I to myself

Not finding a lot of time for introspection lately.  And yet I managed to draft something new last week.  What can I say?  Sometimes I surprise myself.

AWP was intense, as usual.  I think it’s good for me to keep going to it, even if I were to stop working at NLNRU.  (I have no plans to stop–I’ve said I’ll teach a course in the fall–but one never knows what will happen.)  I bump up against people who are worth bumping up against.  Heck, even if all I did was walk through the book hall and eat meals with MW, it would be exactly the kind of break I need and therefore well worth doing. 

Next year, AWP is later, in April–it may even overlap wth Starfleet Academy’s spring break, which would be convenient. 

We had a job candidate at SA recently, which was interesting to see.  She guest-taught one of my classes, so I got to observe her.  Good ideas, well executed, but I didn’t feel I picked up anything new there that I could actually use. 

The recent discussion at Dean Dad’s about the differences between high-school and community-college teachers has got me thinking more about subject-matter mastery.  Dean Dad said, and I would certainly agree, that “HS teachers have historically been teachers first and subject matter experts second (or sometimes third),” and that CC instructors are the other way around.  Of course, compared to a university subject-matter expert, a CC instructor may be more of a generalist, if only by necessity; and in my field, English, a CC instructor had damn well better be able to teach composition, even if her degree is in literature. 

In HS, as I’ve said before, English teachers are massive generalists.  The earliest work in English that I teach is Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, from the tenth or eleventh century; the most recent, poems and a novel from the twenty-first century.  And yes, I did take Old English in grad school, and I teach my students about the language in which Beowulf is written, and I point out interesting choices in Heaney’s marvelous translation, and I even have them stumble through a translation of a passage of Aelfric’s version of Genesis.  (And no, I am not a medievalist.) 

A lot of my learning as a HS teacher has been about how to do that kind of thing in an age-appropriate, setting-appropriate kind of way, which has not been entirely alien to me since, after all, I didn’t just teach  English majors at elite colleges, although I certainly taught my share of those.  Like most of us, I taught students with insufficient preparation, or resistance, or harder-to-accommodate learning styles, or English as a second, third, or fourth language–so I’m used to trying to meet the students halfway, or more; to trying different approaches to catch and hold their interest; to explaining things more than once, and in different ways.

I think, though, that I’m still a subject-matter expert first, and probably always will be.  I’m a writer, and if forced, I think I would admit that I love literature more than I love teaching literature (and I do love teaching literature, just not quite as much).  Some of my most joyful moments as a teacher are those when I see something in a text in a new way while I am teaching it.  I happen to think that this is a great thing to model to the students, and I don’t scruple to say, “I never thought of it like this before, but–” or, even better, to a student, “That’s a fabulous idea; I never thought of it that way before, but I’m persuaded by what you say.”  [Tangent: Today we were looking at a fairly obscure passage in Julius Caesar and a student (all of fourteen years old) made a comment that was so true, and so unlooked for, that a shiver ran up my spine and into the base of my skull.  Of course, she’s a genius, probably the best student I have had at SA so far.]

All of which is to say that I can be a little bit impatient with my colleagues who are not subject-matter experts.  I try to tamp down the impatience and be constructive in my comments, of course–and this line of work keeps you humble, anyway, because no one’s read everything.  Some of my colleagues are definitely teaching experts, and I find it much easier not to look down my nose at their unfamiliarity with Shakespeare, or their uncertainties about prosody, because I recognize their expertise in getting the students to connect with and work with the material.  One of my fellow ninth-grade teachers is extremely good at this; not only has she given me lots of good ideas over the course of the year, she’s also really given me a different perspective to use, as in “What would Ginger do with this material?”

I also try to keep in mind my own high-school chemistry teacher, who had written the textbook we used and was a tremendous favorite of the students who really loved chemistry (as, indeed, I think I may have become a favorite of some of the students who really love English, the ones who are reading Jane Austen for the second time).  Mr. S. was a subject-matter master, but he never explained anything in a way that I understood.  He’d try to use analogies (“Imagine you have six apples, and six oranges, and you cut them all in half…”), but I never managed to make the leap back from the analogy to the actual problem I was supposed to be solving.  My friends tutored me through that class, and I never took a science class again, with the exception of two required non-major guts in college.

That’s the dark side of being a subject-matter expert, I guess.  And though he was a dedicated teacher, and a nice man–let me not be Mr. S.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Such an interesting post, as always! I too have spent time thinking about the conversation thread over at Dean Dad’s and pondering whether I am a teacher or subject expert first. I go back and forth; I really do love teaching, such that I’ve had fun even when I’ve taught things outside of my field (I did a lot of history teaching at St. Martyr’s, for example), but I also think of myself as drawing on my expertise when I teach.

    One of the reasons I freaked out last summer about teaching The Odyssey this year was that it is so far outside my field of expertise that I didn’t feel competent to teach it, something that none of my colleagues really understood, and for me those conversations have come to represent the teacher/expert divide. And yet, I think I taught The Odyssey quite well this year, actually better than my colleague who is in many ways more of an intellectual than I am and certainly more grounded in ancient literature but, I think, a worse teacher.

    I think I’m becoming more of a teacher and less of an expert (or at least am privileging teaching over expertise) as I continue at the HS level, but I’m still struggling with the impatience that you describe. At a meeting with my fellow American lit teachers last week, we were discussing alternatives to our current canonical choices, and it turned out that none of them had read Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, and for a moment I was shocked and appalled (but managed not to express either, fortunately) until I reminded myself that my notions of necessary expertise were suited to a college rather than HS context.

    All very interesting. Sometimes I think of my current job as very much in the same profession as my old job, and then such questions arise and I start thinking about them as two very different career paths indeed.


  2. Your last comment really rings true with me–in some ways these two jobs are almost indistinguishable, and in some ways they are strikingly different!

    Have you had issues with remembering that our students are minors and just generally subject to more rules than college students? For example, SA has a general policy about students not using classrooms–e.g. for club meetings–without an adult present. Sometimes I find this enormously irritating. But then I step out for a minute and come back to find a 14-year-old boy with poor impulse control doing something like standing on a pile of books on top of a desk, trying to reach the projector controls because he couldn’t find the remote. (Of course, at the nice SLAC where I taught for a year, there was once a bird stuck inside the ceiling–I went outside for two seconds to call a custodian, and when I came back, half the students were standing on the seminar table, removing the acoustic tiles.)


  3. […] colleagues, and help each other.  She’s more of a teacher than a subject-matter master (see this post from two years ago for a brief discussion of this distinction), and while I have occasionally found […]


  4. […] be first in line to be chair: she is mostly in middle school, there are more senior people, more subject-matter experts, who come to mind as leaders of the 6th-12th grade English faculty.  I met with the GGE today to […]


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