One good thing I’ve learnt in the few years of teaching I’ve had is to never take anything for granted. This is why I usually give the students time on our last semester session to write down their feedback. This year, I issued a questionnaire which they had to fill in, with reference to problems related to my classes, understanding of issues and concepts, my teaching skills and even ways they could improve their own learning process. The answers have been eye-opening.
Amazingly, even though I spend my time asking countless “any questions so far?” and “do you understand?”, I very rarely have someone who’d ask a genuine question or express their doubt or inability to grasp an idea. I mean, I was a student once. I have been shyer than most; even then, if something really bothered me about part of my course, I would a) do a maximum of research and b) ask!
Thus it turns out that some of my students have expressed doubts about their knowledge of some of the texts we’ve covered. If I hadn’t asked for such feedback in writing, I would never have known. Better late than never, I say. But you can’t help feeling annoyed at times when you do give people time to express doubts and questions and they just don’t.
Not that am severe in class or anything. I have a somewhat brief ‘philosophy’ as regards my work: I teach – yes – but I don’t have to make it seem like torture. Teaching and learning literature has always been a source of fun, introspection, inquiry, knowledge and a constant aid and companion to my imagination. I have tried different styles of teaching, but I find myself to be more comfortable if I adopt a semi-formal, half-relaxed stance in class. I use jokes, anecdotes, little stories and above all, things they would associate with their own lives and which would help them to understand. For this class, it is essential that I do so! The class I currently have is a first-year class, with people who now have to be introduced to the world of academia.
But I realise that for many of them, it’s actually an introduction to literature itself which I need to do. They need to see beyond a book, or see the book in terms of context rather than as an end in itself. They need to appreciate and recognise the existence of multiple points of view in ‘reading’ a text. Some of them expect me to work through the whole text (say, Macbeth) – line by line, scene by scene, act by act! Whereas I concentrate on some of the issues, themes, and stylistics and try to link all the texts studied according to overarching themes, influences or styles.
Yet another thing which troubles my dazed students is the fact that I seem to be recommending reading the Bible. My module has – by its own definition – a very large scope: I have to address literature dating from the 1200s till the 1800s. It is, to date, the broadest module I’ve ever had to prepare for and teach. Early English texts, at least the influential ones, tended to be moralistic and very much religious in nature. I thus started with a morality play, followed by an Arthurian legend (itself filled with Christian motifs), then by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a text which does satirise religion and Christian outlooks on marriage and women. The interesting thing about early British literature resides in how these writers of the past dealt with the one major power – the Christian Church. The Church regulated various aspects of society, from metaphysical questions of life and death down to how a man should treat his wife. I suppose that for someone who’s NOT read bits and pieces of the Bible (and who doesn’t own his own copy, hehe), some of those references might seem a bit obscure. Nevertheless, I am surprised at how some of the great classical bits from the Bible (which they don’t even have to read) – e.g. The Fall of Man (& Woman), Moses and the 10 Commandments, and some of the main points of Jesus’ life – failed to ring a bell. This raised two related questions in some of my students: Did I love the Bible and thus seek to get everyone to read it? Or did I hate it (since I had so many examples of the fallibility of some issues presented)? Neither. Like the other texts I address in this module, I find the Bible (like many other religious texts) to be an interesting cultural artifact which contains a lot of information about lifestyles, beliefs and attitudes. The fact that the early Christian societies in Britain tried to ‘live according to scripture’ thus interpellates me to assess these literary texts along with the Bible. So there. “It is perfectly possible to read the texts that we’ve covered without referring to the Bible”, quoth I in class. Even I haven’t read the full Bible, nor do I think it useful to do so. Yet, ignoring the (obvious) references to such a text would lead to a very restricted and restrictive reading of the texts, a position I don’t want them to find themselves in!
(more later about feedback)