in them (up from 90, which was up from a longstanding norm of 55). One good result of some otherwise very unfortunate budgeting issues in our department may be that these caps come back down, maybe even by half. That’s still a far cry from the caps of 17 in the writing seminars at Cornell where I trained, but a lot of things are possible with 60 students that aren’t with 120—and I don’t just mean logistically, although that matters too. With 60 students you can see all of their faces and learn all of their names! If I’m going to convince at least most of them (some of them will never believe this, or care about this) that reading and writing well is exciting and important, that poems and stories are worth their time, that Virginia Woolf is worth their attention (it was crushing how many students copied and pasted material for their journals and discussion posts about “The Death of the Moth”) then making our classrooms even a little bit more personal is surely an essential first step.
This post has already gotten pretty long and I haven’t said anything very specific about my actual classes this term! I think that reflects the kind of term it was for me: one in which big questions about the job, about pedagogy, about how and why to do all of this really dominated. Still, for my own sake I think it’s also important for me to note, so that I don’t forget, that there were some wonderful students and some really rewarding moments in both classes. I think specifications grading went reasonably well in the first-year class: as before, a number of students have commented explicitly on ways in which they found it effective and supportive. Although attendance was the worst I’ve ever seen in Mystery & Detective Fiction, it settled in to a pretty consistent group, and we had some excellent discussions; I think these students did see that there was more to “taking the class” than paging through the books and completing the basic requirements, and it was heartening that several of them told me on the last day how much they had enjoyed the class. Some of them are even coming back to read more books with me next term!
Next term: what a thought. A year ago the very idea of being back in the classroom was completely overwhelming. It seemed impossible, unthinkable. “How do they do that?” I puzzled as I reflected on all the other sad people I knew were around me:
I don’t imagine that it feels easy to any of them, or that they are “over it” or have “moved on,” but there they all are, carrying on with their lives while also somehow carrying their grief.
I know now how easy the answer is, though the reality it reflects is so difficult: they just do. We just do. We have to. “You don’t get over it, you just get through it” is one of the many clichés about grief that turn out to be exactly true. Getting through it is pretty hard work, I find, and I am so grateful for the help and support I have had and still have, from friends and family—my elephants—and from the excellent therapist I had my first appointment with last May, whose compassion, insight, and expertise continue to be invaluable. I am also truly grateful to the many students who showed up, in person and online, to engage with me about our readings, and whose curiosity, hard work, and good will helped me resolve that yes, I do want to keep doing this job: they make the endeavor worthwhile, and I hope I managed to convey my enthusiasm and commitment to them in spite of the term’s challenges.