Teaching Gone Bad: Reflections On A Semester Gone Wrong

Teaching has gone wrong this semester. I do not need to wait till the end of this semester to write my usual self-assessment; this semester has been a disaster. Two of my three classes are dead in the water, drifting aimlessly; my students and I are locked in a fatal embrace of disinterest and mutual distrust. They do not do the readings or display interest in class; I fail to generate interest in the readings, to hold their attention, to provoke their enthusiasm. We have both dropped the ball; the failure is joint and collective; I do not think this is an unfair indictment. It is clear to me that I’ve gotten the syllabus for one class terribly, terribly wrong–though I wonder if any readings could have held the interest of the particular group of students registered for that class; in another class, I remain happy with my reading list but find myself increasingly frustrated by the students’ utter lack of engagement with the material. Unsurprisingly, I’m teaching worse, and it shows: my students’ expressions assure me they have noticed and are responding. I have, out of frustration, muttered irritably in class about the need for greater engagement with the readings, for the need for written responses to the readings (which I sometimes fail to collect, so passive have I become); my students seem to listen, but their actions indicate only partial comprehension and compliance. Once, in a fit of irritable anger, I informed my class that they did not have to attend if they were not interested in the material, that life was short, and they should expend their time wisely; my students have smartly taken me up on the offer and voted with their feet. Yesterday, in one class, out of twenty-five students, only four bothered to show at class time. Another one drifted in at his usual thirty-minutes-late mark; two others staked out spots a little earlier. The disaster is complete; you can stick a fork in these classes; they are done, done, done.

I have often written here of the best of the teaching experience, of its utter indispensability to my intellectual life; this is the worst of the teaching experience, generating a demoralizing experience that corrodes my sense of self-worth and induces acute cognitive dissonance about my career choices and my identity as a teacher. The end of the semester seems too far; I cannot rely on any running out the clock strategies; the only way out is through. I do not seek advice from my peers; they will not tell me anything I do not already know. This is not arrogance, but hard-won knowledge. Some pedagogical strategies are impossible–for a variety of reasons–for me to implement; yet others have already been tried. Teaching despair is at hand; I do not know how to put all of us, teacher and student alike, out of our collective misery.

Every happy class is alike; every unhappy class is unhappy in its own distinctive way. I’ve found my personal and private version of teaching hell this semester. May it not be anyone else’s.

On Becoming More ‘Confessional’ In The Classroom

A few weeks ago, in the course of a conversation with a colleague here at Brooklyn College, I remarked that over the years I had become more ‘confessional’ in my classroom  interactions with my students. When gently pressed to explain what I meant, I said that I had become more unguarded there, in that space–in expressing some previously undisclosed sentiments of mine about the teaching experience and about my ongoing relationship with my students.

To wit, I have become more open about telling my students that I regard my teaching as a kind of continuing education for myself, one in which they have a significant role to play. I tell them that I teach the material on my reading list in order to understand it better; I might have read an assigned article or book or excerpt before, but I do not consider myself to have truly understood it till I have discussed it in a classroom with those who are experiencing it for the first time. I tell my students that I consider philosophical education to proceed in three stages: first, reading the text by my self; second, discussing the book with a ‘teacher’; third, discussing the book with ‘students’; I, as a teacher, am now in the third stage with regard to the texts I have read before. I tell them that I teach a wide variety of classes because I consider my philosophical education incomplete and hope to make it more well-rounded by doing so. (This leads to a related confession: that I often place material on my syllabus that I have not read before precisely so that I will be obliged to take the time to read it. Sometimes I even tell them that old joke about an academic who asked another if he had read a particular book and was told, “Read it? I haven’t even assigned it!”) I tell them that when they do not do the readings, my disappointment is made more acute by the fact that these objectives of mine have been thwarted. I ask them to consider me a co-learner in the enterprise that we undertake in the classroom; I express the hope they will take this responsibility seriously.

Most of these ‘confessions’ occur in the first class of the semester but on occasion, I find myself returning to them during the semester too. I hope, of course, in doing all of this, to make them regard the classroom experience as something more than a mere passive exercise in receiving wisdom from on high. I hope that my ‘confessions’ will make them take the task of reading the assigned texts more seriously and help them come to class prepared to talk about it with me–and other students.

Like every other pedagogical ‘strategy’ I have adopted, this has only had limited success. I do not know if my students take me seriously, or if they can bring themselves to believe that they could actually move my education along. But because I do not consider myself to be insincere when I indulge in these confessional sessions in class, I intend to keep persisting with this ‘strategy’ for the time being.

Stepping Up To The Plate For Another Fall Classic

Around mid-August or so, my normal ‘auto-chattering’–the monologues I have with myself as I walk around the streets of New York City–picked up pace. I began rehearsing dialogues with an imaginary audience, holding forth, declaiming, answering questions, parrying objections–the whole package. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The 2015 fall semester begins today.

Which means, of course, that the summer is over and that teaching is upon me, once again. I have now completed thirteen years at Brooklyn College, but the feelings that provoked the extended rehearsals I note above have not ceased: stage-fright, performance anxiety, and apprehension of that moment when you step out, from behind that comforting desk, right in front of a group of strangers who hold the power to induce both the sublime and the sordid into your life. Those eyes on you, those expressions; will you see respect, contempt, or worse, just plain old boredom in them? Fourteen weeks to find out, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, given the semester’s sequence of upcoming events, the conversation I have rehearsed the most during my recent perambulations is the opening day’s discussion of the syllabus. (Which begins in about an hour’s time for my Philosophy of Law class; an hour and a half after that, I will meet my Political Philosophy class; next week, I will meet my Introduction to Philosophy night section.) This is the time when I seek to lay down the ground rules for the semester: all those administrative and bureaucratic details that are designed to make my running of the class smoother. No late assignments; no laptops or smartphones; no plagiarism; do the reading; don’t come late to class; and so on. I hope, and I hope, and I continue to hope, that my students will read the syllabus and internalize it, that they will take my strictures seriously and see behind and through them to what I want to accomplish: a series of engaging discussions with them about the philosophical texts I have selected for their edification.  Some will, some won’t.

Opening day is tinged with, besides the apprehension I note, excitement too. There are many new readings on my syllabus–I cannot wait to encounter them with my students. There are old readings too–I wonder what I will find out about them in on this visitation. I wonder if there are students in my classes who will force a new reckoning of familiar material upon me; I look forward to those moments of creative discovery that so serendipitously occur in the midst of a classroom discussion. (Needless to say, I remain resolutely unexcited about the prospect of grading papers.)

I don’t have this teaching thing figured out yet, even though I’ve been doing it for over twenty years now. (I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant in the fall of 1988.) That’s why I need to keep on rehearsing, practicing, asking for feedback, and hardest of all, swallowing my pride. Someone or something will remind me of that at some point during the next fourteen weeks.

The Unread Reading

In The Pervert’s Guide to CinemaSlavoj Žižek says:

All too often, when we love somebody, we don’t accept him or her as what the person effectively is. We accept him or her insofar as this person fits the co-ordinates of our fantasy. We misidentify, wrongly identify him or her, which is why, when we discover that we were wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more lethal for the loved person than to be loved, as it were, for not what he or she is, but for fitting the ideal.

For some reason, these lines occurred to me shortly after I posted the following irate status on Facebook yesterday:

Teaching honeymoon over. Walked out of class today with 25 minutes still left on the clock. 3 out of 33 students had bothered to do the reading. I struggled for as long as I could, and then told them I couldn’t teach them given their failure to do the reading, that I’d see them next week.

A stream of eminently sensible suggestions followed: assign short quizzes, do ‘cold-calling,’ ask students to do oral presentations in class, write response papers, write online in a blog or forum; and so on. I’ve tried all of these at one point or the other in my teaching career. (I can also add to this list: I have asked students to bring in marked-up passages from the text, which are supposed to serve as the basis for class discussion.) I have not been able to sustain any of them; most of these strategies, if not all of them, fall by the way-side during a semester. Perhaps I grow exhausted; perhaps the students do. Nothing works quite as well as a few students–half-dozen, say, in a class of twenty–doing the readings and coming to class prepared to hold forth on anything that caught their fancy. (In case you are wondering. the assigned reading was the first eighty pages of A Canticle For Leibowitz for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class.)

Perhaps my struggles with The Problem of the Unread Reading Assignment are mine alone. Perhaps I am in the grip of an unshakable, untenable, fantastic, conception of my students: they do the readings because they have found the expressed rationale for doing so–the percentage of the class grade that depends on class participation, the intrinsic interest of the text, the intellectual value of close reading and analyses of philosophical material, and so on–to be sufficiently compelling; they are provoked, vexed, amused, irritated, and otherwise stimulated by the assigned readings and seek outlets through which they can express their responses; the classroom, populated by their fellow students, who have read the same material as them, and a teacher, who has promised to discuss it with them, seems like an ideal venue to do so.

All too often, I impose this vision upon an uncooperative reality and find myself disappointed. You may be right in considering this a not particularly intelligent response, but here, sadly, as in too many places elsewhere, I find myself the slave of emotion, not reason.

So if there is a ‘violence’ here, it is always inwardly directed: a crumpling of my resolve to continue teaching,  a paralyzing, seething, frustration that undermines my self-esteem and sparks dissonance about my decision to have ever chosen a path I seem eminently unsuited for.

Of course, this is only the beginning of the semester, so it’s too early to step off the road; for now, it’s back into the breach, forewarned and forearmed.