Friday, September 5, 2008

The Awkward Experience of Teaching Oneself

Yesterday I taught myself in two classes - an Intro to Lit taught by another graduate student, Lisa D'Amico, and AMST300: Imagined Americas taught by Dr. Susan Stabile, associate professor and director of the American Studies program at A&M.

I avoid teaching my own work in my own courses, with perhaps one exception per semester, and a brief one at that. I'll choose some work in progress to display to a creative writing class, something that has many drafts so that I can model the process of revision for them (this is more difficult to do with someone else's work, hence my decision to use my own). I once made an Intro to Rhetoric and Composition class read a paper about EverQuest and ecology that I have forthcoming in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, but it was a one-time experiment.

The Intro to Lit class went well. It was fun. I was there to present performance poetry, and since the emphasis was on performance, I can switch on "performer" JeFF and then objectively discuss stylistic elements of the performance as "teacher" JeFF. Additionally, since I'm working on this instructional album, my thoughts of late have been circling around how to explain the workings of performance poetry to an introductory audience.

The American Studies course was more awkward. I spent two days leading brief discussions and answering questions about El Oceano y La Serpiente / The Ocean and The Serpent. It was a hard call for their first major reading. I'm not questioning Susan's judgment, just noting that a bi(well-really-multi)lingual text that is meant to raise more questions than it answers is a tough beginning for these students.

The problem, I think, is more than just the nature of the text. On the one hand, yeah, it's tough. It's circular. The poems are cross-referential not only across pages, but up and down and diagonally. It's the most complex thing I've ever written, which in fact is one reason Susan chose it for her course.

More than that, though, it asks certain things of the reader that most of the students weren't ready for. They wanted answers. Many of the questions, though this thankfully shifted over time, had to do with riddling out individual lines - what does this mean? Even at the 300 level, it appeared that most of the instruction these students had received in previous classes was to treat the text as an object, as the end-all, rather than a set of instructions for how to encounter the world or as guidelines for the pursuit of further knowledge.

So why does that make it awkward to teach? Because I can't give them the answers they want. More than that, the answers I have aren't necessarily the answers. There were expectations that I had of the text, associations I made when writing, that I do not expect anyone else to get. For example, the dual symbolism of the string TTTTTTTTTTTTT represents not only masts but crucifixes (these Ts come after "masts rising from the sea" and are followed by "all roads lead / to Rome"). I can't guarantee the reader will pick up on that, so if I say it in class, I may have given too much authority to myself. The sequence is largely about questioning authority, finding the answers that undermine. So when a couple of students started tossing out potential readings, some of which I hadn't intended, I had to pause and consider from an outside viewpoint whether or not those readings made sense. We worked through it as a class. Some of the readings held up, some didn't.

And at the end of the day, I think I looked like one of two things.

A) an author who didn't understand his own text

B) one of those pretentious shmucks who won't give a straight answer because he thinks it makes his work appear smarter than it really is

If any of those students come across this blog, the answer (yeah, I'll finally give you one), is

C) OcSerp is bigger than I am. I've spent longer than you wandering its corridors, and I haven't found a way out yet. I'm not sure if I consider the sequence smarter than it really is, but it's smarter than I am. There's at least one way in which we're alike, however - neither of us thinks we have all the answers.

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