April 15, 2005

Bittersweet

I had about two hours of sleep last night. And when I got to class, I realized that most of my students were in the same shape. Some had their heads down on the desk, just resting until class started. Others straggled in, looking completely beat.

When I am deprived of sleep, I get silly and giggly. I blush easily. I am full of energy and adrenaline. When I'm overtired, I act the way most people do when they are drunk. My students have seen me like this before - often, when I've just returned from a conference. And for some reason, they love it. So when I walked in and announced that I had had very little sleep, they all immediately sat up and looked happy.

We have these big tables in the room, and I insisted that we move them into a circle. The students started to sit down in the chairs on the outside of the circle, but I made them climb over the tables and stand inside the circle, either leaning against or sitting on the tables.

"So tell me," I said, "What was the point of this course anyhow? Why read this stuff?"

We had a great discussion that covered some of the main issues we'd been talking about, and students did a good job bringing up all kinds of things we'd read, even the poem we read on the first day of class. They talked about the role literature would play in their lives after they graduated. It was a fast-moving discussion, filled with jokes and affectionate insults. The students were as punchy as I was, winging one-liners across the room even as they discussed serious issues. It was a strangely intimate circle; we were all standing so close that in most cases everyone was touching. Any student who felt uncomfortable could have moved to one of the weird angles where the tables met but no one did. My intent had been to get them to pull together everything we had read and hit some of the core issues we'd been discussing, but about halfway through, I realized that beneath all the joking, there was an undercurrent of emotion moving through the room.

Most of these students are seniors. We've all known each other for four years. And we have only two weeks left.

5 comments:

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I love how you turn potentially difficult situations into great opportunities. Most people would have just gone through the motions, or even cancelled class altogether. You gave them (and yourself) a wonderful gift instead.

profsynecdoche said...

This is a great teaching story, Jo(e). I think students really like it when someone comes and goes a little off the wall -- AND they like it when professors ask the "big questions" (especially when they are asking them, not telling them). I have a feeling they'll be remembering this one for a long time to come. I think the other thing that probably made this work so well is that you didn't plan it too much. You can't "stage" things like this perfectly; you just have to let them happen, and have faith that your students will rise to the challenge. Yours did, and it's a credit to you.

Scrivener said...

This is a great teaching story. And part of what sounds so wonderful about it is the fact that you could draw on having known those students (and they you) for four years. One of my major complaints about the kind of glorified-adjuncting that I do is that I never get to see a student past his or her first year. The longest tenure I've ever had with a student is three classes--fall and spring comp freshman year and then an Am lit survey, almost always fall semester sophomore year. I would so love to be able to cultivate these kinds of relationships. And it's to your credit that you manage to do so.

reverendmother said...

I'm teaching Sunday School tomorrow, and I'm REALLY tired. I'm getting ready to go out of town tomorrow afternoon and haven't packed; consequently I will still be really tired tomorrow when I teach. Thanks for confirming the direction I was thinking about going, which is much more free-form, rather than trying to force something that I don't have the energy for. It's amazing how the spirit moves in such moments.

PPB said...

I would have really liked you as a teacher.