On the balance between me and the students in a survey course.
A few years back, I published an article in the online journal Teaching American Literature in which I discussed my ongoings efforts to balance dictatorship and democracy—or, more exactly, teacher-provided contexts and student-provided analyses—in the American Literature survey classroom. I always begin my teaching from a student-centered framework, but had found that in my survey courses in particular I too often felt that we hadn’t had a chance to engage at all with key contexts, that by leaving things open to where the students’ responses took us it felt as if we were having at best partial conversations about our texts, authors, and related histories and issues. So I had begun to develop strategies for adding such contexts without relying too much—or ideally even at all—on lecturing and my voice to provide all the details about them.
La lucha continua, and all of what I said in that article remains present in my evolving thoughts and work. But I have to admit that this semester I took things one step further, not throughout but in a certain crucial moment. We had reached the fourth and last day with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), and as always I wanted to make sure that we discussed the culminating passage that I consider one of the most beautiful and important in American literature. But for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t sure how many of the students had had a chance to get to that point in the book: such reading questions are always a potential limitation in my courses; we had missed the important second class with the novel and had lost a good bit of momentum as a result; our discussion on the third day had suggested to me that almost no one in the class had managed to get into the novel’s second half, and/or felt comfortable enough with the book to share their thoughts. And so, rather than asking for their thoughts, I took our final few minutes of class and simply read aloud and analyzed that culminating passage myself.
A part of me felt distinctly lousy about having done so, but I have to admit that the larger part felt one definite and one possible positive thing. The definite one was that I had made sure that everyone in the room was made aware of this amazing passage, and of some of the many layers that make it so complex and powerful. And the possible one was that my own thoughts on the novel and passage—about which I’ve thought and written multiple times, including in a chapter of my next book, so I certainly had a lot to say and share—might have added another layer to the class conversations and community, one that was as worth sharing (not more so, but as) as those of my students. That is, I’ve tended to think about a democratic classroom as one in which student voices provide our central and structuring element—but perhaps the truest definition is one in which all our voices, mine as well as theirs, have a role to play. Given the power dynamics and differential, there’s more to figure out about how to balance my voice with theirs, but this moment and course have re-committed me to that process for sure.
Final recap tomorrow,
PS. How was your spring semester?
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