Sunday, April 17, 2011

the seductions of lecturing

I went to listen to this spring's visiting writer Thursday night. Even tho I was simmering with resentment – the department's reading series has been scheduled right opposite my graduate seminar, so I've lost several hours of class time over the course of the semester – I found myself enjoying the performance. Very much, in fact. He was a fiction writer; he had dashingly long silver hair, dressed sharply with just the right touch of eccentricity (a bow tie, no less), "worked" the audience like a seasoned entertainer. Much laughter; quiet breath-holding at all the right moments. Everyone left, I think, with the sense that they'd gotten their money's worth, or at least that they hadn't wasted their hour.

Of course, it was all a matter of the performative – which is quite appropriate in the case of a public reading, which is more than anything else a performance. There are few things more dispiriting than a poorly delivered reading of poetry; recondite or "difficult" poetry, especially, needs to be delivered with a certain aggressive élan, I think – if you can't "get" work without living with it on the page before you, reading it repeatedly and thoughtfully, what's the point of having it read to you in a lifeless manner?

I think I'm a pretty decent performer of my own poetry, and a pretty good performer of others'. But how does this translate to the classroom? Lately, I've been thinking about the seductions of the lecture. I've had good lecturers as an undergraduate; when I was a grad student at University on the Hill, I was a TA for a professor who'd begun life as a child preacher, & was a truly spellbinding lecturer – there were audible gasps across the 200-seat auditorium sometimes when he read an affecting passage from Faulkner.

But the papers his students turned in – the ones I had to grade – were for the most part lousy. The kids were amazed, & entertained, but I wasn't at all sure they were learning. Yesterday I came across this lovely statement of teaching philosophy by my old professor Tom Gardner (click on "Minds in the Act of Finding" on the right), & was reminded of the excitement of his classes, where he would patiently and precisely draw points out of us in conversation, showing us time and again that we knew more than we thought we did, making us, thru a careful Socratic prodding, connect the dots in ways that we wouldn't have thought to.

That kind of teaching is terrifically hard, especially when you're dealing with undergrads like many of the ones who sat in classes with me in Blacksburg all those years ago, or who sit in my classes now at Our Fair University – kids who're tired from working full-time jobs, kids who're underprepared for a given class, kids who don't really have the academic background they need for an upper-division course, kids who simply don't want to be there. (I won't even go into "media-saturated," "attention-deficit-plagued," etc.). I don't mean to put down my students – they're for the most part great; but sometimes it's awfully easy to fall into the performer mode, even the entertainer mode. I start out typing up some talking/discussion points; I end up writing a week's worth of lectures.

Talking goes over well; the students laugh at the jokes. They don't fall asleep, for the most part. I get good evaluations; better evaluations, I sometimes think, than if I'd forced them to think & talk their way thru the class. But for every lecture I deliver in the classroom, I end up feeling just a little bit queasy: I've short-changed them on some level, & I've short-changed the texts I'm teaching.

Resolution for the Fall semester: no more than a half-hour's prepared talking per class period. They may find me duller at first, & I'm sure I'll find it a good deal more work, but we'll both get more out of it in the long run.


Anonymous said...

speaking to your teacher's technique re: drawing points
out of uou in conversation

last night reading (again) Gracian's The Art of Wordly Wisdom

here is last two sentences of his 22

"[...] Often, more is taught by jest than by the most serious teaching. Knowledge gained in conversation can be of more help than the seven arts, however liberal."

Michael Harrawood said...

Well, there's nothing wrong with the lecture format. And, while I buy most of what you write here, I think the sell-versus-teach opposition is dangerous and off point. Most of our students could not sit through the Late Beethoven Sting Quartets either. I think one of the ways in which we undermine ourselves in the humanites is to push discussion over hard-target learning. What if your lecture made five points about Light In August, and if you came in the next class and said "What were the five points I made about Light In August?"

Brian S said...

Group work has been my savior. I know it may seem like I can talk nonstop for hours, but I really run out of everything after about twenty minutes, so instead I put them in groups, give them questions, and make them fight it out among themselves for half an hour or so. Then I use those questions for the discussion that follows, which can go anywhere, really. It's rare that we simply answer one question and move on to the next point on my list, but that keeps them engaged in the class.