This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. Yesterday I wrote about the development of my syllabus; today’s post is about classroom discussions.
In college there are usually three types of classroom environments: the lecture hall, the lab, and the seminar. English classes are usually conducted as a seminar, though I have heard of instances where composition has been taught lecture-style. If someone can explain to me how that could possibly work, I’m all ears. On the first day of class, I had my students arrange their chairs in a circle. It always amuses me how students get all befuddled when the arrangement of the room changes. But this King Arthur-style round table arrangement really does work well for discussions of literary texts.
I’m also very uncomfortable with lecture-style discussions of literature. There are times when it is completely appropriate—talking about an author’s biography, the history of the period, textual details the students may not know simply by reading the book. I usually made a powerpoint for the first day of a text with this sort of information and gave it to them in one 15-minute go. I think observations by students about the text (guided, of course, by the questions asked of them) are much more interesting, for them and for me, than listening to a lecture on the importance of grapes in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. As Dennis Nedry says in Jurassic Park, “Nobody cares.” But when I ask the students what the “fugue” in Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfugue” means, and another student answers correctly, the rest of the class learns the material they need to know and the student who answered feels awesome because they gave the right answer. And the best part? Nobody is bored.
The fancy-pants name for this is, of course, Socratic questioning. And guess what? It works.
I also find it useful to include multimedia examples whenever possible. My lecture/discussion comparing Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Steve Coogan’s movie version ranks up there with the best teaching day of my life. I didn’t have any ground breaking moments in ENGL 175 (mostly because the DVD player in my classroom didn’t work so I had to rely on youtube clips—darn you, copyright infringements!) but I did manage to have some interesting moments. I played Celan reading “Todesfugue” in German and made them read along with their dual-language translation:
The students were in awe of the moving power of language, even in a language they didn’t understand.
And while I didn’t have any “Captain, My Captain” moments, there were days when I felt like the students got it. Or at least left the classroom feeling more empowered than they did coming into class that day. And that’s the whole point of classroom discussion, right?