Monday, September 28, 2009

The Beauty of Detail: Style, Grammar, & Essays

"In small proportions, we just beauties see; / And in short measures, life may perfect be."
--Ben Jonson, "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship of that Noble Pair"

This semester, I've tried to teach grammar on the days where students bring in their rough drafts. So far, those classes have gone well. They turn in their papers this week, and so I'll be able to measure their application of the principles.

In the past, I've tried to mark style and grammar errors on papers, believing that by revising, they will understand their errors. Only the exceptional students are able to learn this way. The rest just rewrite the sentences. Like a blindfolded dart thrower, they hope that their newest attempt will yield success, but they don't know until they see the results. I want them to know. Unlike satire, style and grammar are not "myster[ies] of the noble trade" that "no master can teach to his apprentice."

So hopefully, in class instruction coupled with out of class direction will make more effectual their capacity for understanding the labyrinth of English style and grammar.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Teaching (British) Lives

"Poets are made of poems and other literary works from a past that especially engages them and of works by near antecedents and contemporaries that embed themselves in whole or in part in their imaginations."
--Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

This semester I've been teaching Brit Lit. I was excited to do so because I knew this course would give me a chance to supplement my literary background by reading works I either haven't read or haven't read since undergrad. The details of Beowuf, M'orte D'Arthur, and A Modest Proposal had faded from memory. Now their best passages dance nimbly on the tongue's tip.

Yet beyond the texts, outside reading such as Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets have given my lectures (and my knowledge) a background that has made literature newer, exciting, and more complex. My interest in writers' biographies continues to evolve. As Schmidt says, "as speakers, each of us is an inadvertent anthologist." Hopefully, I will be able to incorporate my growing interests into more than just my lectures.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

John Wooden, Marianne Moore, and the Tradition of Learned Reading

The legendary college basketball coach John Wooden began everyone of his basketball seasons the same way: by teaching his players the most elementary of functions--putting on their shoes and socks. He did it slowly, punctiliously describing his movements. Why take the time to go over this simple action? I imagine that the attention to detail included in it a lesson that went beyond merely how to put on one's clothes.

On Saturday, a former student informed me that my literature classes has helped her greatly since she's transferred to Vanderbilt. She said that my lectures on how to read and how to take notes while reading has helped prepare her for a more rigorous reading schedule (apparently Vanderbilt pushes you harder than community colleges do). She also said that my daily quizzes got her used to reading and looking for details. (My favorite reading quiz question of all-time remains "What was Marianne Moore's favorite baseball team?") The answer requires the student to not just read the assigned poems but to have the discipline to read the biography section on the writer. (The answer is the Brooklyn Dodgers.)

I enjoy the quizzes because they show students that reading can be a leisure activity, but when doing it for school, a focus and seriousness should accompany it. Earlier this semester, my Experiencing Lit class read "Teenage Wasteland." One of the questions was "a version of the song 'Teenage Wasteland' is the theme song for what tv show." A student wrote on his paper, "that was not in the reading." I marked the answer wrong and wrote back, "it was in the footnotes." Detail. Fastidiousness. Focus.

Now, I'm no Vivian Bearing (look her up), but I do want to push my students, not for the sake of simply being hard and definitely not to give myself more work to grade but to show them that meticulous work brings forth its own rewards, whether in a work setting, on a quiz, or at Vanderbilt. Good luck, Jess!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Learning Who I Am in a 10 x 12 Room

"But today I realize I've never really known what it means to be Chinese. I am thirty-six years old. My mother is dead and I am on a train, carrying with me her dreams of coming home. I am going to China [...] I look at their faces again and I see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, it can finally be let go."
--Amy Tan, "A Pair of Tickets"

The excerpt above is from Amy Tan's short story, "A Pair of Tickets," which discusses, among other things, the importance of setting, how you are and how you think can be changed, influenced, or defined by where you are.

As a first time, full-time professor, I know what Tan is referring to (to a certain degree). This may be a small thing to some, but this is my first semester where I have my own office. I do share it with an office mate, but I don't have an adjunct office that I share with a host of other people (and apparently, their students). I have my computer, my phone, and my desk.

I have a home base. And to my surprise, I am a more efficient teacher. The day is much more controlled; I rush less. And I get more work done sooner. I cannot completely attribute this to an office: I have fewer classes (but oddly enough am paid more)and am more experienced. But having somewhere to keep my stuff and somewhere to go before and after class makes teaching easier.

So, although I'm not Chinese and my office is not the city of Guangzhou, and more efficient teaching does not compare to uncovering part of my heritage, I'd like to think that what I'm learning this semester is helping me discover at least part of the identity that will allow me to become the great teacher I know I can be.