Saturday, August 18, 2012

Old dog, new (old) trick

My normally orderly home-office space
in pre-semester chaos mode
A colleague of mine is on maternity leave this coming semester, and I was asked to take one of her classes: a 300-level course titled "Methods of Teaching Composition," a requirement for our English-education majors.

It's a daunting prospect, since A) I'm by no means a rhet/comp scholar; B) any formal study I have done in that area is about twenty years old; and C) if I screw it up, I not only shortchange this class of students, but their future students as well.

No pressure.

While I've been reading up on the subject and thinking about the class all summer, I just this week actually started putting the syllabus together.  It's one of the hardest I've ever had to write.

I should say that my colleague very generously put not only her syllabus, but all her assignments and the course readings on Dropbox for me to steal, which has been a great help.  But what I've discovered is what every substitute teacher certainly already knows: having someone else's lesson plans doesn't mean you "get" what they're trying to do.  Ultimately, you're approaching from the outside a class that someone else has inhabited from the inside.

Well-designed classes have a deep context, I'm discovering--and you can't just borrow that context.  It has to be ingrained in your very way of thinking.  Disciplinarity matters, and it shapes everything we do as scholars and teachers.  Sure, I could give someone my folklore syllabus and the textbook and they could do the readings and teach the class, but that wouldn't make them a folklorist--any more than my upcoming stumble through the comp methods course will make me a compositionist.

I'll certainly know a lot more about it in three months--probably as much by virtue of the many mistakes I'll make as anything else.  But I still won't have that depth of knowledge that makes specialists able to answer complex questions, draw connections between ideas, and situate current approaches in a larger historical context.

Part of the purpose of my saying this is simply confessional: I'm very anxious about this class, and am trying to prepare myself--if not for outright failure, then, at least for serious imperfection.

But another intriguing discovery has been that because of my lack of context, I physically have not been able to put the course syllabus together the way I normally would.  Typically, I tend to write my syllabi in a linear fashion:  I have a sense of how much time we need to spend on each book/topic/time period, depending on the course, and also have a sense of how the course content should build as the weeks go by, and where we need to end up.  So, I just plug that sequence in, week by week, until I get to week 15.

I can't tell you how many times I sat down at the computer with my blank syllabus (Week 1, Day 1...Week 1, Day 2) and looked at it just as blankly.  So I resorted to the grids that I created long ago for mapping out classes.  I haven't used them in years, because my brain just doesn't need them to plot out a class anymore.

Until this one.

Not only did I use the grids, I eventually taped them all to the wall, side-by-side, so I could see the whole semester in one shot.  Then I started working backwards from the end of the semester, blocking out weeks for various topics, and then gradually filling in the readings and assignments for specific dates.  All in pencil, so that I could erase and revise as needed.  Which was often.

I was somewhat amazed at how much easier it was to get down to the nitty-gritty with this method.  And I'm glad I thought of it, because otherwise I might still be sitting in front of a screen with a bunch of empty spaces next to dates, and feeling increasingly panicked.

So, maybe the first lesson I've learned about Methods of Teaching Composition is that even old dogs like me need to try new invention techniques sometimes.  When your usual writing process fails you, it may be better to do something radically different than to keep trying to force your usual process to work.

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This post is dedicated to my friend Jane, one of the most thoughtful, hard-working writing teachers I know, whose many blog posts about the difficulties of teaching writing (even to students at MIT!) have been a big influence on my thinking about how to put together this course.  Take this entry, for example.