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  • Passing It On – I – The Pedagogical

    Posted by Ginny on July 2nd, 2015 (All posts by )

    Some comments here criticized lectures. I doubt that medium is as central as the comments imply. Few who teach skills depend only or even mainly on lectures. Lecturing itself has been marginalized. The passion for “critical thinking” is a theoretic good, but, naturally, pedagogical studies emphasize method over content, new & theoretical over traditional. But, I would argue, lectures are designed to clarify content & connections, to model critical thinking. They are useful. (I’m not getting into content – the understandable complaints about that are topics for another day.)

    Not surprisingly, my defense is defensive. I lectured. Apparently I conveyed passion but could also elicit boredom. For some, that love made a bad class bearable, for others, it was meaningful. Most bubbled in positive but not extraordinary evaluations. Probably some felt I was nattering on, then socked it to them on the test. And lectures let minds drift. But I lectured.

    The method isn’t popular with my colleagues. Only those of roughly my age comment – and even they are gentle. That they dub them “potted lectures” is clue that the world has passed me by. Many cheerfully give up weeks for student reports and regularly divide the class in groups – giving them freedom, responsibility. Their students are more engaged with one another, certainly – and more ready to make observations to their peers. Such teachers’ responsibilities can be great – guiding groups isn’t easy. But fewer works are covered and those more idiosyncratically.

    Our department embraces on-line even less warmly. Drop rates are high. It is true, it can take the heart – the presence – out of teaching: guiding a group to that electric moment of insight to the whole can’t happen. The transparency of on-line lectures and the missing charisma works against leading them to emotional maturity, to the teacher’s political or religious view. Teachers live for those memorable moments when a student’s remark or a teacher’s aside illuminates a piece. I understand.

    However, the school financially benefits with on-line courses and nearing 70 I’m likely to keep on talking, so, I’ll be teaching the traditional way in an untraditional course. I’ve been lucky – this gives me a chance to continue to get a paycheck and spread my extremely American version of American literature. Retired this month, I am still in harness – a considerably lighter one of course. So, I’m an outlier in most ways. And maybe I’m wrong in all. But apparently it works, sometimes.

    I flip on-site to off-site & vice-versa. They are, in the end, getting the same credit, on-site or off. They need to do the same work. The streamed lectures are thorough. I spend as many hours recorded as I would in classroom. On-line, if their grades in 4 tests, 3 papers, and one final can make it without my voice, fine. Lectures are teaching. Tests are of learning. A daydreamer in class may end up with the same grade as someone who listens to only a few lectures on line. Those who invest extra time get more – knowledge, I think, grades, I’m sure. What’s time, tuition, grades, knowledge worth? They choose their investment level. I’m comfortable with that bargain.

    When I came back to teaching, I taught as I remembered the classrooms I sat in now half a century ago. God knows I’m not the clearest thinker in the world, but I knew I wanted to pass some moments on. Those old classes, with the teacher at the front, getting us to focus on a passage, remarking on the work’s context, getting into the nitty gritty of textual explication – were what I remembered. They taught me to read closely. And they brought riches with them – history, biography, etymology, but, most of all, their experience of repeatedly reading the work over decades.

    For me, lectures work. They still do – I like C-span; we’ve stocked up Teaching Company lectures for retirement. I like visiting speakers. It isn’t just that I remember so vividly where I sat in Anderson Hall in the fall of 1963 in Lincoln, I also remember Robinson discussing Chaucer and Poston Keats.
    Perhaps it’s vanity that I, who spent fifteen years of my life standing over Xerox machines and wrangling workers, who has published but two eccentric essays, who is often distracted by television when she hasn’t been by life, has a right to monopolize their time. And it isn’t that my students don’t have something to say. We are always in the top five in the country in students who earn a 4-year degree when they take their first class from us; several of mine have gone on to grad school in English and done well. It’s open admissions; they aren’t all good, but enough are.

    Of course, over at the big school scholars who have devoted their life to their subjects have a resonance I don’t. Still if you want an introduction, I figure, I’ll do. I spent most of the sixties and all of the seventies reading and writing papers and learning my craft. I’ve read some of these works repeatedly for fifty years. I’ve paused and thought over lines that mean more because the old reading remains in my memory. I’ve learned the period, the context, the beliefs, the theology. Until you’ve read hundreds of sonnets, you are not likely to see the genre’s possibilities. Until you’ve read hundreds of novels, you aren’t likely to appreciate the skill of a particular writer. Getting the history right helps, too; and that takes more time. And I’ve learned. For instance, only lately have I seen The Scarlet Letter as a debate with the Transcendentalists. It isn’t the only theme, but I’d like my students to see that sooner than I did. No expert, still, I know more than when I, like they, read it for the first or second time. That’s why they pay – and I get paid – the big bucks.

    Last spring a student in my intro to lit remarked he had never been in a class where a work was put up and the teacher talked them through an interpretation. I began to suspect he’d never heard lectures – or at least specifically directed discussion – in an English class. He wasn’t critical, but more analytic & surprised than complimentary, more an “I didn’t know you could do that.” He said what others have said – I see what’s there, I see you aren’t making it up, the meanings aren’t hidden, they are in the words. But I hadn’t seen it until I came to class and you made me look.

    They need to slow down, read carefully, become engaged. They live in a world that distracts them – but the real meaning of real words remains central to our understanding not only of literature but life. And literature’s beauty – as people show again and again in posts and comments on Chicagoboyz – leads to a deeper and more complicated engagement with the real world.

    Of course, we come to our insights (or prejudices) through experience. So it is time to acknowledge mine. They became firmly engrained in 1970-71. And that is the subject of the next post.


    10 Responses to “Passing It On – I – The Pedagogical”

    1. Mike K Says:

      My new book, while mostly a memoir, is also a sort of lecture about what happens to a surgeon as years go by. I have given a number of lectures on medical history and used PowerPoint slides but that was mostly to groups already interested.

      It would be intimidating to me to try to teach an introductory course. I have great respect for Feynman deciding to take over introductory Physics. I have copies of his lectures which were also attended by all the graduate students at the time.

      They are a national treasure.

    2. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Those old classes, with the teacher at the front, getting us to focus on a passage, remarking on the work’s context, getting into the nitty gritty of textual explication – were what I remembered. They taught me to read closely. And they brought riches with them – history, biography, etymology, but, most of all, their experience of repeatedly reading the work over decades.

      I’m reminded of an English class I took in junior high. The teacher was about 30, slim, often wore skirts or dresses, kept her longish hair neatly back, and was almost Victorian in her demeanor – very prim, feminine, polite and incisive. She tolerated very little nonsense but was also very sweet. Sweet in a smart way – she was nice but she wasn’t going to let you put anything over on her. We were doing a survey (I now see) of young-directed literature. We covered the Greek myths, Jack London, that sort of thing.

      I remember being astounded that she would sit on the front of her desk, her back straight, legs crossed, put on her reading glasses, and read us passages from books. Even then, it seemed like something from a bygone era. She’d then discuss what she’d read in detail; the structure of the writing, the particular adjectives used to evoke that ‘just so’ effect, what had been said or left unsaid, other possible meanings, how it might relate to our lives or the lives of others, and what maybe it all meant. I also remember her being the first to point out that there were sometimes two, sometimes three meanings to a book or chapter title.

      I really grew to like her. And I enjoyed her class.

    3. Mrs. Davis Says:

      What do professors profess these days?

      I will always remember a lecture on AJP Taylor, and another on Robespierre, and another on Lessing. I often wonder if anyone out side the Studies departments professes like that anymore.

    4. dearieme Says:

      AJP Taylor: ah, his televised lectures in my youth were fascinating. No notes, no illustrations, just straight-to-camera talk. I wonder whether the Beeb kept the tapes or wiped them, as they wiped so much TV history. Bloody philistines.

    5. dearieme Says:

      But was it the Beeb? This youtube shows him to have been on ITV. Did he appear on both? Do I care?

    6. David Foster Says:

      Lecture classes can be very good IF they are small enough to permit interaction…everything from the teacher/professor observing facial expressions & body language to identify when people are confused or zoning out, to back-and-forth classroom discussion…AND the instructor is interested in facilitating such interaction. The maximum class size for this is probably not much more than 30.

    7. Mrs. Davis Says:

      I thought Seminars were for interaction and lectures were for information.

    8. Mike K Says:

      “The teacher was about 30, slim, often wore skirts or dresses, kept her longish hair neatly back, and was almost Victorian in her demeanor – very prim, feminine, polite and incisive. ”

      I remember an English professor in college where I was an English major while doing my premed work. I could not get a student loan as a premed but I could as an English major.

      He was older (No doubt younger than I am now) with white hair and a repaired cleft lip. He was an excellent lecturer and I remember two things especially about him. One, he flunked me on a quiz because I had neglected to study The Lucy Poems by Wordsworth. The quiz consisted of one stanza we were asked to explain.

      No motion has she now, no force;
      She neither hears nor sees;
      Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
      With rocks, and stones, and trees.

      The second reason I remember him so well is that he told us that, in order to read the entire The Faerie Queen, by Spencer he took only that to read on a voyage on a tramp steamer. It is so dull that he could not make himself read the whole thing any other way.

      Impressive dedication. He did finally give me an A.

    9. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      >>It is so dull that he could not make himself read the whole thing any other way.

      I had the same experience trying to get through Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. So boring. I couldn’t get through more than a few pages without falling asleep.

      Much more interesting were Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Louis Stevenson. I also read completely through Jules Verne at that age. I couldn’t understand why we didn’t cover books like that in school. I think I do now.

    10. Ginny Says:

      David Foster, as usual, is incisive and thoughtful. Our classes are limited to 25 or less, so my students zoning out was my responsibility. And our success rate may have to do with those limits on entry-level classes.
      I came through in the years before really huge lectures, but sometimes those work, I’ve heard. That’s closer to the old system.
      At UT I was one of the grad student teachers (we did all the grading and had two small sections, taught separately twice a week)that taught “the American Experience” at UT in the seventies. We would go to the lectures by the faculty for that class in a cavernous theater. There must have been a couple hundred. Some of those teachers kept the students enthralled but it was more through sentimentality and theatrics than content. (I quit at the end of the year; it was an example of what one of my colleagues here called “Unamerican Studies.”)
      I wonder if what appears to me (but then I’m comparing them with Edwards, etc.) water down sermons might affect our mature abilities to take information that way – a way that was surely prepared (as reading was through the old hymnals) by the practice of listening once a week in our youths.