Advice for teaching in Literary Studies
I used to hate academic advice writing, and maybe I still I do. But I just saw a tweet and it made me laugh a kind of sad laugh.
I think people who want advice about teaching fall into two categories:
- They just had a bad experience in a class and now aren’t sure how to move forward productively. they want advice, maybe, but what they really want is feedback and support: encouragement that not all is lost, things will be ok, it’s not going to be fun, but this experience can be recovered from… (that passive voice is warranted here, I think).
- They are new to teaching, or new to teaching a specific thing/course, or are not new but want to do something new.
Generally, this post is for #2, though even with that, I don’t think most people really want advice about teaching — or maybe I mean they shouldn’t want advice from all but some specific people who know specific things about their material and institution. Everyone’s teaching conditions play a role in what works, so somebody on the internet can’t prescribe something that will be useful for all. A lot of what I see people advocate won’t work in my classroom because of some requirement my school has adopted, or because we have a different kind of student demographic, or because I am not the same as the person who advocates for something. One example: when I team-taught, I noticed lots of people are comfortable with being “behind” on what’s listed on the syllabus/schedule. I personally am not comfortable with that! It makes me feel like I didn’t design my class well.
Much also depends on your load. I did a lot of things in the various times in my life when I only taught a single class that I won’t do when I teach three in a semester.
With all those caveats, here are things I think are worth considering or trying out when we design a course syllabus, schedule, and lesson plan in literary studies. It goes without saying that this is for the future, and not right now, though the third item is coming up soon.
- Build in two days with no new reading or writing. I think it’s funny to put “be flexible! be spontaneous” on a to-do list, but if you build this stuff into the structure of the class up front, you will have a gift to everyone. As to where to put these days, well, it depends on your class. I usually look for places where it won’t mean students will skip (like, don’t put these days right before a holiday break or long weekend); days where there is a major writing assignment coming due, but not yet due; days following the last day of a major assigned work. The last of these of course assumes there’s always going to be more to discuss than you thought; if you find there isn’t, the no-new-reading day can be used to start reading the next thing and do it in class, to model, to orient, and to just acknowledge everyone benefits from time to think, reflect, or get settled into a new thing.
- Make deadlines for papers on days you don’t meet as a class. Maybe most people already do this, especially now after COVID has put everyone in the habit of collecting papers electronically. It’s not revolutionary or anything, but I think sometimes we think we only have a right to students’ time on days we’re teaching in class, or we worry we won’t be able to check in with a student who missed a deadline if we aren’t meeting that day. But I always found my classes to be kind of boring on days where they turned something major in, for various reasons that I could understand. You can also consider, if you think it won’t disrupt your organization, giving every student a right to a 24-hour extension on any deadline without request or reason. I find this to work well for me, in part because it cuts down the emails I get and hopefully it works fine for students as well because they don’t have to anguish about how to ask. And let me just add: the matter of extension-granting is very specific to each professor each semester — there’s no right answer and there shouldn’t be finger-wagging if somebody chooses to not grant something. Personally found that I can’t grade a set of papers in fewer than 3 days anyway; I make my deadlines on Fridays at 5, and I usually receive at least 5 papers by that deadline, enough to get started on the commenting for a Friday afternoon/evening. Since i’m not going to grade them all that day anyway, another day isn’t going to mess me up or slow me down in returning them in a reasonable time where my feedback will actually be meaningful. And because it’s their weekend, students can decide if it’s better to work on it Saturday or if they actually have more to do and would be better served by getting it in on Friday deadline.
- Write to yourself at the end. I am always at my most sage at the end of a semester. I see in retrospect why I found something exhausting or dissatisfying, and usually have a sense of whether it was because of something I planned or because it was a specific person or specific constraint of the semester that led to that feeling. Sometimes if I don’t write down immediately what the semester felt like, I fall prey to the urge to keep everything the same. It’s easy to justify: we have to try things more than once, since students differ each semester and we get better by trying things more than once. But, sometimes it’s because we forget the stress we had or believe that stress is just how it is. And sometimes, I feel that’s just how it is. Teaching is hard, stressful, exhausting, as long as you care a lot about it, anyway. Writing to yourself at the end is useful in part because I think we are always trying to do too much in our classes, out of deference to a curriculum and requirements, out of enthusiasm for material we like. Both feelings should be weighed against the impact physically and emotionally of those impulses. Maybe it’s worth it to do too much, but I suspect it probably isn’t, and that students would be just as well taught if we asked them to do fewer things and went more slowly, built in more time to think and read (and do both in class!).
I think these three things are pretty practical and are worth considering for anyone teaching literature to undergraduates. You may be thinking you can’t do these things because x, or y, and that’s fine — I often feel that way when presented with suggestions. It might be that you actually can’t. It is worth thinking for at least a minute, though, whether that’s practically true. Sometimes I get very caught up in “but we are supposed to have 3500 words of formal” etc.etc. or “this class has to include Hamlet!” (see my comments above!) before I remember that the structures holding us to these things are not typically designed to look closely at how we perform them. Even if you are a contingent instructor or a grad student. I’m not saying don’t follow rules, but also people who teach need to be active agents in how they see those rules working in their workplaces.
If you’re thinking you don’t want to do these things because x, or y, that’s great. Knowing what you want to do is great. (What are you reading this for? Go do what you want! LOL.)