08 February 2009
Classroom Notes: Embarrassment of Riches
These are the times that try the souls of men. I am not here speaking of what my colleagues have taken to calling, increasingly with less irony, the Little Depression. Rather, I am referring to my extremely busy semester. What with three full classes and a senior seminar, I no longer even have the time to feel sorry for myself, which I suppose is a good thing. But more remarkable than even my emergence from a certain lacunae of self-involvement is that after a disastrous fall semester, I am suddenly up to my ankles in ice cream.
All three of my classes are astonishingly, incredibly loquacious. Experienced teachers will know that this is a double-edged sword, for as much as student conversation can engage a classroom, it demands even more energy from the professor in terms of guiding and shaping discussion not only towards productive pedagogical ends, but to make sure that the Chatty Pattys, in their robust enthusiasm, do not push the quieter students to the margins. In my classes, this task is even more thrilling, in that we are talking about race and sexuality, which means that every student utterance has the potential of a pipe bomb to maim, injure, and deform.
Only one of my courses truly has this explosive potential, an intermediate course on race theories that is full of talkative Black students, a lot of white student anxiety, and Asian American student watchfulness. Because this is not my first time at the rodeo, and I tend not to be intimidated by even the most daunting classroom ecology, I approach this class with a certain insouciant sangfroid. Arriving at class, I am typically already mildly exhausted, for teaching at night is no excuse, I have discovered, to not have endless meetings during the course of the day before class begins. A final cigarette, a cup of vending machine coffee, and we are off.
The classroom is small, overheated, and the students are literally on top of one another. Such close proximity frays the boundaries students create around themselves. There is simply no room for coats, books, or anything to make safe space. There are exactly 33 seats, one for every student and one for myself. Such close quarters are still being negotiated, but they have tended to create an electric energy with both positive and negative benefits. For every remarkable observation made, there are two that are off topic, in the way that lived identities, such as race, can enable students to make observations without necessarily understanding the connections between their experience and the concepts we are exploring.
Yet, there are students who work with me, setting boundaries and returning us to relevant questions. We are all working together, in tandem, to create the space that we need to actually talk in depth about race. And it is working. I have done this before, but when it actually comes together, it can seem like a miracle.
At times, it can also feel like towing a boat with your teeth. Cajoling, smiling madly, writing on the board, asking questions, we rarely have any time for group work. Conversation can be inchoate, wild, wandering. Reining it back in takes energy, and when the last student has left and I walk to my car, I am blank. The flick of the lighter in the car, the heat running against the winter night, the crackle and spark of the tobacco, the first sharp inhalation of the dense smoke, is reward enough.
After last semester’s taciturn class, with its poisoned ecology, I feel like I have rediscovered some buried talent. How Oso Got his Groove Back. I know these things are variable, and that we all have bad semesters. Yet, for a teacher, nothing feels quite as good as when a class goes well. A quiet, deep satisfaction elevates one's mood and heightens the senses, opening up rather than closing off possibilities within and beyond the classroom.