Sunday, January 3, 2010

When good classes go bad

OK, first of all...Damn, did I really write only 20 posts in 2009? Wow, that's really lame.

So let's start this last-day-before-I-must-start-work-in-earnest-again Sunday afternoon in a still new year (and new decade!) with a substantive post. And let's simultaneously make a resolution to write at least twice as many posts in 2010 as in 2009, which would still be many fewer than in each of the previous two years, but let's not get too crazy with the ambition.

And no, I don't know why I'm speaking in first person plural. I am not actually royal. There, now that I'm back in a singular state of mind, on with the actual post topic to which the title refers.

My Old English class sucked this year. It really bums me out, too, because it was so awesomely enrolled: 34 students! And Middle English is equally awesomely enrolled, and so I'm a little nervous about it because I think maybe that relatively large size was part of the problem. But also part of the problem was a critical mass of "difficult personalities" (probably my own included) which led to a sucking of the energy in the room and made the routine but necessary parts of the class seem duller than necessary. I want to break down what happened, perhaps go over what I might do differently next time, and also recount some of the successful emergency measures I took (perhaps too late), but first let me briefly recap the last three times I taught this course, which made the anxiety-dream-causing suckitude of this semester seem even worse by comparison.

Now, my first OE class didn't go particularly well, but I didn't actually have very high expectations because it was my very first semester as a tenure-track professor, the first time I'd taught any kind of language class (let alone one in my secondary field, in which I'd only ever had one graduate level course!), my first semester of teaching undergraduate/graduate courses, and my first semester in a new town at a new job. All that might have added up to a nightmare, but I was in kind of a "this is all hard" daze. Still, that class did have its difficulties and challenges. The two biggest problems were graduate students who really shouldn't have been admitted to the program. One ended failing all of her courses because she just wasn't prepared enough for graduate level work in English. (She was a non-traditional student who'd come from another, *entirely* unrelated field. We used to admit more of those, many of whom were pursuing the MA for pure pleasure -- and I don't knock that at all -- but too many of them floundered and so we're a little more skeptical of their applications these days. It's no joy to say "yes, come to our program" and then follow that with "sorry, you're failing our program," especially when we're taking their money, as they usually don't qualify for TAships.) The other seemingly did well enough in his other courses but he got an F from me for plagiarizing his final translation and annotated bibliography project. (Thanks to him I now give final exams in that class.) And like most plagiarizers, he did a smashingly stupid job of it, by plagiarizing the very text I'd partly modeled the assignment on, Corey Owen's hypertext edition of "The Seafarer." My student didn't know that I'd modeled my assignment on this work, but he should have known better than to steal directly from Owen's summaries of articles written in German, since my student didn't read German and yet there they were in the annotated bibliography with their German titles! D'oh! And what's more, I'd already pulled him into my office for plagiarizing someone's translation once before! So he knew I was on the lookout.

But what made the semester so torturous wasn't that these two students were struggling students or even than the one panicked and resorted to dishonesty; rather, it was their attitudes throughout, which culminated in both of their failures, and I imagine had a causal relationship to them. Student 1, the non-traditional student, performed poorly on everything, but in the beginning of the semester, she tried to seek help. I say tried because she initially came to me asking for tutor. When I explained that knowledge of Old English was pretty specialized and there really wasn't anyone around except me, and offered to set up an extra weekly meeting with her, she reluctantly accepted, but stopped coming after the second meeting. And she subsequently grew surlier and more disruptive in her behavior in class. Then one day she melted down. We were going around the room, going over the translation homework, and the guy before her had just given a particularly sound translation, and since he was someone struggling in the class, I gave him extra praise. And then she took her turn and read something truly unintelligible. "I'm sorry," I said gently, "that's not quite right..." But before I could get to the explanation, she burst out, enraged, "Why does HE get a 'YES' and I get a 'NO'?" It was really unnerving, especially since it was my first ever experience of such disruptive behavior in the classroom. I thought I handled it OK, saying very gently that it wasn't personal, but that her answer was empirically wrong -- for one thing, she made a very clear subject an object and vice versa -- and his was right, but that tomorrow it could be the opposite. Well, it seems she thought my frequent but gentle corrections of her were personal, because the next day I got a three-page, hand-written screed from her (slid under my office door) decrying how inhumanely I was treating her. (It turns out she wrote similar to letters to all of her other professors, whose classes she was also failing.)

Meanwhile, student 2 usually complained about something every day in class. He was also struggling, but concerned only with the effect of his struggle on his GPA. He, too, tried to come to office hours, but gave up. In his case it was less out of a paranoid sense that I was out to get him -- as in student 1's case -- and more out of a deep-seated lack of interest in the necessary intellectual work. He actually said to me in one office meeting, "Why do we need to learn this stuff, anyway? Hasn't it all been translated already?" *headdesk* He was the kind of guy who, even as an MA student, would ask "Is this going to be on the test?" Oy.

By now in this post you might think that *that* was my worst OE class ever. But it wasn't. It's definitely in second place, but it didn't bother me as much as the most recent class. As I said, I expected things to be hard, anyway. But also, every other student in the class was a joy to teach, and there was a cohort of smart, funny, geeky students who loved when I got excited about geeky linguistic stuff. And the class was small and intimate, and so the other dozen students easily communicated through body language and expressions that they sympathized with me and were equally frustrated with the two problem students. In the beginning they reached out to them and tried to help them, but they got no further than I did. A number of the engaged students later joined me for a Beowulf reading group the next semester, so it was also clear they were learning and interested. One of those students later went on to do an MA in Medieval Studies at York (after taking every class I ever offered while she was an undergraduate!), and she was the energetic center of the enthusiastic majority in that class.

The next two times I taught OE, the classes were composed mostly of students like the enthusiastic ones in the first class, and blissfully free of problem personalities. Like the first class, those classes enrolled about 15-18 students, and since many of them took both OE and ME, there was a high energy going into ME (that was also true of that first year of ME, since the two problem students failed OE). The second time I taught OE and ME, I taught them in the same semester, in the same room, back-to-back (because I'd been on leave the previous semester and certain students needed both classes, usually offered only every two years) and I took to showing goofy language-related YouTube clips or SchoolHouse Rock videos in between classes for edifying entertainment, a habit I carried into the courses two years later (though to do so I had to arrive to class early -- didn't want to use actual class time). OK, so some of the videos weren't exactly edifying, but one silly one -- the now somewhat infamous "Pork song" -- was at least inspired by a class conversation about "r-colored vowels." Just about every student from those last two classes is now a Facebook friend of mine, so if you're my Facebook friend and you've seen my status updates about the grueling OE class this semester, you've likely seen their comments bolstering my spirits. (And since a couple of them know about this blog and might be reading: thank you! That meant a lot.)

So what went wrong in this year's iteration? Well, for one, that huge enrollment turned out to be a problem. This is something that I learned (and that I did to myself) that needs to be repeated over and over to anyone who wants to raise course caps and replace small classes with large ones (whether with or without discussion sections): the same content taught by the same teacher will paradoxically not be the same course if the enrollment is doubled. It might not be a worse class, but it won't be the same. And in my OE class's case, it was definitely worse. Alright, so there are other variables involved, I know, but I can tell you that it was much harder for me to reach and engage and keep track of the performance of 34 students than it was to do the same for 15-18 students. There were more students who were struggling and there were more students who'd stumbled into a class that was over their heads. I tried to head this off at the pass by e-mailing the syllabus weeks before the term started, but our students don't drop classes. (Or perhaps they didn't read the syllabus carefully.) This time, one of the struggling students at least did actively seek out extra help, and this time, having had three cohorts of OE students, many of whom are still in the area and seeking work, I was able to rustle up a tutor for said student.

But even with a tutor working with that student on the side, my student still came to my office hours every week. On the one hand, I'm glad she didn't give up like the two the first year, but on the other hand, she sapped a lot of my energy, and I needed that energy to deal with the rest of the class. Meanwhile, there were three undergraduate students with strange, disruptive behavior. One missed about half of the semester, either by missing a whole class or else by coming in extremely late, sometimes 45 minutes late! I could see this and it was clear the students in the back of the room, nearest the door, were distracted by it, as they took to keeping track of when she arrived. And when she was in small groups she wouldn't speak to the other students. At all. Strangely, though, she would sometimes speak up in whole class discussion, so I don't think it was real shyness. And on more than one occasion, when it came around to her to translate a line from the homework, she wouldn't have it prepared, in which case she'd just stare at me silently. And yet she'd come up to me after class -- after not having been there half the week -- and argue for fractions of points on graded assignments.

Then there were two other students who had the opposite problem: they didn't know when to stop talking. They both had a version of what I've heard parents of small children call "interruptitis." One of them would most often interrupt me; the other would interrupt me or other students. The first would argue with me when I was trying to explain why her translation wouldn't quite work tonally or stylistically or logically. Often she wouldn't let me explain what wasn't quite working with her translation; she'd interrupt and argue. These were often issues less concretely wrong or right than the situation that inspired the outburst from student 1 in the first year, but in each case, there was still something wrong and I knew that from my knowledge and the authority of many other scholars and translators, which she either didn't realize I had or didn't seem to accept. It wasn't always transparently clear why what she did was wrong, but she didn't wait for my explanation. She seemed only to want me to say "yes, your version is acceptable," rather than to learn why it wouldn't quite work. And in arguing at all, she delayed class for no good reason, because in each case there was nothing at stake or it was something peculiar to her translation and not common to the class. What I've learned from this is that I need to learn to say more quickly, "That might take me too long to explain and we need to move on, but I'd be happy to discuss it in office hours" or "Did anyone else come up with the same result? If so, let me explain to you all why that's most likely not going to work." Or just to say, "Give me a minute to think of a way to explain that to you," because honestly, sometimes it was something I knew but hadn't articulated yet to myself. On top of that, she'd also sometimes correct me spontaneously, interrupting me in mid-sentence as she did so. She did occasionally catch a slip of my tongue -- the class was so wearying that I sometimes had bouts of mild aphasia, where I'd flip terms (strong for weak, for example) -- but usually I'd catch myself a split second later, so I didn't really need her. Honestly, I'm usually appreciative of a correction, but not unnecessary ones. If that had been the only problem in the class, it might not have rubbed me the wrong way, but combined with everything else, it was a major irritant. And she also had a seemingly condescending tone every time she did this, although later I decided that she was actually pretty uniformly affect-less, even when she was talking about something she was supposedly enthusiastic about, so about two thirds of the way through the class I started getting irritated a little less. I also managed her and the rest of the class better. More on that a little later. Apparently she also did the same thing -- the seemingly condescending, spontaneous correction -- when other students were talking, but only the students around her heard that, because she kept it sotto voce. But that was irritating them so much that they started dreading class and it affected the atmosphere.

That was on one side of the class room. Meanwhile, on the other side, something similar was going on. Another student there had a similar kind of academic Tourette's, interrupting me and blurting things out at inappropriate moments. But hers bothered me less at first because it didn't seem laced with bad attitude; rather, she seemed to me to be bubbling over with enthusiasm. But then she, too, started correcting other students. Or sighing or snorting. And by the end of the semester, when we got to the literature and the discussion, she'd respond to my questions by starting with such locutions as "Well, you have to understand..." And then she'd say something totally wrong, or at least ill informed. (Often it was out of date blanket stereotypes of the Middle Ages, or a confusion of the content of the literature with the life of the day. I think she might have been home schooled or at least an autodidact in my field. She was a big Tolkien fan and might have just decided to start reading what he'd read. She'd clearly read a lot, but had no real guide to what she'd been reading.) Of course, I'd correct her, gently, which sometimes got snickers from her classmates who were less patient with her outbursts, and she'd look crestfallen (clearly not realizing she did the same to them). She also had a tendency to call herself, out loud, "stupid! stupid! stupid!" when she missed so much as a point on a quiz, which was hard to take in its own way.

And then, on top of all of this, there was one of my best grad students, who has an unfortunate habit of sighing audibly when he's frustrated. And he, like me, was frequently frustrated in this class, as were many of the other students. Furthermore, as in many of the former iterations of the class, there were a lot of high-performing but neurotic students, who radiated a lot of nervous energy even under the best circumstances. But add that to the powder keg of the difficult personalities, and you've got a lot of extra strain and stress.

The combination of all of this sucked the energy out of the room. I and many of my best students dreaded coming to class. Showing students paradigms of verbs and such isn't the most exciting thing in the world in the first place, but in most iterations of this class I at least brought energy and dorky enthusiasm to it. Even without the difficult personalities, I think the bigger class size brought the energy level down. When students are five rows away, you're lecturing, not showing or discussing or explaining. I think this semester, in Middle English, I'll make myself move around more to combat that. In Old English, I did a lot more small group work than I might have otherwise done to get one on one with students, but in much of the semester, too many of the struggling students or the ones with clashing personalities were grouped together simply by virtue of the geography of the room. So finally, about half way through the semester, I spent a few hours making a group assignment chart, being sure to keep apart students I knew didn't get along, and making people move across the room to meet people they hadn't met before. I put one of each of my smartest, best performing, and also most confident students with each one of the two interrupters, so that they'd see that they weren't the only ones quick on the uptake. (Indeed, the median and average grades in the class were consistently As. I had a lot of high-performing students and then a significant drop off to the struggling students -- another problem of the class, I think.) I stopped using my old method of going around the class and having each students translate a line or two -- which works fine in a small class -- and had students in small groups compare their translations to mine, note meaningful differences, and try to teach each other where they went wrong. In other words, I took myself in person out of the equation for a little while (though obviously my authority was still there in the translation). Of course, I'd go around to each group and I'd answer questions as they came up. And since I'd carefully designed the groups, I made sure to put students who I knew could teach each other well in each group. Having done this, the last third of the semester was much more pleasant than the first two thirds. Plus, by that point, we were done with the crash course in the grammar and syntax and on to the literature, which also made things more fun.

Looking back, I think I learned from that class something about how to manage people. It took me awhile, but the assigned groups did eventually solve some of the major problems. And they worked happily together, so I seem to know something about what personalities will mesh and which won't. But I wished I'd learned it faster. And I wished I'd learned faster all of the things I've suggested above that were going wrong and were in my control. But I do think a lot of it was just the bad luck of bad chemistry. We'll see how much of this shows up in my evaluations (or, how many perceptive students will realize that it was less about the class content and me and more about the chemistry).

But one thing I'm thinking about changing is the way I assess the students. For three iterations now I've been using quizzes, following by translation assignments, followed by a final exam. I'm thinking of swapping the quizzes for homework, which means I'd have to change the final exam, too (or maybe just get rid of any big capstone project entirely -- just add more short translation work or other short assignments). Whether I use Jambeck and Hasenfratz's book or Baker's book, both now have fill-in-the-blank or sentence translation assignments (the former in their book, the latter on his website) and I could use those for both graded and ungraded homework. I could also use Michael Drout's website King Alfred's Grammar, although I'd probably do so in conjunction with Baker. The idea behind the paradigm quizzes was that students needed to have the basic structure of the language at their fingertips, and would then only need to refer to the grammar paradigms later when necessary to check their work or when memory failed. In other words, it was about approaching some basic fluency. Admittedly, it was an old-fashioned approach, the way I'd been taught both Latin and Old English. But I don't think that really worked in such a short class or with a larger group. (With the smaller, more self-selecting groups, it worked fine.) I think perhaps it might be better to concentrate on how the structure works in action, in sentences and short passages. I tried that the first time I taught the course, and it didn't really work -- and it was those students who suggested that I institute quizzes -- but I think it was more in the details of how I did it than in the larger concept. I also think that the move from quizzes to translation in this most recent class actually inspired some of the more annoying personality issues, because we'd moved from assignments that were black and white (you either knew the dative singular for a strong masculine noun or you didn't) to the more nuanced practice of translation, which starts with grammar and can have elements that are wrong or right, but also has more interpretative elements, some of which are more arguable than others. I taught a lot of that debate -- especially some of the more famous critical cruxes in the poetry -- but many issues were less up for debate and more a matter of students' inexperience, and that unnerved a lot of the students. In other words, I think I accidentally did a bait and switch on them, and I'm sure that contributed to the weirdness of the course's chemistry. Middle English is a very different course, and I use writing and translation assignments in that class -- no tests -- so I expect some of these structural problems to disappear. Also, some of the most difficult personalities won't be in it. But I'm still stealing myself for the large class and what new weirdness it brings with it.

OK, I have babbled on for long enough. Anyone who has any suggestions for how to manage a class of difficult personalities, or how to effectively teach Old English or another 'dead' language (i.e., where conversational fluency is not the goal), have at it in the comments. I'll probably need your advice for Middle English.

15 comments:

Dr. Virago said...

Um, I think I broke teh internets with the length of this post!

Elf Eye said...

I had a student who was so disruptive in her interruptions, which were both physical and verbal, that, working with the Disability Resource Office, I drew up a contract that she had to sign as a condition of remaining in the class. You can glean the nature of the disruptive behavior from the wording of the contract:

Terms of Classroom Agreement

1. I agree not to disrupt the class with questions, remarks, and/or actions that are off-topic or that distract the instructor or my fellow students from the subject matter being addressed that day.
2. I agree to come to class on time. If I do arrive late for any reason, I will not interrupt ongoing activities, discussions, or lectures.
3. I understand that the teacher determines if and when the class will take a break, and I will therefore not leave the class on my own initiative except in the case of an emergency.
4. I understand that ‘emergency’ must be defined narrowly and does not extend to mere discomfort and restlessness on the part of the student.
5. If I do need to leave the class for any reason, I will do so in a quiet and discreet manner. I will not cross in front of the room, and/or I will avoid walking between the instructor and the other students.
6. I agree to maintain respect towards my peers and the instructor, particularly with regard to respecting personal boundaries, both in action and in speech.
7. I agree to not interrupt the instructor and my classmates but will raise my hand and wait for my turn to speak.
8. If I e-mail or telephone my peers or the instructor, I will do so in constructive fashion. I will be both respectful and professional in tone and will take care to remain on-topic, addressing only those issues of genuine relevance to the issue at hand.
9. I agree to participate in the class in a constructive manner by helping my peers and by maintaining respect towards the opinions and statements of others when participating in class discussions and other activities.
10. If I wish to raise issues of relevance only to myself, such as the grade I received on an assignment, I agree to do so in a patient and respectful fashion after the class is dismissed.
11. I agree to keep up with the class material so that I can participate in the class environment in a constructive fashion.
12. I understand that attendance—showing up, showing up on time, and remaining for the entire class period—is necessary to fulfill the previous requirement, i.e., to keep up with the class material.

By signing this agreement, I acknowledge that I have read the agreement in its entirety and agree to abide by the rules set forth. I also acknowledge that failure to abide by these rules will result in a referral to Judicial Affairs for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct – University Policies of Student Life.

This was rather an extreme situation, but I have since addressed many of the above behaviors in a section of my syllabus, a document which, I am sorry to report, has grown increasingly detailed over the past twenty years.

And now I think I have broken teh internets with the length of this comment!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Dr. V., I really am impressed by your creative restructuring of the class. I agree that classes of under 20 are best for just about everything. I rarely get them where I teach, but the few times I have gotten them, they've been spectacular.

Calista said...

Wow, what a drag. FWIW, both of your interrupters this semester sound like they might have been exhibiting the kind of conversationally tone-deaf compulsion for "correctness" that one sees in the Almost-Autistic (tm). This is of course pure speculation on my part, but if were the case it might make it easier not to take that kind of behavior personally...

Susan said...

I'd echo Calista's comment: I have a student who I'm sure is on the autism spectrum -- encyclopedic knowledge about weird things, but terrible at knowing how to read signals. So he annoyed everyone. And then he'd follow me to my office to talk, and talk, and talk.

But I think the chemistry of a class is impossible to predict, and you have to wing it on working it out. It sounds as if you were fairly good eventually at figuring out how to manage people. It's always helpful with these to remember that it's not you, it is hte class!

Janice said...

I, too, have struggled this past term with the class that "broke my back" -- teaching to incredibly large and not always functional groups, especially in terms when you're already burdened in other courses and requirements, is seriously draining. I do hope you'll put some of these lessons to immediate use in your ME course!

Bardiac said...

Welcome back!

It sounds like you handled the difficulties well, especially in coming up with the small groups and organizing them.

The personality issues are just a pain sometimes. Sorry you had two in the one class, and then others.

Emily said...

This was interesting and reassuring to read, precisely because it's an image of other, more experienced teachers thinking about the things we all dread. Thanks for that.

My OE class is a year-long course, so I have more time to play with, but when the students were first starting out with pronouns, beon, and not all that much else in front of them, I used Aelfric's Colloquy to get them reading aloud and trying to hear OE a bit. I was pleased with how many were willing to participate (even in a class of 35-40) when it was slightly less pressure - just read it aloud and then guess some modern English that sounds similar! (e.g., 'baecere', figuring out 'fuglere' and 'munuc', or recognizing 'ic eom', etc. And they are amused by 'hwaet segst thu, ierthling'!)

I like your way of running the small group translations, which is a bit more sophisticated than what I tried in some of their first translation assignments. All best for the ME course!

Emily said...

Also, I am particularly struck by the cautionary tale of Student 1. I am very, very grateful to have been allowed to make a dramatic disciplinary shift into an excellent and collegial program in a new field, but I continued straight on from a very rigorous undergraduate program and was fully prepared to be the slowest, least experienced student in my cohort. Beyond that, the decision to admit me may have made more sense to the committee because I had already taken some courses in the new field, and one of my referees volunteered to write about a knack for languages - crucial for both my own interests and the requirements of the new program. So, I watch some recent developments in admissions here and feel a huge sense of relief and horror that I squeaked by before they wised up.

Having said that, I recognize the risks of letting too many switchers in without any way of screening them. It's awful to watch this kind of thing when it goes wrong.

Erick said...

I'm sorry for your trials, but I must say: dang, it's nice to be reading you again!

At some institutions (the University of Kentucky is a notable example) Latin is taught as a living language, where students are required to study it as they would French or Spanish: speaking it in class. I'm no expert, but perhaps admitting to a language's deadness makes it less respected. I find I have fewer troubles in classes -- regardless of level or topic -- the more I get students to respect the project.

As for actual advice? I got virtually nothin'. Maybe for running larger classes: do you know McKeachie's Teaching Tips? It's in a new edition -- 14th? It might have something useful for you. I usually find very valuable advice when I periodically dip back into my copy.

undine said...

I don't have any advice, either. I just wanted to say that this was an interesting post.

Dr. Virago said...

Hey, thanks everyone for the comments and moral support! Sorry it took me a couple of days to come back to this.

Elf Eye - OMG, wow. That sounds like a whole heck of a lot more disruptive than any one of my students, but I have had an individual student once, maybe twice, almost that bad. So sorry you had to deal with that!

Calista (hey, hi!) and Susan - yeah, the autism spectrum finally occurred to me, too, which helped me be a little more tolerant. Alas, I could share such insights with the rest of the class, so they remained frustrated until I figured out what to do about it all.

Oh Emily, I envy your course! I use the Colloquy, but only on the first day. Hm...perhaps I should expand my use of it. My students, too, giggle at 'hwaet segst thu, ierthling'! As for the field changing "student 1," she was waaaaaay out of her depth. Although this was not the change she made, imagine something like pharmacy to English! And she was a *retired* "pharmacist" who hadn't had a college English class in my lifetime!

And Erick -- how interesting! Latin as a living language! That's a bit how Drout's Alfred's Grammar works, I guess. But I have to say, since I have no pedagogical training in teaching language as it's done in foreign language departments -- and no models, even, since high school, I'm not sure how I would do that with OE. But I might at least mix in more reading aloud. I really regret not doing that enough.

Sisyphus said...

It's good to see you posting again!!!

Steve Muhlberger said...

I am impressed that you attract all sorts and so many students -- even if you could do with a few less.

Terminal Degree said...

I can see why this class took so much of your energy.

It's really tough when students take things personally. I had a student complain that I was picking on him when I told him that I couldn't accept his paper's (downright ridiculous) claims without sources. He insisted that he "felt" that he was correct, no matter how much I tried to explain that we weren't looking for *feelings*, but for facts. I, too, got a LONG letter describing my every fault as a teacher. In short, it was a "why are you picking on me?" letter. Some students simply can't separate their feelings from their work. Such students, no matter how kind we are to them, make our job very hard some days.