Drawing by Bill Kaul, 1997
Teaching Critical Theory to Undergraduate English Majors
by Douglas Robinson
All teachers, probably, have a conscious
or unconscious list of complaints about both students and administrators,
the "below" and the "above" of the teaching profession
that together make the job possible, but also sometimes difficult. Students
haven't read enough, can't write well enough, don't think reflexively
enough, don't work hard enough; administrators impose rigid institutional
constraints on a teacher's job, mandating a certain number of hours in
a certain classroom, a specific highly defined grading system (and discourage
"grade inflation"), and often a certain number of exams (midterms,
finals). At my university the prevailing assumption is that all classes
with enrollments over about 30 are "lectures," with the result
that no one ever bothers to keep track of which classrooms big enough
for such "lectures" have movable desks, which have them bolted
What if anything can be done about all
this? Some of it, nothing; every semester, for example, I fight to get
assigned classrooms with movable desks, and nearly always fail. Some things
it's possible to ignore; the university's student evaluation forms, for
example, assume a lecturer passing static information on to students,
who take notes and then tests, so that the key signs of a good teacher
in the evaluation results are knowledge of the subject matter, clear lectures,
and fair tests. All of that is irrelevant to how I teach, so I waste fifteen
minutes at the end of every semester having students fill out these forms
and then pass out my own evaluation forms.
But the notion that we're somehow institutionally or psychosocially (or however) doomed to these things, to teaching a certain kind of "lacking" student in a certain kind of conventional way, bothers me. And over the years I've kept picking at that notion and its practical pedagogical consequences, trying things, asking for and experimenting with students' suggestions, keeping what works, discarding what doesn't until these days I find that my classes tend to be substantially different from those of most of my colleagues. Not necessarily better, in any absolute sense; only better in their fit with my personality, perhaps, so that I really love teaching them. Students enjoy them too, but I'm under no illusion that my classes are the only ones they enjoy. My teaching methods do, however, increasingly seem to me to have evolved in ways that at least partly answer or solve some of the problems with "inadequate" students and "rigid" institutional structures for example, by getting students to draw on their own strengths, become emotionally invested in their work, and discover intellectual aptitudes that they didn't know they had, and by making it possible and enjoyable to have 50 students in a non-lecture class and I've been thinking lately that it might be time to share them with others. Maybe they only work for me; but maybe not. Maybe they can work for you too.
I was hired to teach critical theory
at the University of Mississippi in 1989, after twelve years of teaching
in English and translation studies departments in Finland. The first sequence
I taught at Ole Miss was a history of critical theory from Plato to the
present, at the 500 level, which meant that both undergrads and grad students
could (and did) take it. I had some good students at both levels who made
the class a joy to teach, but it seemed to me that most of the students
in the class were falling through the cracks: the class was too professionally
oriented for the undergrads, not professional enough for the grad students.
The grad students needed critical theory so they could sound smart and
sophisticated in job interviews and write intelligent-sounding abstracts
for conferences, articles for journals, and papers for (at least a few)
professors in the department.
The undergrads had very different needs,
which were never as well defined as they were for grad students. Most
were not going on to grad school in English. Some were going to be high
school English teachers, others lawyers, some writers; most, perhaps,
had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives. Only a few would
consider themselves intellectuals; some were overtly anti-intellectual;
most, again, while resistant by long habit to complex self-reflective
thought, would not label themselves at either extreme of that particular
spectrum. What did they need out of a course on critical theory
or, as the department labels it, "literary criticism"?
I decided that they needed what all students
need: experience with critical thinking. They needed to start wherever
they happened to be in their reflective processes and begin to think more
complexly, to take harder and more searching looks at what they thought,
and how, and why. They needed to decompartmentalize their lives, exploring
connections between things they learned in class and things that were
happening to them outside of class a process that I believed wasn't
a high priority for many of my students (or, for that matter, my colleagues
either) in their lives.
I know something about progressive pedagogies
and believe in them fervently; on the other hand, I keep finding that
my own pedagogical practices are always disturbingly more traditional
than my beliefs, and I am constantly discovering some new area in which
I remain entrapped by conventional assumptions about what a teacher should
be doing and why. For example, the second year I taught critical theory
at Ole Miss, I taught one section each semester of a 400-level literary
theory class for juniors and seniors (the focus of the rest of my remarks)
and one section the entire year of a 600-level seminar. As far as anyone
could tell, the 400-level theory class had never been taught, but I hoped
that teaching separate courses for undergraduates and grad students would
solve the dilemma I had felt the previous year. In any case, that year
in my undergraduate theory class I gave a final. It was an open-book,
open-note essay final, thus requiring no memorization; and I only gave
it because the university requires all instructors to give finals to undergraduates.
But my willingness to give it just because the university required it
reflected my uncritical acceptance of a key tenet in the pedagogical regimen
that I supposedly rejected: that students are expected to master a body
of material presented by the teacher, and will be graded on their success
in doing so. Fortunately, one student thought I had graded his final unfairly,
and came to complain about it; my uneasiness as I defended my grade made
me aware of what I was doing, what I was buying into, and I never gave
another final again. (I now give "e-mail finals" which are actually
student evaluations of the course.)
I've now been teaching this 400-level
course for five years, one section a semester for the first two and a
half years, two sections a semester since. The department used to require
all English majors to take what they call a "specialty" course;
students had to choose one out of eight of nine alternatives, which were
fairly evenly divided between grammar and critical theory. Since our linguist
was one of the department's best representatives of the banking (lecture-and-test)
approach, students had a fairly clear choice on several levels: not only
in what they studied but in how they studied it. Back then, in the mid-nineties,
each English faculty member taught five courses a year, typically four
undergraduate classes and one graduate seminar; one course per semester
has to be a so-called "service" course, which for most people
meant a 200-level literature class. I taught 206, Masterworks of American
Literature, and 210, Masterworks of World Literature (I did the Bible
as literature), until swelling enrollments in my 400-level theory class
required the move to two sections a semester. For five or six years that
is mostly what I did: four sections of the 400-level theory class every
year, one graduate seminar.
We've since gone to a 2-and-2 teaching
load, and the specialty course requirement has been dropped; also, a couple
of years ago the department hired a second theorist, so that, while the
theory course remains popular enough to require us to offer four sections
a year, I only teach two of them, my colleague the other two. We are currently
discussing making the senior theory course a capstone course required
of all majors, to be taught by any member of the department.
I am, in any case, still teaching this course that I invented about ten years ago. It has been my primary channel of pedagogical experimentation over those ten years. Let me ring through some of the changes I've made in various aspects of the course.
3. Practical applications
A few years ago a grad school friend
of mine wrote up a piece similar to this on how she taught a critical
theory course at a similar institution elsewhere in the South; one of
the things that stuck in my craw in an otherwise interesting and useful
article was her statement that she deliberately didn't assign a literary
text for the students to apply the theories to, so as not to give the
impression that literary theory is all about interpretive applicability.
Actually, I believe what she said was that she didn't want to give students
the impression that literary theory was just about helping you read literature
better, which I would agree with; however, the larger principle, that
critical theory need not be applicable to anything for it to be valuable,
bothered me a good deal. This seemed a variation on the "pure science"
theme, critical theory for critical theory's sake, thought for thought's
sake, which in turn sounded suspiciously like a glorification of compartmentalized
life: when you "read literature," you just read literature,
without drawing conclusions for the living of your own life; when you
"do theory," you just do theory; presumably, when you watch
TV or listen to music or order a meal at a restaurant or do any of the
other nonacademic things in your life, you keep literature and critical
theory alike somehow ideally at bay.
Given my abiding desire to break down
those compartmental walls, I have always assigned a novel, along with
a biography of the author and a few pieces of criticism. The novels I've
assigned include Henry James's The Golden Bowl, William Faulkner's
Absalom, Absalom!, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior,
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, Thomas
Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Flannery O'Connor's The Violent
Bear It Away and Wise Blood, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
and Lolita, Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God,
Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Martin Amis's Time's Arrow,
and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down.
Every semester I try to choose a novel
or novels that are difficult and complex enough to sustain the kind of
scrutiny that a class like this brings to bear on a text; I never know
in advance which books are going to work. The Violent Bear It Away,
for example, fell apart about two-thirds through the semester, despite
the fact that going into the class I liked it much better than Wise
Blood; the fact that the three male characters, Old and Young Tarwater
and Rayber, dominate the book so thoroughly made theoretical applications
increasingly repetitive. It was very difficult to break out of that Tarwater-Tarwater-Rayber
triangle (though a few feminist presenters tried valiantly). One semester
I deliberately assigned a book that I had never read before, Behn's Oroonoko,
so that I would be reading it for the first time with the students. The
idea, after all, is not for me to tell the students what the book is about,
but for us all to explore a series of frames that make the book "about"
a series of different things; why then should I have the advantage (beyond
being trained for this) of having read and studied the book, while most
of them are seeing it for the first time? I'm not sure what difference,
if any, this experiment made; but it seemed a worthwhile thing to try.
During the class periods in which we
discuss "the novel," we don't discuss "the novel"
in the traditional sense though students expect me to tell them
all about it, what this or that means, what the narrative structure or
characterization signifies, etc., and they get very frustrated (especially
the male overachievers) when I just throw up my hands and say "I
don't know." The focus in discussion is not on the novel as a literary
artifact but on what kinds of issues we can imagine ourselves dealing
with throughout the semester: what seems problematic in the book, what
are the difficult or conflicted or complicated areas in the book? The
idea is that we will be returning to answer these questions later in the
semester, and we do; since we answer them over and over, however, always
differently, the impression that the students get at this early stage
of being presented with more questions than answers, more problems than
solutions, more avenues than destinations an impression that many
of them find extremely disconcerting is quite accurate.
Then we move into the biography and/or
criticism with some more recent authors no biography is extant,
so I assign a short critical book or some essays and again mainly
consider issues, not interpretations (let alone facts). My focal questions
at this point are: Why would I assign a biography? What am I saying to
you by making you read this? What direction do you think I'm trying to
push your thinking about the novel? Most answers revolve around authorial
intention the more you know about the author, the easier it is
to figure out how s/he intended the book to be read which can then
be complicated and challenged in productive ways (who says we have to
read the book the way the author intended? can we ever know what the author
intended? etc.), especially since the first theoretical readings after
this are Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" and
Hirsch's "Objective Interpretation."
All through the course, too, I encourage
students to apply the theories they're working with not only to the novel
but to everything going on in their lives not only TV and movies,
rock music, and the like, but literally everything. Just yesterday a student
came in with a rough draft that was extremely late; he said, "I have
a good excuse, but I don't know whether you want to hear it. If not, fine."
I asked him to tell me; it turned out his girlfriend had gotten pregnant,
they had had to decide whether to have the baby and get married, have
an abortion, etc.; she was 16 weeks into the pregnancy, and had been taking
birth-control pills all along, so that the doctor was very concerned about
birth defects a lot to deal with. "No offense, Doug, but this
was more important than your class."
I agreed, but while I read through his rough draft I realized something: he and his girlfriend, both in the class, were working with the New Historicism, which is concerned with the problematic relations between the author's historical life situation and literary expression; one of the relations which the New Historicists might want them to consider, surely, would be that between their writing (of this paper) and the historical life-situation in which they found themselves, a couple of pro-lifers being forced to take a real stand on abortion, and finally opting to have one. In fact, his apologetic reference to his excuse, which I "might not want to hear," reflected a kind of New Critical attitude that "the text" should be read and interpreted on its own, without any grounding in broader historical circumstances an attitude that I assume he had picked up from previous teachers. I encouraged him to "apply" the theory he was working with not only to the interrelations between Nabokov and his times and between the New Historicists and their times (the draft he brought me covered those two areas), but between himself as writer of this paper and his "times," by exploring in the paper the impact that their experiences with pregnancy and abortion had had on the way he thought about literary and critical theory, and vice versa.
4. Presentations and Projects
One of the key structural elements in
the way I have been running the class for the past few years is that after
the first month, students basically teach it. I started off having students
do presentations on theorists they had chosen and researched; that quickly
evolved into giving small groups of students responsibility for the conduct
of an entire class session, moving from presentations to discussion (and,
increasingly, various other activities). The first month gives me a chance
to begin to wean students from the ample breast of a teacher-centered
classroom, where the professor teaches and the students sit in their seats
and learn; it also gives student groups a chance to pick a theorist or
group of theorists and begin to research them.
The result is that from the beginning
of the second month to about two weeks before the end of class (to give
late presenters a chance to finish up their projects before the semester
is over), the class is almost entirely run by students. I sit with the
other students, always in a different place, moving around to get a feel
for what's going on in different parts of the room; I participate rather
actively in discussion, of course, and when things aren't going too well
I tend to dominate; but when things go well, I typically have a hard time
getting a word in edgewise. Sometimes discussion explodes into five or
six smaller conversations, as some really hot topic gets people going
and everyone wants to talk at once. This happens so rarely that I haven't
really decided whether it's a problem that needs to be dealt with; my
own inclination is to exult in it, but that may just be my personal ADD
preference for multiple stimuli (or what some people would call "chaos").
Equally rare are the times when nobody wants to say anything; usually
the fact that the class is being run by students motivates other students
to participate quite actively. They either know that they are going to
be up there soon or have been up there recently, and willingly help keep
When I first started teaching the class,
the assignment structure went roughly like this: everyone gets in a group
(which they choose themselves); the group decides which class session,
and thus which theorist(s), they want to work with. Their task is to bend
and twist the theorist(s) to fit the novel, and bend and twist the novel
to fit the theorist(s), to do whatever outside research seems necessary
to make that happen, and present that research in two stages. The first
stage is preliminary and public: it involves a short (5-page) paper introducing
the class to the theorist(s) as applied to the novel, the novel as read
through the theorist(s), and a presentation. Since this is a preliminary
stage, presenters are encouraged to present work in progress, hunches,
possible avenues for exploration, and the like, and to seek feedback from
the other students (and, of course, from me) on their plans also
suggestions for possible solutions to problems or questions.
After the first semester, I added a conference
to this first stage, before the presentation: presenters were to bring
a rough draft of their short paper in for me to read a week before the
presentation, get feedback on it, and then photocopy it for the whole
class the class session before their presentation, so that everyone would
have a chance to read it (and use it as a guide to the theoretical reading)
before the presentation. This was to prevent the awkward situation that
occasionally arose when students had made some minor but disastrous misreading
in the theorist(s), reading "not unlike" as "unlike,"
for example, and getting everything exactly backwards.
One woman, for example, had read a chapter
from Judith Fetterley's book The Resistant Reader to be saying
that according to Fetterley readers should resist feminist interpretations
of classic texts. What should I do in a case like that? Say, "well,
sorry, but you're wrong"? Or "hmm, that's an interesting reading"?
I really did want students to read these texts in their own ways, through
their own experiences; but clearly I still clung to Hirschian notions
of objective interpretation at least when it came to theoretical
texts. The pre-presentation conference solved most of those problems by
enabling me to ask students how they saw the text and why, and if I disagreed,
to push them to work out their reasons for reading it that way without
necessarily forcing them to "recant" or change their reading.
If they insisted that they wanted to read a theoretical text in a way
that I found wrong-headed, I helped them work out a plausible defense
of that reading, while also making them realize that there were other
ways of understanding what the author was trying to say (and their teacher
held one of them). This saved both them and me embarrassment in class;
I no longer had to wonder whether to say "no, you're wrong,"
and they felt better going in front of the class with some suggestions
The second stage is the research project,
which at first was a research paper, due the last day of class. Since
students complained that they tended to forget all about the work they
had done for the presentation by the time they needed to "start"
working on their research project, I changed that. I always end the course
with one or two sessions of wrap-up, discussing what went well and what
went poorly and how we might change the latter into the former; and in
one of these sessions the students suggested that the final paper be due
two weeks after the presentation, and I agreed, making only one modification:
a rough draft was due two weeks after the presentation, a final draft
a week later. This also had the advantage of spreading my grading out
over the entire semester, instead of concentrating it at the end, which
took considerable pressure off finals week. Since it was difficult for
me to get their papers back to them in time for them to revise them in
a week, I started encouraging them to bring their rough drafts to a conference;
I read them cold, commented, suggested some possible new areas to explore,
and sent them away to revise and hand in the finished paper a week later.
Since I would much rather read a student's paper with the student sitting
there to answer my questions ("What are you trying to get at here?"),
this had the effect of further taking the pressure off grading.
It wasn't too long, however, before I
grew restive with the presentations and the research papers. The students
would sit up in front (or, whenever we got lucky and ended up in a classroom
with movable desks, wherever they happened to be) and "teach"
for ten or fifteen minutes, then try to encourage the other students to
talk about the kind of topics that they had heard professors raising in
other classes; then they would go home and write up a turgid research
paper in which, no matter how much I insisted that I didn't want them
to do this, they did their best to write like professors (which is to
say, in that foreign language called academic prose).
More in self-defense than out of any
high-minded pedagogical principle, therefore, I started encouraging students
to come up with innovative ways of presenting their work both to the class
and to me:
Write up and act out a little playlet
or sketch that dramatizes what you want to say about the theorist(s) and
the book. So a few hardy souls experimented with scenes featuring,
say, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Aphra Behn in a local bar, discussing
Behn's reading from her novel that evening. Some did talk shows, with
the theorists and novelist as guests, or other appropriate people; in
a feminist approach to Lolita, for example, a talk show featured a grandmother
named Nancy Hart, the true author of the novel who had based it on her
own personal experience as a preteen in the fifties, and a renowned feminist
psychiatrist who was an expert on pedophilia and sexually abused children.
Still others staged late-night brainstorming sessions, featuring and starring
themselves and ample quantities of water-filled beer bottles. TV shows
were adapted to the purpose: we had a Fantasy Island episode in which
the novel's main character was granted his fantasy, but in payment had
to submit to being psychoanalyzed on the spot by Sigmund Freud, whose
theory of the writer as neurotic was under consideration. One group staged
a mock trial of O'Connor's Hazel Motes from Wise Blood, for the murder
of Solace Layfield; they picked a defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney
from the class and empaneled the class as jury, with the proviso that
the jury could ask any questions they liked before voting in the end on
his innocence or guilt (the verdict: guilty!).
Make a video. This quickly became
popular with students who were terrified of getting up in front of class;
they could do any number of embarrassing things when no one was watching,
then laugh along with the rest of the class during their "presentation."
Some examples: Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence explored
at a local grocery store (two, actually, since the students were thrown
out of the first), two shoppers trying to decide what to buy, one trying
to influence the other, the second deciding to "swerve" and
buy something else. Looking for Thomas Pynchon: the group drive all over
Oxford asking strangers in bars and friends in carefully constructed scenes
whether anyone has seen Pynchon, explaining how one might recognize him
(a composite image based on guesses from the novel). A Current Affair
parody investigating "accusations" of Carl Jung's and Northrop
Frye's archetypal imagery in the novel. A stand-up comic doing impersonations
of more famous comedians (Andrew Dice Clay, Brett Butler, Paula Poundstone)
giving their reactions to the novel.
Get the class to play a game.
Here the students really get creative, using the formats of TV game shows
like A Family Feud and Jeopardy, making up their own board games (mostly
based on The Game of Life), or using party ice-breakers like "find
someone who . . . (can name four prominent Marxist critics, can summarize
a Marxist approach to literature, knows Doug's middle name)"
first one to fill in all twelve boxes yells "Marxism!" and wins
(A lot of groups use candy as bribes:
open your mouth and contribute to the discussion and we'll throw you a
candy bar. Shades of elementary school bribes introduced, it seems to
me, since I was a kid; we were never bribed with candy, only threatened
or ridiculed, but it seems to be common practice now. One group even brought
in two boxes of Domino's pizza and passed out a slice to everyone who
Do original artwork, write an original
song, etc. I am always astonished at how talented some of my students
are; they aren't very well-read and often have a difficult time articulating
complex ideas, but let them switch to a medium in which they feel confident
and they blow you away. One guy wrote a campy little song, which he sang
and played on a guitar in class; for days afterward I kept singing to
myself, "Freud and Eco, two neat guys: one says somethin that the
other denies . . .," and laughing. Many students wrote in their evaluations
(the ones I specially designed, not the useless ones that the university
distributes) that at the end of the semester they could still remember
all kinds of details about Freud and Eco because of that song. The groups
of women who present on Hélène Cixous's "The Laugh
of the Medusa" every semester are enormously empowered not only by
reading and studying her but by collaborating with other women; one group
compiled an elaborate slide show with a wide range of images of men and
women along the lines Cixous covers, with a musical sound track and voiceover;
since one of the women was a sculpture student, the centerpiece for the
presentation was a four-foot-tall plaster-of-paris replica of the golden
phallus Cixous mentions. Some groups (especially those dealing with Viktor
Shklovsky's theory of defamiliarization) use kindergarten teaching techniques,
passing out crayons, Play-Doh, or watercolors and having students do their
own artwork exploring not only the problems of intention and interpretation
(once we all made Rorschach blots) but also the freshness of a child's
perspective on things, which the "back-to-kindergarten" atmosphere
in the classroom fostered. (By the way, students always love this childish
stuff maybe partly because I love it so much myself, and throw
myself into it without much concern for my dignity as a professor.) One
group demonstrating the handicapping effect of not developing our ethnic
and cultural diversity to its fullest extent (working on Hurston's Their
Eyes), painted a colorful painting and then asked for a volunteer
(the class volunteered me) to come up and copy the painting blindfolded,
using acrylics like finger paints. The resulting painting was pretty lame
and of course the class enjoyed seeing me used to represent an
"artistic vision" improverished by blindfolding. Another group
this semester wants us to meet in a dance studio on campus to explore
the physical or bodily convergences of their theorist with the book. I
have no idea how it will work; the group will come see me several times
so that I can help them brainstorm. Most of these projects are things
I never would have come up with myself, and I often feel hard pressed
to brainstorm with them; but the process is also very exciting, as it
constantly pushes me too past my own boundaries.
The projects have more and more come
to be extensions of these artistic explorations as well, especially as
I've stopped talking about how many pages long I want their "projects"
to be (thus signaling subliminally that I expect papers, despite all my
protests to the contrary). I have received magazines, short stories, poems,
calendars, crossword puzzles, press releases, board games, paintings,
collages, photography collections, websites and of course research
Since I require students to submit a
"rough draft" or "early version" of their projects,
I am always able to push them to articulate what they have done and why
more than some of the genres they've worked in would normally allow. For
example, I've encouraged students to write longish "rules" to
board games, "clues" to crossword puzzles, "descriptions"
to paintings, "captions" to photographs, and a variety of "features"
to magazines (advice columns, horoscopes, test-yourself quizzes), and
have been pleased with the results more often than not. There is something
about the challenge of adapting a verbal genre like game rules, photo
captions, puzzle clues, and horoscopes to the kind of analytical needs
that a research project generates that both interests and engages students
and pushes them past easy answers to innovative new formulations. Most
of them are much more familiar with these genres than they are with academic
discourse, and feel more at home modifying it for analytical purposes;
the prospect of working in a familiar genre in an unfamiliar way typically
thrills them which always, I don't know why, amazes me. Students
come into my office bursting with energy and enthusiasm, having just come
up with a great new idea for their project which is always in an
area that they love anyway; my encouragement not only to work in whatever
genre they like but to work in it in innovative ways that push the envelope
of what is normally done there inspires them to work much harder and put
in far longer hours (they tell me later) than they would have on a paper,
and to enjoy it more. They also remember their projects, and the things
they learned while doing them, far longer, and with greater fondness.
Is this just pandering to the worst element in my students? Shirking my duty to make them better thinkers? Possibly, but I don't think so. I don't accept the traditional view that linguistic and mathematical analyses are the only true forms (and indicators) of "higher thought"; Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences convinces me that we are doing our students a grave disservice in encouraging them to develop only their logical-mathematical or (especially, in my case) linguistic intelligence while letting their spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and other intelligences lie dormant. Even so, since I do teach in an English department, I tend to urge students to find some verbal and even analytical way of expressing their insights in addition to the more visual or visceral modes they've employed. I also believe that many students get more out of analysis adapted to mundane genres like game rules and puzzle clues than they do out of assignments that require them to parrot professorial writing styles. Some write academic prose easily and flexibly; they tend to write traditional research papers for me. The key, it seems to me, is not only to allow but to encourage students to work in media in which they feel strong and confident and then to push them just past the limits of their comfort zone, so that they have to reach (and thus to grow) to complete their assignment.
5. Thematic focus
For the first few years I taught this
course, I used general theory anthologies and taught more or less the
same theorists, having the students work hard to apply a wide range of
theoretical approaches to a different novel every semester. This worked
well enough, and I enjoyed the cognitive dissonance that arose from our
collective attempts to force, say, an article by Jacques Derrida or Roland
Barthes into some sort of conformity with, say, Ralph Ellison's Invisible
But gradually this approach began to
pall on me. For one thing, I was getting tired of discussing the same
theorists, the same approaches. For another, the theory readings were
all too difficult for undergraduates. Theory is written for professors;
and at least a third of the professors in every English department in
the country would have some difficulties reading the pieces I was assigning
students. I changed anthologies, looking for easier ones; I tried having
the whole group read summaries of the theoretical approaches and the presenting
groups read a whole book of theory by some thinker; and these measures
worked somewhat, but not enough.
So finally, one semester I decided to
revamp the whole course, giving it a thematic focus. A book project I
was working on was going to be dealing at length with cyborg theory, so
I decided to try that. As it happened there was an excellent anthology
of cyborg theory on the market, The Cyborg Handbook, edited by
Chris Hables Gray et al., with pieces that I found much more readable
than the more general theory anthologies I'd been using; and cyborg theory
also covered a far wider spectrum of fields than the general anthologies,
including nuclear weaponry, reproductive and other medical issues, comic
strips and movies, and so on. Students had been complaining about not
having enough choice in the matter of the novel they read the semester
I taught Catch-22 almost everyone hated it, and wished they could
have chosen the novel themselves so I decided to try an experiment
in which there would be three different novels and each student could
decide to read just one of them. I picked three cyborg novels: Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein, Fred Saberhagen's retelling of the Frankenstein story
from the monster's point of view, The Frankenstein Papers, and
Marge Piercy's He, She, and It.
And apart from the idea of having three
novels, which proved too cumbersome, the thematic approach worked very
well. Not having a single novel to focus on fragmented class discussion
too much; the students all complained about it in their evaluations, and
I found it extremely problematic as well. So I have gone back to using
a single novel. But the cyborg them worked well. At first the girls were
suspicious, since cyborgs seem like a "guy" theme; but by the
end of the semester almost all the girls were hooked on the theme, which
clearly covered plenty of areas that concerned them too.
The next time I taught the class I used the thematic approach again, this time choosing postcolonial theory and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Since the fatwa declared by the Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie is a signal case of literature being painfully important religious and political leaders care about this novel as much as the intellectuals who might normally have expected to discuss it we also read extensively in the literature for and against the fatwa, and discussing the political impact of literature in a postcolonial context. I've since taught a postcolonial theme twice more, once with Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (a resounding success), most recently again with two novels by Ishmael Reed, which did push a lot of salutary buttons but perhaps on balance antagonized and alienated most of the white students too much to be of much pedagogical value.
I have never liked grades. I don't believe
in them, I don't believe they're either necessary or useful, and I hate
deciding who gets what. Whenever possible in my career I've taught my
courses pass-fail; when my employer requires me to give grades (as the
University of Mississippi does), I become a notorious grade-inflater,
giving out about half A's and half B's, and F's only to those students
who register for the class but never come.
For the first three years of teaching
my 400-level literary theory class, I tended to grade on improvement,
giving A's to anyone who had improved markedly over the semester; since
I worked so closely with them, conferencing with them, reading drafts
and pushing them to do better, almost everyone did improve, and I gave
a lot of A's.
Gradually, however, this procedure began
to pall on me. I found myself having to decide who had improved "enough"
for an A, and reluctantly giving B's to students who I felt hadn't given
the class sufficient effort. How did I know how much effort they had put
in? Sometimes I would catch myself trying to find reasons to penalize
a student who had irritated me throughout the semester, by diminishing
his or her "improvement" and therefore giving him or her a lower
grade. Sitting staring at a borderline paper, seething with disgust and
resentment not only at myself for putting myself through all this but
also at the student for "making" me feel this way, I began to
long for another way.
A few weeks into the first semester of
my fourth year of teaching the class, I had had enough. I had already
explained my grading policies and practices at length; but students understandably
kept asking about them, and the more I explained, the more hypocritical
I felt, until finally I broke.
"What would you say," I asked
one of my sections one day, "if we went to some sort of portfolio
"I don't know. Something that will
take the onus off me of deciding who gets an A and who gets a B, etc.
I don't believe in it, and I hate myself whenever I do it, so I'm not
going to do it any more. Maybe y'all can help me figure out a better way
one that you like as much as I do."
So we started talking it over, and finally
settled on a contract system. Students would contract to do a certain
amount of work; I would sign the contracts, making them binding on both
parties; if they did the work listed in the contract, I would give them
the grade promised in it. Some vestige of traditional assumptions about
grading made me leery of this idea, even though I had originally proposed
it; wasn't this just opening the floodgates to potential shirkers? Theoretically
a student could produce bland, uncritical garbage all semester and still
get an A. The students were enthusiastic, though, so we proceeded.
At first I left considerable leeway in
the precise elements that would go into the contract, wanting the final
result to be the product more of mutual negotiation than of my dictation;
it quickly became evident, however, that most of the students didn't want
that leeway. They didn't want to have to come up with wild and woolly
plans that I might not approve; they just wanted me to tell them what
they had to do for an A so they could get busy doing it. So I gradually
settled into a fairly stable and generic contract form for an A, which
I then modified downward for lower grades (of which more in a moment),
and merely left the definition of "presentation" and "project"
vague enough to allow ample scope for personal creativity there.
To my surprise, this change in grading
procedure changed the nature of the whole class. Students began to show
signs of working harder on their presentations and projects than before.
It seemed as if they felt a need to exceed not only my expectations but
their own. I was afraid some students would bring me a trashy rough draft,
I would suggest changes and improvements and additions, and they would
bring it back a week later virtually unchanged. Nobody did. On the contrary:
they worked hard on their early versions; they took copious notes in conference,
and kept pumping me for more suggestions; when they brought in the "final"
version they wrung their hands, saying they weren't quite satisfied with
what they'd done yet, and could I look through it and give them more suggestions
so they could do one more version? I had been afraid that not grading
for the "quality" of their work would mean a drop in quality;
in fact they started doing much better work than I had ever seen before.
And so I asked them about this. What
made them work so hard? What made them care so much about these projects,
and pour so much of themselves into them, when they knew they could get
by with minimal effort?
They said, "Well, it's sort of like
they're our projects, you know? It's like you're trusting us to do our
best, and we're the only ones that it really matters to, so we want to."
I protested that it mattered to me, too; but they said that didn't matter
as much, since I wasn't grading their work on how good it was, only on
whether they did it. Quality was left entirely up to them so they
felt more ownership in their projects, more responsibility for them, and
in consequence worked harder at them. I was amazed: take away the traditional
motivator for good work, and the work improves.
Of course, I think there was more to
the change than they were saying. Part of it was that they were bringing
me their drafts in conference, where I was pretty plain-spoken: "This
is crap, isn't it?" I'd say with a smile, and they'd nod sheepishly.
"Yeah, well, I haven't had much time for class lately." At that
point I would help them brainstorm, trying to hit upon some aspect of
the project that they might really get excited about; if that worked,
motivational problems usually disappeared and they started bringing in
topnotch work. If it didn't work, if they missed conference appointments
and I hardly ever saw them in class (I'll come back to attendance below),
if their work was consistently slapdash and indifferent, I would sound
them out about settling for a lower grade. Since that meant less work,
they were usually only too happy to renegotiate their contract for a B
or even, in a few cases, a C; my class was taking up too much of their
time, all they wanted to do was pass the course and graduate, anything
that would get them by without a D or an F was fine. I went through this
process with about five students out of a hundred that first semester;
another five failed to complete all the contracted work, and depending
on the amount of work they had completed, I gave them B's or C's or even,
in one case, a D. Everyone else got and I think deserved
One interesting sidelight: a student
told me in class one day that other English students who weren't in our
class were contemptuous of the contract system; an A in my class was worthless,
they said, because you didn't have to "work" for it. Several
students from my class had come back hotly that they worked harder for
my class than they had for any other they had taken in the department;
the only difference was that they knew their "reward" for all
this work wasn't dependent on the professor's whim. For these other students,
clearly, "working" for a grade didn't just mean thinking hard
and doing a lot of research and writing well; it meant successfully pleasing
an inscrutable and capricious authority. If the authority didn't need
to be "pleased," and above all if the authority wasn't inscrutable
or capricious, the "work" done for the grade didn't really count
as work. So I said, "And what do you think, should we go back to
the old system, are you embarrassed to be getting such easy A's?"
I was drowned out with a flood of no's. "We're not embarrassed! The
A's aren't easy! Those people are just jealous!"
This system worked just fine for a few
years. Gradually, though, it began to become clear to me that a lot of
students were taking my class not because they thought I was an interesting
teacher or because of the interesting subject matter; all too many of
them were taking it for the easy A. Once they got in they found it wasn't
so easy, and would whine and moan about the heavy work load; but the reputation
my class was developing as an "easy A" was clearly doing some
serious damage to it. Students grew sluggish. They began to skip class
more and more, began to find creative ways to do the bare minimum to meet
my requirements. They began to slap together any old garbage for the first
version of their projects, so that they could add something minimal to
it and have completed all the requirements for an A.
I talked to my students about it. They
confessed, somewhat sheepishly, that my class was interesting and all,
but if they were taking four classes with absolutely rigid requirements
and mine with looser ones, they were going to slack off in mine, no question.
In retrospect it is clear to me that
what made contracting for an A work at first must have been that students
couldn't quite be sure they could trust it: what if I tricked them? What
if I promised them an A for completing the work, but in the end only gave
A's to people who did really good work? As collective English major "trust"
accumulated, as students entering my class were increasingly convinced
that they really could get away with slacking off, they did.
So the next semester I added a new wrinkle:
doing all the work would guarantee you a B; to get an A you would have
to impress me somehow. General consternation. Impress me? How? I didn't
exactly know, then; couldn't quite articulate what I meant by "impress."
So I gave them a piece of cynicism: "It's like in any class: impress
the professor and get an A. The only two differences here are that I make
no pretense of objectivity, and you know you can't drop any lower than
a B if you do all the work." That didn't satisfy them, of course;
but they buckled down, and clearly worked much harder than students in
recent semesters had. They complained about not having a better sense,
all through the semester, of what their final grade was going to be; some
insisted that they worked harder because of the uncertainty, but many
of them also said that it was very stressful. (I still get these complaints,
three or four years later.)
By the end of that first semester, giving
the grades, I quickly realized what I was actually looking for
what it was that would impress me. It wasn't just intelligence, though
there were obvious "A students" that did get A's from me too.
It wasn't just top-notch presentations and projects. It wasn't just improvement,
though I still continued to take that into consideration. It wasn't just
class participation, either, though that was closer. What I realized was
that I tended to give A's to students who helped me teach the class. It
wasn't, in other words, just the talkative students who tended to get
A's; it was the students whose contributions to class discussions and
activities helped the class work, helped it cohere as a group, as a community.
It was students who said things like, "Wait a minute, I think Ryan
made an interesting point there, and we rushed past it too fast for me
to get it all." Some students could insert a humorous comment just
perfectly into a situation, create a mood, make everybody feel like they
were having a good time. Running a student-centered classroom leaves the
instructor extremely vulnerable to failure makes him or her extremely
dependent on the students for a class to "gell." Students who
made that happen, in whatever way, were obviously top candidates for A's.
Since then I've told my students that in the beginning of each semester, and repeated it throughout the semester, every time they ask me what exactly they have to do to "impress" me. "Take responsibility not only for your own learning," I say, "but for the success of the class." A lot of them still don't get it. Some of them only start to get it at the end of the semester. It's such a novel concept: a student taking responsibility for the success of the class! The ones that do get it tend to get A's.
Attendance has always been a major problem
for me, because for many years I refused to enforce the university's attendance
policy (more than three unexcused absences and you fail the class) and
most students at Ole Miss seem to require the backbone of that policy
to find the motivation to come to class. I believe that it's their education,
they are paying my salary, and they should be in a position to choose
whether they come to class or not; I should have to motivate them to come
to class, not force them. Many of them admit freely that they enjoy coming
to class, that they don't skip because class is boring; it's just, well,
that I don't require attendance, so they often find it easier to skip.
And I can understand this; there are lots of things in my life that I
sort of enjoy doing and know I ought to do more, but find it hard to get
motivated to do them on a regular basis (swimming 1000 meters in the university
pool, for example). It's easy enough to say, "These students have
no self-discipline; their attention span has been ruined by MTV; blah
blah blah." It's harder to admit that many of us professors are exactly
the same way, so obsessed by some activities that we need self-discipline
not to pursue them twenty hours a day, so unwilling to perform other duty-bound
activities (grading papers, for instance) that we procrastinate and find
excuses not to do them.
And so I continued to refuse either to
condemn these students for laziness or lack of self-discipline or to invent
ways of forcing them to come. But it also bothered me that of a class
of 45 or 50 only 15 would be present on any given day. So one semester,
I started talking to my classes about the problem, and one woman suggested
having students contract to come to class regularly as part of their work
for the A or the B. I liked the idea, and the next semester I built attendance
into the contracts. For a B a student had to come to class regularly and
participate in class discussion actively.
And it worked sort of. For a while.
Contracting to attend regularly does leave students some measure of control
over how often they are going to come; and that sense of control, that
sense that they can decide freely whether to attend regularly or skip
numerous class meetings, seemed to give them the added motivation to come
for the first semester I tried it. The very fact that they could
have opted to come less frequently but didn't, that they contracted to
come regularly, gave them the enhanced sense of ownership they needed
to commit to coming to class virtually every time. As a result, I didn't
take roll or enforce an attendance policy, but nearly every seat was full:
the onus of getting them to class was on them, not on me. I started feeling
much better about the whole issue of attendance, much less torn between
my desire to have everyone there and my desire to give them freedom of
choice; they didn't have unlimited freedom of choice, but they had enough
more that they are much more strongly motivated to take responsibility
for their actions. And I no longer felt like a truant officer.
However, it didn't last. The very next
semester, using the same system, students started disappearing very soon
after they had done their presentation. Apparently the word was out that
I wasn't keeping a roll sheet, and they decided to take advantage of that.
So finally, reluctantly, I started taking roll, keeping close tabs on
who had missed how many times, and after three or four absences e-mailing
the students in question that the grade they had contracted for was in
jeopardy. They were still contracting to come to class regularly; if they
didn't, I could give them a lower grade at my discretion or we could renegotiate
for a lower grade or a certain amount of make-up work. This is now working
fairly well. Most students, once contacted about absenteeism, never miss
another class. The ones who do keep missing typically have serious personal
problems and are willing to negotiate for a B or a C in order to pass
the course in some sort of good standing.
I am even finding, to my surprise, that
I don't mind playing truant officer. Because I do want them to be in class.
And if they want the B they have contracted to earn, they should live
up to the terms of the contract. It still bothers me a bit that I have
to use this measure of coercion to get students to do what I believe they
ought to want to do my idealism, however battered, is still alive
but the idea of replacing a rigid attendance policy with a more
flexible contract that they want and I as one of the signatories simply
enforce is, on balance, one I can believe in.
And I find this crucial: that something not only work, in the sense of getting students to do what I want them to do, but that it mesh with my personality and pedagogical philosophy and sense of humanity. I realize that's probably a truism, but I've spent too many years either blindly accepting or vaguely resisting and resenting specific pedagogical practices to take such a truism casually. It seems to me that an awful lot of teachers must burn out on the profession due to little things like this: you hate having to do something (like take roll and penalize those who aren't present) but aren't quite sure why or what to do about it, so you blame the institution, or academia, or even education in general. "The only thing education' (or the educational system') is interested in is attendance and discipline, keeping warm bodies confined within four walls and quiet; what I'm doing here is not helping people to learn but playing prison warden; I want out." But this is not "education" or "the educational system" or "the academy" or any other such abstraction; it is a set of internalized and unquestioned pedagogical practices that can be interrogated, undermined, and changed.
I had long been frustrated in previous
semesters with the problem of communication: I announce something in class,
a canceled or rescheduled class, something everyone needs to know, and
the students who aren't there don't get it, and half of the ones who are
don't remember it with the result that I have to announce it for
three weeks, hoping to catch everyone (and even so I never do: "But
you didn't say anything about that!"). The short papers need to be
photocopied and passed out to everyone in class the session before the
presentation dealing with it, so that the other students will have a chance
to read it, think about it, comment on it, etc; but anyone not in class
that previous session doesn't get it; if the presentation is held the
day after we get back from vacation (or the group is very late in getting
it ready to hand out) it's almost impossible to get the papers to the
students in time for them to read them before class. Syllabi, contracts,
the other paper paraphernalia of the class get lost and students come
to me for more; I will have run out and have to promise to make a few
more copies; I forget; they ask again, I promise again, etc. There is
too much to keep track of; I'm always behind, struggling to keep up with
the projects that earlier groups are handing in and the rough drafts of
the short papers that later groups are bringing me to look at.
And I do basically accept the swirling
confusion of the class as the price I paid for teaching the way I do;
ultimately there is no escape from it, short of a personality transfusion
(I'll take 10 pints of CPA, please). But in the fall of 1995 a friend
who is also a graduate student in our department mentioned that she was
thinking of setting up a listserv for her class
To make sure that something like this
did in fact happen, I required that they each write 10 posts to the list,
of a minimum 10 lines each. To count toward the required 10, their posts
should respond to the assigned reading, a class discussion, a presentation,
or another student's class-related post. (I encouraged them to write about
anything they wanted, hoping to create community, but only counted class-related
posts toward the required 10.)
Well, there have been numerous problems
with this system. It creates a good deal of anxiety among many of the
students, especially those who are not only computer-illiterate but computer-phobic.
More students dropped my classes that first semester than had for the
previous two or three years, and I've been told that it is because of
the e-mail requirement.
In the six years that I've been using
listservs in my classes, of course, email readiness has expanded drastically
among my students, and getting them going on the listserv has become fairly
painless. Sixteen weeks is too short a time to induct them into listserv
readiness, of course, and many students complain about the volume in their
inboxes; I have to tell them about filters, and keeping subject headings
straight to facilitate the formation of threads, and being intelligently
selective about what they read, etc.
Also, of course, most of the new email readiness is due to hotmail and aol, and they bring new headaches as well. Hotmail, for example, has junk-mail protection that somehow blocks listserv submissions, and I have to coach my hotmail users to turn off that protection. Hotmail also deletes sent mail, so that when They are all issued olemiss email addresses when they arrive on campus, but just try and require them to use their olemiss accounts! My university has just upgraded the version of Blackboard it uses to enable students to forward mail from their olemiss accounts to their webmail accounts, and as a result I am going to be using Blackboard for the first time next semester. Resistance to learning this new on-line resource is bound to be even higher than it already is to the listserv.
A few years ago I also created my first
course website, thinking this would solve many of the problems students
had had with the fairly complex instructions for the class. What is the
short paper and when do we write it? When is the first version of the
project due? So I put all this information on the website, along with
detailed day-by-day calendars, a page of links for research purposes,
a list of student e-mail addresses, and so on.
The result? No one read it. I was still
bombarded with the same questions week after week. I kept saying, "Look,
all this information is on-line on the website, go read it there!"
"Okay," they would say, "but could you just tell us now?"
So I would tell them, for the tenth time, and the next class session someone
would ask the exact same question again.
So the second time I used the website,
I announced a quiz on the website, a week from today. They all dutifully
studied it, and answered all my questions about the things I wanted them
to know. I thought, now I've got it, now I've solved the problem! I hadn't.
They promptly forgot everything they'd learned for the quiz (which is
why I don't give quizzes in the first place!), and spent the rest of the
semester asking me the same annoying repetitive questions. You mean we
have to do a project? You never told us we had to do two versions!
I'm increasingly convinced that dead
trees are the only reliable place to put key information for the course.
Next semester I am planning on writing up, printing out, photocopying,
and handing out work schedules for each group, with dates set in stone
for the required conference with me one week before their presentation,
the date the rough draft of the paper goes to me, the date it goes to
the class, the dates the first and final versions of the project are due.
As soon as a group signs up for a specific presentation, they get copies
of this schedule. On the schedule, too, will be blanks for the names of
the other members of their group and their phone numbers and email addresses.
I'm tired of having students come to me a week before their presentation
and tell me they have no idea who else is in their group!
In general, too, I'm wracking my brain trying to come up with better bookkeeping systems. The structure of the semester is so complicated, with everybody doing different things at different times, that I often lose track, forget to remind groups of upcoming deadlines, fail to notice when them miss them. With two sections of 40-45 students each, it is almost impossible to keep up; this past semester, in addition to my two sections of the senior literary theory class I've been teaching a pilot freshman seminar as an overload, and have been absolutely drowning in unrecorded data. To teach this way effectively I really need a secretary! Or else that CPA transfusion ...
& & & &
Closing words of wisdom? I don't know
any. I resisted writing this course up for years, mainly because it's
more a work in progress than a finished work of pedagogical art. I suppose
I had an irrational fear that if I wrote it up it would stagnate, solidify,
petrify into a "method" that would then tie my (and maybe your)
hands. I've tried to weave the work-in-progress aspect into this essay
as a hedge against that possibility; but who knows, it might happen anyway.
I finally gave into the impulse to write it up because in some sense the
course increasingly seems out of my hands, beyond my control; the projects
the students have been coming up with are so astonishingly creative, so
far beyond anything I could possibly dream up to assign them, that "the
course" feels almost like an independent force that I can tinker
with but never quite destroy. Sometimes the class discussions explode
with creative energy, other times they lag and stagnate and almost die;
sometimes the projects are great, other times I feel like I'm back in
lower-level writing classes, with students whining "but I already
wrote about what interests me!"
The thing is, "the course" feels like a force because it was largely born out of, and continues to grow out of, my own unconscious needs and desires like minimizing grading and attendance and other paperwork, keeping things loose and open, urging students to come up with their own ideas so that I too will keep learning. The pedagogical unconscious in me is terrified of boredom, of falling into a rut; and so, almost without my having to will or plan it, the course keeps changing. And maybe that's the word of pedagogical wisdom for the day: your courses are you, at least a distorted reflection of you; do they reflect what or who you want to be? What stagnates, what keeps changing? Who are you, and who do you want to be tomorrow?
Freire, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the
Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 1983; rpt. New York: Basic Books, 1985.