So, every other year (in theory – ha! see what I did there? – but I say in theory because while I have an agreed upon 2-year rotation of courses, it seems that this is up for debate periodically because of various vagaries of department politics, the fact that other people refuse to have a two-year consistent rotation, etc.) I teach a theory course that is required in one track of our three-track major. I am teaching it for the third time this spring.
The first time I taught it (2009), it was a rough ride, in part because it was my first time teaching it and in part because my dad died in the middle of the semester. The second time I taught it (2012), things went quite well, though I was still working out kinks, and a fair few students withdrew (so I ended up with like 14 students, as opposed to the 20-25 who really should be in the course), but those who remained were engaged. This third time – in spite of the fact that I had to change the theory anthology because the one that I adored is now out of print in the U.S., so the syllabus has changed considerably, in ways that seem to actually be really good (because the anthology I found to replace it is really, really good) – I seem to have locked this course down. I’ve got 21 committed students.
Now, some of those students are committed because they need the course to graduate, and they intend to graduate in May. But that is the minority (maybe seven of them). In general, I’ve got students who are there both because they need to be and because they choose to remain. They’ve had one short paper (a 1-page assignment I do that kicks their asses but that teaches a whole bunch – they will do three more of these) and one test (2/3 of them did fine, 1/3 got a giant wake-up call). I also feel like I should note that all but two of the students in the course have taken our “new” (first taught 3 years ago) intro to the major course, and I think this is making a difference in terms of attrition from the course, in that they are entering knowing that such a thing as critical theory exists and that they have a sense of what critical theory is and why it matters to our discipline, and I also think the fact that the course is now only offered once per year is making a difference in terms of attrition, in that this schedule change is motivating them to remain even if they don’t adore what is happening to them, and they can’t just withdraw and take it with somebody other than me – so this ain’t all me, the fact that the students are committed and engaged and whatever. There are contextual factors.
BUT. The level of motivation I am seeing from these students in what is, ultimately, a junior-level class, is stellar. STELLAR. Particularly since the first test. I will note that on the morning of the first test, I had to show up early to allow a student with a medical appointment to start early. I arrived an hour before the class meets, and the first thing I saw when I got off the elevator to the English department floor was a couple of my students studying together. Yay, right? But what really shocked me was when I got to the classroom 10 minutes later and there were like 4 students already in there (when did they arrive?!?!) studying silently. And then, the student that needed to start early got there, and by the time we were 30 minutes out from “test time” about 2/3 of the class was in there, studying. Silently. Intently.
Now, I’ve got colleagues who claim that our students don’t care about studying, are too preoccupied with life stuff to study, whatever. (These are the same colleagues who claim that their office hours are a ghost town, which I have never experienced myself.) But for a test that was worth 10% of their grade – just 10% !- about 2/3 of my students were intense about reviewing the material. (Not all of those did well: some of them even failed. But my point here is that they took it seriously, even if only 30 minutes before the test. They were not just phoning it in.)
Since they got that first paper and that first test back, I’ve had deep one-on-one conversations with nearly half of them as a result. They are dying to master this material, and they are dying to do well. In a junior-level course about shit that they don’t understand and don’t, really, care about. You don’t choose the major in English because you care about theory – if you did, you’re major in Philosophy.
The student who did best on the first test has taken to coming to my office for private consultations about his questions before class, mainly because I encouraged him to do so, I think. (Note: his initial response to his first test grade – which he saw on Bb before I handed the tests back – was “Is my grade a typo?” – because it was so high – which might be my favorite grade challenge ever), but even the students who did poorly have come to me – they want to get this shit. They care.
This week, the students in this course read Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Zizek. Ultimately brief readings from all three, but dense. And not only did they do the reading (which was evident from their questions and their freaked-outed-ness, but also from their furious note-taking as I guided them through the readings), but also they really, really care about getting it.
My favorite part of all of this is that I had two of my students, two of my best students (one a returning student, one a traditional student), say to me today that this is the first course in the major in which they really feel like they are uncomfortable, like they are really taking intellectual risks. Like they are doing work that isn’t just about just getting the grade.
Here’s the thing: it’s easy when you’re “good” at something never to take a risk. You figure out what a given professor wants, and then you give that to them. You get an A. Done. If you are “good” at something, and you are a “good” student, you can easily stay in your comfort zone and still be impressive. This theory class that I’m teaching is shaking them up, but in a really exciting way, both for them (most important) and for me (less important, but awesome). And also: I will take credit for the fact that I make my course a safe space for them to take those risks, that they know that I care more about the risk than I care about them agreeing with me. That is all me, and I am proud of that.
But you know what else is my favorite? That the students who are NOT the best are still really digging into the material and making sense of it for themselves! And learning to ask questions that they never would have asked before about the literature that they love! I don’t actually care if those are “original” questions in the sense of actual originality – they are original to them! They are working it out! And they are still taking risks! Risks for them!
Ultimately, they all are taking important and challenging and meaningful and amazing risks! And their heads are buried in their notebooks and their books when we have class so that they can write things down and figure out what the fuck is going on! They aren’t texting or daydreaming or sleeping or worrying about shit other than critical theory! And not because I made some technology policy or because I’m nagging them or because there is a participation grade. Nope. They are engaged because it feels to them like it’s worth engaging. I’m not quizzing them on the reading, and I’m not underestimating their ability to get it on their own and just lecturing 24/7. No: I am trusting them to learn. And I see them learning.
And that feels really fucking amazing.