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Dr. Laura L. Runge
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LAE 6389 Practice Teaching Literature

Class 2: Why Teach Literature? Getting Started

    Lydia Warren, from W. W. Norton (lunch provided)
    Exchange anthologies
    Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year
    Marshall Gregory, "Do We Teach Disciplines or Do We Teach Students? What Difference Does It Make?" in Profession 2008: 117-129. PDF in Course Docs.
    Assignment: Practical on Editions
    sign up for Syllabus, Teaching Resource and In-class exercise presentations -- on WIKI
    Post #1 Group A / Response Group B

Class Objectives:

    Exchange Anthologies
    Discussion -- Gregory, Nathan
    Discuss editions
    Sign up for Syllabus and literature review presentations -- on WIKI

Notes and Discussion Questions:

Rebekah Nathan's study, My Freshman Year gives us detailed insight into the college culture we discussed briefly last class. Reading the book is helpful both because of the information it provides on how college students spend their time out of class and for what it tells about their attitudes toward class.

I believe the second half of the book, chapters on "Academically Speaking..." "The Art of College Management," and "Lessons from My Year as a Freshman," provide us the most to think about for this class, but you will also find the earlier chapters on culture relevant.

What, if anything, surprises you about the findings in this work?

What does this book tell us about college students' attitudes toward course work? How is this helpful (or not)?

What challenges might you encounter in teaching a general education literature course that this book addresses?

How might teaching literature present different opportunities with the student population as described in these pages?

The following are quotes taken from the book that might prompt some reflection:

“[P]eer culture is of central importance and . . . for most segments of the student community, academic life is tangential or at odds with peer culture . . .” (99)

“Academic discourse [among students in the time before and after classes] was limited to a narrow sort of mutual questioning. ‘Did you do the reading for today?’ and ‘Did we have something due today?’ were both common pre-class queries. Shared complaints about the way the course was going (‘I can’t believe he hasn’t turned back either of our last two assignments’) or the prospect of the upcoming class (‘I hope that he doesn’t do that in-class writing thing again’) were also heard. . . . One would never hear, ‘Did you like that reading?’ or ‘That paper assignment really made me think.’ It is not that students didn’t like the reading or find the assignments provocative; it’s just that these weren’t acceprable or normative topics to introduce in informal conversation. When academic assignments were mentioned, the discourse converged on a couple of main themes. Students either talked about reactions and comparisons of evaluations received . . . or they focused on the effort or attention given to academic assignments—usually emphasising the lack thereof . . .” (96)

“Academic and intellectual pursuits thus had a curiously distant relation to college life. [This was] one of the most sobering insights I had [in my research]: How little intellectual life seemed to matter in college. This is not to say that no one cared about her education or that everyone cut all his classes. Rather, what I observed was that engagement in political and philisophical issues of the day was not a signifcant part of college student culture” (100).

“The biggest attraction of college for these students was clearly ‘college culture,’ which . . . seemed to have very little to do with either intellectual life or formal instruction . . . Classes, in fact, were described [by students] in multiple instances as the ‘price one has to pay’ to participate in college culture, a domain that students portrayed in terms such as ‘fun,’ ‘friendships,’ ‘partying,’ ‘life experinces,’ and ‘late night talks.’ The tiny place occupied by anything academic in college life was a consistent message” (103).

Speaking up too much, sitting too close to the professor, asking good questions breaks the norms of classroom behavior and creates a “subtle distance” between the offending student and the other students (91). “This comment from an early-twentieth-century collegian reflecting on his undergraduate experience is practically indistinguishable from the rules of classroom interaction as I experienced and recorded them . . . ‘It was like sticking your neck out if you spoke up in class and answered a professor’s question to the group as a whole. It was likewise regarded as bad form to do reading for the course above and beyond the assignment and to let that be known” (108).

“If class learning is exciting or self-revelatory, then all the better; but, except where it impacts one’s career, learning is incidental” (131).

“After interviewing juniors and seniors about course preparation, and in seeking their advice, I discovered that cultural experts [in the student college culture] don't casually or lightly discard assignments; rather, they ask themselves a series of questions: ‘Will there be a test or quiz on the material?’ ‘Is the reading something that I will need in order to be able to do the homework?’ ‘Will we directly discuss this in class in such a way that I am likely to have to personally and publicly respond or otherwise 'perform' in relation to this reading?’ If the answer to all of these questions is no, then don't do the reading” (137-138).

“While I’m not sure that it is ever productive to ‘fight’ culture, I do believe that one can support what is already present in the culture, albeit in private spaces or miniority options. Student culture has this depth and complexity, which often hold the key to its engagement, a point I can illustrate with a particularly poignant memory. . . . I had just finished testing Ray on a series of vocabulary terms [in preparation for our French medterm exam the next day] when he began questioning me on the past imperfect tense. ‘Forget that,’ I responded. ‘She said it’s not on the test.’ What he said next shocked me. ‘Is that the only reason you are learning this material . . . for the test? Don’t you want to learn to speak French better? Come on, do it.' . . . Because we were friends, he could make that comment to me; but I had long since discovered that in the daily encounters in the dorm and classroom, there were standard cultural conventions that marked someone as ‘one of us.’ What he said to me was nothing one would normally say in public. As a matter of fact, it’s the kind of comment that would get one identified as a ‘witch’ in class. Like other students wishing to fit in, I responded to the unspoken pressure to make the appropriate critical remark about the class, to emphasize how little I studied for my decent grade, or to reduce my academic focus to what was on the test. . . . When [as a teacher] I contest certain aspects of undergraduate culture—by refusing to ‘dumb down’ a course, say, and make it an ‘easy A’—I feel that I am aligning myself with students, and internal dialogues of students, that already exist in undergradaute culture [such as Ray, who constitute a subculture]” (142-144).

How do you creatively, compassionately and effectively respond to these conditions as a new teacher?


Gregory claims: "The single most difficult notion for graduate students and new professors to grasp about teaching -- and, indeed, many experienced teachers never grasp this point either -- is that successful teaching to undergraduates has little to do with the degree of one's mastery of disciplinary knowledge" (118). How might you respond to this?

"When undergraduate teaching works, it works because the disciplinary material we teach -- the same material that inevitably gets forgotten -- endures a better fate than getting remembered.... Knowledge that gets absorbed shows up not as knowledge but as features of mind and character that are much more valuable than mere information"(119-20). How is being absorbed different from being remembered? Why might it be better? How might this be achieved?

Can the literature you teach create ethos? If so, how?

How do you answer the question: What do you teach?

How does Gregory answer the question and why, according to him, is it significant?

What can you take away from Gregory's essay that is helpful for the new instructor of literature?


Active learning and discussion

Assignment: Practical on Editions

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