Wednesday, 10 May 2006

overegging one's pudding

The last few weeks I have not posted here very much at all as I've had so many other things to do. It all crested and crescendoed very much as these things tend to do and now I no longer expect to be routinely falling asleep over my work at 11pm. And yesterday and today my mind has been much occupied by all the good things I want to do this year. If I'm to do them all I must change one of my worst work habits, namely taking forever to do something when it could be done just as well with one pass and in a third of the time.

Not having enough time to do everything "properly" is not so bad. I'm discovering I don't need to do extensive rereading of multiple critical debates around Heart of Darkness, for example, in order to have a good first year tutorial on it. In fact it seems quite likely that habitually cramming a bunch of criticism & commentary before classes might've in the past contributed to making my tutorials unnecessarily twitchy, as I think it probably meant I tried to force discursive tangents into conversational openings - relating students' remarks to similar things critics have said, critics the students probably haven't read mind you, or even less helpfully, leaping stream-of-consciousness style from one critical hypothesis about a text onto a second that's completely incompatible with the first. The so-called "Intelligent Design"-related phrase "teaching the controversy" comes to mind as a fair description of what I have in the past attempted to do, partly out of wish to encourage students to step into the ongoing conversations critics have about literature, and (less nobly) I think out of a sort of shyness about being seen to have a strong opinion of my own about how the book in question should be interpreted, in case this leads some students to doubt the worth of their own notions.

The reality is I do indeed know what I'm talking about; my memory can be relied on to supply the material when people ask for information and my thoughts are orderly enough to arrange the material in a logical and communicable way. There really is no need to think it all through in advance as the thinking is exactly the same when it's done on the spot. Leaving secondary stuff at a secondary level of consciousness until it's needed results in psychic decluttering of the main arena, the text under study (and that text does have to be carefully reread each time it's taught) and discussion is more focused and less scattergun. When complication arises it comes out of the complications of the text directly rather than out of complications somebody else has seen in it and which have been retailed at secondhand by me back to the class.

In short, in my sixth year of university teaching I've relaxed a bit, under pressure, paradoxically. Consequently I am finding the teaching more interesting and more enjoyable. I don't think I've quite got it right yet however. It seems tremendously important that students get in the way of thinking about literary criticism as an ongoing, mannerly, reasonable, but intensely partisan stoush, and that they don't regard this stoushing as a kind of side order with no bearing on the basic essential constitution of the book under study. I do tell them I think this but some of them must've noticed we are saying one thing and practicing a thing that is slightly different.


ThirdCat said...

I love this post. Welcome back and good luck with that working out how to stop overegging. And when you work out, I will buy the secret from you. For a while there, children (or more precisely babies) stopped me overegging. But I seem to be slipping into old habits.

bazlotto seems to be getting extremely difficult to win. Do you think I'm too competetive?

elaine said...

I love this post too.

Teaching at university level is an amazingly terrifying and stimulating part of academic life.

It's so easy to forget that you know more than you think you do and a that's huge amount more than your students. Even if you don't know the answers you can hazard a guess that will be pretty close to the mark and let them know how they can find out for themselves.

Which, in the end, is the point.

Zoe said...

Right on, Elaine. You can also bullshit a little bit occasionally, Laura. It's not like nobody else does.

Nice to see you easing up on yourself.

Anonymous said...

First. year. students. are. stupid.

Repeat three times and go to tutorial.

I don't mean this nastily, of course. I occasionally teach third years, and the secret for me is to remember that they don't get the most basic, basic, things that I think are commonplace.

In fact, realising them in the first place was a huge and empowering revelation for me. It's not that they are basic at all, just that they have become commonplace to my subjective experience of the discipline.

Smacking myself about the chops for my own blindness about this is very useful.
- barista

elsewhere said...

problem is that second year students seem to have forgotten everything they learned in first year...

i thought this post was very 'jo(e)'...

Kate said...

And that third year students forget everything they learned in first year and second year.

I'm sure I was a stupid undergrad too, I remember having discussions with other students about certain things we were covering in lessons that I now look back on and cringe at some of my ideas. I remember being quite annoyed at one point that we had to study all these texts about ethnicity and race and so on from an outsider pesrepective and thinking 'when does my culture get a run?' without of course realising that the dominant culture gets a run all the time. And that my feeling of being ignored in this course could perhaps give me some insight into what it was like ALL THE TIME for a non-white non-anglo in Australia.

But I digress. From what I've read on your blog I think you are too hard on yourself. Your love and understanding of literature -- and other things, too, like film -- is clear and impressive. Every time I come here I learn something, and I don't mean that in a hokey way, but in a genuine way.

Lucy Tartan said...

thanks folks for the supportive comments. I must stress that actually university students are very bright these days, despite some of the nonsense you hear / read about slipping standards etc, and much better prepared for tertiary study than I was.

The things Kate and Barista say about the moments when a person masters a disciplinary commonplace or comes to a reflective critical awareness of something they already "knew" in a subconscious sort of way are very interesting - you both wrote about what students might learn, but your remarks apply equally well to what I'm learning about how to teach.

I'm honoured by the thought of having reminded you of jo(e), Elsewhere.

Thirdcat, maintaining the optimum bazlotto balance is not easy, but I'll give some thought to making it a bit easier perhaps. I don't want to cheapen that magic feeling you do get when you finally hit the jackpot.

ThirdCat said...

Yeah, or I could take it a bit less seriously I suppose.

It's that early victory I had you see.

Zoe said...

NEVER won Bazlotto. NEVER ONCE!