They Took It Sitting Down

They Took It Sitting Down (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

The other night, about a third of my American Lit survey class insisted on sitting on the floor. They pushed the chairs aside and clumped together in the front of the room. The weather was nice, but we couldn’t go outside because a student was using her blog for her presentation. So I guess this was the next best thing.

The sitters were bloginators — part of the core of English majors who put more than average effort into their academic blogging. I think on some level they were trying to assert control over the class. They weren’t aggressive or rude about it… in fact, they asked my permission first, so I can hardly call it a protest or a rebellion. I had to position myself in a strange way so I could make eye contact with them and also the rest of the class, but it was a harmless, cheerful request.

American Lit is a general education course, which means that I have to teach so that it makes sense to students who’ve never taken a lit course, and who may resent being forced to take it. But the students who have had me in other classes have already heard me explain the difference between plot summary and critical analysis; they have heard me explain why it’s important to keep up to date on your blog (and not try to get it all done the night before the portfolio is due); and they have heard me give the lecture on the importance of finding peer-reviewed academic sources before you commit to a thesis statement. And they’ve heard me repeat those lessons several times (since they themselves might have needed a while to accept it). So I can’t blame them if they feel a little bored.

I don’t require the class to read all their peer blogs, but many of the English majors already read each other’s blogs for social purposes. So the most vocal group comes into the classroom already knowing what the most active participants want to say about that week’s reading. I had to remind some of the more intense bloggers that they are welcome to blog more than they are required to, but for a while there we had a kind of digital divide. The online part of the class was going well, but the most committed bloggers felt the class discussion was redundant.

Sometimes I feel I’m able to go into much more depth in the freshman “Intro to English Study” course. While the students in that class have a diversity of attitudes towards such things as punctuation and academic research, they all enjoy writing. Today when I passed out photocopies of a book chapter on Death of a Salesman, one of the freshmen noticed my name on the handout and beamed. She held it like it was a precious gift, and she practically cooed, “Oh! You wrote this?” It sounded completely spontaneous, not at all calculated to flatter me. And of course, these freshmen will be among the bloginators taking American Lit survey courses next year… and I’ll have to teach them alongside students who don’t like writing or reading.

When I humbly went to the Ed school seeking advice, the boss was adamant that I shouldn’t even think of lightening up on the course content simply to make the education majors feel less terror (or rage). He pointed out that Ed students take the course to fulfill two area requirements — literature and American culture. If they feel the course is too difficult, he says, they are welcome to drop the one course and take two others that are less demanding — if they want to pay double the tuition.

Next year, the American Lit surveys will go from a lecture (capped at 35) to a writing-intensive seminar (capped at 18). I welcome the change, especially because I’m teaching two sections of Am Lit in both the fall and spring terms — one on Tuesday and Thursday, and one on Wednesday evening. I like that arrangement. The two sets of students will be able to read each other’s blogs, but they won’t talk about the same things in the classroom. Each week, half of the course content will be freshly prepared just for them, and half will be a tweaked and revised version of material I had just presented the day before.