Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Remnant of the Unimpressed

I hope that title sounds like a horror movie. It should. By now I'm up to the ninth sequel, The Remnant: Life is Very Long.

Now a month into my ninth term of classroom teaching, having taken two year-long fellowship breaks, I finally face two classes full of delightful, smart, engaged, funny English majors, all curious and bright-eyed at the prospect of three hundred years of British literary history. Well, not all of them are so bright-eyed.

In every class I've ever taught, at Case Western Reserve, NYC College of Technology, Hunter College, and now Queens, no matter what the subject or group of students, no matter how exciting and judiciously chosen the texts, no matter how caring, entertaining, strict, or pleading I get, there is always a Remnant of two or three students who seem to wish I was dead.

Go look it up! Somewhere in the annals of my ratings at each college, you'll find at least one comment reading "B-O-R-I-N-G. Like watching paint dry" or "she is so hyper u want 2 shoot her n the FACE." There are plenty of kind things too ("Carrie is DA BOMB"), and, despite the apologetic comments ("I know she is really hard and obsessed with the 18th century (lolz, C!) but you'll learn alot!!"), I get the sense that my classes leave behind a wake of happy students who've learned something valuable. But in every classroom, the more the tide turns toward engaged, edge-of-the-seat discussion, the deeper into the ether the Remnant drifts.

The problem is that I was usually an eager undergrad, even when I wasn't the most careful reader. I could never keep my hand from shooting up to contribute to conversation, and I know how much my eagerness alone led to me receiving kind help from professors. I never imagined how painful it would be to stand in the front of the room and look out at those few rolling eyes and weary grimaces, those of the people I used to ignore from my teacher's-pet perch.

Things I do to shrink the Remnant:

1. I make participation and attendance a not-insignificant portion of the grade.
2. I talk about the classroom as a laboratory and the need for everyone's voices.
3. I ask them to write for 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every class in response to a question about the reading.
4. I often remind them that admitting to not doing the reading is preferable to lying about not doing the reading.
5. I make eye contact with the quietest students first every time I ask a question, looking for the tell-tale brow-furrow of thought.
6. I ask questions that range from the extraordinarily difficult to the Sunday-School easy.
7. I give research assignments in which each class member becomes the resident "expert" on a topic.

I'd say this makes my odds pretty good, altogether. I've had reluctant students who've said they appreciate that I draw them out without humiliating them. But the Remnant, now down to just one or two per class, remains unmoved. They respond thusly to the above strategies:

1. They declare they're just there to pass, not to excel.
2. They express contempt for their own abilities to contribute.
3. They write nothing down or copy a single way-off-base sentence from a neighbor, verbatim.
4. They continue to lie, waiting for me to challenge them, or they declare they don't have time to read, ever.
5. They stare back, incredibly still, in the hope I'll somehow not see them.
6. They roll their eyes at the easy questions. No meatballs for me, thanks!
7. They refuse to do the research until long past its usefulness to the class.

I plead. I cajole. I contact them by email. I ask their friends what's up. I put the class in a circle. I talk to them after class. This sometimes gets a few on board, but still the shrinking Remnant refuses even to bring the day's reading with them so they can concentrate fully on a space about two inches behind my forehead. What have I done? You'd think I'd killed their goldfish or forced them to read Clarissa. (Still waiting for your explanation of how you get them to do that, David!) I guess they're angry at me for not allowing them to go gently into that good night. I just won't let them fail. I refuse to believe that English literary history is so unlearnable that anyone--especially English majors--should have to take it twice.

Perhaps the problem is my amour propre, rather than their lack of it. I want to feel I'm a good enough teacher to reach them all. I am young and this is what young people do: we imagine we're heroes.

I wonder whether this still happens in elective classes. I'd hope not. British Literature II survey is a requirement for the major at Queens, so I know some of them would rather be reading Bukowski on the lawn with a cigarette, but I've been teaching some incredibly steamy stuff. The only pattern I've noticed is that the size of the Remnant is always smaller in classes with non-humanities majors in them. Who'd have thought?

What do you do with the Remnant? Do you let them do their thing, or do you intervene? How do you wash off all that eye-rolling at the end of the day? Have you eradicated them completely? If so, give me the secret formula!