Another Year of Blogging My Teaching

My annual series of posts on ‘This Week in My Classes‘ has come to an end, once again, with the end–not of term, since I won’t file my grades and move on until the 125 exams coming in later this week are marked–but of class meetings. So it’s time again to reflect on what it meant for me to write here about my teaching.

Not much has changed since I first wrote about the experience back in 2008. Then, I emphasized how my initial motivation, to make my work as an English professor more transparent to a skeptical public, had been replaced by a sense of the intrinsic value of being more self-conscious about one of the most important and time-consuming aspects of my job:

I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

I also noted the benefits of writing more, and more openly: “Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better–just in case.” And I liked contributing what I hoped might be useful material to the vast reservoir of expertise and enthusiasm that is the ‘blogosphere.’ All of these things are still true, though as I cycle through my classes over the years I am finding that it seems pointless to reiterate what I’ve said before about the readings or themes. I do change up the book list almost every time I offer a course, but rarely by more than one or two books (or else I lose the hard-won benefits of having “prepped” most of the material before–which can be a huge and essential time-saver as I become more senior and take on more administrative responsibilities, and as class sizes, also, creep up, creating more paperwork and demand for my attention from students). Still, this year with the Mystery class in particular it felt a bit repetitive writing up the weekly reports. Yet I still find that when I sit down and make myself give it some thought,  I pretty much always get caught up in writing about something that I find interesting. Indeed, my posts seemed to just keep getting longer!

The biggest teaching challenge for me this year was this term’s Brit Lit survey. I wrote often about the rapid pace of it and the disorienting experience of teaching a great deal of material well outside my comfort zone. Intellectually, though it was exhausting, it was also exhilirating, not least because of the treat of returning to writers I hadn’t paid much attention to since my own undergraduate survey class–though it was also interesting to note how the list of potential inclusions had expanded since those long-ago days (I’m quite sure, for instance, that we didn’t read any Elizabeth Barrett Browning back then, not even “How do I love thee?”). Although the day to day prep was intense for this course (the pay-off will be in the fall, when I get to do it all again), the hardest work I put in was before it started, when I researched and then committed to an assignment sequence involving having the tutorial groups build their own Study Guides using PBWiki. I’m in the middle of evaluating the finished projects now, and I am certainly glad I thought so hard about how to explain the assignment and the evaluation criteria. I was full of zeal and enthusiasm about the wikis when the course began, then I began to feel frustrated when I saw what my current review is confirming: most of the students did just fine on their assigned topic but very few entered with any spirit or creativity into the collaborative aspects of wiki-building. On the other hand, as I read through the final versions of all the pages, I’m satisfied that on the whole they put together a valuable resource–something I expect they are realizing now too, as they turn to them to study for their final exam. Some of them put in a lot of effort, too, and some of them, I think, had a little fun. They all learned something about using computers actively, rather than passively consuming content. These seem like good results to me. I don’t know what they thought about having to do this. I’m sure their course evaluations will tell me!

The other experiment I tried was having my graduate students maintain a course blog. Once they warmed up and got over their self-consciousness, they did a great job: they posted question sets and then followed up with comments, and every week there was a lot of lively online discussion that I thought made our classroom time more focused and energetic. I’m hoping they will post some retrospective thoughts about the pros and cons of incorporating that kind of writing into the seminar. I didn’t think it was that different from posting questions and responses to a discussion board, but several of them hadn’t done that for classes before either, and those that had seemed to find this form more exposed, even though the blog was (and so far, remains) password protected.

Writing this post, I realize that though blogging about my teaching has been interesting but not that revelatory this year, blogging has clearly affected my teaching, by giving me experience in new forms of writing and thinking that I think are worth using in pedagogical contexts and by exposing me to a community of innovative scholars like those at the very successful Profhacker site whose posts on using wikis in the classroom gave me courage (and know-how) to be a little bit innovative myself.

Workday Miscellany: Ph.D. Problems, Institutional Inertia, Graduate Teaching, and the Yoke of Marriage

I’m feeling a bit scattered this week. Here are some of the things buzzing around in my head.

1. It’s hard not to want to say something about Louis Menand’s much-linked-to post on “the PhD problem,” but what? Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I nodded emphatically at this statement:

The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.

But I don’t really know how to assess some of his larger claims, especially the more sociological or statistical ones; I can’t even compare them to my own experience, really, because the information is exclusively about American institutions and I don’t know how closely the patterns he describes are repeated here in Canada–despite having spent two years as coordinator of our graduate program. One of the reasons is that the concerns of that position were, of practical necessity, extremely local: it’s a two-year stint by departmental policy, with an incessant stream of relatively small bureaucratic and advising tasks and intervals of intense labour around major fellowship deadlines and, of course, admissions. In the first year of the position the learning curve was steep and my dependence on our (exemplary!) office staff nearly total; the second year was slightly better but the end was already in sight. New initiatives? Policy development? Research into large-scale professional questions and how they might impact or play out in our tiny program? Not a chance: there was just no time, and frankly no incentive, to explore broader issues.

2. In a related vein, I was struck by Menand’s passing suggestion that “If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship,” but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing “the system” (not unlike the MLA’s call to “decenter the monograph” as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of “peer reviewed publications,” or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? (How far, as the MLA report suggested, has “peer review” become an excuse for farming out the job of scholarly evaluation to editors?) Anecdotally, conversationally, there’s plenty of dissatisfaction with the professional status quo and interest in making various features of it more flexible and more responsive to changing conditions in, say, publishing or employment. But this week, in a couple of different contexts, I was reminded again of how rigidly current practices are enforced by administrative structures that assume certain models for estimating academic productivity and value (for instance, fellowship competitions in which quantity of publications is taken as the only ‘objective’ measure of excellence, or research models that promote applications for large grants as if more expensive projects are both necessary and desirable). People grumbled about the implicit principles but the atittude appears to be “that’s the way things are now, and we’d better stay in the game.”

3. I was also struck by Menand’s remark that “Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.” This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on–at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world’s a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don’t want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It’s a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it’s a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don’t know or haven’t read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class (in my 4th-year seminar on Victorian sensation fiction, I have students who have never studied 19th-century novels before–they have a lot of catching up to do, to participate effectively in some aspects of our discussions). But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menant points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

4. All of this mental muddle is particularly distracting because one of the things I’m trying to get done is course planning for next term, and particularly the plans for my upcoming graduate seminar on George Eliot. When I first taught such a class (in 1997-98), I thought it was pretty obvious what I should do: graduate courses are training for professional work in the field of literary criticism, right? That shouldn’t have seemed so obvious to me then (I didn’t take into account, for instance, that Dalhousie’s program includes a ‘terminal’ M.A. and thus serves a student population that is not necessarily headed down an academic path), and it certainly does not seem so obvious to me now. But what difference does, or should, it make that there seem to me to be a number of uncertainties about the purpose of their degrees more generally, our seminar in particular, and even literary criticism itself? Is a (real or mock) conference paper a reasonable goal, or a paper suitable to be revised and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal? Should I diversify the requirements to suit a wider range of possible applications of scholarly expertise–say, a resource-rich website, an experimental hyper-text edition of a chapter, a paper aimed at a general audience, a portfolio of book reviews, a class wiki? Is it possible to accommodate such a range and still to ensure equal workloads and fair evaluation? I’ve been reading and rereading a swathe of critical articles in preparation for the usual “secondary readings” requirements but if I can’t even be sure myself what we need to accomplish in the class, how can I choose what they should read? Probably I’ll just do what I usually do, which is pick some articles that seem particularly useful or interesting, or that stand for some reason as key or classic pieces; require a couple of short response papers, a seminar presentation, and a term paper (of the usual academic variety). It’s tempting to reinvent the course–but it’s part of a whole system of requirements and expectations, and so there I am again, reluctant to deviate from local norms, to point out that most of them will never need to do academic criticism (or get a permanent job in which it is required of them for tenure) and so we should really find something else to do about what we read.

In the meantime, my classes seem to be going fine. I was particularly pleased with the lively discussion in the Sensation Fiction seminar the last couple of meetings; I think we have some real momentum now, having bulldozed through four major novels in preparation for the next phase of the course, which involves a series of workshops and then a series of student presentations. In the other class, assignments just went back and besides the inevitable angst and resentment that generates, I think most of them are behind on their Middlemarch readings. But I’m doing my best to keep the energy up and to give them ideas about how to make the most of the reading as they work their way along. We talked about Lydgate and Rosamond, and the “ideal not the real yoke of marriage” (a phrase actually used about Dorothea and Casaubon, but widely applicable in this novel). For a happily “married” woman, George Eliot could sure put her finger on just how and why marital relations can turn from bliss to pain. To my knowledge there are only two married people in the class; they seem to be the ones doing most of the nodding as I explain the process of disillusionment and then adaptation to reality the novel describes.

Reflections on Blogging My Teaching

I began my series of posts on ‘This Week in My Classes‘ back in September, in response to what I felt were inaccurate and unfair representations of what English professors are up to in their teaching. As I said then,

I don’t suppose that my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary, but I think it might contribute somewhat to the demystification of our profession, now that the teaching term is underway, to make it a regular feature of my blog to outline what lies in store for me and my students each week.

The resulting entries range from brief commentaries on key passages to meditations on larger critical or theoretical issues prompted by a particular reading or class discussion (on October 1, for instance, there’s some of each); from notes on pedagogical strategies or favourite discussion topics (such as ‘giant hairball’ day) to protracted afterthoughts on the central issues of a class meeting or reading (such as the didactic or instructional aspects of 19th-century courtship and marriage novels).

And so? What did I accomplish by writing all this up–and by putting it all out in public? I think there’s no way to tell if I made any difference at all to the kinds of pervasive and (in my view) pernicious attitudes towards literary academics expressed in the Footnoted posts that prompted me to do this. It seems pretty unlikely! How would these angry people even know my blog exists, after all? And even if they did come across it, the odds of conversion would surely be pretty slim for a determined anti-academic. Still, I think it was worth making the effort and putting some evidence against their version out there, just in case. Where in my posts would these people find evidence that I hate literature and spend my time on political indoctrination? (April 16: or, again with reference to this post, that I dismiss aesthetics, hold in contempt the notion of literature as “record and register of literary art,” and oppress my students with my hyperliteracy? Sigh. A classroom is large and can contain multitudes–of ideas and voices and critical approaches.)

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up…and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn’t usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what’s about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

But isn’t that a goal I could have achieved by keeping a teaching journal off-line? Well, sort of, but not altogether. For one thing, blogging (again, as other bloggers have remarked), precisely because it is a public form of writing, puts a different kind of pressure on you as a writer. Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better–just in case. Maybe there are all kinds of dedicated prose stylists in the world who laboriously craft the entries in their private notebooks. But even they probably have their eye on posterity (“one day, when I’m famous, these notebooks will sell for a fortune on eBay!”). It’s true, too, that the ‘blogosphere,’ with its millions of members, includes many samples of writing done, as far as anyone can tell, with no care at all. But for me at least, the accessibility of writing in this medium (and the impossibility of ever really taking something back once it has been ‘published’ on the internet) raises the stakes, even while the relative informality of the blog post as a genre has been a welcome change from the demands of professional academic writing.

Further, I like the idea that I might write something that other readers find interesting, useful, or mentally stimulating. My teaching posts in particular seem to me likely, if chanced upon, to be welcomed by readers outside an academic setting who are, nonetheless, interested in learning more about the kinds of reading contexts and strategies I work on with my students. Looking through my posts, I think there is nearly enough in them for someone to do an ‘independent study’ of my reading lists for any of the four classes I taught this year. The frequent publication of ‘books about books‘ aimed at non-academic audiences suggests an appetite for what you might call ‘reading enhancement.’ Maybe other teachers, too, would get some ideas for how to approach some of the texts I’ve discussed, just as I have often sought ideas from posted syllabi or from the blogs of other people in my field or, more generally, my discipline. At its best, the ‘blogosphere’ is a great reservoir of information and insights made generously and collaboratively by people of all kinds; we can learn from each other and contribute to each other’s learning. This is not something that can happen off-line. (Here, of course, is the justification for blogging at all, not just for blogging about teaching.) And in the year or so that I have been blogging, I have been contacted by a few readers who have seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts in this direction.

Finally, as a blogger, I found that carrying out this plan to do a regular series of posts on one theme added a helpful structure to my posting habits: it was a kind of productive discipline. Like all academics, after all, I’m used to working to deadlines. Often, I began my week thinking I had nothing in particular to say. But I ‘had’ to post about my classes (also like all academics, I have an over-developed sense of obligation and I’m used to generating my own necessities). And once I started writing, most of the time I quickly found I was invigorated by discovering that I did have something to say after all.

Overall, then, I’m glad I set myself this task, and reading through my posts, I’m pleased with the results. No doubt other English professors do very different things, including with the same primary materials I took on. No doubt there are some who would be alienated, rather than won over, if they happened upon this material; no doubt some who have read it have turned away impatiently (or worse), for their own theoretical, political, or other reasons. But my posts represent my classroom well, and thus I admit, they represent me well too. Yup, that’s me: the one who cries over Oliphant’s Autobiography and finds passages in Dickens poetic, who admires George Eliot’s stringent morality but worries about the way her better people seem driven to sacrifice themselves to their petty partners because ‘the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision,’ who watches House and Sex and the City and finds Agatha Christie clever but shallow, who goes all pedantic when homework comes in but relishes her students’ creativity and humour in devising class activities, whose children delight and torment and distract her. That’s the thing about teaching–and about blogging too. You put yourself out there, try to be your best self most of the time, have moments of irritability and moments of eloquence–and then you sit back and see if anyone was paying attention.