April 15, 2008

Reflections on Blogging My Teaching

I began my series of posts on 'This Week in My Classes' back in September, in response to what I felt were inaccurate and unfair representations of what English professors are up to in their teaching. As I said then,
I don't suppose that my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary, but I think it might contribute somewhat to the demystification of our profession, now that the teaching term is underway, to make it a regular feature of my blog to outline what lies in store for me and my students each week.
(April 16 update: Somewhat more temperate but equally dismissive attitudes appeared again here just this morning). The resulting entries range from brief commentaries on key passages to meditations on larger critical or theoretical issues prompted by a particular reading or class discussion (on October 1, for instance, there's some of each); from notes on pedagogical strategies or favourite discussion topics (such as 'giant hairball' day) to protracted afterthoughts on the central issues of a class meeting or reading (such as the didactic or instructional aspects of 19th-century courtship and marriage novels).

And so? What did I accomplish by writing all this up--and by putting it all out in public? I think there's no way to tell if I made any difference at all to the kinds of pervasive and (in my view) pernicious attitudes towards literary academics expressed in the Footnoted posts that prompted me to do this. It seems pretty unlikely! How would these angry people even know my blog exists, after all? And even if they did come across it, the odds of conversion would surely be pretty slim for a determined anti-academic. Still, I think it was worth making the effort and putting some evidence against their version out there, just in case. Where in my posts would these people find evidence that I hate literature and spend my time on political indoctrination? (April 16: or, again with reference to this post, that I dismiss aesthetics, hold in contempt the notion of literature as "record and register of literary art," and oppress my students with my hyperliteracy? Sigh. A classroom is large and can contain multitudes--of ideas and voices and critical approaches.)

As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up...and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn't usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what's about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other 'non-professional' interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.

But isn't that a goal I could have achieved by keeping a teaching journal off-line? Well, sort of, but not altogether. For one thing, blogging (again, as other bloggers have remarked), precisely because it is a public form of writing, puts a different kind of pressure on you as a writer. Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better--just in case. Maybe there are all kinds of dedicated prose stylists in the world who laboriously craft the entries in their private notebooks. But even they probably have their eye on posterity ("one day, when I'm famous, these notebooks will sell for a fortune on eBay!"). It's true, too, that the 'blogosphere,' with its millions of members, includes many samples of writing done, as far as anyone can tell, with no care at all. But for me at least, the accessibility of writing in this medium (and the impossibility of ever really taking something back once it has been 'published' on the internet) raises the stakes, even while the relative informality of the blog post as a genre has been a welcome change from the demands of professional academic writing.

Further, I like the idea that I might write something that other readers find interesting, useful, or mentally stimulating. My teaching posts in particular seem to me likely, if chanced upon, to be welcomed by readers outside an academic setting who are, nonetheless, interested in learning more about the kinds of reading contexts and strategies I work on with my students. Looking through my posts, I think there is nearly enough in them for someone to do an 'independent study' of my reading lists for any of the four classes I taught this year. The frequent publication of 'books about books' aimed at non-academic audiences suggests an appetite for what you might call 'reading enhancement.' Maybe other teachers, too, would get some ideas for how to approach some of the texts I've discussed, just as I have often sought ideas from posted syllabi or from the blogs of other people in my field or, more generally, my discipline. At its best, the 'blogosphere' is a great reservoir of information and insights made generously and collaboratively by people of all kinds; we can learn from each other and contribute to each other's learning. This is not something that can happen off-line. (Here, of course, is the justification for blogging at all, not just for blogging about teaching.) And in the year or so that I have been blogging, I have been contacted by a few readers who have seemed genuinely appreciative of my efforts in this direction.

Finally, as a blogger, I found that carrying out this plan to do a regular series of posts on one theme added a helpful structure to my posting habits: it was a kind of productive discipline. Like all academics, after all, I'm used to working to deadlines. Often, I began my week thinking I had nothing in particular to say. But I 'had' to post about my classes (also like all academics, I have an over-developed sense of obligation and I'm used to generating my own necessities). And once I started writing, most of the time I quickly found I was invigorated by discovering that I did have something to say after all.

Overall, then, I'm glad I set myself this task, and reading through my posts, I'm pleased with the results. No doubt other English professors do very different things, including with the same primary materials I took on. No doubt there are some who would be alienated, rather than won over, if they happened upon this material; no doubt some who have read it have turned away impatiently (or worse), for their own theoretical, political, or other reasons. But my posts represent my classroom well, and thus I admit, they represent me well too. Yup, that's me: the one who cries over Oliphant's Autobiography and finds passages in Dickens poetic, who admires George Eliot's stringent morality but worries about the way her better people seem driven to sacrifice themselves to their petty partners because 'the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision,' who watches House and Sex and the City and finds Agatha Christie clever but shallow, who goes all pedantic when homework comes in but relishes her students' creativity and humour in devising class activities, whose children delight and torment and distract her. That's the thing about teaching--and about blogging too. You put yourself out there, try to be your best self most of the time, have moments of irritability and moments of eloquence--and then you sit back and see if anyone was paying attention.


NigelBeale said...

Hi Rohan. I love your posts about blogging!

One question: There seems to be a lack of any feedback from your students on what you're doing. Is there a reason for this?

Rohan Maitzen said...

That's an interesting question, Nigel. I have had a few comments from past or current students along the way, but not many. Most of my students have no idea I'm blogging, I think; I haven't particularly advertised it. Perhaps I should! Some have told me that they check the blog regularly, especially if they've missed any classes, to get a review of what the main issues were. I think there's probably an element of diffidence about 'going public' by commenting. (After all, hardly anybody else comments here!) I also use class-specific venues for interaction (WebCT / Blackboard, for instance), which probably absorbs what 'extra' attention they can spare for any one class among their five.

Pacifist Viking said...

I'm always leery of generalizations, and I've often read the generalized horrors of what college literature teachers are evidently doing to ruin literature. I just imagine it must be happening somewhere else, because the criticisms don't match my (admittedly limited) experience as an undergrad student, a grad student, a teacher, or a reader.

I suppose I'm also leery of gloom and doom predictions; as far as I can tell, literary theorists haven't actually destroyed anything. Somehow literature still exists and people still read it for pleasure.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I, at least, am well aware that a substantial part of the enjoyment I get from literature is based on an infrastructure built or taught to me by literature professors and other scholars in the humanities. It's worthwhile to mock the frauds and fools in a profession, but when I look at what most literature professors actually do, I think "Keep up the good work."

Specialists in late-20th century American literature may have the luxury of thinking they can dismiss all this, but I won't make that mistake.

NigelBeale said...

Hi Rohan,

Just read your comment over at The Reading Experience, and added one of my own about the teaching of literature. Namely that English Literature should focus on an aesthetic approach to the texts; and that political and other approaches are, perhaps, best taught in other appropriate departments. Perhaps it's foolish to think that a text can or should be studied separately from its larger context...Perhaps the best courses, like yours, are the ones that take every possible kind of interpretation into consideration. I'm simply thinking though, that, as we have discussed previously, if academics want their voices heard out in the world, the best route for them to take is via clearly argued aesthetic valuation.

Not that all the other reasons to study literature aren't valid and enlightening. They are. It's just that non aesthetic study isn't what most people are interested in discussing.

NigelBeale said...

Then again, not reading outside the text can be fatal:



Rohan Maitzen said...

"if academics want their voices heard out in the world, the best route for them to take is via clearly argued aesthetic valuation."

Actually, I incline to think you (and McDonald) are missing the boat on this one. In the last year or so I've read a lot of books on literature aimed at non-academic audiences, a pretty large number of book blogs and Amazon reviews and so forth, and it strikes me that while some would-be intellectual types aim at abstract issues of style and aesthetics, a large majority of non-academic readers are are primarily interested in characters and their stories--what happens to them, why, how--in reacting to these stories (how did I feel about it? what do I wish would happen instead?)--and in the moral questions involved (are these good people? bad people?). These would once have been widely acknowledged as the key elements of both fiction and criticism; I find it interesting that if you look at, say, Oprah's book club or other highly influential non-academic reading zones like that, this kind of conversation remains such a high priority. I think a case can be made that to be understood to be relevant, academic critics could model how to carry on this kind of conversation with rigor as well as passion. In other words, I think there's at least as good a case to be made for ethical criticism as the key to returning criticism to the public sphere as there is for aesthetic.

NigelBeale said...

Very good point. Though I think these ethical questions can be asked under the rubric of aesthetics, especially if one defines aesthetic valuation, as Matthew Arnold does, as the determination of those works which elicit the greatest depths of both feeling and enjoyment; which are executed with absolute sincerity.

The best conversations are based on those characters who are most lifelike; truly complex.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Pacifist Viking (great handle!) and Amateur Reader: Thanks for your comments. Anthony Trollope wrote in his Autobiography, “[n]o man … can work long at any trade without being brought to consider much whether that which he is doing daily tends to evil or to good." No doubt my bristling at these sweeping denunciations is defensive, but the lawyers I know don't appreciate lawyer jokes either! It's nice to have some anecdotal evidence on the 'pro' side to offset the rest.