This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘this week in teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.
The summer class I teach has one week left before final portfolios get turned in and my students either finish their degrees or proceed in their undergraduate educations, most of them probably running away from English classes as fast as their legs can carry them. I don’t begrudge them of this — not everybody loves the subject like I do, just like I don’t understand how anyone can enjoy studying mathematics — but I’m hoping they will have taken something useful with them out of the classroom door. Last week was the final week where I assigned reading, and this coming week is going to be all revision and writing all the time, so I’m going to take today’s post to dwell on reading assignments I’ve made use of in this class and some of the happy accidents they seem to have yielded.
I wrote a previous post about my surprise over my students’ response to Bartleby the Scrivener, and I know that I will forever recall that lesson as a prime example of how to teach old media texts in the writing classroom. This past week, however, I had another interesting teaching moment, and it’s related to an author I’ve already posted about on this site: Chuck Palahniuk.
The final reading I gave my students was one of Palahniuk’s newest short stories, Zombies, which is in his latest anthology. Much like most of his works, Zombies is postmodern, disturbing, and provokes discussion. Most of my students had never interacted with Palahniuk’s work – one or two of them had seen Fight Club, but that was the extent of their knowledge. The interesting teaching moment happened towards the end of the class, as my students summed up their reading experience as ‘disturbing’ and ‘uncomfortable’, and I made an offhand comment that I’d meant more as a joke than anything else:
“You think Zombies is disturbing? His story Guts makes people pass out at public readings, THAT’s a disturbing story.”
I thought nothing of my comment as students settled down to work on their research paper drafts and peer review each other’s work, and it had faded from my mind until I heard the sound of choked back shock and horror from one side of the classroom. I looked up and one of my students was staring at her computer screen with a stricken look on her face, saying mostly to herself “why would anyone ever write something like this?”
I asked her if she was all right and she looked at me like I had just shot her dog and said “I’m reading Guts and OH MY GOD.”
Immediately everyone else in the classroom woke up a bit, confused and intrigued, anxious and alarmed. A couple other students asked her where she found it and she told them to google it, and they started reading it too. The students who didn’t read it still watched the reactions of the others, and they began a heated discussion of why anyone would write a story like Guts, what purpose it served, how anyone could think of this. One student pointed out that aspects of it were true, as he knew someone who had worked in an ER. After a while the conversation looped back around to Zombies, and my students were unconsciously and naturally comparing the two stories. Not only that, they were relating them back to the theme of the class at hand, the idea of using metaphors to the extreme, and what teenagers do for fun.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. By mentioning a story in passing, the entire class had derailed as my students talked about how they were grossed out, why they were grossed out, and what that meant.
Sometimes it pays to teach on a tight schedule. In a summer class it’s especially important to be conscious of the clock and how much time it takes to squeeze in all the information you need. Even so, it’s important to remember that learning isn’t naturally placed in convenient two hour time slots, no matter how hard we try to schedule it down to the microsecond. The human factor leads to a necessary disconnect between schedules and reality, and nothing pains me more as a teacher than having to say ‘all right folks, as much as I want us to keep looking at this, we have to move on.’
Every class is a little different. I don’t know how previous classes would have reacted to Zombies, or Palahniuk, or even Bartleby a week or two before. It’s always the wild card of creating a lesson plan: you never know what might derail your schedule.
Even more importantly, you never know what might be worth derailing a class for.
My students needed peer review: they had papers due soon, so of course they needed to read each other’s work. But they needed to talk about the subject more: needed to process and understand. They went out of their way to seek out additional reading material, material I personally find fascinating but would not assign in a section of comp 102 without some serious warning (Guts is difficult to read, disturbing, and pretty gross all around, so much so that it’s easy to get lost in the details and the shock of it and miss the greater implications).
I may be pretty new to teaching, but I know that it’s rare for students to go out of their way to find something new to read. It’s rare for them to willingly continue a discussion during class time after it was time to move on.
For me, it was worth sacrificing that time to encourage discussion. My students would have time to read each other’s work later: for now, they had relevant and interesting thoughts to share with each other, new reading material to explore, and new insights to examine.
We can’t always derail our schedules as teachers. Students have to cover certain things as part of the assigned curriculum, and we have to make sure they get enough time for all of the necessary ground to be covered.
But I still think we need a certain amount of flexibility in our lesson plans. A little time to account for something unexpectedly relevant. Sometimes students can teach each other more effectively than we ever can as teachers, because fellow students aren’t perceived as gatekeepers of knowledge with ethos and authority. Discussion among peers fosters a deeper understanding of course material as students draw from their own experience and realize they all have different points of view.
We don’t have all the time in the world to let a conversation derail. Sometimes students get distracted easily and want to talk about what happened on Game of Thrones last night (or whatever else the hip kids are watching these days). But sometimes going off the rails leads to deeper insights into the material than previously anticipated.
Sometimes all you have to do is say “you think that’s disturbing?” and let curiosity do the rest of the work. After all, curiosity leads to some of the best learning experiences.
It also leads to stories that make you pass out, but in this case, they can’t say I didn’t warn them.
Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.
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