Sunday, April 15, 2012

Is it the students or me?

As usual, I am teaching an early-morning class introducing students to drama, poetry, and short fiction. It's a writing intensive class that I have conducted at the same community college for 10 years.

The students in this term's class have been challenging and disappointing. Usually, the spring semester's classes go well because students have come off of the fall term in the swing of academic work. They know where the library is. They know their study habits. They know their schedule.

My students this semester, however, seem very unprepared. They constantly come in late. They hand in work late or not at all. They don't ask questions when they are confused. All of these issues I have repeatedly addressed with the students in different ways. Only now, with about three weeks left in the semester, have some of the messages started to sink in and show themselves in student behavior.

I cannot tell whether this class is anomalous or a sign of students to come. I probably won't be around much longer to find out. In my mind, I have resolved to teach the fall course and then take an extended-to-permanent break.

I lean toward thinking that the students are getting "worse," by which I mean less prepared to deal with material that doesn't conform to certain expectations. In other words, I see these students as less flexible in their thinking.

For example, in one early assignment, I brought in an essay sample for us to go over together. In my opinion, the sample was very clear and well-written. It should have been easy to understand, particularly as we had been reading Hamlet, the subject of the paper.

I put it to you, readers. Is this not lucid prose?
Act I of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet depicts a time “out of joint” (I.v.189). A ghost, a threat of war, and a new king all characterize the moment; the very world seems set against Denmark. For instance, after witnessing the Ghost, Horatio remarks, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.69). King Claudius, newly crowned and married, offers another sign of trouble, that Denmark’s enemies may think the state has become “disjoint and out of frame” (I.ii.20). Finally, when Hamlet follows the Ghost, the sentinel Marcellus declares “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.v.90).

During Act I, Claudius becomes identified as the source of Denmark’s troubles. He is a fratricide and a regicide, he has unjustly assumed power, and he has wed the widow of the man he murdered. Hamlet, son of the slain king, learns of Claudius’s foul deeds; the young prince swears to avenge his father. By Act I’s end, the proud prince seems to have license for any punishment he means to give Claudius. Unfortunately, Hamlet approaches Claudius by feigning madness, a strategy that actually creates more problems than it resolves. In other words, Hamlet diminishes his noble vengeance by pretending to be mad. Hamlet’s path to revenge thus prolongs the “eruption” and makes the state further disjoint. In accordance with his motives and his father’s war-like persona, Hamlet should have decided to oppose Claudius openly.

To accept that Hamlet undermines his purpose by feigning madness, we must first examine his motives. If Hamlet has good and honorable reasons to avenge his father’s murder, it is partly because he is obliged to do so. Vengeance is right because it is duty. One such obligation is love for his father:
GHOST: List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. (I.v.23-6)
A second source of obligation to vengeance is Hamlet’s intellect. The Ghost marks Hamlet as a discerning young man who should be impassioned by knowing Claudius’s betrayal:
                                                I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. (I.v.32-5)
In addition to love and intellect, Hamlet’s sense of natural morality obligates him to avenge his father’s murder. The Ghost appeals to this sense in Hamlet: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not; / Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (I.v.82-4). Here, the Ghost agitates Hamlet’s dignity; the young prince should be affronted that an unworthy person now holds both the office and queen of a once-valorous king.

*  *  [snip]  *  *

By faking madness, Hamlet does not embrace his destiny but rather defers it. Act I ends with Hamlet poised to pursue vengeance against Claudius. Yet Hamlet also recoils at his fate, as when he laments, “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (I.v.189-90). If Hamlet defers his destiny, he also perverts the noble motives justifying revenge. To maintain his virtue, Hamlet could have publicly claimed himself the legitimate successor to the elder Hamlet. This path would have befitted the fallen war king. Prince Hamlet’s true fate, the one he defers, is to pursue revenge through battle against Claudius. By pretending to be mad, Hamlet adds a new rottenness in Denmark and aids that which already sickens the state. He chooses the wrong way to pursue the right ends.
As I said, the essay should have been easy to understand--but it eluded them. Students found the vocabulary of the paper challenging. They couldn't articulate the paper's argument at all, and they certainly did not see it as something they should try to emulate in their own academic writing.

I figure if my students and I are so far apart on something fundamental, then it's time for me to go.


  1. It's college. Students gotta be able to look up shit they don't know.

  2. This is nothing new. Last semester, I was taking an English course in which students compared papers with each other before handing in final drafts. I was appalled at much of my classmates' writing, and they offered "critiques" on my papers that demonstrated their ignorance of basic prose. though, how some people are even accepted to college when they think it's acceptable to use commas instead of periods and semicolons, as well as third-grade vocabulary.

  3. @SJ - True, but we are often talking about situations where (1) students don't realize they don't know something, and (2) they don't think that it's vital they should know.

    @Tova - Agreed, nothing new. For me, what's new is the difficulty in learning. Usually, my experience is that by mid-semester everyone is writing pretty well because they know what I'm looking at/for, and they've adjusted their style to accordingly. This time, however, I see little progress from the first assignment to what is being handed in 3/4 of the way through the semester.

  4. It depends on the level of the course, and what year the student is taking it, I would imagine.

    For example, I wouldn't expect such an example from a survey class. I'm assuming this is from a major specific course?

    Also, no offense, but Shakespeare is just problematic for people not accustomed to the language. They may be getting confused on what they are supposed to think about. That is, the might understand the questions, but then the language of the play confounds them, and then they don't know how to provide any adequate response.

    Although, if it is an upper level course or a Shakespeare course, then they should be on top of it.

    The quality of the school and the quality of the students that particular school admits is always a factor too.

    But I was a horrible student my first year. I nearly flunked out. Was put on academic probation and everything. Three years later I graduated third of my class. And was told by three of my professors that I was the "brightest" student they had seen in a long while.

    I even wrote my capstone on the Satire of Dr. Seuss, because, well, I enjoyed shedding light on important literary authors who might be overlooked by academia for their less than orthodox way of writing.

    Indeed, sometimes the Professors are more daft than students. It took me four long grueling years to convince my state university to include graphic novels in their introductory lit classes.

    They initially balked at the suggestion. Comic books were for third graders. Eventually I had to find a liberal professor, who recieved her PhD from Duke, and make a deal for me to do a series of guest lectures in her course on graphic novels.

    I lectured first on the history of graphic novels and then on the similarities and differences of American comics with other cultures, including France, Italy, and Japan... and the usefulness as graphic novels as a form of cross-cultural communication.

    Only after showing the vast history of comics, cultural signification, and their relationship to teleplays and screenplays, which do have courses at most universities, I was able to convince the English department to include some graphic novels in introductory classes.

    But it was funny to me that so many professors has a snobbish, eletist, view of comics. They were mere picture books, not literature.

    I merely reminded them that they weren't only picture books. They had prose. They told important stories. And they didn't know any of them. An entire medium of storytelling ignored. I said:

    "You neglect to accept graphic novels will only make you ignorant of a time honored tradition. One which is well established in human history, from ancient cave paintings to beautifully embroidered tapestries, to modern day sequential art. If you continue to ignore graphic novels as a valid form of story-telling prose, I cannot recommend this university as one that cares about the values of learning--let alone the value of art, whether it be pictures or prose, or both."

    Thank goodness they listened.

  5. It's an introductory level class. The sample essay was brought in to give students a model for their own writing.

    In any case, what's really getting me this semester is the overwhelming sense that the students are not trying very hard and not willing to invest themselves in the material at all. That's very disheartening for me. Perhaps I take it too personally, but I'm getting too old to keep denying that I'm a person who takes things that way.

    I'm glad you pressed for a place in the curriculum for comic books. Distinctions between high and low culture never made much sense to me.

    When I was in college, one of my favorite oral presentations argued for the cultural importance of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes.

  6. Speaking of Calvin and Hobbes,

    My battle with snobbish, old fashioned, inflexible teachings methodologies began in seventh grade when my teacher assigned a book report and I chose "Calvin and Hobbes."

    "That's not a book," she stated bluntly.

    "I know. It's a comic-BOOK," I replied. Emphasizing the book bit.

    "I can't allow it," she informed."

    "Why not?"

    "Because it's not a book."

    I gave her a blank look, then sarcastically informed, "It has pages. It has words. How is it not a book?"

    I got sent to the principles office.

    They called my mother.

    My mom picked me up after school and said to my teacher, "If you we're going to send him to the principles office for showing interest in a subject, you should have at least had the integrity to provide a damn good reason first."

    She looked at my mother, a bit taken aback, and informed, "It's not a book."

    "That's not an explanation," my mother stated dryly.

    My teacher looked like she was about to pull out her hair.

    We left and my mom said to me, "Pick out a book without pictures."

    I laughed to myself. Vindicated. A comic book was still a book. A book with pictures.

    So when I got to college, I was already primed for the battle. lol

    Looking back now, I realize how much of a prude my teacher was. She thought I was illiterate because I read so many comic books. So when I picked out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories of Sherlock Holmes for my book report, she informed it "was too advanced for me."

    So yeah, books were too advanced for me to give a proper book report on but comics weren't, but I couldn't report on comics, because they weren't books. Go figure.

    How she kept a teaching job with reasoning like that I'll never understand.

  7. Over the years, I have found (sadly) that people in my classes who said they wanted to be teachers were very often among the poorest performers in class.

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