Teacher, teach me

7 02 2019

Back in class, again, which is good.

Yeah, I have those other jobs, but teaching is my main job, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m also lucky in that I like what I’m teaching; if I get bored, I change up the syllabus et voilà, no longer bored.

I changed up my intro American politics syllabus last spring. My approach with past syllabi has been to cover the basics via textbook/class lecture, and then try to integrate a complementary theme to bring out some of the wrinkles of our political system; in this version, the complementary theme is street-level or “outside” politics, to contrast with the “inside” politics centered on government.

The first semester was kinda rough, as the first semester of a new syllabus tends to be: I have an idea, but it doesn’t always translate well to practice. The second semester tends to go better, as I figure out which goes better with what, and I usually hit my stride by the third semester.

However.

Last semester it never really gelled. I don’t know if it was me, if it was the arrangement of the material, the students, some combination, or, y’know, Trump (just because).

It was frustrating as hell, not least because I think the particulars of the outside theme are fascinating as hell: I focus on the civil rights movement 1960-65, specifically, on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I chose SNCC both because it was less well known than MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and because the students in SNCC were not much older than the students in my classroom.

It also didn’t hurt that there’s a boatload of good material available online, so my students wouldn’t have to fork over more money for books.

Anyway, SNCC has the sit-ins! Freedom Rides! Freedom Summer! The SNCC volunteers were brave and scared and resolute and angry and patient and oh my goddess they risked everything for themselves and their fellow human beings.

And those young men and women weren’t terribly impressed with politicians or presidents, the NAACP or MLK, even as they relied on them to convert direct action into law.

I could go on—but I won’t. The upshot was that my students just weren’t into it and I couldn’t figure out how to get them into it.

So, this semester I tinkered a bit with the schedule to try to make it easier for the students to engage with it, to see the connections (and frictions) between the activists and the politicians, and to understand that politics happens at all different levels.

We’ll see if it works. Initial indications are good—although this may have less to do with me and the schedule than with having students who bring an interest in politics with them into the class. When that happens—when there are a handful of students who are eager to question or comment—the discussions are richer, and tend to pull in even more students.

That was part of what I was missing last semester: that participatory core that could energize everyone else.

That said, I remember what a long-ago college professor said to me: “Ten percent of the students are going to love you no matter what you do, ten percent will hate you no matter what you do, and the other 80 percent don’t really care one way or the other.”

I’d long since come to see that as a challenge, to try to rope that 80 percent into caring—not about me, but about the subject. Last semester that didn’t happen, which sucked. I don’t like to fail my students, and that’s what I did.

But it’s a new semester, and so far, so good.