Perhaps the Dumbest Teaching Question Ever

Here’s something I probably ought to have thought of before the semester started, perhaps even before planning on teaching a class like The Big Novel: It’s really, really hard to get students to talk actively about a text they’ve only read part of. They seem to want to hold all judgment in reserve until having completed the whole thing.

Or perhaps it’s just hard to get my students to do such mid-text talking. Which would imply, of course, that the problem is located not in the texts, and not in the students, but in the professor.

So here’s what’s to my mind perhaps the dumbest teaching question ever, and certainly the dumbest one I’ve ever asked in a public place: How do you get your students to engage actively with a small piece of a long text before they’ve read the whole thing?

As a follow-up: How do you get them to perform such active engagement when the text under consideration consciously presents itself as a mystery of sorts, raising question after question and hinting that answers will eventually be found, which increases that tendency toward the deferral of judgment, even though you, who have read the book several times, know perfectly well that such answers, if they’re to be found at all, aren’t located at the text’s end?

12 thoughts on “Perhaps the Dumbest Teaching Question Ever

  1. have them write about it first. then have them explain what they wrote… once the students has their thoughts on paper, i think they approach them as more valid and real than when they are just floating around in their heads.

    so i guess, write 3 paragraphs and 3 questions, the three paragraphs on something they ‘found’, ‘thought’ etc. and 3 questions that they think they can talk about.

    and the nice thing is that this excercise gives you some understanding of their reading/analysis skills.

  2. As someone with some experience in this area, I can assure you it’s not the professor. It’s THOMAS PYNCHON. Or, more generally, it’s big complicated novels. I think the key thing is to make sure the discussion isn’t limited to the plot, or the unifying theme, or anything else of which a first-time reader might feel he or she an incomplete grasp halfway through the novel. Easier said than done, of course. As much as I dislike writing about a book before being done with it, I would agree with Mr. Hunsinger that it’s a good way to get people talking. And if that doesn’t work, you can always just get somebody to take their top off.

  3. Two of these books can only be re-read; one can only be read once. The DeLillo I’m agonistic about.

    If you’re doing these in chrono, and there aren’t a lot of “wtf?” questions about GR, I’d start with the reading quizzes.

  4. The old trick of making students talk to their neighbour for a few minutes before having to speak up in front of the professor works wonder with my students, who tend to display strict Scandinavian reserve until reprogrammed quite intensely.

    We don’t talk about big novels, though. Wish we did. I’ve tried to get them talking about Big Articles, which sometimes works, but there are always some who Haven’t Had Time To Read It. One colleague of mine demands ten lines of “thinking-writing” before she’ll let them into the classroom. I think about that every semester but haven’t quite had the heart to do it yet. Kick them out, I mean. I prefer putting them in small group situations where they’ll be horribly embarrassed in front of their peers if they haven’t done the reading. Saves me the bother of being the bad guy.

    When I studied big novels we weren’t expected to talk. The professors lectured. We shut up. Students should be seen adn not heard, and lectures were lectures. My impression was, though, that we HAD all read the novels. The whole novels. We loved reading. That was why we were studying something as impractical and certain NOT to get us jobs as literature.

    This appears to have changed.

    So sorry, no good advice, only sympathy…

  5. Sigh. Perhaps it is just Pynchon, and that GR is a novel that demands re-reading. Because we’ve done the write-first thing, and I always begin with some small group discussion before opening things up to the class as a whole. And some days, when there are structured assignments (i.e., present what you’ve written, or report back on your conversation), it pays off — students do what I’ve asked them to do, and thus the majority of the voices heard in the room are not mine.

    The problem is that these reportings-back don’t translate well into conversation — they become isolated reports, given in sequence. I’m the one that ends up doing a lot of the connecting.

    If, on the other hand, the questions are more open-ended — if I ask not for a reporting-back but for thinking around and developing an idea — then my students are, more often than not, very chatty with one another, but totally mum when they turn back to talk as a large group. As though they’re willing to expose their confusions and take stabs at incomplete answers with one another, but not with me listening.

    I guess I’m hoping to find a happy middle ground — a way to transition from writing or small-group discussions to full-class conversations, in which they talk not to me but to one another, and in which they take risks, speculating on what they do know and admitting what they don’t.

    (And, incidentally, I’m fairly confident that the vast majority of the class IS doing the reading. They’ve got WTF??? written all over their faces; they’re just, for the most part, not willing to ask the questions out loud.)

  6. Those of us who teach Victorian fiction face this problem, too. After all, you’re not really teaching the Victorian novel if you don’t have at least one triple-decker on the syllabus.

    Typically, I start very small, encouraging students to treat passages almost as if they occurred in lyric poems. We also talk about narrative conventions, and the way writers flirt with, exploit, or thwart them. This gives them something concrete to discuss (even if it’s the slipperiness of a metaphor, etc.).

    Eventually, enough instances accrete, and there’s a sort of tipping point five- or six-hundred pages in where we can start putting things together. (And still have another 400 pages to go!)

    It is perhaps a bit easier in the Victorian novel, which helps set up conventions that Pynchon, DeLillo, et al., play with, but I would probably work in that direction.

  7. I wonder if they’ll have anything to say about Brigadier Pudding’s yummy scene with Katja, the twins and the ecclesiastical Latin, the “dear Mom, I put a couple of people in hell today,” and other delights. But if the adenoid didn’t grab them…

    Norman Mailer said he couldn’t get past the bananas, though.

    I’d try the reading quiz experiment; you might be surprised.

  8. i’m not sure that it is the content, pynchon, delilo and anyone else, and i’m also fairly sure it isn’t the professor because you can replicate this across institutions fairly easily…. But that doesn’t also mean that it is the students… it could be the the institutional environment. If all the students are facing you, or if all the students are facing a computer, or even if they are facing each other in a big circle, conversation is prevented. my solution (and you can tell i solve and propose solutions things, some people don’t like that) is to transform the classroom so there are a series of ‘nodes’ of 4-6 desks/chairs each where students face each other in these small groups, let them talk for a bit, then have them talk to other groups. this deforms the classroom in interesting ways.

    The other thing that i tend to do to replicate this is to move the discussion out of the classroom and onto a list or threaded discussion and require participation in those discussions.

  9. I like JBJ’s suggestion of looking closely at smaller passages. During my undergrad, one of our professors did this with us, and it often spun off into good discussions. He picked out a pivotal scene–often just one or two paragraphs long–read it out loud, and then asked us to discuss it. We talked about the language, writing style, narrative structure of the paragraphs, or we discussed why this particular moment was important for the novel (so far as we’d read it).

    The good thing about this method is that students have something quite specific to hold on to. They can just take a particular sentence apart if they find something in it, without having to worry about the rest of the book.

  10. If I wasn’t clear enough about this, I apologize, but there’s a lot of the following in Gravity’s Rainbow: coprophilia, pedophiliac sodomy, blasphemy, prolepses, and psionic powers.

    If this can’t get undergraduates’ attention, nothing can. We should all resign.

  11. My god, all that, and prolepses, too? 🙂

    FYI, to clarify my own issue: I’m not having trouble getting their attention. It’s quite clear (from reading responses and from their small-group conversations) that they’re interested and invested and reading. They’re just having trouble at moments figuring out how to talk about the book while in progress on a first reading, and I’m having trouble asking the right questions in order to get them to talk.

    Anyhow, we had lots of incest and pedophilia and death and prolepses today, so (perhaps because of that) the talking went well.

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