Monday, February 10, 2014


I made the comment not too long ago that English majors ought to know better than to do some certain things.  It occurs to me now that there is something a bit...unfair about that comment.  Senior and graduate English majors ought to know better, sure, but the lower-division folks (freshmen* and sophomores) have not really had the opportunity yet to learn.  I have to wonder, therefore, how appropriate it is of me to hold them to a standard to which they may well not have been introduced.

Thinking back over what I have modeled for the students, however, I think that I have been introducing them to the standards of performance.  My own comments are more or less considered; practice does allow me to do so more quickly than my students can achieve, and it remains the case as ever that when I re-read what is written, I come to understand more about it.  (How else is it that more is found to say about the Bard or the Well of English Undefiled after hundreds of years?)  Those students whose submissions do the things they ought get explicit commendation from me, and I even note that they are models to be followed by their classmates (something like "This is the kind of work I like to see my students do").  Those whose work does not do what I want it to do get quiet, private admonishments from me, exhortations to do better and suggestions about what that "better" may mean.**  (Quick emails are helpful.)  So I am convinced that they are, in fact, introduced to the model.

Some are admittedly quicker studies than others.  I find that I hold no ire for those who are not but who are clearly trying to be; Lord knows that I need some lessons repeated often enough (for example, this).  I do shake my head at the folly, for some of the students who need such repetition are quite intelligent and engaging in the classroom, and apply grade penalties as appropriate.  There is not much I can do otherwise; I continue to teach, I reach out as I can, and those students who reach back find a hand waiting to help them up and dust them off so that they can continue on their way.  Those who do not reach out...I have many students who do seek actual help (not "Just tell me what to do to get the grade"), and I do what I can to help them.

Self-examination is frequent.  (It cannot be constant, else work on The Work could not be done.)  Self-improvement is hopefully only slightly less frequent; it is too much to think either that improvement will not often be necessary or that opportunities for improvement will always be identified.  And I hope to be able to apply what I learn about myself and about the world as I become a better teacher to other areas of my life that are by far more important.

*I wonder at the continued gendering of the term.  Despite institutions I know transitioning to calling some courses "first-year" rather than "freshman," the classification remains labeled by its old exclusivist name.  Ought we perhaps to develop a better?

**"Better" requires "good," and what is good is subject to debate and interpretation.

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