Friday, February 25, 2011
I usually teach writing, and only writing. Endless comp classes of one kind or another, my life a slightly fraying, slightly warping tape loop.
Except that every once in a while, I get paroled for one-fourth of my semester's course load for a lit class. This semester, it's your basic survey of literature class, a 200-level course that is designed to introduce students to the joys of literature.
Next week, there's a midterm exam. I gave my students the format for the midterm exam this week. I'm only holding them to five weeks of material for the midterm, because they also had a short essay that they turned in and I figure it may take some time for some of the most recent stuff to sink in.
It is not open book. There is no study guide. It covers a finite amount of material that we have been discussing from (I swear it feels like this) the beginning of time. I explained to the class that I expect them to be able to apply key concepts to selections from the book--an anthology that also contains explanations of how to approach and understand literature, a nice little book, really--and that I will give them the excerpts they need to complete the exam. The exam has a variety of question types. It should take them an hour.
This is what transpired when I made the terrible mistake of asking, "Are there any questions?"
Student A: Are we going to be responsible for things in assigned chapters of the book that we haven't discussed in class?
Student A: But, we haven't discussed them!
Me: Yes, but we've discussed nearly everything, and you've applied these concepts in class to selections of texts, individually and in groups.
Student A: But, how can we understand them if we haven't discussed them in class? I'm really confused.
Me: We have discussed most of the material in class. It's impossible to discuss all of the material from the text in class.
Student A: But, I don't really learn anything unless it's discussed in class. How am I supposed to know this?
Me: Well...this is a 200-level course, and it's your responsibility to ask questions about material from the text that you don't understand. You've had plenty of opportunity to ask questions about material that you don't understand.
Student A, indignantly: When? Can you tell me when I've had the opportunity to ask these questions?
Me, politely: Yes, I can. In every class, I ask the class if there are things from the book that you don't understand. That's one opportunity. I also hold many office hours per week, and those provide another opportunity for you to ask questions about things that you don't understand. And you're often asked to respond, in writing, to questions about the course material, at the beginning and the end of class. I can think of several instances in the first half of the semester when those responses would have provided opportunities for you to ask questions about materials you don't understand.
Student B, quietly: This is bullshit!
Me: What was that, Student B?
Student B: Nothing.
Student C: I think what Student B was trying to say is that this is going to be really hard. I mean, without notes. And you just sprung it on us.
Me, calmly: Okay, then. As this is a 200-level class with a 100-level course as its prerequisite, I've been operating under the assumption that each of you knows how to read a syllabus--the same syllabus that we went over as a group on the first day of class. That syllabus clearly explains that there will be a midterm exam and it gives you the date. I'm also operating under the assumption that this isn't the first exam you've ever taken, given that this is a 200-level course. So...if you've had the information ahead of time and I'm also explaining the exam more than a week in advance, I'm at a loss as to how this exam and its nature can be a surprise. Other questions?
Student D: If you're not going to hold a review session, can we at least have a review guide or something?
Me, again calmly, politely: You do have review materials at your disposal. You have your textbook. You have your notes. You have handouts on material that we've covered. You have quizzes that you've taken. You also have many office hours between now and the exam to come and discuss material with me. If you can't make office hours, email me.
The class reacted to this as though I had dropped a bomb on them. Luckily, the timing of this was such that after I reminded them of their many review options, it was time for class to end. I told them that I was available to answer questions after class, and not one of the 40 of them lingered to ask.
Not one has come to office hours. Not one has emailed. As far as I know, no one's complained to my chair, either.
Moments like these in the classroom feel like tipping points to me: If I really think about the implications of the ways in which my students communicated with me--I mean, really, really, really think about them--I will teeter into an abyss from which I will never emerge, and despair for the future of humanity.