My ill-smelling classroom, now bearably hot as early Autumn temperatures have started falling slowly, has, as I have previously mentioned, no platform. As I wait for that to be built, from my unhigh-heeled perspective I see a very compact sea of 50-odd faces crowning young, restless bodies sitting too close for comfort. Like all teachers, as I lecture I seek facial confirmation that the (dense) information I’m transmitting is understood. Imagine a whole classroom of blank faces! I do find that confirmation in students I know from previous years (this is a second year course) scattered all over the sitting rows, faces mostly friendly as they chose to be in my class, and not in my colleagues’ class. Yet there’s a segment filled up with still unknown students that I find myself avoiding. This semester’s blank faces…

As a student I was one of the staring, critical faces. I’m sure I must have been positively obnoxious some times. When I couldn’t stomach a teacher I would not attend lectures. We are checking attendance this semester and possibly as a result of this, and because the subject is compulsory, the students who don’t enjoy Victorian Literature are opting for a kind of weird disappearing act in the flesh. This is common to many compulsory subjects, far less common in electives but not totally unheard of: the student’s body is there, s/he even looks at the teacher most of the time but the spirit is elsewhere, whether this is Linguistics (which seems to be Literature’s Other rather than a twin part of the same degree) or Saturday night, past or future. How do I notice? Well, the friendly faces are fully open-eyed and their owners nod at me now and then, noting they’ve taken in a particular point or even encouraging me to go on. They offer comments, answer my questions. If they get lost, their expression shows it before they ask for clarifications. The ‘missing’ just keep their eyes open, look away when my eyes stray over them, never nod, never speak (to me) and in some cases don’t even bother to makes notes. Blank faces, blank arms…

Then there’s the matter of books. This is the third week into the course, still no Oliver Twist to be seen in too many cases. I ask students to choose passages for comment as homework, only one volunteers. I do my best, offer my own choices, select others for home reading (but what for, since they don’t have the books?) The result is that I end up not looking at the blank faces and not looking at the desk tops, so as not to see who’s got actually the book (and I think of Stanley Fish’s classic Is There a Text in this Class?). As some students do their disappearing act, I do my pretending act: pretending I’m teaching a class FULL of committed Oliver Twist readers who follow every nuance of the demanding reading, focused on the narrator, that my colleague and I have chosen to offer. I tell them that Dickens rehearsed aloud what he wrote and that his texts work best, precisely, if performed but I don’t know what impression my theatrical readings make on students who can’t follow them without the text. Too oral for them?

How are lectures going, we ask each other? Oh, very well… if it weren’t for the blank faces and the still missing books. ‘Pretend literature teaching,’ the best methodology to feel happy and fulfilled in the classroom.


  1. JoseAngel says:

    Yes that’s right, we all live in a fictional world of our own making… I liked the bit about Fish, I would have the same problem only I found that if I gave the students a pack of photocopies with the actual bits we’d look at in class they still didn’t buy the books but at least they did have the bits. Face it: what students need all along, but especially now in the Grados, is a handbook and an anthology. A thin one. On the other hand, if you enjoy intellectual challenges, there’s always one in actual teaching – not that I’d pretend to lecture to you, mind! – in the sense that the Ideal Student we address when on a free flight is actually less demanding than the flesh and blood students, because s/he’s so good to teach to, and our lessons to these ideal students are so devoid of noise, semiotic noise I mean. Real students on the other hand often make us face the messy Real, which is always a challenge.

  2. I’ll certainly bear in mind what you say about the messy Real. You’re right that we’re always thinking of an Ideal student probably too close to our fantasies about ourselves as once Ideal students (surely, we were not!)

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