LEARNING FROM TEACHING ABOUT TEACHING, WITH STUDENTS’ HELP

It’s the third time I refer here to the MQD (‘Improving Teaching Quality’) project for Literature I’m a member of since 2010. Our strategy in the last two years has passed through focusing on the narrator when teaching fiction, a strategy which, I believe, has worked quite well for us, teachers and students. This focus allows us to lay the stress on the constructedness of the text; ideally, students can thus overcome their tendency to read for the plot and start appreciating the writing skills required to make the narrative choices that result in great works of Literature. One day, hopefully, they might even produce their own.

Last Friday, December 14, we had a one-day conference to present a variety of teaching experiences connected with the MQD project. We opened it to students and to our great surprise and pleasure, about 70, perhaps 80, of them turned up to listen to us (12 teachers).

It was a bit weird for me to address to students (many my own) a paper I had written for my colleagues precisely about how students had welcome my proposal to work on the narrator in Dickens’s Oliver Twist and in the essay by Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844. I apologised in advance and changed as I read ‘they’ for ‘you’. I was in the end very happy that students were my main audience as it’s unusual for teachers to have the chance to rationalise what we do in class and offer explanations about our methods and pedagogy. My colleagues later told me it was the same for them.

Two ideas come next: what I have learnt from writing the paper and what I have learnt from the conference.

What I learned from writing the paper, based on the exercises I devised and that 10 students did for me, is that I/we must find a way to balance guided work with autonomous work. So far, I/we have been offering guides to help students do their work and have relied mainly on intensive class discussion and practice. I have shunned exercises, finding them too close to secondary school methods and to Spark Notes-style guides. I had to devise the Dickens-Engels exercises or else find myself with nothing to say in the conference, as my students will only finish their papers in January, yet I did so with mixed feelings. To my surprise, the ones who did these exercises, students I would certainly call autonomous, found them very useful and agreed I should develop similar sets for the other books in the course, something I’ll do. I must, then, work, on new strategies for guided work that still emphasise students’ autonomy, by no means an easy thing to do.

Throughout the conference students listened attentively (I think) but didn’t ask questions, possibly out of shyness, given the big numbers. This leads me to think, a constant concern this semester, that we need to establish some kind of annual meeting with them in which they do ask us questions and offer comments on how we teach. We need to do this, funding or no funding, because we share the same worry: namely, that they’re not autonomous enough and that the guidance (and guides) we offer are not sufficient to make up for serious deficiencies in their secondary education. As I teacher I feel I’m reaching a limit in that I don’t think my pedagogy can improve without more collaboration with my students – I don’t mean just feedback, I mean working together in the original sense of the word collaborate.

So, to sum up, last Friday may turn out to be a turning point in my teaching career and even perhaps in the history of the Department I work for. Let’s see if we find the way to establish this annual meeting, hoping it’s as fruitful as I dream it can be.

PD: For an overview of the MQD project work see the article by some of its members, “Into the Engine Room: An Inter-University Literature-Teaching Project Focussing on Narrative” (David Owen, Carme Font, Laura Gimeno Pahissa, Cristina Pividori) at https://revistes.uab.cat/jtl3/article/view/485. Just published!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.