Friday, February 3, 2012

. . . and First Failure

Things were going swimmingly in Intro to Fiction. Their blogs and papers were looking good, and over half the class participated on an average day (not my best average, but decent). And then, Wednesday struck.

There were two short stories assigned that day, Jackson's "The Lottery" and Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." I wanted us to think about what realism is by comparing the techniques in these two tales. Only, the students were not prepared. Some of them had read Jackson in high school and decided they didn't need to read it again. Others read Jackson, but then figured that was enough. I suspect only 3 or 4 out of the 26 present read Garcia Marquez's beautiful story.

What made it worse is that I wasn't prepared. I wasn't prepared for them not to have things to say. I wasn't prepared to just lecture to them about the points I wanted them to learn. I had prepared comprehension questions to lead up to discussion questions, but they weren't responding. And so, I flipped out a bit.

Fuming Mad (image source)

There were 20 minutes left in my morning class, and I excused everyone who had already talked. That left 8 people. I was surprised there were actually so few who hadn't talked, which is one reason why in retrospect I blame myself for this situation. I had them do an in-class writing about what GGM was saying about religion in this story. The paragraphs were really interesting! The results reassured me that given more time to read the text and come up with things to say, everyone in that class can do wonderful things.

I had the afternoon class fill out a "participation worksheet" to start off class. That class was fine, nothing glowing, but fine. Today's morning class had a participation worksheet, and I think they did well in class. I'm hoping I don't often have to give them in-class tasks. It uses up valuable time when I can connect with them immediately, and I don't actually have time to read and respond to lots of in-class work. In an ideal university, I would have fewer students and I could give these types of assignments more often.

In an ideal university, students wouldn't need me to crack the whip; they would be self-motivated. And they would have lots of time to complete the small assignments I give them. I assign so little! I think this is what really bugs me. I've cut the amount of reading, and yet the students still don't prepare. Maybe it's just that point in the semester. We're completing week 4, and they have papers due in other classes. Maybe things will improve on their own. If not, there will be lots and lots of worksheets and group activities.

p.s. Yes, I give reading quizzes, but they're on Blackboard, and I had fallen behind in assigning them. You ought to see the quiz I wrote Wednesday night . . .


  1. Ugh, I'm sorry to hear this. And really, it's just the beginning of February--if students are this tired now, what on earth are they going to look like at midterm? At least my students (who, admittedly, continue to act offended when I actually want them to focus on class activities, rather than who's bringing the tequila for this weekend's fiesta) have Mardi Gras in a couple of weeks. I'm hoping that that will exhaust them enough so that they'll be a bit more docile in class.

    What's a participation worksheet? That sounds intriguing and promising...

  2. A participation worksheet is like a quiz, but they're allowed to use their books. It asks some basic questions like "What is Old Phoenix's errand in Natchez?" (Welty) and some close-reading questions like "find a reference to sight, birds, or time." I had the students swap during class, and then I collected then at the end of class and awarded bonus participation points to students who did a good job with it and penalty points to students who clearly weren't prepared.