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.