Three Things for Teaching Thursday

We’ve just entered the homestretch of the semester and students (and faculty) have one eye on the summer and one eye on the matters at hand. This always presents a challenging situation for everyone involved, but it also offers an opportunity to think about how to make future classes better and makes it a good time for a teaching Thursday.

Thing the First

One of the first signs in my classes that the semester is no longer working for the students is my attendance drops off. Over the last few years, this has tended to happen pretty rapidly at the week 10 or 11 point and this semester was no exception. The University of North Dakota has long semesters: 16 weeks. And even when I really like a class and the work it is doing, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there’s plenty of time to reinforce key ideas and methods. On the other hand, the fun of learning something new has a chance to wear pretty thin. We’re definitely at the “wearing thin” part of the semester right now.

A few years ago, I recognized that students tended to lose interest in my classes by week 10 or so. To combat this, I broke my historical methods class into three five-week “courses.” Each course has a different feel to it, a different rhythm, and different goals. While I think this worked to keep my class fresh over the long semester, it also revealed that the problem wasn’t just my class, but the larger rhythm of learning at the institution. Students get ground down by our larger approach to curriculum.

There is a kind of conventional wisdom to this approach. If we assume that part of what college does is to break down student resistance to the paralyzing boredom of life as a cog in the capitalist machine, then our 16-week semester certainly serves its purpose. Even if we assume that the 16-week semester is designed to impart stamina (rather than, necessarily, break down resistance), the duration of the learning experience has less to do with the effective delivery of content and more to do with the goal of college to socialize students and prepare them for the unrelenting grind of adult life. 

That students resist these lessons by absenting themselves from class is not only predictable, but perhaps even laudable. 

Thing the Second

For the last two years, I’ve been a reader for a student creative writing contest. This experience has given me the change to read a remarkable gaggle of work that ranges from the incredibly polished to the spontaneous and surprising (and sometimes cringe-worthy).

One of the main takeaways I get from reading this work is how much contemporary students struggle with grief, loss, pain, and the incredible sadness that suffuses everyday life. The poetry, in particular, often becomes so raw and painful to read that I need to take little breaks and catch my emotional breath. As a college students, I can vividly remember the stress that I felt trying to get work done and navigate personal relationships during the college, but I also remember my college years as generally fun and at times exciting. I see precious little of that fun and excitement in the creative works that I read from this contest. 

Instead, I read about pain and loss and violence (even if a good bit of the violence is comic-book style escapist fantasy). It may be, of course, that students regard anxiety and sadness to be a hallmark of serious writing and a willingness to come to terms and confront adulthood. But that is even more depressing, in some ways, because it suggests that their experiences as students are unworthy of serious consideration. 

I’m thinking more and more about the value of an anthology of student writing not only as an opportunity for both students to share their worlds, but also for faculty to confront the inner life of students.

Thing the Third

I’m very, very close to announcing that I’ll be teaching a class on editing and publishing in the English department next semester. This as yet-unconfirmed class would focus on three things. First, I’d like to invite some “industry folks” to come and talk to the class about the editing and publishing business. Since most of my colleagues are from academic publishing, the course will have a decidedly academic slant.

At the same time, we’d work to shepherd a volume of North Dakota Quarterlythe literary journal that I edit, into production. This would include involving the students in managing the copy edits, putting the contributions in order, reviewing page proofs, and deciding on a cover.

Finally, the class would take on an additional project. I have two in mind. A big project would be preparing an online anthology of NDQ content from the last 90 volumes. This would involve reading through back issues and identifying contributions that stand out. Alternately, it would be very useful to get the last volumes 75-85 digitized and added to the NDQ digital archive. I’ll have to give these two projects a bit of thought over the next few months. 

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