This semester, I didn’t have a graduate class. I had three undergrad classes: one section of intro-to-the-major, plus huge tracts of Chaucer. (No, not the Parson’s Tale, or only a couple of scraps of it; that was a Python reference.)
But now I feel like in some ways, the intro class was my grad class.
For one thing, the students were pretty happy to be there. The intro course is, of course, required; it’s supposed to be taken in your sophomore year, though this doesn’t always happen. Many of our students are transfers, so a lot of my students were going, “Wow! 4-year UNIVERSITY! The big leagues! I’m excited and I want to work hard and learn lots!” They weren’t cynical; they weren’t trying to game the system; they weren’t thinking that they were about to graduate and knew everything. Several students in this class were non-traditional, in their early to mid-twenties rather than 19-20, and a few years can make a big difference at that age. They were serious, aware of what they were working toward, of what the degree meant to them and, in some cases, their young families. One was in her thirties, getting a second bachelor’s so she could switch careers; she had a completely professional attitude toward schoolwork, treating it as a job, and often doing work that would not shame a grad student at LRU.
I have no control over who enrolls, of course; but this mix was a good one, and I associate that sense of excitement and willingness to work with graduate students.
Another important element over which I have very little control is class size. The intro-to-the-major class is capped at 25; grad classes at 15; but most undergrad classes are 35-40. It’s possible to scare some people off, but that hurts the class dynamic, and you don’t always scare the ones who most need to be scared. So I mostly have classes that are not so large as to require lecturing, yet not small enough to work really well with a discussion-seminar approach. It’s just harder to make a personal connection with individuals in a room with 36 people, compared to a room of 24. That 50% larger thing makes a big difference. Group work and Blackboard ice-breakers help some, but there are limits to what that can do (especially if you get a batch that hate group work). My course evaluations have improved a lot in the last few years, but I wonder if some of my difficulties stem from introvert-awkwardness with groups the size of my usual classes. I would treat a huge lecture (100 or more people) as performance. With groups of 10-20, I can make a personal connection. That 35-40 size, though, feels too big for easy connections, but not big enough to retreat into a performance-persona. So, anyway, the intro class this year was able to bond and talk to each other and to me in the way grad classes do (or should). I didn’t get that sense of cohesion and cameraderie in the Chaucer sections, or at least, only among students who already knew each other.
The intro students also wrote some very thoughtful, insightful papers, and spoke eloquently and intelligently in class about assigned readings—even on the very last day, when they might have felt like phoning it in. Here I will take some credit for assignments that inspired them (though I’m not so much bragging as thinking, “Whew! I got away with it!”). To begin our unit on poetry, I posted song lyrics and we talked about those; then they brought in lyrics from songs they like, and led class discussion about them. I’m sure everybody’s doing this now, but it does work to make students feel like poetry isn’t so mysterious, that they can understand it. And since there’s plenty of popular music that is totally unfamiliar to me, I could let them be the experts on this. Then we spent a lot of time on sonnets, including an assignment that asked them to write a sonnet (on their own or in groups) plus a reflective essay about what they learned from the attempt.
The first big-point paper was on a sonnet we did not discuss in class, one that just appeared in print in the past year; the second one was on a short story, ditto. This is my strategy for avoiding plagiarism: we have a lot of class work and low-point papers practicing skills on poems and stories in the anthology, but for the important papers, students work on recently-published texts. There’s nothing on the internet about these! I love doing this. They always have fresh insights into the texts, because any insight will be fresh—we’re not dealing with hundreds of years of critical commentary, as with Chaucer and Shakespeare. I wondered if this year’s sonnet might be stretching a bit, but they nailed it. They looked up the words, the geographical and art-historical references, and they put it all together. I was really impressed. Same thing with the short story—they saw symbolism way beyond what I’d noticed. My weakest student, in fact, was the only one who mentioned what I saw as a really key passage in the story, one that tied two characters together in an unexpected way. (Which of us does this say more about?) And on the last day, my students were eager to talk about this story, to share their ideas, to argue about the chances for the main character’s future.
So I went into the final grading for my intro students feeling cheerful and optimistic about their chances, the way I usually feel about my grads. And indeed, they performed well on the last paper and quite adequately on the exam. They’ve learned most of what they need to know, and other teachers will pick up where I left off.
I think I have a whole ‘nother post about Chaucer rattling around my brain . . . .