Saturday, January 17, 2009

First Class of the Semester

I held my first class for the semester yesterday. I always feel a bit of nervousness before the first class, similar to the butterflies I get whenever I go onstage to perform. As always, some of the students were shocked by the amount of reading and writing required by the class. Others took it in stride. Some students said barely a word - even after being told that they get points for participation. Others jumped right in and would have done so without knowing that they were graded on, well, opening their mouth. Others said just enough to feel that they had contributed enough to get points. A classroom is such a microcosm of human diversity.

The students mentioned to me how much they like being able to register for classes on the web. That way, if they don't like a teacher or the class isn't right for them, it is easy to drop classes. I reminded them that, although it is nice to have an instructor you "click" with, sometimes you learn more from someone that you don't necessarily like. But I also told them that someone always drops the class and I don't take it personally. I think a lot of my students are just in love with the idea that they have some control over their schedules - so much different from high school.

It's always amazing to me how we filter what people say to us. I told the class that they will be partially graded on participation - whether they make comments and respond to questions in class. One student interpretted that as "being graded for our opinions" and asked me if whether or not I agreed with a student's opinion's would affect his or her grade. He told me that although every instructor says they won't do that, he's seen profs that do. Of course I said no. I tried to be very clear that students are not graded for opinions but for participation. I told them I couldn't give them anything but my word that I grade on how they make their arguments and how they support what they think, not on what their opinion is. I also reminded the class that I am a lawyer, and sometimes, as an advocate, I have to make arguments for clients I don't necesasrily agree with - that's part of the job. I don't know if it reassured him or not.

I've found that conservative students are particularly afraid that they will be graded down for their opinions - yet, they almost always do well in my class because they are used to having to argue for what they think is right. I find that many students who think of themselves as "liberal" presume that everyone (at least in the academic setting) agrees with them, that their opinions are "obvious." This is clearly not universally true - certainly their are liberal students who back up everything they say. I think I'm going to give the student who asked the question a copy of an essay by Stanley Fish, entitled, I think, Note to Professors - Just Do Your Job. His argument is that professers are not in the business of teaching people what to think but how to think. Not to analyze whether an argument is right, but rather how the argument is made and whether it is effective. You can see his emphasis on rhetoric there. I had the priviledge of taking a rhetoric course from Dr. Fish at Duke - truly amazing class. Anyway, his recent book with revised versions of his NYTimes blog enteries about the business of univeristy teaching is entitled, Save the World on Your Own Time. I couldn't agree more. It's not my job to make my students "better citizens" or "better people." They will make their own choices as to what to do with their lives and my influence on them is virtually nill. However, it is my job to give my students options, information, and tools for evaluating ideas. It is my job to make them read things that they wouldn't have read otherwise . It is my job to entice them into writing their ideas down so I can help them (a) write more clearly and (b) write more persuasively.

We watched the first half of Princess Mononoke in class. I have used that film for many semesters. It is an excellent film for getting students to talk. First, it is such a beautiful film - the art is just enchanting. Second, it explores themes that we discuss in class - human responses to the land, marginalized voices, spirituality and religion, death. Third, it has all the elements of art that I want to teach about - music (themes, dissonance, harmony, etc), color, realism vs. surrealism, lighting, sequencing. By showing the film at the very start of the semester I can help students jump right in to seeing how an artist presents their viewpoint without necessarily making a logic-based argument and show how the craft of film-making communicates the message. The film is very accessible I've found - even to people who don't like "weird stuff" or don't think they care for anime. The best part is I don't mind watching it over and over again! The "mononoke" theme sticks in my head for weeks, though . . . it's playing there now actually.


  1. I was kind of surprised that my "Diversity" professor was very politically conservative, especially for a Social Work professor. We went to battle every class and I had to defend my ideas and I made him defend his. The best part was we both had a lot of respect for each other. At the end of the semester he said I had turned him into a feminist. I felt like I had done by job as a student. And he had done his job as a professor because he made me look at things from a different point of view. I, of course, rejected those things and realized I was right all along :)

  2. I want to take your class, Amanda. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but I love what you outlined about your teaching approach. Yay!