Apr. 9th, 2013

heart_in_the_margins: (Armful)
I should say a few things at the outset.

a. I'm talking only about a particular kind of pedagogy here -- that is, what goes on in classrooms where English literature is taught. I do think that pedagogy here is different from pedagogy in other fields, because other fields have facts. The closest thing to facts that English has is the text (which even then is subject to all kinds of mutilations, mistransmissions, elisions, editions, etc. and therefore not quite like a fact after all).

b. I recognize that professors have the right to teach classes in a way that benefits these professors and makes them care. Teaching is a relationship that needs to account for the professor as well as the student. My worries arise when the balance of interest in the class parallels the balance of power -- in which the teacher knows more and cares more and there's some relationship between these, in my opinion, that I'm interested in hashing out.

c. I understand there are people who get their PhDs in English because they care about research, not about teaching. I understand that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this orientation. But it is fundamentally ethically illegible to me, because I don't see how what I do matters if it doesn't involve teaching.

d. My approach to pedagogy is fundamentally linked to my thoughts about the primacy of reading in this discipline. Reading, in turn, is fundamentally linked to re-reading, with the potential for infinite reading -- and, as a result, the potential for infinite meaning. In lectures especially, the professor is the one who gets to make arguments about the texts, but the students who care, who have done the reading, will come to class with their own arguments, their own opinions and assumptions, their own reasons for caring about the texts. Sometimes these reasons will be different from the professor's reasons. Sometimes this means their interpretations will be different, too. But a fundamental principle of infinite interpretation is that any professor truly committed to this view of reading needs to be open to arguments not her own. 

With this in mind:

1. I will not teach a "book class" after I have figured out the argument I want to make in the book. It's a common enough phenomenon for professors to construct syllabuses that look like bibliographies-in-progress for their upcoming scholarly work. I'm not opposed to this. I love the kind of thinking that happens in the classroom -- particularly the seminar room, particularly with upper-level undergrads and grad students -- and I hope that the books I write will be challenged and bettered by this kind of thinking in conversation. What I am against is professors coming into classes with their arguments so ready-prepared that they aren't willing to hear dissent. 

2. I will not teach a syllabus centered around a restrictive theme. Ultimately, my arguments against the "theme class" are very closely related to my arguments against the "book class." The "theme class" often guides students' scholarly activity in ways that doesn't benefit them. If I'm a Victorianist, and the only Victorian lit class being offered this semester is "Shame in the Victorian Novel," of course I'm going to take it, but when it comes time to write seminar papers, it won't help my real research interests -- whatever they may be -- if I'm forced to write a paper focusing on shame in the Victorian novel. I think it's okay to organize your syllabus around a theme -- let's face it, you pretty much have to implicitly, if not explicitly -- but I think you should be candid about the ways in which your theme restricts the potential readings of the texts you've selected, and you shouldn't force a slavish adherence to this theme upon your students when it comes time to write papers.

3. I will not dismiss a student's contribution to discussion, nor will I curtail students' participation in discussion in any way unless their participation is negatively impacting the participation of others. This is English. This is not where you go for right and wrong answers. There will, inevitably, be interpretations that seem more "off-topic" than others, based on the general concerns of the course, or the shared knowledge base of the classroom, and I do believe that professors play an important role in moderating discussion so that all students can participate in it as fully as possible. But unless a student is factually wrong (and see underlying assumption a, English is a discipline with very few facts), I will never dismiss an interpretation outright. 

4. I will not grade students down for failing to meet expectations I have not made explicit. This one seems pretty obvious, but it's amazing how often I see this happening. When a professor says any variation of "It's surprising how many of you made the same mistake," it's probably not actually surprising -- it's probably the professor's fault, for not making it clear to the students that doing X counts as a mistake.

5. I will not let my students' performance on a single assignment change the way I view them as people or as scholars. I like to think of this as the doctrine of "we've all been there." Every professor was once a grad student, and an undergraduate before that, so why is it that so many of them seem to forget how hard it was? Judging a person based on a single paper (or midterm, or report, etc.) is subscribing to the implicit assumptions that a) this class is the student's top priority, b) the student's personal life is not relevant to their academic performance, and c) everyone is capable of doing equally well on the specific type of assessment being considered. I'm pretty sure that most of the time, none of these are true. 

6. I will not subscribe to a system of grading that does not reward radical improvement. The point of teaching is that students are always learning. The point of having multiple assessments over the course of a semester is to allow students the opportunity for improvement. If this improvement isn't represented in their end-of-term grade, then something is wrong with my grading system, because a grade should reflect what a student can do at the end of the class, rather than punishing her for what she couldn't do at the beginning. 

I have more thoughts than this, and I am not sure that I fully own all of these thoughts, so maybe you should read them like my prof A reads the letters of John Keats, more as workings-out of ideas than assertions of them, but here they are, working themselves out.

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