English 109: Composition and Literature
August 7, 2005

As another September looms ever closer, I realize again just how much I miss teaching. In fact, heading into Target today, I suddenly realized I was completely avoiding the Back-to-School section of the store because, well, because it was just too painful and depressing to think about.

The first class I taught was the fall of 1995. I had 18 bright, shiny faces of first-year students at the University of Notre Dame. Having only started my master's program the year before, I could still really sympathize with the nerves they probably felt upon starting university.

The class was English 109 - Composition and Literature and it was, in my opinion, about 2.5 semesters worth of work smashed into one lone semester. Just going from memory, we were supposed to teach the students the following:

  • how to use their email (Notre Dame does not require a computer class)
  • how to use the Daedalus program, which was a tool to learn and work on the writing process
    • they had to learn to prewrite with different sets of heuristics
    • they had to learn to use Interchange, which was a type of early chat program included in Daedalus
  • they had to learn to use Inspiration, another program which helped with prewriting
  • we had to read a significant amount of literature, including a unit on narrative fiction, a unit on poetry and a unit on plays
  • we had to also read from a small handbook on writing AND a large textbook on composition and rhetoric
  • the students had to learn the writing process by writing at least three drafts of their papers
  • the students were supposed to write a total of 7 papers, following the Aristotlean categories of exposition and argumentation
  • included in those 7 papers, if I remember correctly, students were supposed to write a resume and cover letter as well (or this might have been an 8th major assignment, sadly, I don't remember anymore)

All of that in a fifteen week (plus a week scheduled for finals) one semester course. For first-year students.

Talk about a completely overwhelming course!!

I tried to pick accessible readings for my students, including a novella called "The Body" -- if you've seen the movie Stand By Me with Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Donnell and Corey Feldman, that's the movie version of this book.

I tried to help them figure out how to break down the assignments into manageable chunks - but the pace of the class was, as far as I was concerned, completely overwhemling. At the University of Texas at Arlington, where I had done my undergraduate work, we offered a class in expository writing one semester and a class in argumentative writing in a separate semester. Of course, we also had a graduate program in composition/rhetoric and had plenty of faculty and graduate students who were honestly intrigued with the theories of writing and with the best ways to teach writing. Notre Dame has an English department devoted to literary theory and criticism and just one full-time faculty member who was at all interested in theories of writing.

I was nervous as hell the first day I went to teach. I got there too early and paced around in the halls, trying to give the kids some time to gel and chat before "authority" walked in.

I started out by giving the kids the syllabus and going over the requirements of the class. We talked about some study skills tricks I had discovered along the way of my collegiate career that I thought might be helpful in this class. By the second class, of course, the first real class, I realized that I was in my element. I absolutely LOVED teaching. And I did my damndest to help "my kids" do their best.

Naturally, they groused -- who doesn't grouse about a hard and time-consuming class? But I tried my best to make sure that they knew I was here to help them, not to trick or punish them.

And the established professor who came to observe my teaching a couple of times was just delighted with what he saw and gave me a whole-hearted thumbs-up.

About three quarters of the way through the semester, I realized that the kids were not reading all of the textbook readings. I was appalled only in that I was grading their papers based on some of the lessons in those readings - things we had not had time to cover in class. But they were diligent note-takers ... the only such note-takers I had in the entire nine years that I taught at Notre Dame. I actually had to tell them one day to put down their pens and just listen to me for a minute. And I gave them advice - not a lecture - advice on how to figure out how and where to cut corners and prioritize their various classes.

I loved those kids. I loved that class. Even the kids who hated me and thought that I played favorites, I still loved them. I bemoaned the fact that I couldn't actually reach every single one of "my kids" and I was determined to re-double my efforts in the spring semester. Not to be their friend ... but to really teach and reach them ... to make each one glad that they'd had my class instead of someone else's.

I used to cringe when people asked me what I did for a living. When you say that you teach English at the college level, they generally get scared and say things like "oh no, I really have to watch what I say around you." I'd always reply that spoken English and formal written English are really two separate languages to me and it didn't make me no nevermind how they spoke. (Hey, I'm from Texas, remember? Even well-educated Texans use those quaint phrases from time to time.)

And then, even other educators would groan at teaching college freshmen how to write. "Isn't that just a horrible class to teach?"

You know, I never thought so. Even the semester I came closest to losing control of the class. I loved it. Absolutely loved it. For me, nothing will ever beat going into a room of 18 year olds, nervous and jaded, anxious and resigned, eager and bored, all before I ever step into the room. Most of them hate to write and they loathe having to take a writing class. That's okay. I understand that. I hated my essay - writing classes, too. I still fuss over writing assignments and I know how different it is to write what you like vs. writing what you have to write.

But watching that click when they finally got the concept of the writing style down. Watching them suddenly realize that I was on their side and wanting to help them, not arbitrarily assign grades (punishments) on whims. Watching them get interested in learning something again.

Damn, I miss teaching. I really, really do.

Posted by Red Monkey at August 7, 2005 3:44 PM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Andy T. said:

It is a real shame that you are not teaching. Sorry about that. I know that is what you love to do.

August 8, 2005 6:15 AM
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