Teaching is a lot of fun. At the moment I’m leading a weekly essay writing workshop. It’s great fun on two levels: preparing for the class each week, and interacting with the students. On the weekend I got together two pages of dot-points of what I thought was most important about essay writing. They seemed to find that helpful, especially my idea of labeling paragraphs while you are revising them (a technique I still sometimes find essential). Thinking about the details of writing, and of how to communicate these details effectively, is proving to be useful for my own writing as well as my teaching.
I think English literature students are more concerned with marks here in England than they are in Australia. This could be an unfair generalization, but I think that the fact that your degree as a whole is graded here has quite an impact on students. In Australia an Arts degree is an Arts degree. The only time the marks matter is if you want to go on to further study, and even then, your Honours marks are more important than your Bachelors degree (correct me if I’m wrong).
Interacting with undergraduates makes me reflect on how I learned things in my undergraduate days. Sometimes I wish I could give my poor undergrad self a good talking to, and go back and do things differently. I never had a problem with marks, mostly because I already had a pretty fluid writing style, which many undergraduates lack. But I did find some of the ideas pretty challenging. And I found some friends who confirmed my fears, and proceeded to block myself off from a lot of things (like theory) I should have taken more seriously.
We were scared, in those days, of Cultural Studies ‘taking over’. I think there was a bit of tension in the department itself, and some of the old school lecturers felt a bit under siege. I was intimidated by the super-trendy students who tried to fit the word ‘Foucault’ as many times as they could into one sentence, whilst leaning provocatively back in their chairs. They treated postmodernism as a religion. My response was to duck out of the firing line. I sat through the compulsory theory course in my Honours year under duress. It was torture.
It’s not torture any more. At least, not all the time. What is literary criticism anyway, but theories about literature? I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and research, and how they intersect. And exactly what are we teaching anyway? To write? To think? To situate yourself within an ever-changing field of ideas? Teaching, writing and research seem like linked adventures, raids on the inarticulate, to quote one of my favourite passages from Four Quartets:
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
It’s fun to share this adventure.