So I have started teaching again ... I must say I'm getting (some) diss stuff done, but I'm tired. We'll see how long I last being productive on multiple fronts at once. If I keep my energy up I may post more stuff about theory and teaching theory in a bit, but I feel inspired to post teaching stories at the moment. Why talk about "kids these days," however, (especially when I'm still in a grading/evalutating relationship with them) when I have so many old tales to draw from? Thus, I'm bringing back an old activity from when I was teaching poetry.
I asked my current students for some information about them and their academic trajectories, and what they knew about our class. I don't know if it is the class reputation or my preliminary remarks about what we would do, but they are terrified. "Anxiety," "worried," "heard this is a hard class," and "I put off this class" appeared in their descriptions. This reminded me of some of the horrible class sessions I've had trying to teach poetry --- just getting people to open their mouths and say anything, tell me the page number even, was a tough task. I felt that more than apathy (an emotion I see quite often in students) I was dealing with real terror or antipathy to the very notion of poetry.
So, I said as I brought in a pack of index cards. We are going to have a game. You don't seem to believe me when I say I want you to talk and ask questions, and that I mean it when I say there is no question too stupid to ask in section. Let's have a contest --- everybody take a card and write the stupidest question about poetry you've had in this class (or any class) that you were too embarrassed to ask. Put 'em in the hat when you're done. Seriously, I said, as some of the shy ones, who I never got to speak up, smiled. Seriously, I bet what you think are stupid questions are really good ones, or at least ones that other people in the class share. And just to show you that, while I may laugh, you will not be punished for asking stupid questions; you will be, in this instance, rewarded. I have a prize for the best stupid question.
(related to my previous post about teaching theory, in future uses I would connect their answers to ideas about theories and methodologies; as you will see, they were unknowingly little theorists-in-training. I'd also like to have time to revisit their answers in a bit more detail throughout the rest of the quarter, but this first try was an eleventh-hour last-ditch effort.)
What did we find in the hat? Brilliant questions! Questions I never got from students usually, that I would give up a limb for from students! Why do we read poetry at all, asked one. Really, that's important because if I can't answer that for you, we shouldn't even be in this class. Are there wrong meanings to a poem? How do you find stuff in a poem --- what should I be doing? Why are poems all broken up on separate lines like that? Who gets to say whether a poem or a meaning is good or not? (a question that warmed the cockles of my little Foucauldian heart ---- or at least the nexus of discourse and expressions of power that are usually referred to as a heart) Why do we put little slashes between lines when we quote them? (Short answer: because MLA says so. Longer answer: I don't know, but I'm sure there's a whole tradition and set of conventions behind it and it was probably a controversy or scandal or something interesting happening when it came about.) Why don't poets just write a letter instead of a poem? Who cares about feet and syllables and all that shit? (which doesn't take much massaging to become: why do some poets care about form and meter and others don't?)
Look!!! I cried to my students at the end. You have valuable, important questions to ask. Even if you don't know things, you do know which things you don't know are important, if that makes any sense. Have some confidence and actually ask these things in a class! You have now asked The Stupidest Question About Poetry You Can Think Of, and nothing bad happened. How tough was that? Not the end of the world. Go forth and ask Brilliantly Stupid Questions wherever you may go!
Being as we now knew that we all had a lot of expertise on asking stupid questions and non-stupid questions, we voted on the winner. Coming in as the clear champion and garnering a celebratory Twix bar was the entry: What's a stupid question again?