Several of my students…

Several of my students have told me in the past week how much they enjoyed my classes this semester. Which I admit to having oddly mixed feelings about. On the one hand, given that I had a new baby this spring, and a teaching overload due to the lack of actual maternity leave last fall and a class consequently getting moved to spring, not to mention the whole renovating house 10-15 hrs / week of unexpected research time, I think my courses went surprisingly well. I tried pretty damn hard to do a good job with my teaching this semester, and not let my exhaustion or scrambled brain affect my planning before class or my energy levels in class. I think for the most part, I succeeded in giving good class. (I admit, my grading was not quite as fast as it normally is. But I always got the papers back before the next one was due, which is something, right?) So I think overall, I taught well this spring. Maybe.

I'm really glad my students enjoyed my classes -- when I think back to college, my best classes were generally the ones I enjoyed, where usually I had a fun, engaging professor who helped make the material interesting. I do want to be that kind of teacher. But at the same time -- I wonder if I taught them enough. Did I make them read enough? Did I offer enough critical theory? Did they get enough history to ground the literature? Did I grade too easy? Am I giving too many A's and B's? At the end of the semester, I don't want them to just think I'm a fun teacher -- I want them to think I'm challenging. Hard, but fair. And -- this is where my own insecurities really come into play, and where this whole 'clinical faculty' thing makes me anxious -- I wonder if I'm actually as good as the other English faculty here at UIC. I'm pretty confident with my fiction writing instruction, certainly at the undergrad level. But lit?

I did do the Ph.D. I read the lit, I studied the theory (literary theory, post-colonial theory, narrative theory -- three separate courses). I think I had a decent handle on it all in grad school, and I could keep up fine with the lit. people. But I finished my coursework in 2003, and I really am primarily a fiction writer, and it's not as if I've kept reading theory, or even general lit. crit. Oh, occasionally I'll come across something, in an issue of South Asian Studies or Catamaran or Foundation or some such. I like it fine when I do run into it. But by far, I mostly read fiction and creative nonfiction. Which is what I'm mostly supposed to be doing, I think. But it makes me feel anxious about my teaching. (Yes, dreaded imposter syndrome strikes again. Hello, old friend. Aren't I rid of you yet?)

My students talk about how tough their other English professors are, how sharp and analytical they are. I don't think they talk that way about me. Do the students think I'm smart? As smart as their other professors? Am I conveying enough information in this literature course? Which is especially tricky because I prefer a student-learning-centered approach, which is much less about me having a pile of information to try to pour into their heads, and much more about offering them materials and some basic ways of looking at the topic of the course, and then letting their own questions and interest drive the discussion / learning. I think that's generally a much more effective way to learn, plus it makes for more engaging classes, when they're all talking to each other and not just trying to regurgitate facts for me. And the topic of post-colonial literature is broad enough that there are a thousand valid approaches to take to it. But this kind of classroom learning is fuzzy to evaluate. Did we just spend an hour and a half having a rich and productive discussion that actually led to greater understanding of post-colonial literature? Or did we just ramble entertainingly and laugh a lot?

I wish I could go sit in on some of my colleagues' lit classes, just so I could be sure I was doing it right. But I think they'd find that awkward. And I'm not even sure it would help.

Argh. I'm going to be spending the next few days reading final papers and giving final grades. I mean to go on as I have been all semester -- no suddenly going extra-easy on them just because I'm worried about whether I'm rigorous enough as a lit teacher -- no suddenly going extra-hard on them either. Neither would be fair. I'll be fair with my grading, and I expect my student evaluations to be good and positive, as they normally are. But I wish I could know that I was actually doing this lit-teaching-thing well overall.

In the fall, one of my colleagues is supposed to evaluate one of my lit classes for my portfolio. I would have scheduled it this spring, but honestly, I was too freaked out to deal. I need to do it in the fall, so somehow, I will suck it up and get it done. Hopefully I'll learn something useful from it. But really, I'm hoping he just comes in, watches me teach, and then says I'm doing a terrific job, and how he had no idea I was such a great literature teacher.

That would be really nice. Somehow, I don't think that's how it's going to go down.

(Kevin said last night while we were talking that lately, I've seemed a lot less sure of myself than normal. Lots more second-guessing -- about teaching, writing, house colors, parenting, relationship stuff, etc. and so on. I think he's probably right, but I have no idea why I've been such a mess lately. Please forgive the frequent freak-outs. Hopefully they'll stop soon, and I'll go back to being my normal cheerful and sanguine self.)

6 thoughts on “Several of my students…”

  1. Oddly enough, the best classes I teach seem to be the ones where I’m being observed. Something about the experience sharpens the mind.

    And I know what you’re saying. I remember Vince even saying that he wondered when everyone was going realize he was an impostor. Vince. Really.

    I don’t think I’m any slouch when it comes to narrative or critical theory, but I’m like you. The only time I’m really reading this stuff lately is when I’m trying to teach it, and I feel the lack. But the more I teach it, the more questions I find myself asking.

    As for toughness, I’m going through a similar questioning. Except I feel like I’ve been too tough. That excites the students who want challenges (like most of my Honors students), but I also realize that I’m not the kind of professor students “love,” which makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong. I got some great responses this semester and I’m even friends with some of my former students (mostly conservative ones, oddly enough). But I think if most saw me at a social gathering, they’d try to avoid me. I’m trying to work on that part, to connect with them on more than just an intellectual level.

  2. There’s no one right way to teach.

    I’m with you on preferring a student-learning-centric approach, which is no less challenging than a top-down approach. Being able to provide tools, spark discussions, and then get out of the way, while being able to keep the conversation from going too far afield is tough. It’s also been the hallmark of my favorite classes.

    On the other hand, I know that a couple of my classmates in my favorite class of all time didn’t care for it at all. And I also know that a couple of my classmates in my most detested class of all time quite liked it. (Don’t ask me why.) It’s one reason why colleges hire professors with a variety of styles and personality types, so that students can find something that works for them.

    The upshot is, if you’re not entirely like many of the other English professors… this isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength.

  3. There’s some comfort in knowing that most teachers – at least the good ones – question their abilities. For me, I know I’m being rigorous enough (one of the perks of my coursework – there is no easy way to teach accounting!). But no matter what I do, I struggle to engage the students. I bring in relevant articles from the Wall Street Journal and other financial periodicals – but they don’t care. I ask questions – and hear crickets. I mandate homework, class participation, and lay out exactly what they need to do to succeed in the class – and still many fall below a C.

    The only benefit is that I get to teach my upper level courses over the summer, and those students really want to be there. I’ll get a few who shouldn’t be there, but for the most part, my students are in the major and are juniors and seniors. They want to learn.

    I had many inspiring teachers when I was in undergrad (fewer at the grad level) and I know I put much more in to my classes than some of my full-time faculty… but I still question myself. How can I be inspiring when teaching Statements of Cash Flows? *sigh*

    Good luck!

  4. I think you serve an important balance in the students’ lives and learning experience. I think you’ll probably never be comfortable being the kind of teacher who inspires fear of disapproval in her students. Rigorous, sharp-edged analysis is a spur – you provide a lure into learning instead. If your classroom is a place where students can relax a little and laugh, then fantastic! You’re teaching them something beyond the subject matter. You’re teaching them to balance the pleasure of learning with the determination to succeed.

    *hug* You are awesome. (And brilliant! Never doubt that!)

  5. Sympathies on the second-guessing.

    I obviously haven’t attended one of your classes per se. But I’ve learned a lot from you in discussions (whether I was participating or not) that could be characterized as entertaining rambles, so I suspect that you’re managing to educate them even if they’re also ending up entertained.

    Also, ditto you and everyone else here who’s noted that multiple approaches can be good. I recall attending a class in college with a teacher I particularly liked, and talking afterward with a fellow student who said “OMG that professor talks so much, talk talk talk, he never gives the students a chance to participate!” And I thought, “But that’s part of what I like about him; he gives great lectures!” Not that I disliked classes where the students got to participate; I just didn’t dislike lectures on principle the way some of my friends did. So, yeah, different students have different learning styles and preferences.

    But you knew that, so never mind.

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