Friday, March 31, 2006

Seminar problem

My Chaucer seminar is mostly a complete joy. The students are reasonably interested and motivated, and several of them are really sharp and just top notch. And then there's the Chaucer thing, which damn, just blows me away every time.

The students are working in groups at this point, and doing group presentations and leading discussions about the various tales as groups.

Some of the groups have done a pretty good job actually reading up on the tales they're presenting on, and so have some idea of the critical conversations about their specific tales. They choose the issues that interest them, and we focus our discussion on those. Now, I may think other issues are more interesting, but I can live with other issues being more important to them if they're leading a good discussion.

The most recent group, however, really fell down on the job.

I was worried last week when this group hadn't come in to talk to me at all, and lent them my Oxford Companion, hoping they'd get some help there.

One person wanted to talk about genre issues, but, when asked to define the genre she wanted to talk about, couldn't. (An issue directly from the Oxford Companion, surprise surprise, except that she hadn't thought through the issue carefully, and was woefully unorganized.)

Another wanted to talk about a specific interpretive issue, but had no idea about how medievals interpreted the issue, nor about how any critics think about it (although one of the recent book reviews for class has been all about that interpretive issue).

None of them had really considered how the teller of the tale might be important to the tale, and how narrative interruptions might be of interest. (And they're all over this tale.)

It was miserable, to be honest.

On one level, I'm sort of willing to let people flounder a bit in class. Let's face it, no one dies from a bad student presentation in a Chaucer seminar, at least not in my experience.

On another level, letting people flounder wastes the time of everyone in the room, and doesn't really help any of us understand the work better. I don't think it much teaches discussion skills, or critical skills, unless I jump up and talk explicitly about discussion skills or critical skills at that moment. (And I'd do that so clumsily that every student in the room would be cringing, seriously.)

I have a really hard time not being a bit too directive, or something. Or maybe not.

Alas, my memory of graduate student presentations was that they were, by and large, miserable. We mostly did a horrible job doing presentations. I think a lot of the misery had to do with how much we felt we were supposed to display for the professor, and how little we conceived of helping other people understand or connect with an issue.

Maybe teaching should be completely focused on student learning, but it's also (in my experience) partly performance art. It's a complex negotiation, and, when done well, everyone leaves having learned, or something.

I think I need to take time on Monday (when happily, no group is scheduled), and talk about giving presentations and leading discussions, and what they think makes for good ones, or rotten ones.

So, what does make a good seminar presentation?

For me, preparation. I think students sometimes think we teachers tell them everything we know about a topic, when really, I try to really focus on the things I want to communicate, knowing that I'm leaving out important stuff all the time. It's partly the problem Barbara Johnson talks about in her essay "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida" (which is on my mind because I've been teaching it in the theory class), the problem of quotation and paraphrase.

And second, organization.

How many presentations that you folks see or take part in break into groups? At what point is that useful? Does the utility break down at some point for you? (It's beginning to for me, I think, but maybe they're just done badly.)

I get the feeling that many of my students find it difficult to make connections between different meetings of the same class; for example, we've talked about how often it's interesting to think about the teller of a specific tale in relation to the tale, and did a lot with that with "The Miler's" and "Prioress's" tales. Should everyone pretty much think about that strategy while reading other tales now?

It's even more difficult for them to make connections between different classes, of course.


  1. I struggle with this, too. I teach a seminar full of seniors, and I assigned them the task of selecting some of our books and leading our discussion, and it's been pretty dismall, too. I read "Teaching with your mouth shut," but I am having a tough time stepping aside, because I have to develop some continuity between classes and throughout the course of the semester.

  2. I feel if I keep my mouth TOO shut, no one learns but if my mouth is full-throttle open the whole period, no one learns. Maybe it's me or my students but it seems my students make connections all the time between the spheres of their personal lives and media but that ability is turned off the minute they walk in the door, as if the one place to use your intellectual abilities is not the classroom. (Or when you are doing coursework at all.) Is it that they are afraid of saying something 'wrong'? Or, as I found with many students this session, that they just don't bother to fucking read and/or engage with the course? Can you tell it is almost finals? Grrrrr.....

    Most of them have this attitude and dismay that as an instructor I would dare ask them to do anything inside or outside of class. Double grrrrrr.....

  3. Lisa, Should I run out and find a copy of *Teaching with your Mouth Shut*? I've never heard of it, but I could use the help.

    G Bitch, Well, this one student sure isn't afraid of saying things wrong... I almost wish she were. Fear drove me to a LOT of extra reading when I was a grad student, but then, so did curiousity, ego, etc.

    Still, enough of my students really are willing to engage with work that most of the time it works out reasonably well.