Tuesday, January 31, 2006

when you can't weigh in

Working as a TA to some extent requires you to adjust your temperament, and I'm getting a bit frustrated with the adjustments I'm having to make this semester. The course is an introductory class of about 30 students, and could be summarized as a broad intro to the analysis of narrative through short stories from around the world. My broader structural problem is the class discussions involve neither history/cultural context (there's a bit thrown in here and there), nor close reading (ditto), but float around slightly above the text, in the land of "What Calvino is doing here is subverting our readerly expectations," without coming to rest on either literary-historical reasons why he's doing that, or specific passages on which to focus. This may be because the professor shapes these discussions based on student reactions on the discussion board, but even those comments involve more specifics than he gets into in class. He makes a point of engaging students in dialogue in the lecture room, which I fully support, but too often his reactions take the form of "That's a good point," rather than "That's a good point, and here's what I, as the professor who knows more than you, have to add to your point."

Now, I think he'd argue that the whole goal of the course is to demonstrate to students, and enact, the fact that, simply as a reader, he doesn't "know" more than they do -- that their reactions to the texts can stand on equal footing with his. That's all well and good, but it's disingenous to back away from asserting intellectual authority when he does have (in general) more exposure to these texts and more practice as a reader than they do.

This perhaps nebulous complaint is stemming from an episode in class today when I was almost tempted to speak out in class: still discussing Calvino, one student compared his deliberate and, in her opinion, frustrating use of self-conscious literary tactics to "other modernist writers like Stein and Faulkner." A few minutes later, another student also called Calvino a modernist. No acknowledgement on the professor's part that Calvino is more aptly called postmodernist, for both stylistic and chronological reasons, and, more seriously, no acknowledgement that the terms "modernist" and "postmodernist" have a history in terms of style, or a relation to each other, or even concrete definitions that would be of use to the class in discussing the short narratives we've been reading. I realize he's trying to keep the discussion on the level of form, and maybe that's what's bothering me, but the goal of the course, of any college English course, should also be to teach the students to hone their thinking and writing skills, and that includes correcting important terminological mistakes that have a bearing on the course material.

I think I'm sounding more pissy than I intend, but it makes me mad for the students' sake - they are a generally eager bunch, and I think if they were given a more precise set of tools, they'd make good use of them.

As the TA, I attend the lectures, monitor the online discussion, and grade papers -- there aren't any discussion sections. So there's not really an opportunity for me to sound them out on how the approach is working with them, or go into further detail on things like the modernism question that come up in class but aren't dealt with. Who thought I'd be longing for *more* responsibility this semester?


luckybuzz said...

Can you get involved with the online discussions? Maybe that's a way to get into more detail on these points with them, in lieu of discussion sections?

kermitthefrog said...

thanks luckybuzz -- I think that's the way to go. Many of the postings take place after I go to sleep the night before each class, but I'm going to try to weigh in when I can!