Even though school doesn’t officially start for us until next week, today was my first day back as I got down to the task of planning for this semester’s classes. I’m teaching Freshman Composition, which I’ve taught many times before, enough that I’m now a little bored. And when I’m bored, I know the students are bored. So I’m switching it up, working in new material and trying out new assignments. With a little encouragement from David Foster Wallace, I have a brand new ENG 110 syllabus all ready to go.
Wallace’s wording in his syllabus is deliciously harsh. I say delicious because, unfortunately, my spring semester students will be paying for the sins of their predecessors. Where, in the fall, I was young and plucky and full of optimism, I now tend to think in terms of loopholes, ways students will try to sweet talk their way out of work, ways that they’ll present challenges that, at the college level, are incredibly frustrating.
It is very easy, I think, for a teacher to fall into the trap of an us vs. them mentality. There are teachers, and there are students. The teachers turn cartwheels to elicit enthusiasm and engagement; the students stare blankly, or worse, text during class. My worst fears, of becoming Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, are realized, and those blank stares haunt me.
This morning, I printed out my student evaluations from last semester. Altogether, not too bad. One or two less-than-helpful comments about the reading selections, but all in all, the students who filled them out provided positive (and sometimes, thank goodness, glowing) feedback. And lo and behold, one student even wrote that the class was too easy. This student felt that college classes are supposed to be challenging, and my class didn’t present a challenge.
I’ve always worried about making a class that’s too hard. When I was in graduate school, my boss told us there are teachers who are gateways and those who are gatekeepers. I always want to be a gateway. I want to help students succeed, give them as many resources as possible to become the best writers they can be. When life knocks them around, as it surely will, I want to be one of those teachers who they can come talk to, who won’t make a hard time even harder for them.
And yet. For all those good intentions, I ended last semester pretty frustrated with my students and myself. I had become complacent, which means I definitely wasn’t being the best teacher I could be, and I wasn’t giving my students what they deserved. It’s not easy to get in front of a classroom and be high-energy and try and convince students that writing is important, that no matter what they do in life, they will need to know how to use an apostrophe, and a comma, and a semicolon, and they will need to know the difference between there, their, and they’re. They need to know that mastery of the written word can cause a riot, a change of heart, it can shame people, inspire them, condemn them, uplift them. The written word is a great and powerful tool, one that has been used to inspire armies, declare wars, woo lovers, mend broken hearts, convince people to make decisions, and sell a great many products, some useful, some not.
As I made my syllabus today, I tried to remember that sentiment. I tried to remember that, when I teach my students, I’m not just yammering on about usage and mechanics; I’m there because I believe in writing. I believe in its power. And I know what it can do. I also know what my students can do, what they’re capable of.
Last semester, I tried out a new assignment. For rhetorical analysis, I broke my students into groups, and I assigned each group a piece of protest literature, covering topics like Civil Rights, the Feminist movement, the Vietnam War, 9/11, and the mixture between race and feminism. None of the students had read the protest literature before, and watching them process Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech or Betty Friedan’s introduction to The Feminine Mystique was inspiring. Each group came away with some new sense of history, of how protestors use rhetoric to make their appeals, and what that has to do with them (we brought it forward a few decades to the current Occupy movement). It was exciting to see how they came to understand those pieces of literature, so far removed from them, and yet, not really so far at all.
And that’s what I need to remember. It’s not us vs. them. It’s me with them. It’s me learning to teach, a little bit at a time, while they learn what they can from me. It’s commas and apostrophes, yes, but it’s also their basic ability to go through the world communicating with other human beings.
I am proud of my new syllabus, and I’m exited to start on planning my brand new course tomorrow. David Foster Wallace had high expectations for his students; he drew no distinction between quality ideas and the quality of the expression of those ideas. I have attempted to utilize some of his bravado, to gain some of that swagger. Because I think my students need it. They need a little swagger from me, and then they need to get a little swagger of their own. And a good, reliable alarm clock.
I often watch inspirational teacher movies while grading large stacks of papers because I’m hoping to become a better teacher by osmosis. This isn’t inspirational in the usual way I go for (such as movies like Mona Lisa Smile and Dead Poets Society), but I don’t know, it just delights me: