Approaching a new semester

I have been teaching English at BYU for over twenty years, focusing on creative writing for more than half of that time. As I contemplate fall semester in my new identity as a BLOGGER, I have been thinking about the conversations we teachers have with our students. Some might label the conversations lectures or lesson plans, but I always aim for an exchange–a luxury not all departments can afford. (I have no idea if Chris Grant could hold a conversation with me about math, though I doubt it–simply because I don’t speak the language.) Since I married one of my professors, I have some unusual insights about relationships and academia.
Bruce is brilliant. He is far better-read than I am, though I’m more fun. Our department told him when he was a single, 34-year-old professor that he would need to get married in order to keep his job. The university told me I’d get free tuition if I’d just marry a professor. So Bruce and I really invented the win/win scenario before Covey even coined the phrase. But then we were two very insecure, smart people and we were MARRIED. On our honeymoon, we had our first fight–about an odd interpretation of King Lear. And then we had to build our marriage. Bruce was accustomed to lecturing, and did it well. But lecturing does not go over well in the bedroom, and before long I let him know that the podium was not invited into our bed, and also that I was now his WIFE, not his student, and was his equal in every way. (I would not include that confession on Bruce’s behalf if the situation hadn’t improved vastly.) Of course, I brought my own set of problems. I have no difficulty articulating anything, and am quite capable using my tongue to cut someone in half unless I control the impulse. I believe Bruce still has some scars. A Baptist minister once told me, “Sarcasm has no place in a Christian marriage�–something I have come to believe, even though I have not always lived up to it. (Does sarcasm have a place on a Christian blog?)
As we look towards the upcoming semester and I think about yet another group of eager faces, I realize how soft Bruce and I have become–and not just in our aging bodies. We are nearing the empty nest phase of our life. Bruce has moved from giving Harvard-inspired, 300-page reading assignments (to be done within a week) to a much more reasonable pace. More importantly, he has become the department ombudsman, mediating problems between professors and students. I have told him he is a Tzadik–a righteous man, because he shows such mercy and compassion to both sides. He is a peacemaker. As for me, I have moved from being a slightly sarcastic single woman to being a quieter (though not terribly quiet), married grandmother, who loves her students as though they were her children but who tries to treat them as respectable peers. Bruce and I both have increased in love and understanding in all of our many contexts, and we’re still growing.
I believe that love is at the heart of good teaching (and good blogging?). Sadly, so many in academia have learned the falsehood that a true academic must intimidate not only with stance but with vocabulary–liberally peppered with the appropriate, often incomprehensible jargon. Teachers become almost vengeful as they catch students at plagiarism or let them know what pitiful little posers they are. But the great Teacher did no such thing. I thoroughly enjoy being in a field where I get to do what Jesus did: tell good stories. I love the fact that my students also write essays, and that they sometimes address issues and events they have never felt comfortable addressing–everything from doubts to depression, from loss of a parent to hope in a romance, from coming out of the closet to preparing for a mission. My job is to open the space for them to write candidly. If I am arrogant, contemptuous, etc., the space closes and the students will likely resort to long, jargonesque sentences that attempt to impress the teacher rather than communicate an idea or an experience. Fear of failure translates into long quotations from secondary sources. If, on the other hand, I can create a free space in my classroom, if I can empower my students with responses to their work that go beyond correcting grammar, if I can lead them to their real teachers–the writers themselves, not the textbooks–, if I can excite them about the possibilities of writing through my own passion for it, and if I can hold good conversations with them, I’m doing my job. And then I’ll give them grades and forget their names…(The second part comes with age, I’m afraid.)

37 comments for “Approaching a new semester

  1. Thanks for these lovely thoughts. I strive to treat my students as much as possible as intelligent, responsible adults, and I strive to create comfortable spaces for them to grapple with the issues in their lives (especially in my women’s studies classes). It is immensely rewarding when I can get classes thinking honestly and critically about their own experiences and how they relate to the knowledge I’m trying to share with them in the classroom. These kind of experiences remind me why I love teaching and hope to be doing it for many years to come.

    Anyway, my semester just started too, and it was nice to be reminded of these things.

  2. I strive to treat my students as much as possible as intelligent, responsible adults

    When I taught I had post graduate students (with a number of PhDs/MDs, etc.) who, as far as I could tell, were very intelligent responsible adults … ;)

  3. I’m really burned out on teaching right now. I’ve always tried to treat my students as responsible adults, but when they cuss at me in front of the class for docking points for their errors, when they are proud of not knowing their multiplication tables, when they expect me to plug a USB cable into the back of my head and download knowledge into their heads instantaneously without them putting out any effort, I just feel so tired, so exhausted from constantly trying. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it. Those who already know how to study and learn can study and learn from anyone, and those who don’t already know how to study and learn refuse to be taught. And really, how important is math anyway?

  4. Margaret, I’m dying to know the odd interpretation of King Lear—or is that too intimate too share?

    Wacky Hermit #3: Interesting notion about students willing to learn and not learn. I’ve been studying Isa 6:9-10 and related hardening themes in the scriptures. I think there’s good evidence that God has similar views (e.g. see Mark 4:12; Alma 12:10-11; 1 Kgs 22:22; Jacob 4:14; D&C 121:12).

  5. Very inspiring thoughts, Margaret! Thank you.

    My semester began last Thursday; as is often the case, I’m a few days behind, and am aiming to get my syllabi written this weekend, so I can hand them out on Monday. I suspect that my students very typically get a first impression of me that runs something like this: often late, often distracted, easily sidetracked, easily approached: basically a genial doofus. So long as, by the end of the semester, they add to that first impression a sense that I am very interested in them and their ideas, and very enthusiastic about the subject matter, then I’m fine with that. Especially since it’s basically true.

    I suppose all of that suggests a kind of easy-going engagement with my students, and on a certain level I do strive for that. But I also feel like it’s important to be capable of reminding them, at the drop of the hat, that there’s a reason I’m the teacher and they are students: that the differences between us, while not really sigificant by most measurements, are nonetheless real, and ought to shape expectations accordingly. I don’t know how well I strike this balance, but I try. I’m pretty particular about how I dress in the classroom, and how students address me. Those and other similar items are little, perhaps persnickety things, but they seem to work well with my overall approach nonetheless.

    I’m particularly excited for this semester, because the fact that I’m doing any teaching at all is practically a miracle in my book. And then there’s the fact that I’m teaching at a small, Christian school, which is an environment I’ve always wanted to experience. Guess I’m going to get my chance.

  6. Thank you Margaret for the intimate insights into your upcoming semester. I would like to see some of your more mature and thoughtful approach to pedagogy in law schools, but I’m not holding my breath.

  7. Margaret, thank you for your thoughts here. I appreciated the juxtaposition between the start of the semester and the beginning of a marriage—and the implied association between marriage and the academy as sites of continual (and cyclical?) learning.

    Both are connected a very real need for the possibility of honest conversations where both parties not only speak but actually understand what the other is saying. I manage to put that effort into my students on a fairly regular basis—after all, they’re paying me and I’m responsible to my department—but I’m uncomfortably aware that I sometimes fail to be quite so enthusiastic about such communication in my marriage, even though I realize I’m in a relationship that is sealed by powers greater than the laws of economics and public responsibility. One thing I love about the beginning of the semester is that it is, after all, a reminder that I can always start again.

    PS I second the inquiry by Robert C. (#4) if it’s possible to share—when I married a scientist I thought I’d be safe on “my” turf, but it wasn’t long before we were in a rather heated debate over the merits of One Hundred Years of Solitude….

  8. Margaret, Robert C., Jenny, what is it about literature in marriage? Early in our courtship, my husband and I got into it over _Candide_. I’ve forgotten what we disagreed about, but I well remember the calm but unrelenting tenacity with which he maintained his position. I was used to being able to persuade people to see things my way (or at least relent and change the subject, wearily)–but no matter what I said, no matter what elaborate English-major ploys I trotted out, I simply couldn’t persuade him! An early sign that we were well matched for stubbornness.

    Wacky Hermit, I don’t know that I have any helpful words, but I too have struggled with teacher burnout at times, and I’ve sometimes thought and said to myself exactly what you have here: the good students can learn from anyone, the bad students won’t learn from anyone, so what exactly is it I’m doing here again? (In my case, it dawns on me–oh, yes!–I’m enduring my richly deserved karmic retribution for my own exasperatingly poor study habits in junior high and high school, and in some phases of college as well. I am forced to confess that I may still be more sinning than sinned against.)

  9. “if I can excite them about the possibilities of writing through my own passion for it,”

    Maybe your post wasn’t meant to talk shop, but on the above note, to what extent do you share your own writing with your students?

  10. I’m returning to a classroom this fall, after twenty years of posing as an education expert and giving others workshops on how to do it. So many things seem so much more clear to me–what people really do need to understand–and so much seems so much harder. The main trouble I’m having thinking about it is that so much of teaching has come to seem quite silly, especially in subjects like Engish (which I will be teaching) where teachers are left with lots of space to imagine that their personalities and priorities matter more than I think they often do.

    I quite often teach EMT classes, since I work in an area where much of the ambulance service is provided by volunteers, and that sort of teaching seems quite sensible–specific skills and knowledge that are without question necessary to tasks that lie in the students’ futures.

    I’ve had very few teachers who were important to me, and the assignments so often seemed distractions from the real work. Autodidacts probably shouldn’t teach.

  11. Thanks for your post, Margaret; like a lot of the other academics around here, I enjoyed it and found much I could relate with. I’m at the other end of an academic career — the starting end — and it’s nice to be able to glean from the accumulated wisdom of those who go before.

    “I believe that love is at the heart of good teaching (and good blogging?).”

    Amen, sister, on both counts. That’s something I don’t remember often enough, and I’m grateful for your reminder, both the sentence itself and the post that conveys the idea.

    Let’s see, what else? I really like how you mention Christ as a model. That’s something I also don’t remember often enough — I’m too busy preparing myself, looking over the material, getting powerpoint slides ready.

    And let me add my own voice to the chorus on your sentence, “If, on the other hand, I can create a free space in my classroom, if I can empower my students with responses to their work that go beyond correcting grammar, if I can lead them to their real teachers–the writers themselves, not the textbooks–, if I can excite them about the possibilities of writing through my own passion for it, and if I can hold good conversations with them, I’m doing my job.”

    It’s hard to imagine a better goal for a teacher. Again, actually translating this ideal to the classroom setting is another animal. But it’s nice to see the reminder of the lofty goals towards which I should strive.

  12. I find what works well for me at the beginning of the semester is to speak to my students from my heart, something along the lines of, “You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potionmaking. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses … I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” That always sets the right tone for the rest of a successful semester.

  13. But you won’t be able to start out this semester with that speech, will you Severus?! You murdering, duplicitous, wicked creature! How long did you play both sides of the fence, telling both Dumbledore and the rest of us–your supporters in the Order, despite everything!–and the Dark Lord how they each had your true allegiance? Who knows; perhaps your mind has been so deeply warped by your constant employ of Occlumency that you honestly believed that you were telling the truth in every case? Well, you have no sympathy from me! You’ve made your bed; now sleep in it! There is no home for you at Hogwarts, or any decent place, any longer: no more teaching, no more students to intimidate, no more easy victories over the powerless, no more bullying! You’ve crossed over; you’re a marked man; I swear upon Dumbledore’s memory, you will not survive our search for you! Your betrayal may have brought down Hogwarts, the finest school in all the European wizarding world, for good; well, we won’t go down without a fight!

    Headmistress McGonagall

  14. Actually, Rowling provides all sorts of models for teachers, doesn’t she. Now, to the curious few who wanted to know the details of Bruce’s and my first fight: Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t remember them. Something to do with the symbolic use of the white cliffs of Dover. What I do remember was the time Bruce got very upset over an interpretation of something in the Renaissance which was contrary to his own (and he’s an expert on the Renaissance). He said, “I’m sorry to get so frustrated, but this is my period.” To which I responded, “I get that way when it’s my period too.”

  15. LOL, Margaret! I think Midol makes something for Premodern Metachronistic Syndrome. It’s a little pill that adjusts the Galenic humors for the melancholy and lets a little blood for the choler; he’ll feel much better about “Management Secrets from Shakespeare” and such afterward.

  16. I’ll attest to Bruce’s qualities as a teacher: he was one of my best, and his invitation to me (as an undergraduate) to assist in an honors Shakespeare course he team-taught with Bob Nelson has had lasting effects in my life. Knowing Bruce was a real highlight of my undergraduate career; his gentle, sensitive and unselfish approach to texts matches his manner with individuals, and together they make a harmony of discipline and disciple. I also learned from you, Margaret: you sat in once for Julie Nichols in a creative writing course I took; I had written (what I considered to be) a very long, fluid, cinematic Altman-esque opening sentence, and you wrote “Just don’t do this” in the margin. You were right, of course.

    I didn’t marry my professor, but in college I fell in a benign and rigorously inert love with several of them. I think it was a sign of some emotional and intellectual maturity that I never developed a crush on my graduate advisor, even though he was handsome and brilliant and attentive and very kind, and for five years was a very important figure in my life. He discovered a brain cancer last year, five years after another beloved mentor and Shakespeare scholar, Eugene England, died under the same disease. I miss them both, although Louis is still alive, and hope that my choices have pleased them—or at least haven’t disappointed.

    At the beginning of a new academic year, my third since I’ve been out of school, I do miss the classroom, intensely. But I miss being there as a student more than as a teacher. I was an ungenerous teacher, I think: I enjoyed being in front of the students very much, but I dreaded making syllabi, designing curriculum, assigning grades, and, above all, reading papers. Or this is what I tell myself to avoid Noble Mother-martyr Syndrome. There’s no Midol for that.

  17. I just finished my first bit of teaching as an academic. The first day of class went really well. I am teaching Commercial Law (Secured Transactions). I started out by talking about contracts in Elizabethan drama — in particular in A Merchant of Venice and Dr. Faustus — and why they get treated so badly. We then went on to the central role of contract in a modern society and the problems that it creates. From there we moved on to the idea of security and how it interacts with contract, outlining the the central economic and normative problems that it creates. We finished up by discussing a California case the illustrated the policy and normative arguments. The students seemed very engaged and we had a good discussion going. The second day of class we went through the rules governing the attachment of security interests to personal property. It was a bit of a flop. The students hadn’t read the code. We worked through the problems had spent a large amount of time on basic questions and never even got to the difficult interpretive issues or policy questions. After wards I was talking to one of my colllegues about the difference between the two days. Why did the first day go so well, while the second day went so badly?

    He responded, “The first day is easy. Talking nothing but big picture and policy is about getting students in touch with their inner moral sense. It’s not really all that hard. On the second day, you were teaching law. Students don’t have an inner Uniform Commercial Code to get in touch with, and getting them to grasp the real UCC is hard. Of course, you could be teaching con law, where there is no law to get in touch with and it is just students’ inner moral sense for the whole semester…”

  18. I neglected to reply to the question in #9: to what extent to I share my own writing with my students. I used to share quite a bit of it, but I no longer do. Some of my writing (short stories in particular) could be viewed as controversial, and if students get offended by what I’ve written, they turn off to me as a teacher. So I actually tell them to wait until after the end of the semester to read my works. I’ve also removed an essay I authored from my student supplement. I hadn’t realized how controversial it was, but one student said it affected her spirituality. (The essay is one which at least some on this list liked a lot–“Grace and Truth and Mormon Art.”) I can teach someone else’s essay on the very same subject without getting that reaction, because it’s a step removed. I urge my students to find their own mentors. I provide lists of writers they might want to read and describe what they’ve written. Since I’m at BYU, I also let them know if there’s swearing etc. in their books. It should come as no surprise that many students at BYU have been trained to have allergic reactions to swearing and erotica. I think that’s sad, though I understand it. As parents and Church leaders, we set a line before “R” rated movies and include anything containing sexual material or bad language under a strong “thou shalt not.” Of course, taken to the extreme, we shouldn’t be able to study the Bible or Shakespeare under these conditions. We have some sanctioned exceptions to the general rule, but for many, Saul Bellow will not be permitted to cross a line which Shakespeare used as a whip. So these students can’t fully experience Reynolds Price, Tim O’Brian, Alice Munro or so many more of my favorites. And TRAGICALLY, they often can’t even get into Levi Peterson.

  19. Margaret, do high school students in Utah read only PG-rated literature? The selections that my teenage siblings read in English classes include some pretty adult content, and I can hardly believe that schools in the Mormon corridor are so very different. Also, do you think things have changed at BYU in the last ten years? With Phil Snyder ten years ago I read Roddy Doyle and other writers with plenty of objectionable and graphic content.

  20. Dear editor:

    I am shocked and appalled to read that students at the Lord\’s University are being assigned reading material that contains so-called \”adult\” content. I certainly hope that the responsible parties for this outrage are found soon, and appropriate punishment meted out.

    LaDell Heber Romney McConkie

  21. My son read _Catch 22_ in High School just a few years ago, but his teacher was probably an exception. My daughter read _Huckleberry Finn_. She’s in an internet HS course right now that has _A Night To Remember_ (about the Titanic) and _Merchant of Venice_ as the main reading material. (Actually, there are some pretty racy lines in MOV, though not everyone will understand them.) That’s as much as I can say for HS. At BYU I have heard complaints Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Hemmingway’s _A farewell to Arms_, all things D.H. Lawrence, Levi Peterson’s _Night Soil_ and Toni Morrison’s _Beloved_. Bruce Jorgenson has written a wonderful essay about Reynolds Price’s story (the title eludes me) which tells about a soldier in need of healing who must either accept or reject the healing hands of a mysterious boy who keeps saying, “Mister, you gotta trust me,” but who also has an erection while he’s working his magic. The literary corallary is this: Can we as readers risk exposure to sexuality as part of our own healing? Can a reader be redeemed by following Mona Simpson’s protagonist in “Lawns” into the pit of sexual abuse, or by letting herself experience the horrors of war alongside O’Brien’s Cacciato? Or do such hellholes inevitably taint just because of what they are? It’s a compelling question. I know what my answer is, but I am certain some would point to my son’s choice to leave the Church as evidence that I made the wrong decision.

  22. P.S. Yes, Rosalynde, things have changed. We now provide our students with the correct process for complaining about reading material (summarized as “Please don’t call a GA”), and we are required to provide alternative material when a student is offended by a particular reading assignment. I believe those are pretty recent developments. Phil Snyder, however, continues to be magnificent.

  23. Of course, the pedagogical problem of profanity and sexual content is hardly limited to literature or to BYU. I recently had a very interesting discussion with one of my collegues about the challenges of teaching rape in a criminal law course. The backbone of legal instruction is the case method, which requires detailed discussion by students of the facts (and alternative facts) in particular judicial decisions. Every year at William & Mary there are apparently students who simply refuse to be “on panel” for cases with explicit sexual content.

    (It is not really my field, but I am also reminded of the passages where Luther talks about “sh*tting on the devil”. Thomas More — hero of religious lawyers everywhere — was also not quite the restrained character depicted in Robert Bolt’s play. Like Luther, his polemics tended toward the scatelogical.)

  24. I read The Catcher in the Rye for a 9th grade English class in Provo, and Catch–22 as a high school senior. Both were optional, however–and those who might find parts offensive had other alternatives.

    The whole class did read The Grapes of Wrath, which had some pretty interesting parts and some language one doesn’t hear often in Sunday School, and one of our classmates complained that The Good Earth was pornography–although I think that dear Ms. deHart succeeded in mollifying her before her parents went to the school board.

    But this was back in the ancient days, when Richard Nixon was president and the possibility of the youth growing beards and refusing to support U.S. policy in Vietnam were bigger threats than a few bad words in a literature class.

    Nate raises an interesting issue about content in law school classes. I don’t recall anybody in my class refusing to join in discussions of crimes, however heinous, I do remember escaping at the end of class feeling as if I had been bombarded by evil for the hour. But I thought that part of learning to “think like a lawyer” was in finding ways to extract the principle from the case, no matter how abhorrent the facts.

    On the other hand, I didn’t choose to practice criminal law.

  25. Bill: They mention that they are law students. Any right minded attorney then strikes them from voir dire for cause ;->…

  26. Perhaps, but several years ago I was on a grand jury for a month, along with several lawyer types. Day after day, we all found out a lot more than we ever wanted to know about the seamy underside of the city. The only one who could dismiss you was a judge who, when some pathetic type trying to avoid his responsibilities would doubt his own abilities to judge fairly, fixed him with a disappoving glare and told him to try harder.

  27. I am interested in thoughts about whether any of you professors find yourself reacting to treatment during your years as students. In the medical teaching model there is–what I see–a problem with using hierarchy, guilt, shame and criticism as tools for instruction. Each residency is different and there are differences between fields, but there are many residencies across the country where professors beat down the chief resident who then beats down the junior who then beats down the intern. It is an extremely toxic environment and one wherein people are changed–often for the worse.

    This hierarchical structure is most well preserved in surgical programs, but there are still traditional medicine and pediatrics residencies that maintain this atmosphere. The environment is different than the classroom–as an english professor cannot force you to perform a 4 hour bowel resection after 40 hours without sleep or risk expulsion from the program. Nevertheless, would you who are professors say that you are more or less caustic as a result of treatment in your formative years? It seems from the discussion above that you grow into yourselves as professors because of current life experience. My experience with caustic physician instructors is that certain residencies breed this type of professor and they don’t back down despite being at the top of the pile for years and years.

  28. Margaret, I had Bruce for an honors section of English 251 (I think, or maybe 252) over a decade ago. Like you, he was not above sharing at least one marital anecdote—something about your wedding experience in the temple, as I recall. It also seemed to me that he was more enthusiastic about Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons than he was about Shakespeare.

    Please convey to him my appreciation for the class. I can’t imagine him remembering me, but here are two long shots at jogging his memory: (1) I may be the only physics major he tried to convince to become an English major, and (2) I don’t know what he was smoking in those freewheeling wild times, but he had us do an alternative media representation of some work we had read that semester. Perhaps he’ll remember my pictorial rendition of “When I heard the learn’d astronomer,” which featured a young man with an expression of happy wonderment sweeping aside a black and white jumble of crashing mathematical formulae and symbols to reveal a spectacularly colorful night sky. A brilliant concept, if I do say so myself; unfortunately, its execution in colored pencil and black felt-tipped pen could have been bettered by most any third-grader.

  29. I got him enthusiastic about Ann Tyler. One of my great accomplishments in this life. Bruce still does “essences” in his classes. Yours sounds very memorable. In another Essence, a young man got at the core of O’Connor’s “Good Country People” by coming into the classroom in a tux and carrying a beautiful pie. He announcing he’d be playing some lovely music for his presentation. Then the lights went out and he stripped off the tux jacket, revealing a “Dead Kennedys” T-shirt. Then he stuck a large fork into the pie and pulled out a cow’s heart. Any of you English teachers who want to know more about the Essence assignment should talk to Bruce. I’m assuming he won’t be inundated. His e-mail is [email protected] .
    Thank you, Christian. I will share this with Bruce. I already shared Rosalynde’s with him and he was very touched by her words.

  30. For what it’s worth, I read “Catch 22” at BYU, twice. I also read “On the Road” and at least excerpts from “Huck Finn.” In high school, we read “1984” and “Brave New World” as well as “the Sound and the Fury.” Those are the most controversial readings I can recall from my time in Utah.

    P.S. Margaret, have you read “The Conversion of Jeff Williams?” If so, what did you think? Doug Thayer told me a couple of years ago he was working on a book about an LDS boy (I think) who fought in Vietnam–do you have any idea about its publication?

  31. Another P.S.

    Margaret, do you know Kerry Soper? He was one of the highlights of my BYU experience. It seems you two might be of a similar intellectual ilk.

  32. Thank you for the reference. I have a hard time disagreeing with that…It seems that many of the difficult questions that are discussed here bloggernacle are addressed in Card’s books (Polygamy and Saints stands out immediately). It seems that he was ahead of his time in asking general church members to grapple with difficult and disturbing parts of our current or early church culture.

    I enjoyed your thoughts on Ender’s Game. It is a personal favorite and when I read it again I will enjoy it that much more.

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