Monday, October 17, 2005

A Teachable Moment

The other day, I had one of those days. If you're a teacher, you know what I mean, a class moment of imminent disaster. Teaching is life without a net. You can plan and plan, study, read, and think you're totally prepared. And then a bright student asks a really great question, and it makes you think and react. If you're good, and I am on only very rare occasions, you can make that question into what we in the ed biz call, "a teachable moment." Usually a teachable moment comes when a student asks a question that leads you to a discussion of the big issues in your field, in learning, education, whatever. (I'm not entirely comfortable with the whole ed biz lingo. "A teachable moment" is a useful phrase, but all too often overused or misused, empty, and blah.)

There I was blathering something about early modern religious practices and Shakespeare in my Shakespeare class (trying to explain something my students had read in Russ McDonald's excellent Companion), and one of my students raised his hand (I'm disguising student info: don't assume I leave even gender unmeddled with!) and said something along the lines of "But wasn't Shakespeare educated by Catholics?"

GULP! Now, a good teacher would have done better, but I looked at the student (think deer in the headlights) and asked, "You have records about Shakespearian education?!??!!!" Ok, I got a bit in the student's face, even. BAD professor.

The student asked, well, don't we? and then revealed the kicker: "I read Stephen Greenblatt's book this summer, and I thought he said Shakespeare was educated by Catholics."

Another student who apparently had the gumption to READ during the summer (YAY) concurred.

Frustrated, I told the class that, in fact, we have no records of anything to do with Shakespearian education. We like to assume from his parents' social position that he was probably educated in a local grammar school, where he learned Latin, read Ovid, and so on. But we don't have any actual records to back this up. I ranted for a moment about Greenblatt's loose and careless logic in the book, and the students sheepishly said they felt "taken."

In other words, I blew it. It drove me crazy all night, but I made a plan for the next class session. I got out my copy of Greenblatt's Will in the World and found a good sample set of facing pages. I made some penciled notes on the page, stuck on some sticky notes pointing out paragraph issues, and then stuck it on the copy machine. (Fair use!) On the other side of the handout, I put some commentary, starting with how really impressed I am that my students read outside of class, and how disappointed I am that someone of Greenblatt's ability and status wrote such a careless, misleading book. And then added a few pointers about the way we use historical artifacts as metonymy for historical culture, and how misleading and necessary that is.

The next day, armed with my handouts, I headed to class. (Just so you know, this class is a sophomore level class, with general education credit available, which also meets English major requirements and the NorthWoods State Shakespeare requirement for Secondary English Education majors, ie future high school teachers.)

And together, we worked through the copy of the Greenblatt text, so that we could all see how brilliantly he moves from doubt and potential problems, to grammatical certainty within a few lines. It's brilliant in the way that misleading texts sometimes are. And Greenblatt's a GREAT storyteller, so he's all the more convincing, and all the more disappointing.

I think it worked. The students who'd read Greenblatt understood how and why they'd been "taken" and felt good about the good parts of Greenblatt's book, and, I think, good that they'd read the book. (And yes, even if you have tenure, getting in a student's face and making him feel lousy is going to hit your evaluations badly.) And we actually exercised some critical thinking skills/strategies that may have something to do with general education and such. AND, they learned something more about what records we have relating to Shakespeare and how we read and make arguments about historical artifacts.

All in all, I was pretty satisfied that I'd taken my really rotten response and recouped it a bit.

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