The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Has it really been more than a month?  Well, hopefully, once the semester gets started I will be able to post more regularly.  Also, I hope to have guest posters during the academic year, which will lighten my load somewhat.  (And make this a more interesting blog, certainly.)


So if my last post was about the most creative thing I’ve done in the classroom, perhaps this post should be about the least creative thing I do.  And would be: teach Introduction to Literature.


I have taught some version of Introduction to Literature now for 10 years now, and very little has changed.  In that span, I changed the book I used once (from a Penguin anthology to the Seagull Reader).  I have used the same graphic novel (MAUS) every semester.  And other than a few minor adjustments to class structure (usually based on the university calendar) and readings (which of Shakespeare’s sonnets do I use to teach the sonnet?), this course is basically the same class I taught when I taught it for the first time.  And I’m sure that this class sounds pretty boring at this point.


And sometimes it is.  And by sometimes, I mean the spring semester.  (I teach at least one section every semester.  This semester, as with most fall semesters, I am teaching three sections.)  I am always so excited to be back in the classroom that I don’t get bored in the fall.  (I get frustrated and tired, but never bored.)  One reason is that, honestly, I enjoy what I teach.  I like this material.  Many of the works I cover are some of my favorites.  Another reason is that, especially in the fall (especially when I have mostly freshmen), the students find much of this material new and exciting.*  This may not be new to me, but it certainly is new to them.  Many of them come to my Introduction to Literature thinking that everything in these works is a “symbol,” they call every piece a “story,” and meanings are always “deep.”  And as we slowly work through some of the gems from the western canon, they come to have a greater understanding of how to read analytically, what the various literary devices are and how they work, and for many of them, they leave with a new appreciation for language.  This, of course, is never boring.


And this is one reason why I don’t understand the desire some academics have to change their courses every semester.  After doing this for 10 years, I know what works.  Every text that has repeatedly failed has been cut from the syllabus.  Every assignment that has repeatedly failed has been changed.  I have a specific set of goals, and I have found a way that (for me, at least) achieves those goals.  Every time.  For every student who honestly puts in the work.  I never worry about time, because I know exactly where I am at any point during class, because I have done this long enough to have perfected the rhythm of the class.  I know what their questions will be (for the most part), and have crafted my discussions to address many of them even before they get asked.  I know where we will need to slow down, and what we can skip through quickly.  And because I love this material and the students get pretty interested in it, this isn’t boring.  (Ask any baseball player.  Do you ever get bored swinging the bat the same way all the time, especially when you know just how to hit that pitch perfectly?)


And at this point, I start to sound arrogant.  This is not the case.  Rather, I’ve been tinkering with delivery, speed, timing, anticipating troublesome spots and learning how to best respond to all kinds of questions; and I’ve been doing it for a while now.  And perhaps most importantly, I really enjoy doing it.  (Introduction to Literature is, without a doubt, my favorite class to teach.  It’s not always the best class I teach in any given semester, but it is consistently the most rewarding class I teach.)


But there are other reasons why I’m hesitant to change this class.  I teach a 4/4 load, and 3 of those courses every semester are lower-division “service” courses, usually ones that carry university gen-eds and are populated by non-majors.  In many ways, these are the hardest classes to teach.  Part of teaching lower-division, gen-ed courses means that you have such a wide variety of student backgrounds that one cannot take anything for granted.  It also means these are the classes with the most students.  Both of those factors contribute to making these classes the most difficult to grade.  (And, when they succeed, that’s why these are the most rewarding classes.)  In short, for reasons of time and sanity, I just can’t change this course every semester.  I have colleagues who change their readings every year (one who changes his every semester).  I have no idea how they can do that.  Where do they find the time to prepare new readings so often?  How do they manage to teach them well if they teach them once and move on?  And when we throw in all the service (to the department and the university) we all do, as well as the advising and mentoring of our students, why would one want to change such a course regularly?


But maybe the best question – posed in a slightly different way by a friend earlier this summer – is this: when you find something that works, why change it? If you know a set of readings produces the results you want – if you find something that achieves the goals you set out – what’s the point in changing them?  Some will say that there’s always room for improvement.  And I suppose that’s true.  But by the same logic, one would never publish, as one can always improve that conference paper, that article, or that book.  At some point, you realize that tinkering any further doesn’t make the slight improvements worth the investment of time and energy.  You hit that point where you realize that “perfection” doesn’t exist, and you accept that.  But I think that, in some cases, there’s something else at play.  Very often, there’s a fear of “getting stale,” a belief that if you aren’t constantly changing, you are doing the students a disservice.**  Every academic I know can point to that one professor whose lectures hadn’t changed since his tweed jacket was brand new (and didn’t need those elbow patches) .  They point to that professor as “the boring one,” the one who was so opposed to change that his lectures were stale, boring, and nothing was learned.  However, I counter those stories with my memory of Robert Blanch, one of my favorite professors when I was studying at Northeastern University.  I will never forget his Chaucer seminar.  He had been teaching this course regularly for his entire career.  And every day, the same thing happened: he walked into class, opened his battered and note-scrawled edition of Baugh’s Chaucer’s Major Poetry on the desk in front of him, and then lectured without ever once looking at the text. He would quote long passages from memory, and never once missed a line reference.  He used the same handouts he had been using since before departments had photocopiers, and had not changed his class in decades.  And he didn’t have to.  Simply put, he flat out knew that material.  And though it has been 16 years since I studied with him, I remember that class as clear as day.  I remember his lectures, and if I concentrate, I can ever hear him reading aloud.  And I know that he taught that course the same way, every time.  And it wasn’t boring in the least.  It was exciting as hell, and one of the reasons I started my graduate career with a desire to study medieval poetry.


So what’s my point?  Just this: change is good; creativity is wonderful.  However, this doesn’t mean that one always needs to change, or that one must always look for new, “creative” ways to reach our students.  Creativity for the sake of creativity – abandoning what works for sake of being creative – may not, in the end, be what is best for our students, or ourselves.***



*How much I love the students here (most of them, anyway) will likely be a recurring topic on this blog.

**At least in my field.  I have no idea if this is true in other fields.

***I have another post in mind, which I’ve been thinking about for some time now (since before I started this blog), about creativity and technology.  I’m no Luddite – I am, as I write this, typing on my MacBook Pro – but I am rather insistent in my belief that, despite what I’ve often been told, technology doesn’t inherently mean creativity.  But that’s another post.



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3 responses to “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

  1. Another good post, Jim. And I mostly agree. I admire and respect Bob Blanch a great deal. What if he had come in one day, though, with digitized versions of several different Chaucer manuscripts so that you could see, and discuss, some of the most contested readings and how they affect the interpretation of the text? That’s just one example, but you see what I’m getting at. It was clearly a phenomenal course, and inspired my favorite “Wulf and Eadwacer” scholar, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something that could be tweaked to make it more effective.

    • I suppose it’s a possibility. Of course, bringing in those manuscripts would have changed his approach, changed his goals for the course. But I don’t know that it would have made the course more “effective”; to determine that, we would have to think about what his goals for the course were, and how those additional materials would play into those goals. I’m not saying that the course would be better or worse, just different. And I’m not willing to make the leap that different is better. Just that it’s different.

      Or put another way, he could also have brought in various translations of Chaucer into modern English, which would have helped foster discussion of some of the interpretive possibilities. And we could have read more criticism and theory. And we could have spent time with a study of material culture. And, and, and. Do we ever reach a point where we are trying to do too much, and what is that point? One of the issues I’m trying to address is the idea that “more” is inherently better. Because if that’s true, then we are all found wanting because we can always do more.

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