Wednesday, September 23, 2009

That class

It recently occurred to me that this month, I'm marking 20 years of college-level teaching, if you start counting in fall 1989, when I began work on my M.A. at Ohio State and teaching freshman comp. And I've been in a tenure-track or tenured job for a decade this fall.

I can't even begin to tell you how freaky I find all of that, since much of the time I still feel like I don't have a clue what I'm doing, and wonder when someone is going to call me out on it.

That feeling isn't helped this semester by having a class that's That Class. Those of you who teach know the kind I mean: the soul-sucking, lethargic, amoeba-like organism that starts as a gelatinous mass and gradually calcifies until it is utterly impenetrable. At first, I thought they were just quiet. Confused, maybe. In need of some more examples. But no: none of those things seem to be the problem.

It makes for a long 75 minutes, especially in a class (introduction to folklore) where I rely heavily on them contributing personal experiences and examples to illustrate some of the more abstract concepts and to help them begin coming up with topics for their fieldwork projects.

In those moments, 20 years of experience doesn't do me the slightest bit of good; I still feel like a panicky grad student who's run out of material halfway through class.

I suppose, though, that the benefit of experience is that I know (but have a hard time believing) that to a large degree, it's not about me. It's about a combination of bad place (room with chairs bolted to the floor), bad time (mid-afternoon), and bad karma. I taught the same course last semester, using the same texts, and the students had lots to say, asked lots of great questions, and generated that amazing kind of reciprocal energy exchange that makes a class work.

Still, it's discouraging. I ran into a colleague at the rec center this morning who's in a similar predicament with one of his classes. We agreed that just one section of That Class has the potential to unmoor you.

I read this recent editorial by Maureen Dowd with interest, since That Class has been getting me so down. The problem, as Dowd sees it? That women "tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work."

Well, yeah. I've been working on those issues for years. Longer than I've been teaching probably.

Easier said than done, especially when you feel like you've humiliated yourself in front of a class, doing just about everything but swinging from a trapeze to get some kind of response. And believe me, I haven't ruled that option out.

In case you missed the story about the zombie-alert sign earlier this year, above, click here.


Christy said...

Oh Rosemary, I feel your pain. This is the kind of post that reminds me why I left teaching.

That said, there's some *good* that can come out of this if you approach it as a kind of research lab. After all, That Class is a kind of folklore of its own. Maybe it's time for you to gather anecdotes from other educators who have faced That Class and lived to tell the tale. It will remind you you're not so alone, and it could have some interesting research implications to boot (can the folklore of pedagogy become its own genre? I say yes).

Catherine Zoerb said...

Rosemary, you have no idea how much this post helps me. I've only taught about four years, and I often secretly feel like I'm going to be called out for knowing nothing. I'm glad to know that the super experienced teachers feel the same way sometimes.

I hate That Class. I had one last semester and I just wanted to die. Maybe if I did, they'd utter a sentence? ("Hey, is the teacher dead?") I think they'd be more likely to quietly file out of the room, where my rotting corpse would eventually be discovered by a later class, unless it was devoured by wild dogs first.

Pam said...

30 years as a social worker and I still have this experience regularly. I wonder, "I can't believe these people think I know what I'm doing." I've reveled this thought (fear) to others in my field and they laugh and say they feel the same. So, I'm thinking it must be universal. We're all fumbling around in the dark waiting for enlightenment.

Horace said...

I've got That Class, too, maybe at the same time as yours? I tried the tap dancing trick today. No luck.

Maybe it'll just become an in-class writing course...

Historiann said...

I had That Class last term. I think it comes around once every decade or so--there's nothing to be done but to ride it out and try not to hate your students or yourself too much.

Rosemary said...

Historiann, you're damn lucky if you only get a class like that once every ten years!

Horace: 1:00 p.m.? Maybe we should switch you think they'd even notice?

@Catherine--as Pam's comment suggests, that feeling never goes away completely, sad to say. I LOL'd at your description of the students just walking out if you dropped dead. Frankly, if that happened, I think I'd prefer to be devoured by wild dogs than discovered by the next class--they'd probably just step over you on the way to their seats...or *on* you if they were texting at the time and didn't see where they were walking, which is more likely.