Self Analysis

Every year, as part of the conditions for my employment to TCC, I’m required to fill out an “action plan” for the upcoming year.  This exercise is intended to get me actively thinking about my teaching practice (I love how this assumes that I’m not already actively thinking about my teaching practice) and to encourage me to make plans for my improvement in the coming year.

One of the sections of this action plan is a response to student evaluations over the course of the year.  Since I’ve only been teaching one class a term for a while now, and because only a handful of students actually completes the survey, I had precious little feedback to work from – just two this year.  Here’s what Joe copied for me to respond to:

I’ve never had a better English instructor. If she teaches anywhere again, I would like to know.

Chili was just a little too much for me to handle. I’m not saying she is a bad person but she brings too much of her opinions and beliefs to the table to the point that I find myself asking “Is this a class about literature or about Chili’s beliefs.” The good thing about Chili is that if we do get off on a discussion about those sort of things she does listen. I just wish the course was more about the reading and I REALLY wish we read more happy stuff. Everything we’ve been reading thus far is somewhat depressing. Anyways, just my thoughts…

I tend to work from the middle – I generally disregard the “she’s the best teacher I ever had” and the “she sucks and you should never let her in another classroom ever again” responses because they represent the extremes.  Extremes are generally not terribly helpful in terms of critique and analysis.

The second comment got to me, though, and I’ve been thinking about it all week.

The list for this class included, among others, things like Frankenstein, The Sixth Sense, The Things They Carried, The Last Samurai, Brokeback Mountain, and Othello.  Now, I will grant that there’s not much that’s “happy” in that list, so I can’t really argue with the student’s assessment that the reading and viewing were a bit on the down side.

If I give it a little bit of thought, though, it occurs to me that there’s not a whole lot of “happy” literature out there.  Really, there are only a few things that I’ve taught in my lit classes that I would consider “happy;” A Christmas Carol comes to mind, but that’s only happy for the last 5 pages.  I suppose there’s a bunch of love poetry (which, not for nothing, we did read in this lit class) that could be classified as “happy,” but really, I don’t think many authors (at least, those who don’t write specifically for children) go out with the intention of writing something that’s either happy OR sad; the point of a literature  – and literature class – isn’t to make someone happy or not; it’s to investigate the different ways that different authors handle the range of human experiences.

The comment about my pushing my views – that the student feels that I had an agenda that I used the class to forward – does bother me, however.  I’m going to admit, right out of the gate, that I DO come to class with certain expectations that my students will be open-minded and critical thinkers.  I am not wiling to close the door on an intriguing or challenging text because the subject matter – or the author – may be distasteful to students.  Actually, I think that’s where the real gold in literature classes is mined; when students are encouraged to look past their initial prejudices and discomforts, whatever those may entail, they come to realize that there’s a lot more to the story or the author than they originally held.

I also consider, when I’m choosing what pieces to teach, whether or not the material presents challenges to what I imagine the students’ normal mode of thinking is; I WANT to push them a little bit out of their comfort zones because I want them to think in ways that are a little bit complicated for them.  If I give them readings that are obvious and easy to interpret, they’ll not learn anything from the experience.  Doing the same easy things over and over isn’t how we learn; we need to be pushed a little beyond our capacities with the expectation that we’ll be supported and guided as we make our way through this new experiences.  That’s what I’m there for as an instructor – to offer my students guidance and to model the kind of inquisitive and rigorous thinking that I expect them to learn as a consequence of having taken my class.

Do I have an agenda?  Yes; it would be disingenuous for me to claim that I don’t.  I’m incapable of going into a classroom as a neutral figure.  I am passionate about the work that I do and I care very much for the students I teach.  I get excited about the stories we read and the films we view because I’ve been taught to plumb the depths of them – to see beyond the plot and to connect the experiences of these pieces of literature to my understanding of how the world works (or, in some cases, how I think the world should work), and I want to teach my students to be able to do that, too.  As a result, I often bring readings and films into my classes that address issues of human rights and compassion, of dignity, fairness, and integrity because I want them to think about those things, and to understand, on more than just a superficial level, how those qualities operate in the world.

In short, I don’t think that my job as an English teacher is only to get my students to a particular level of competency with the language.  I’m not there to only teach them vocabulary or grammar, or to just explain to them the methods of sentence structure or research paper construction.  My job – what I consider my primary job – is to inspire them to think, to question, and to analyze.  If I can pry open a few minds in the process, then I’m willing to risk having one or two students accuse me of having an agenda.

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12 Comments

Filed under analysis, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, ethics, frustrations, I love my boss, Learning, Literature, Questions, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, The Job

12 responses to “Self Analysis

  1. You could pick one of the Shakespeare comedies to lighten things up a bit. As You Like it has some interesting stuff to say about family and gender and love and it’s pretty light compared to that old wife-choker you’ve got on the syllabus now. You could also read one of Chekhov’s short plays, or his long ones, because HE considered them comedies. The rest of us are skeptical.

  2. These are all great ideas, except that, at TCC, at least, I’m limited to what’s in the anthology that the college has chosen to use (and really? There ain’t much that’s happy in there, either). As it is, I’m breaking a lot of rules by bringing in a lot of outside stuff – Brokeback Mountain, for example, and A Christmas Carol. The Admin. wants us to “use the book,” and I DO, I just don’t use it EXCLUSIVELY.

  3. Jen

    Well, for what it’s worth, I think your courses sound exciting and engaging. I wish I’d had a teacher like you while I was in college. (In fact, I keep toying with the idea of asking if you teach a distance learning course!) I love the way you incorporate different media and ask your students to think outside the text. You challenge your students and I wonder if they just aren’t ready for that?

    As far as “happier literature” your students may be out of luck (especially if you’re supposed to use an anthology you didn’t choose). I don’t recall reading a lot of happy texts that are considered literature. I like Kizz’s idea of a Shakespeare comedy, though…my choice would be Much Ado About Nothing, personally.

  4. Come to think of it, I can only remember one thing with any happy in it at all for all 4 years of high school and the little lit I had in college and that would be The Hobbit. Now I must go rack my brains for a while and see if I can remember anything else.

  5. fermat

    Mrs. Chili:

    I remember hearing about learning life’s lessons and why we (the royal “we”) always have to go through hardship and suffering. The best answer, I thought, was “That’s when you learn.” Most of us enjoy the happy times in our lives, but rarely do we “learn” from them. Granted, there are a few glimmering moments when you see a child’s face light up when he/she finally figures out a problem, but before that moment there was frustration, confusion, and even anger.

    Personally, I enjoy a hardship story. I get to experience the character’s foibles, frustrations, and fears. I’m happy to read about overcoming odds, and sympathize with the person, but getting down to it, you can’t beat a good depressing story.

    As for your opinion being exposed during class, realized this: It’s your class. You bring it to life by not just making the students learn by rote. That student should be grateful that you are giving your opinion. He/she should feel secure enough in your class so much that he/she could agree or disagree with you without fear of ridicule or embarassment.

  6. Often times people assume it is just conten that teachers should focus on as they teach. You are right, it is far more than that; however, the writing you teach them will determine how far they go in life. I like the action plan.

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  8. I know I’m commenting on this more than a year from when it was written, but I just started reading your blog from the beginning yesterday (yes, really!), and I finally could no longer fight the urge to comment.

    I have really enjoyed reading your descriptions of learning to be a teacher, and why you love being a teacher. While I have obviously not been in your class, I think it’s pretty clear that, as you acknowledge, you have a definite agenda, especially in your literature classes. While you have agreed with the student who called you on it, you certainly sounded rather smug about the whole thing.

    I can’t help but wonder if you are as willing to look past your own prejudices and experiences as you want your students to be. From all that I have read, while you give lip-service to the ideal of free speech, you seem awfully quick to label things with which you disagree as “hate speech”, “homophobic”, etc. — there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground (e.g. the professor who didn’t want the “Coming-Out Day” sign in his room).

    I guess what I’m asking is if you would want to sit through one of your classes if you held a reasoned, coherent, opposing viewpoint?

    • Improbable Joe

      Really? You think Chili-baby, the most accommodation-making and soft-on-everything person on Earth, is too judgmental and hard on the bigots and homophobes? She’s too easy on them by half. If you’d like a demonstration on what harsh actually looks like, keep on reading.

      First off, your attack on Chili for giving “lip service to the ideal of free speech” shows that you don’t have clue one what that means. Being free to speak your mind doesn’t mean you are free from criticism for your views. If you think gay people are bad, and you like committing hate speech–which I’m guessing you do on a regular basis– that’s great and knock yourself out. I would defend your right to be an idiot with my life if necessary, but with that right comes MY RIGHT to call you out on it. Free speech isn’t a shield from criticism.

      Secondly, that whole bit about “you seem awfully quick to label things with which you disagree as “hate speech”, “homophobic”, etc. ” is the first move that bigots and homophobes use as a defense. Guess what, cupcake? What Chili disagrees with is the homophobia and bigotry, and she’s just labeling it as what it is. Not because she “disagrees with it” as you dishonestly claim, but because that’s how it looks to decent and rational people. Besides being a weak defense, it is also shifting the burden, as though identifying bigots is somehow rude and mean, and an issue that is more important that the bigotry itself. Nasty stuff, although again you have every right to it.

      Chili’s got an agenda: to influence kids to be bright, hard-working, and productive members of society who don’t see bigotry as a virtue. If you have a problem with that agenda, the fault lies with you.

  9. Ms. Miller, WELCOME! Don’t worry about commenting on old posts; I have this set up so that I get email copies of new comments, so I never miss anyone!

    I always feel strange defending myself on issues such as the one you bring up here because of COURSE I’m going to say that I’m perfectly okay with reasoned, coherent opposing viewpoints. I’m always afraid that I come off as disingenuous, but the truth of the matter is that I DO make a point of not only allowing but welcoming dissenting voices in my environments (here and in the classroom). In fact, one of the things I make sure my students understand on the first day of classes (it’s even in my syllabus!) is that it’s perfectly okay to DISAGREE with someone in the classroom – including me – but it’s never okay to DISRESPECT that person.

    That being said, I believe that one of my primary responsibilities as a teacher is to create a safe learning environment. NO ONE is allowed to harass, intimidate, or threaten and, as the “grown up” in the room, yes; I DO get to decide what falls into those categories. My objection to the man who kept erasing the Coming Out Day notice on the board was that he – the grown up in the room – was creating a potentially unsafe environment for his students. In erasing the notice – more than once – he was being openly hostile to students who may have used the notice as an opportunity to consider being open about who they really are.

    This is all to say that I DO welcome reasoned, coherent opposing viewpoints; keep reading and I think you’ll see that I do.

  10. I’ve known Mrs. C. for a number of years now, Ms. Miller, and I can assure you that she is quite open-minded. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve only seen her teach once, and that’s not really a very scientific sample size, but that one time I saw her teach only the subject at hand, not her “agenda.”

    Would she sit through her class if she held an opposing viewpoint? Yes, she most certainly would. She does it almost every time she sees me. 🙂

    She and I have VERY different political and social views on most topics, and yet she still views me as one of her closest friends. Do we, on occassion, out of respect for one another, try to avoid talking about those things? Sure we do. However, we also get together to intentionally discuss those things, and those discussions are always calm, rational, and respectful. We rarely change each other’s minds, but we’re always grateful for the conversation afterwards, because we’ve made each other think and at least truly consider the opposite point of view.

    I honestly believe, were a student to call her out on her “agenda,” that she would happily engage the student in a conversation and not hold his/her opposing viewpoint against him/her, so long as the student was able to discuss things as calmly, rationally, and respectfully as she would.

  11. Pingback: What Would Jesus Teach? | A Teacher’s Education

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