It Gets Harder: On Teaching

This post can go wrong in many ways. It is not about sex. This post can go wrong in many other ways. It really is not about sex. Stop reading right now if you think it’s about sex. Really. Stop. Since I’ve used the word sex so many times, search engines will probably direct those looking for sex to this post that is really not about sex.

So be it.

We are entering the fourth week of the semester. By this point, I have evaluated at least one assignment from my students. I know their names and I’m beginning to get a sense of their personalities, even the silent ones. I have a pretty good sense of the ones who are effortlessly brilliant, the ones who work hard and produce excellent results, the slackers who work hard sometimes, the very smart who don’t quite understand academic protocols and will amaze their instructors in a few years, and the disengaged.

The class is following a trajectory that I follow every semester, even cultivate: it’s getting harder.

The ideas are getting bigger, even as how we get to them becomes more localized. For instance, we spent a lot of time asking why Langston Hughes uses the term “torture” in “The White Ones.” Time well spent as I insisted that we think and re-think Hughes’s language and voice. Hughes is a cascade of sound—one needs to linger for the full effect, for the spray and the shimmers.

The White Ones

I do not hate you,
For your faces are beautiful, too.
I do not hate you,
Your faces are whirling lights of splendor and loveliness, too.
Yet why do you torture me,
O, white strong ones,
Why do you torture me?—Langston Hughes

As the semester continues, I demand more.

I reason that the more students know, the more they should be able to accomplish.

Difficulty is not measured in terms of extra writing—some years ago, a now very famous student complained that my class was not rigorous because I didn’t require long papers. I’m hoping that in the interim he’s learned about the rigor of the short paper, especially as he’s now working as an editor. Handling complex ideas lucidly and concisely is difficult. Anyone who has condensed a dissertation into a pithy 50 words knows what I mean.

Pithy. Lucid. Condensed.

What I ask for is counterintuitive: increasing complexity rearranges thinking and writing. One struggles to engage new knowledge. As we encounter new ideas, our prose tends to become knotty, circular, tangled, clotted. I can barely read what I wrote when I first encountered theory or when I was reading Lacan every single morning during my first year of grad school. My first drafts are word-traps, syntax-snares, semantic-follies.

I know that what I’m asking for is difficult.

And I ask for it.

I do so as an act of faith in my students. I raise the bar because I believe they can reach it. Even surpass it.

But it always comes as a shock.

Those whose first assignments got Bs blanch when their second assignments get Ds. Those who turned in good first work are surprised when I describe subsequent work as adequate or terrible, both words I use. While I sympathize with the knotty prose of ideas being worked on, I do not indulge sloppy thinking. I can tell the difference.

The semester gets harder. I ask for more.

Some students get it. Try harder. Do more. Others attempt to slide. Those who have decided early on that they’ll “take a C” discover that I am very comfortable handing out Fs. Some give up. Decide that the encounter with difficulty is not worth it. I respect this.

I respect it.

But I don’t reward it.

It gets harder.

3 thoughts on “It Gets Harder: On Teaching

  1. This post *is* about sex.

    Time to quote (out of context) and misread Oscar Wilde:

    Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.

    I see sex all over here!

    And maybe it is time to announce on the internets that I’m at this stage when sex seems boring to me and this academic stuff is really titillating.

    Unfortunately, I’m also at that stage you were when you’d just encountered theory. It has had the effect of making my writing awful. Arguments, no matter how valid, *feel* tucked-on. Theory is sloshing in my head, buffeting everything in its wake. And my waning guru figure (Zizek) constantly encourages me to take long forays away from it all to wander off into crass jokes. Something must be said about how theory undoes and unmakes us when we first encounter it—to the extent that we get very disoriented and we write badly for a while.

    *Popping Adderall and shifting gears*

    It is week seven at university hell. Now that there is nothing left in my tank, maybe I can continue blogging by writing off of you. I see a student version of this post on BMAG. Possible titles include:
    —The breathing gets shallower: On learning
    —Taking it all in: On learning


  2. We’re just gearing up for the semester in Australia (officially starts on Monday) so lesson plans are being discussed, ideas are echoing in the hallowed hallways and we, the collective teaching body, are hoping that this semester we get some students who actually care, and questioning ourselves on what we are doing here anyway.

    As someone who tries to teach ‘Design’, of all things, I’ve had many students come back with an assignment demanding I give them a better mark. One from last semester said, “I believe your mark is unjust. Just because my idea of aesthetics is different to what you like doesn’t mean I should fail.’

    That said, there is a difference between using peacock blue and lime green as elements in a piece (for emphasis or otherwise), and using peacock blue as a background for lime green text. No matter what your idea of aesthetics is, if I can’t actually read your content, or, for that matter, look at your design without going blind, you are going to fail. Theory might argue that bright colours allow for viewers to be attracted to some parts of the design, but theory also talks about unity, balance, consistency… harmony… and those are conveniently forgotten as a student scrapes together a piece for submission the night before it is due, and writes a design rationale that makes me wonder if they actually attended class at all.

    I still push them. The ones who don’t do as well in their first assignment, I tell them, ‘This is why you lost marks. If you do it again, you will fail.’ The ones who do well, I tell them, ‘This is why you got good marks, now I want to see more.’

    Sometimes, just sometimes, someone will ‘get it’, and submit a piece that gets a distinction, or even, gasp, a high distinction. Usually, it’s not the effortlessly brilliant, or the ones who are from industry and have come back to get the qualification they never had. It’s the international student who didn’t understand the unit plan initially, or the performing arts student who was terrified of the computer, or the mature-age student who sits in the lab for hours because they are determined to ‘get it’.

    And that’s when, for a few seconds, we remember why we do this, semester after semester.

  3. The more I teach analysis, the more I want to emphasize that it’s about creativity and innovation, not about “getting things right.” Finding a compelling argument is a creative act. So often lit scholars don’t teach that, in part because too many students believe interpretation is saying what you think, regardless of the actual form or content of a text.

    Many years ago when I taught rhetoric and intro to poetry, I was always excited when it was clear that something we’d been working on had finally clicked. I still like those moments when you can see an idea has been formulated or is brewing, when comprehension meets creativity. I love the peacock blue and lime green example–it’s a great way to think about creativity and legibility. Do students actually use peacock blue as a background for lime green text? I can only imagine the color stories you have!

    I try to push my classes as I’m being pushed–I like to trace a text, follow its possibilities. I’m still learning how to allow possibility and foster creativity while emphasizing groundedness.

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