My sincere thanks to everyone who weighed in, here or on Twitter, with advice about handling the classroom slump brought on by Waverley. Here’s an update on what I decided to do.
First of all, I did decide to do something different, rather than just pressing on with my usual strategies. I had to admit to myself — and I admitted this morning to my class — that if year after year a critical mass of students just isn’t getting engaged by the novel, at least to some extent this is a failure on my part — a pedagogical failure. Dropping Waverley from my reading list was also a failure: some students in Waverley-free years have told me how happy they were to have missed it, but missing out on it was not a win for them any more than it was one for me. As I told my class this morning, it’s a novel that deserves its place on our syllabus, one that is well worth reading for our curriculum, whatever anyone’s personal response to it. But the failure isn’t all mine. To use the analogy I suggested to my class, if you’re stumped by a difficult calculus problem, you don’t blame the problem: you work it as hard as you can, get more help if you need it, and try to bring your skills up to the level you need to solve it.
I decided to approach the class, then, as a problem-solving opportunity: we all, collectively, needed to think about what was going on and what our own role could be in addressing it. I said frankly where I thought I had been going wrong: struggle is part of learning new things, and they needed to be free to talk about their difficulties without my getting all judgmental. I told them that I thought I needed to back off a bit, and listen, so that they could trust me to work with them. But so that we didn’t fall into an unproductive gripe session, I suggested they approach Waverley in the spirit of couples therapy: avoid “you” statements in favour of “I” statements, to stimulate not blame but agency. “Waverley is boring” doesn’t help: you can’t change Waverley, after all! “I am finding Waverley boring / frustrating / confusing” is more constructive because there may be something you (or I, as the teacher) can do differently.
All of this preamble took only a few minutes at the start of class. Then I went to work on getting out of their way. I’d made up a handout with three simple questions:
- How is Waverley going for me? What do I like about it? What specific challenges does it pose?
- Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for things I could try to make it go better:
- Given the specific ways I’m finding Waverley challenging, here are some ideas for what Dr. Maitzen could do to help:
I gave them about 10 minutes to respond honestly to these questions — the handout was explicitly not to be submitted or evaluated. Then on the other side of the handout they each had one of five different passages I’d picked out, and they got into small groups with the other students who had the same passage. They had two tasks in their groups: first, to talk freely about how they’d answered their questions, then to read their passage aloud and discuss it, considering it in light of their general comments about reading Waverley as well as in the context of the issues we’d been working on in our previous classes. I left the room entirely for the first five minutes of the group work, literally getting out of their way so they would be uninhibited in their discussion.
The room erupted into noise behind me as I went out, and the conversation seemed energetic for the whole period. While they talked over their passages, I went around offering my help and inviting comments on the question about what I could do to help with their reading of the novel. I got some very specific requests: the most frequent was to go over the political / historical factions again, clarifying who was on what side. A couple of people thought a handout listing characters and their affiliations (and their various names) would be great, so I think I’ll do some version of that. Another suggestion was for some straightforward plot summary: because a number of them are really struggling through Scott’s prose, they lose track of what’s actually happening. Plot summary is not usually high on my priorities for class time, but I can see how confusion about the novel’s events would inhibit class participation! So I’ll do that too, though I’m going to think about ways to make it interactive.
As for things that they could do, a couple of students said that reading the passages out loud helped their comprehension, so that might be something they’ll try on their own (we talked about the audiobook option, though sadly there doesn’t seem to be a really good one available). I showed them the e-text available through the University of Adelaide, which might help anyone struggling with the small print of our Oxford edition. I think others realized that looking more words up in their dictionary will help, and I continued to urge them all to get started trying to write about the novel. It was clear that not everyone had the same issues, and not everyone even had any problems with it — I hope the students who were already getting along fine don’t feel the class was wasted: I think we will all benefit if our remaining two sessions go better.
However it goes on Wednesday and Friday, I won’t regret having tried to change the dynamic that was developing. Lecturing more is one way to get through a slump like this, but it isn’t the best way, since (as I often remind them) the objective of an English class is for them to be better readers themselves: the process of reading and discussion is not just important, but in some ways it’s the whole point.