Disaster Term

This semester has been the worst semester I've had in my whole career. 

When I started teaching in 1997, I thought I didn't do a very good job then. Makes sense, since I was new. But that year looks amazing compared to the dumpster fire of shit teaching that I have accelerated this semester. I really thought I had a good plan going in and some really innovative things to offer. But I made such a simple mistake I'm almost embarrassed to write about it.

I assumed the topic of the course was interesting. I didn't consider why it was interesting, or what would be interesting about it to the audience. I assumed they were all there to read and discuss texts. 

This is a rookie error. Any good sophist knows that one has to read the audience for these assumptions. Then they use these assumptions to construct the audience into what they want - a group of people constituted around a question, a set of problems, or a concern that needs - and must - be addressed.

There's nothing naturally interesting about anything. That phrase "you should be interested" is always normative. When teachers claim students are bad because they are "not interested," it is a point of self-criticism. It is the failure of the teacher-as-rhetor to generate that interest.

Part of the challenge here is that often when we teach we have to reach beyond and outside of what interests us as teachers. This means we have to extend our reach into areas that are uncomfortable for us and have no connection to why we got into the subject in the first place. Such a challenge makes the rhetorician think of the topics and the invention of arguments based on these general areas where one can make connections between what one knows and what one wants the audience to know. 

There is little to no teacher education on this rhetorical practice. Educational design is always aimed at rational, deductive claims about humans. It is rarely about the uncertainty or the fluidity of moments of encounter. Encounter is a word that does not appear in education theory in any way related to the classroom. What does appear are terms like objective, assessment, plan, rubric, etc. But what about that initial encounter? 

There's a lot to say about that but to wrap this post up, the major error I made that turned this semester into a nightmare was to assume the students were interested in the same way I was in the course.

The second error I made was to not take the temperature of the course through regular writing assignments. I had in my mind large writing projects that I thought would be challenging and interesting. But I didn't think about how to prepare for that large ending through a number of smaller tasks that led up to it. I think the big, final project is overblown and is probably a part of the larger ideological demand that education be productive in a material sense (20 page papers) and a commodity sense (is this assignment on-brand for students? Does it help them in their career?). The new approach I'll use is small writing prompts through the semester. There's no need to assign a larger paper if the smaller assignments, strung together, could create a nice narrative.

Finally, there's also the issue of corruption from the university's insistence and faculty acquiescence  to the idea that upper-level courses are somehow "better" or a "reward" for doing a good job. This means that the best faculty are not distributed across the curriculum as they should be. Everyone deserves an uninvested instructor now and again, but a steady diet of uninvested, overstressed, unsupported people like adjunct faculty only serves to reinforce the idea that the material isn't going to be important after the term. Having more invested, less stressed faculty in these positions by either distributing adjuncts broadly or just hiring them on in ways where they feel comfortable and invested in the university would help so much. You'd be less likely to get a group of students in an upper level course who are tuned into the semester-long knowledge model and are not seeing connections to something they learned 2 years ago. If something is burned, you aren't going to fix it by adjusting the oven temperature. The way to fix it is in the preparation long ago. And monitoring it before that point.

I think that teaching the basic courses is a real honor and something that we should do more often. Why have we allowed this disconnect between upper level and basic? Why do we like and revel in our list of upper-level courses? At the same time, we complain about student performance in those courses too. This is more than an assessment issue; it's an issue of having someone in the basic courses who is invested in the university because it supports them, and they can see the long path ahead and how things interconnect. What will they need now in order to be able to enjoy and engage in the more complex material to come?

It's nearly time for me to go teach and wander around the wasteland I've made. I really hate this semester and it hates me back. But hopefully I can avoid these problems in the future by actually thinking about what I'm doing in the classroom, not assuming without the topics nearby, and spending more time in the basic courses.