Friday, October 16, 2009

How to Use Wit as Classroom Discipline

[Man pushes the handicap button on a door]
GIRLFRIEND: What'd you do that for?
MAN: For you! You're handicapped mentally AND physically.

The above conversation happened while I was at the local library. The location is not what makes this post academic (although, I suppose one could compose a clever enough argument). The boyfriend's quip makes it so.

A quick tongue is one of the best ways to keep classroom order. This is good advice for secondary teachers as well. Students often test authority by making borderline comments that aren't necessarily insubordinate yet aren't necessarily deferential. In these moments an instructor can cement his or her control. Instead of letting a student smudge the line of classroom discipline, a teacher's well-placed remark can quell an avalanche of future borderline comments. The question then is how do you know what to say in a given situation? Follow these 3 easy steps, and you won't have problem.

1. Remember that speed is more important than quality. Responding quickly, even if it's mediocre, has a great deal of impact. Even if your quip is generic, the faster you say something, the more confident it sounds, and the more people are likely to buy it. You're a teacher, not a stand up comic. Any well-timed line that comes out of your mouth will be greeted w/ a positive response. In the world of comebacks, timing trumps quality.

2. Sun Tzu says, "if you know what your opponent is going to do before he does it, you can defeat him." Prepare ahead of time. Whether it's in-class comments or typed essays, students generally say the same things. This means you can anticipate what's going to be said, and provide an adequate defense. This is especially useful for females. Male students tend to make sexist--even sexual--comments. You can deflect those and in the process, get some of the female students on your side by rolling your eyes, looking at a few other ladies, and saying something like, "We all know what to expect when a guy talks like that."

3. Know your audience. Comebacks are about subtly defending yourself. So you never want to use them as offense. Smart aleck teachers are a turn off. But quick-witted ones who can keep trouble makers in check are enjoyable. But you must be aware of what you can say. You don't want to be offensive (At the secondary level, it will definitely get you in trouble). And you don't want to be incindiary (At the post-secondary level, that could lead to more, not fewer verbal battles).

Ultimately, the key is to needle them to the degree to which they needle you. Not more. It's not about out macho-ing someone else. It's about reducing distractions, so you can focus on what's important. That's why I like to chuckle, make my comment, and then continue with what I'm discussing almost as if what the student said was as harmless and unthreatening as a lady bug crawling across the floor.

Hope this helps!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Mind of Samuel Johnson

[I]t is the mind which knows the power of its own potentially disruptive propensities that needs and demands to be disciplined."
--Donald Davie

"If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth."
--Samuel Johnson, "On Biography"

I first became interested in Samuel Johnson while reading Simon Winchester's excellent The Professor and the Madman,an insightful book that traces "a tale murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Winchester discusses Johnson as a preeminent academic, a scholar whose research, poetry, and criticism shaped the English language and epitomized 18th century thought. This portrait piqued an interest that grows yearly.

Johnson's commentaries on form and style are built upon an adherence to classic Greek and Roman literature and how those literatures have affected classic British literature. This observance of form and and conformity to established modes, attract me. I'm not sure why; I enjoy writers who use old methods to approach new things. Literary antitheses--both in authors and their works--add complexity to that which may already be fascinating.

In The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell describes Johnson as "sufficiently uncouth," but his disheveled appearance belied his strict attention to intellectual and scholarly order. In fact, Boswell remarks that all of his" slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk." This contrast between a messy, disarranged exterior and an orderly, encyclopedic intellect reflects the complexities of a man born to write poetry but who lived in an age of prose.

I just hope the next time I get to teach his life and works, I will pass on to my students the fascination I have with the "glittering eminence" of Dr. Johnson.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Quote of the Day: Sex & Poetry--A Love Story

"Ya know, when I first read the poem, I kept thinking of the male body part. But then I said, 'Nah, that's not right. People don't write poems about sex. When did they start doing that?'"
--One of my students after reading, "Down, Wanton Down"

The misconceptions about language, literature, and writing can provide some of the best discussion fodder. I've copied and pasted the poem in question below. If you don't know what "wanton" means, go to for clarification.

Down, Wanton, Down by Robert Graves

Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame
That at the whisper of Love's name,
Or Beauty's, presto! up you raise
Your angry head and stand at gaze?

Poor bombard-captain, sworn to reach
The ravelin and effect a breach--
Indifferent what you storm or why,
So be that in the breach you die!

Love may be blind, but Love at least
Knows what is man and what mere beast;
Or Beauty wayward, but requires
More delicacy from her squires.

Tell me, my witless, whose one boast
Could be your staunchness at the post,
When were you made a man of parts
To think fine and profess the arts?

Will many-gifted Beauty come
Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,
Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?
Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Can't I Teach British Literature When I Love It So Much?

"Placed at the door of learning, youth to guide,
We never suffer it to stand too wide.
To ask, to guess, to know, as they commence,
As fancy opens the quick springs of sense"
--Alexander Pope, "The Dunciad"

As a 2nd semester freshman, I sat in Dr. Duke Pesta's British Lit class, mesmerized by the way he imbued with life Donne's amorous flea, Jonson's deceased son, and Shakespeare's dark-haired lady. I would sit in my desk, bubbling w/ impatience so that I could get back to the dorm and read the next class' assignment. I waited for the delicious opportunity to teach my own literature class so that I, too, could bring contemporary color to what college students thought was outdated, insipid language.

This semester I was excited to finally teach British Literature, the class that jumpstarted my imagination and revealed what a good teacher could do with a good text. However, this semester, I've feel as though my lectures "blind [the] rebel wit" and "confine the thought[s]" of my students. Now, in brief snatches, I can feel the interest of the class rise as I connect a particular analogy or bring forth a particular point. But often, the room is filled with a muted silence. I speak but my words are arid, they write but their notes are dead.

I am rarely able to create or sustain the exuberance produced in my undergrad Brit Lit classes. I can with American Lit; I love assigning works like Walden Pond, works students find perplexing or irrelevant, only to show them the depth of thought and the relevance of subject matter presented. But I've been unable to reproduce that effect with works like Aeropagitica. Oddly enough, the lit class that students respond most enthusiastically to is Experiencing Lit, my least favorite and the one I feel least confident teaching.

I know one day I, too, will "speak out loud and bold" like Chapman translating Homer, but it may take a bit longer than I anticipated. Of course, I believe I can get things moving northward by Fall Break. Perhaps my optimism springs from all those Romantic poems I gotta teach.

Friday, October 2, 2009

To the Teachers, don't Make Too Much Time

"Then be not coy, but use your time, / And while ye may, go marry;"
--Robert Herrick, "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time"

When I first began teaching, I tried desperately to stay 2 weeks ahead of my classes. But no matter how I hard I worked to keep my planning and heading on that time curb, it never happened. I always found myself scrambling to get lectures and class activities together the day of or (even worse) while in class.

Now that I have a better sense of a semester's rhthym, I am much better prepared. But I'm still not quite 2 weeks ahead. Sometimes, it's a week; sometimes, it's a few hours. But that's okay. In fact, I think it's best. Two weeks ahead may be too much. If my preparation is too far removed from the day it is intended for, the timing of my ideas can ebb. My intimacy with a text--even one I've taught many times--isn't as personal as I'd like, which effects the syncronicity of my performance.

The energy, even urgency, created by the close proximity of class preparation and in-class appearance may help bring forth a sense of immediacy, an immediacy perhaps lost when the lecture's been prepared weeks ahead of schedule.