PALS Roundtable: Big Oops, Little Oops! Learning from Missteps when Teaching Literature

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via Nicolas Nova

Reading about teaching on the web is like seeing everyone’s social media posts full of their beautiful vacation picks without seeing what their day to day lives are actually like. Even PALS posts are mostly about what has gone right in the classroom or what we would like to do in our classes. While framing our posts in this way is beneficial, we also do not want to suggest that our classrooms are some sort of magical space free of struggles. Oh, how we have struggled! Teaching is hard, and at PALS we do not want to ignore that. It’s why we spend so much time discussing pedagogy and practical teaching practices in the first place.

There is some available information about teaching failures on the web. For example, the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy has an entire section, “Teaching Fails,” dedicated to failure, but for the most part we highlight our successes and ignore the rest. The problem with hiding our failures is that it doesn’t help anyone, including ourselves. There are two obvious reasons to talk about failure: 1) if we share our failures, other people can learn from them, and 2) not paying heed to our failures, can enable them to fester and become bigger deals than they really are. Laughing off our teaching failures with other teachers, even when we don’t find them all that funny, can help us move forward more quickly and develop strategies to prevent those same issues in the future. With this in mind, the PALS writers are embracing our failures by joining forces to present a roundtable post on our missteps in the classroom. See below for our individual experiences of failure in the classroom.

Shelli Homer:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text that felt like a teaching faceplant: George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880)
The problem: There was a The Count of Monte Cristo sized character list.

The play-by-play: This was by no means the first time I had taught literature or taught a novel. There were so many reasons I chose to teach this text, but I did not anticipate how challenging it was going to turn out to be for students. I knew there was going to be a little bit of character confusion; for one, there are two characters with the same name. The first day of the novel, we mapped the characters, including the complicated family trees. By the second day, students were mixing up which character was involved in which plot point. Then, on the third day, they couldn’t even tell me what had happened in the assigned pages. You may be thinking, they didn’t read. You would be wrong. They could recount fragments of incidents across those pages, but they couldn’t recount any of the big events. For instance, my students questioned, “We don’t understand why they spent all that time on the porch” To which I replied, “You mean when they were preparing for that really important duel?” They followed with, “Duel! What duel?” This actually made it worse. They were doing the work, and I was clearly failing them. I spent a painful 30 minutes helping them construct a summary for the day’s reading–did I mention I was being observed during this class period, too?

Reflecting through the pain: At the time, I didn’t have some grand plan that saved the rest of the novel. Sure, they probably could have read more carefully, actively, or just slowed down, and I could have summarized the plot for them so they could have read with other aims. We struggled through the rest of the novel and took away what we could. There was a lot of silent cursing in my head and questioning of all my teaching abilities in general. Looking back, was this novel simply too much for an introductory class? Would I teach it again? What did I get out of the experience? Of course, I would teach it again. All the reasons I chose to teach it initially still stand. I also don’t believe in keeping challenging texts out of introductory classrooms. Bring in the challenging text and watch the students rise to the occasion. In order to help the students rise and conquer this text in the future, I have utilized the reading technique of character tracking (McCuller’s post forthcoming). By making students responsible for a specific character, they can help one another through the sea of Cable’s characters and teach each other about the importance of their character and his/her plot lines.

Brianne Jaquette:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

The play-by-play: I have a theory that the second time you teach a text is the hardest/it goes the worst. The first time you are very prepared. The third time you begin to know the text really well. But the second, you remember most of what you did the first time, but maybe not all the steps in the process. The time I felt the worst about how I taught a text was the second time I taught Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” (It was also the second time I taught literature ever.) In the middle of the poem, there is an extended description of the speaker being like a Jewish person dying in the concentration camps while the “Daddy” of the poem is depicted as a Nazi. For example, some of the lines where this is emphasized the most read, “An engine, an engine/Chuffing me off like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen./I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew.” My students wanted to know if Plath was Jewish or not. Fair question. I remembered reading something about Plath and her mother’s relationship to Judaism. (I tracked the comment down later, and it was this that I was thinking of, “The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex…Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish.”) I told my students that Plath had Jewish family members because I thought I was remembering it correctly. I wasn’t remembering it correctly, and Sylvia Plath is not Jewish. I looked up the quote later and sent my students an email clarifying what I had read and why I had confused the fact. Thinking back on this now, it does not seem like a very big deal at all, but I was tormented by it for a really long time.

Reflection: The biggest lesson here is to own what you don’t know. I don’t know everything (surprise!), and the longer I teach the more comfortable I am saying to my students that I don’t have the answer. In fact, if I had this experience today, I would ask students to whip out their cell phones and Google the answer. No sweat. I have also learned how much I want to embrace the “I don’t know” as part of my pedagogy. For example, when teaching Sui Sin Far this semester, I told my students that I, like them, have predominantly been taught in the Western tradition, so some of the Chinese customs and symbols that Sui Sin Far makes reference to are lost on me. I can look them up, and I do look them up while I am reading. But explaining to my students that this is an area that I do not know that much about either freed us all to ask questions and explore the text. I don’t know why we would rather attempt to answer a question than simply say, “I’m not sure.” I guess because admitting uncertainty makes us vulnerable, but we are all vulnerable in the classroom because to truly learn you have to let your guard down. Let’s embrace the “I don’t know” not as a sign of weakness but as a moment to figure out what learning we still need to do.

Meagan Ciesla:
The course: Introduction to American Literature
The text: Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
The problem: My students didn’t admire and desire to be hippies like I did when I was in college.

The play-by-play: I’d decided to each Joan Didion’s long essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to my Introduction to American Literature class. In these classes I make it a point to include several works of nonfiction and we were making the leap from poetry to nonfiction with this essay. The essay is fragmented so my thought was we could apply what we’d learned from poetry to the new genre as our way in. I’d also assumed that my students, like me, would be enthused about delving into 1960s San Francisco hippie culture, which is what the essay is about. Instead, students were confused by the fragmented structure of the essay and annoyed by the hippie figures Didion details in the essay. The first issue I’d counted on: the essay is long and challenging, and you have to be paying very close attention to the narrative threads of the essay to leap from one section to the next. The second issue is what startled me: my students didn’t romanticize the hippie lifestyle like my peers and I had in college. In fact, they (generally speaking), thought hippies had been lazy and irresponsible. They didn’t have much knowledge or sympathy for those who were trying to buck the 1960s system of conformity. As I tried to lead discussion about the essay we didn’t get anywhere. Mostly my students were repulsed or confused by the events Didion describes in the essay and I couldn’t figure a way to get past that initial reaction to talk about the structural elements of the piece or the cultural forces behind the hippie movement.

Reflection: This was one of those times when I came to realize I hadn’t prepared my students at all for the text we’d be reading. I’d assumed their interests and convictions aligned with mine because they were finally away from their parents and curious about how people before them had bucked the conformist system. You know what they say about assumptions. Not only is the essay structurally difficult, it also speaks to a particular cultural moment that a reader needs to know something about before diving in. I don’t think this essay is too hard for an intro level class, but I do think I needed to lay a better foundation for them before sending them off to read it. A brief political history and some key notes about 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco would have helped before they read the essay. Similarly, I could have prepared them for the essay’s fragmented structure by working through the first few sections of the essay together as a class before they read the rest on their own. Pre-reading exercises like this would have been incredibly helpful. I’m constantly reminded that my students are still training as readers, and that giving them appropriate contexts can help them grab hold of particularly difficult texts.

Catherine Hostetter:
The course: College English II (Literature and Composition)
The text: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”
The problem: I assigned “Ligeia” without fully preparing my students for its difficulty, due to my own unreliable memory.

The play-by-play: During my second year working as an adjunct instructor, I decided to add Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” to my College English II: Literature and Composition course. I previously had taught “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of the more frequently anthologized Poe texts, in that class. While I found that my students enjoyed discussing and reading “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I often was not satisfied with the writing they produced about it. My solution to eliminating “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but keeping Poe on the syllabus? Substituting in the more obscure “Ligeia,” which is what I did… without rereading it first. As a young instructor, I decided that my fond memories of analyzing “Ligeia” in a undergraduate Gothic Literature class justified its place on my syllabus. What could go wrong? There’s still an unreliable narrator and a crazy ending, but with so much more content to dissect! Well, a lot could go wrong, which I realized as soon as I reread the story. My main memory of “Ligeia” was that crazy ending; I had completely forgotten how dense it is. It has a fairly simple plot, but that plot is complicated by Poe’s use of lengthy descriptions, allusions, and, at times, difficult vocabulary. I knew, before even walking into the classroom, that many students would be very frustrated by “Ligeia,” especially when considering it was literally the first text I had assigned students to read on their own that semester. When I did walk into the classroom that night, I was met with a chorus of complaints. I promised my students that we would tackle the difficult content together and braced myself for the rest of class. After a lecture on Gothic literature, I put the students into groups and had each group trace one element from the story, including examples of the narrator being unreliable, descriptions of Ligeia, descriptions of Rowena, and descriptions of physical places. It was an arduous process for these groups to figure out which parts of the text fit into the category they were given, but the students slowly began to understand the story and even started relating their examples to the themes I had introduced in the lecture. The groups then reported their findings to the rest of the class, which became the foundation for our overall discussion about the text.

Reflecting through the pain: Of course, the biggest lesson that I took away from this experience was to reread any texts I plan on adding to a syllabus before finalizing the course schedule. I shouldn’t rely solely on my (potentially unreliable) memories of a text when making the decision to put it on a syllabus. If I was teaching “Ligeia” now as a more experienced instructor, I would spend time during the previous class preparing students to tackle this difficult reading, using pre-reading strategies similar to the ones Meagan mentioned in her reflection. With that said, I don’t regret assigning “Ligeia.” That class became an important teaching moment, for both me and my students. We worked through our collective frustration by using simple close reading strategies, ones that my students returned to again and again throughout the semester. In fact, the following week, I was shocked and, to be honest, relieved to find some of my students eagerly discussing the (also crazy) ending of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” before the start of class. I don’t think that discussion would have happened without having to struggle with “Ligeia” first.

Corinna Cook: 
The Course: Introduction to American Literature
The Text: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

The Play-by-Play: Feeling compelled to tackle the “so what” question (why read Emerson?), my idea was that the class would discuss transcendental ideals as they play out in the present, then work back through the text with an appreciation of Emerson’s objections to entrenched institutions in light of our own concerns about herd mentality. I gave a quiz (close reading style) on Emerson’s ideas about self/society, then we discussed a short documentary that makes an argument about transcendental experiences manifesting – and especially not manifesting – in contemporary American society. But my students were uncharacteristically accepting of the film’s argument that contemporary hustle and bustle has derailed the spirit of individuality, eroded attentiveness to nature, etc. In fact, they didn’t see anything to argue in the first place: the notion that screen culture impoverishes spirituality struck them as a point of fact, not perspective. I thought we’d have a conversation around the question, “do transcendental ideals figure into your own experiences of life?” but instead of conversation, we had consensus: nope, no tenets of Transcendentalism here. I pulled up a series of pop culture examples to unpack, including an advertisement for a clothing brand romanticizing figures like the lone skier shredding the pow in slow-motion and the rock climber seemingly miles above her belayer. But students weren’t seeing a connection: from their perspective, consumer culture has always included images of strong, driven people on glorious mountaintops – that’s just a normal way to sell tee-shirts, or cereal, or anything else – and by the time we had circled back to the text we were basically out of time.

Reflection: In trying to plan class around a philosophy, I skipped a crucial preparatory step. Students hadn’t grasped the big ideas I was asking them to identify and unpack in pop culture examples. We had been practicing close reading skills for several weeks by that point, and while they were getting better at explaining the significance of a single line, I made a mistake in assuming their attention to self/society at the line level in the quiz would give them a foundation from which to consider self/society at large. I scrambled to correct this in the next class on Walt Whitman by articulating four major points of Transcendentalism. It felt like a gross and hasty reduction of a whole movement, but with these four points on the board, students were not only able to find examples in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but they also found complicating examples in which Whitman’s poem departs from transcendental ideals. Debate about contemporary experiences followed naturally—some students equated social media with anti-transcendentalist conformity (spiritually corrosive), but others argued spirituality is alive and well in social media experiences (such as in following Pope Francis on Twitter). The problem with the Emerson class is painfully obvious in retrospect—students need to break a text down before synthesizing its ideas. The takehome: a great class first makes a complicated text simple, then makes it complicated again.

We all grew a lot as teachers from experiencing these failures. Some were bigger than others, but all had an impact on our current practices. Please feel free to comment or message us with your own failures. Let’s not hide from our failures but see what we can learn from them!