Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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The Watcher

On Tuesday I posted the notes I composed after my 8am English 380 "Literary Analysis" class, not because they were intrinsically interesting, but because I wanted to give you some background before proceeding to discuss the experience of being observed in the classroom. This semester, one of my friends and colleagues is teaching a graduate seminar on pedagogy for which one of the requirements is that each student sit in on one of the English major's course courses and then reflect on the experience. Every other class, one of the students in her class comes to watch me. Thankfully, he happens to be a polite, thoughtful man who is clearly taking both my courses very seriously.

Because my colleague has asked her students to keep weblogs documenting their thoughts, both about the readings she has assigned and the courses they are observing, I've been able to see an analysis of my teaching over the past few weeks. I've read lots of student teaching evaluations over my twelve years of teaching, of course, but they are clearly not the best medium for extended commentary on a course. The weblog of this graduate student observer has considerably more depth. I'm really appreciating the chance to become more self-reflexive about my own pedagogy as a result of reading it. His entry about Tuesday's class gives a sense of what I mean:
Being Lost Helps Us Home

As I think back on Tuesday's 380 class with Charlie, I must submit that I've not seen this much interaction in an 8 a.m. class ever. I am reminded of just how must students risk by talking in class by my own regretful remarks that I make from time to time. Evidently the space of the classroom and the discourse community was not as open as Charlie's space. Charlie creates a "what detail did you notice?" space instead of a "how smart can you sound?" space. His students may not realize it, but this is no small feat.

In all, 19 of the 24 students spoke in class, at least for an utterance. The time spent talking was always quite short--no more than a sentence or two, to which Charlie usually responded by explicating the particular detail that the student mentioned within the larger framework he is trying to present. Unfortunately, some of the students have not kept up with Charlie's urging to state their names before they make a comment in class, so I can only name a handful of the commentators.

Melville's "Bartleby, The Scrivener" was discussed, and as usual, Charlie mixed in some personal and contemporary stories to make the story from the 1850s more immediate to today. I thought it ironic that Charlie started class with a rather long monologue about the importance of speaking up in class, because the monologue consisted of Charlie talking for about five minutes straight, saying at one point that students should talk "once every two or three classes--to be on my 'mental map.'"

The exercise of rephrasing sentences from the Melville story was conducive to student input. Charlie gained some paraphrases from students of the first sentence of the story, writing down five of them on the board. The students hedged their statements; I also find it difficult to speak a sentence as a sentence. Then other students reacted to these, not so much avoiding judgment but somehow speaking free of it.

The foci of who spoke in class actually went in four cycles. The people on the left side of the room have been chiming in early nearly every class I've attended. This is a male and two talkative females. The male thinks long and hard, and usually attempts to say something funny right after his detail-oriented comment. The two women make detail-comments, throwing caution to the wind and saying what they think, what they notice.

The next cycle was a weak upsurge of the recalcitrant back left side of the room, furthest away from the instructor. This group of women speaks faintly, and the amount that they speak in class may be hindered by a couple of extraordinarily quiet people that have found regular sitting space there. Their surge was due in part by a more talkative young man that, as per the unfortunate equipage of the EDUC240 room, had to merely sit in a chair with no desk space whatsoever.

Next were a couple comments by those closest to Charlie and facing him directly. This group seemed to speak more comfortably, but less often. Finally was the right side of the room, spearheaded by a young woman that shared more than a couple back-and-forth discussions with Charlie. This was the format for many of the comments: comment from student, Charlie says something, student adds on to what they just said. This occurred regardless of sex.

The tally: I counted Charlie as going on about 27 monologues where he attempted to explicate something about the text and literary analysis and the midterm, usually taking about two minutes. He asked only about eight questions, questions that would end with a question mark, that is. How he gets student comments without direct questions I will have to observe more closely next class. Fourteen females made 29 comments, and five males made fourteen comments. I think that this tally in part represents the largely female composition of the class. However, a male led with eight comments made.

What I think I gain from this exercise is the importance of having a conception of what kind of discourse community will be the goal for a class. Of course, the class will develop its own scale of good and bad things to do in class and its own discipline. But in the end the instructor is the leader and main determinant of the discourse community of the class. Charlie's references to working at Kinko's (the modern scriveners) and eating barbeque with George W. Bush (a man of definite active voice) help to set a conversational, entertaining, improvisational setting where students both elect to speak up in class as well as doing some because they have been prompted to do so at the beginning of class.
While I sometimes bridle at specifics -- the bit about my "monologue," for example -- I find entries like this one extremely useful overall. My graduate-student observer really seems to understand what I'm trying to do, even when he does not agree with me. And he notices things, like the fact that 19 out of 24 students talked on Tuesday, that I don't have the capacity to notice while I am in the process of teaching. That detail, for example, makes me feel justified in beginning class with a "monologue" about the need to participate in discussion, since the usual percentage is quite a bit lower than that. On the other hand, I can certainly learn ways of improving my performance in the classroom. It wouldn't hurt to ask more questions than I typically do. And, although I've never thought about the student-Charlie-student pattern discerned in this weblog entry, it strikes me as a good one -- I'm not just cutting students off in order to do what I want to do -- that I should strive to incorporate into my pedagogy in a more self-conscious manner.
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