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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Teaching Nightmares

While my co-bloggers are already fully embroiled in teaching, for us over here in Olde Europe, there are still a couple of weeks to go. Locked up here in Castle Bardolph, on the ancient family estate, tapping this out in the east turret as the rain lashes the window and my strange dwarfish butler mixes me another vodka posset, I’m trying all I can to deny this imminent encroachment: in fact, I’m about to dash off for a week on the beaches of the Ancient World with Mistress Quickly. But before I do, I wanted to mention one thing.

Dreams. I know students are almost upon me because I’ve been having various teaching-anxiety nightmares: the last one found me in a sprawling farmhouse, frantically searching for my seminar notes for a class due to begin in three minutes, on a subject I had never heard of, which when I tried to pronounce came out as a kind of squawking noise.

Which got me thinking about the things we fear may happen in class. By way of homage to our great list-makers (Burton, Swift, Letterman, Hornby), here are ten that turn my stomach into a nest of lizards.

1. Falling off my chair.
What’s that about? It may go back to the very first lecture I gave: I had a mentor – a crook-backed, wise old sage of the sort not uncommon here in Old Prussia – who came to observe my teaching, but half-way through fell off his chair, onto the floor, I think at a key moment of my argument, where he wriggled like an upturned woodlouse. Despite this I find myself playing with fire: tipping back my chair, precariously, particularly in those entirely silent seminars that seem to be a speciality of my Olde Universitie.

2. Being late. Or, even worse, being early. Or, most hideously of all, being on time. It’s really a no-win situation. Beginning is just simply awful.

3. Realising ten minutes into the lecture I am discussing the wrong book. A friend of mine gave a demonstration lecture to hundreds of university applicants on redemption and faith in Enduring Love, only to be told by a weary teacher twenty minutes in that they’d all prepared Atonement.

4. Colleagues walking past and hearing my teaching voice.
I can’t stand this, and would ideally like to lecture in a sealed box 500 feet beneath the earth’s surface.

5. Things hanging from my nose.
Just. Awful.

6. Revealing my ignorance.
As when students ask me to translate Biblical Syriac. Or press me on definitions. Which way round is readerly and writerly, etc.

7. Forgetting. Anything: plots, character names, student names. I always blank two student names out of fifteen, and in future will call everyone Bussy.

8. Mature students saying I am younger than their children. Invoking their life experiences. Patting my head. Bringing me biscuits. What am I – a spaniel?

9. Clothing issues.
A whole range of potentials here. Here in Ye Olde Worlde we traditionally teach in full gown and mortar board, and I’m in fact not averse to donning full chain mail and vizard for a third-year tutorial. But there’s so much scope for horror. Things undone. Hanging off. Attachments unfurling louchely from behind. Wearing the same clothes as a student. Wearing no clothes.

10. Running out of materials seven minutes into a two-hour seminar.
Or six minutes. Or two. I’ve not actually had this happen but it’s a prospect so terrifying that it never recedes as a potential. I usually have about a week’s worth of back up stuff. Some woodcuts. A lute, stored quietly behind the door. And then of course there is always the ultimate fall back: close-reading of paragraph one.

So: there are my horrors. Anything I’ve missed out?

  • At 9/16/2007 01:55:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    So much I could say...

    For now, though, I'll simply concur that my teaching voice and entire teaching persona diverge greatly from my normal voice and self. At least I think they do. Gah, I hope they do.

     

  • At 9/16/2007 01:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    True story: I was registered for a grad seminar that was cross-listed in three departments, one of which was a foreign language department. The professors invited a preeminent scholar from the country where that language is spoken. Upon arrival, he was informed that the students were required to have reading proficiency of the foreign language only, and the lecture must be delivered in English. Within hours, he translated his lecture and photocopied it for a hand out so that students wouldn't struggle with his English pronunciation. Despite his initial discomfort while delivering a preemptive apology for any grammatical errors and loss of meaning that may have occurred during translation, he delivered an excellent talk. More importantly, as one of the students with reading proficiency only, I learned to avoid a similar situation. Although, I do have nightmares about it now.

     

  • At 9/16/2007 02:52:00 PM, Anonymous Pseudo-Pedantius wrote…

    True story: when one of my nightmares came true.

    In a previous situation I taught four sections a day. After finishing up classes on the second day of the semester, I settled into my office to rest my weary feet and voice, went out and got a soda from the machine next to the classrooms, began diddling around on the internets, so forth. About twenty minutes into this routine several vaguely familiar faces appeared at my office door. I was slightly taken aback, and said, "Hi. What can I do for you?" They looked puzzled. One finally opened his mouth: "Um, are you going to come teach today? We're your four o'clock class?" Another broke in "Yeah, we knew you were here because we saw you getting a soda and wandering around and stuff."

     

  • At 9/16/2007 04:09:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Not quite the same, but I had a nightmare last week during which my dissertation advisor and I were looking over my "Graduate School Report Card." She was tapping a pencil against some very clearly marked B-'s and C+'s and tsk-tsk-tsking me mercilessly.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 06:04:00 AM, Anonymous hck wrote…

    A) Thanks! I just posted a pointer to this entry over at W4RF at URL
    http://bloggingtherenaissance.blogspot.com/2007/09/teaching-nightmares.html
    .

    B) A nightmare (probably rather narrowly) avoided last term: The participants of the seminar voting to bring some alcoholic beverages to the seminar not just in the last session of term, but from rather early onwards.

    C) Something which really happened to me years and years ago, and which still haunts me: Not a single student turning up for the seminar, because every single student had decided that this seminar was irrelevant and bound to be boring.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 06:06:00 AM, Anonymous hck wrote…

    Oh, oops: wrong URL! Sorry!!!!!! The URL for the pointer o W4RF is http://www.phil-hum-ren.uni-muenchen.de/W4RF/YaBB.pl?num=1190022999#

     

  • At 9/17/2007 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Someone I know once got a gushing nosebleed in the middle of teaching a seminar, ran out of the room hysterical at the sight of her own blood and had to be calmed down by a colleague (who calmed down her students, I don't know).

    I try never to think about that story.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 11:57:00 AM, Anonymous hd wrote…

    True story:
    Whilst a young graduate student (and energetic,young feminist), I taught a section of intro to WS. We were discussing Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic," and more specifically, a point she makes about expanding the concept of pleasure to include non-sexual, yet passionate activities, like eating really good food. One of my students, the kind who talks too much without really having too much to say, remarked: "this reminds me of that comic strip Cathy. She like, really, really, really likes chocolate." at which point, i paused, thought about the comment and said: "um, okay. so, yeah. what *would* it mean for Cathy to embrace the erotic?"

    and then i cracked up laughing and admitted that that was probably the dumbest question ever asked in a college classroom.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    let me just say that a stringy haired woman holding shopping bags in both her hands, shrugging her shoulders, exuding sweat so profusely that it actually surrounds her in a halo of droplets, and saying "Ack!" while her bun-haired mother and balding, nebbishy husband look on is PRECISELY what I'm reaching for when I embrace the erotic.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 03:10:00 PM, Blogger shakebag wrote…

    For me, embracing the erotic has a lot of "oops: wrong URL" in it.

    My nightmare is that I'll crack a joke like this in front of a seminar that doesn't have a well-developed sense of self-deprecation.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 03:49:00 PM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    I always know that term is creeping up when I start getting combination stress dreams. Rushing to get to a seminar, with no notes, naked, teeth crumbling madly, only to find that all the students start leaving because I don't seem to be able to get any words out of my mouth. Yargh.

    I was once timetabled to teach a first year seminar on Renaissance Lit. in an L-shaped basement room with a piano in the corner. I still mourn the fact that I didn't manage to crowbar in some freestyle piano stylings (either mine or the students').

     

  • At 9/17/2007 06:36:00 PM, Blogger Liza wrote…

    I once showed up to a final exam an entire timeslot late: I thought it was from 12:30-2:30 and it was in fact 10-12. The great thing is I thought I was super early, so I meandered in at 12, sat down sipping an iced coffee, and read over my notes for 2-3 minutes before someone stood up and handed in an exam, and I looked around and discovered that everyone was not bent over notes, but frantically scribbling. The prof was just staring at me grinning, waiting for me to realize my mistake. He let me take the exam anyway, though, because, as he told me later, "I'm convinced you made a genuine mistake, based on the look on your face -- I'm just glad I didn't have to call you an ambulance."

    Oh, and for the same prof, next semester, I somehow managed to fumble away an email saying that we needed to come to the seminar having already read one book, so showed up unprepared. I thought about showing up naked one day just to get all the nightmare scenarios out of the way, but ultimately decided against it.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 09:41:00 PM, Blogger muse wrote…

    I used to have nightmares that I was back in high school and taking some sort of science-calculus-chemistry based course and arrived after having completely forgotten to attend for 6 weeks, on the day of the final exam. I still get this dream quite frequently, but it has been replaced by my forgetting about and abandoning an entire section of one of my courses, only to come upon them too late. At this point they have completely gone insane and created their own lawless community, and there is nothing I can do but try to run away before they tear me to bits. And all because I forgot I had an extra section that semester. That's the problem with an unbalanced 2-3 load, I guess.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 09:55:00 PM, Blogger muse wrote…

    And of course there's also the dissertation/book completion anxiety dream . . .

    Several years ago when the end of the diss was not in sight, I had a very vivid dream that I and my grad school buddies were attending the gala performance of an oratorio of our most recent fellow grad student's thesis, the one my advisor always spoke so admiringly about (and she seldom speaks admiringly about anything). There we sat, in the big concert hall, shuffling our programs waiting to hear so-and-so's thesis. And of course singing the soprano lead was my dissertation advisor. I woke up in a cold sweat.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 10:07:00 PM, Blogger Fretful Porpentine wrote…

    I think my best teaching-anxiety dream was also my best job-market-anxiety dream. (I was about to begin my second year on the market, and about to teach all kinds of stuff not in my field, including The Lord of the Rings, which is the sort of situation that produces all kinds of anxiety at once.) It went like this:

    I get a call from the search committee at a school where I'd had a painfully bad MLA interview the year before. Turns out they want to hire me after all, but in the Religion department. I will be teaching three sections of Comparative World Religion and one course called "Apples to Apocalypse," which I think at first is going to be a survey of the Bible, but which turns out to be a course on how computers are destroying civilization.

    I decline the job. My mother, my advisor, the Bright Young Star of my graduate program, and J.R.R. Tolkien all come around to play Trivial Pursuit and yell at me for turning down a perfectly good tenure-track job. I attempt to explain to this collection of august personages that I'm supposed to be teaching at my graduate university in another state, and anyway, I don't know anything about Comparative World Religion. Tolkien gives me a long lecture about how I certainly should not be calling myself an early modernist if I'm not an expert on religion, and he doesn't think highly of my ability to teach his books, either.

    Damn, my subconscious is weird.

     

  • At 9/17/2007 11:10:00 PM, Anonymous Aldo Manuzio wrote…

    I have been teaching in one capacity or another for 15 years, and I have only ever had one teaching anxiety dream. It was so convoluted and remarkable that I teach it in my grad theory course the week we do Freud (which is actually this week).

    That said, I completely forgot to show up to teach a guest lecture that I really resented having to do once. I also discovered that my fly was open in the middle of class (cinema studies, dark room) once; I deftly moved behind the lectern on some pretext and discovered it wasn't just open--it was broken and could no longer be closed. I concealed it by tying a sweater around my waist, but strangely grew more and more anxious someone would somehow see it anyway. I ended up seated, behind a desk, behind a lectern, presumably completely invisible.

    I also said "erotic" when I meant to say "neurotic" in class on Thursday.

     

  • At 9/18/2007 12:06:00 AM, Anonymous tempestsarekind wrote…

    First of all, I think "Apples to Apocalypse" would be a great name for a Bible survey course!

    These days I mainly just live in fear of wretched end-of-semester evaluations: the ones that say I am too scattered and don't ask interesting questions. Unfortunately these are the evaluations I actually *get*, so...

    But I did have a dream once that I taught Twelfth Night (my favorite play) so badly that my students mutinied, and one of them started crying, so finally I just dismissed the class.

     

  • At 9/18/2007 12:25:00 PM, Anonymous Pseudo-Pedantius wrote…

    I want to have Fretful Porpentine's dreams. Is there a way to do that?

     

  • At 9/18/2007 03:28:00 PM, Blogger muse wrote…

    Rozerem? Though playing trivial pursuit with Tolkein sounds more fun than checkers with Honest Abe.

     

  • At 9/18/2007 07:50:00 PM, Blogger Innogen wrote…

    One of my teaching fears, greatly diminished since chalkboards largely replaced by whiteboards: absentmindedly wiping chalky hands on bum and turning around to write on board while students chortle silently--then leaving classroom and going about my merry way and NO ONE TELLS me. It has not yet happened, but I live in dread.

     

  • At 9/18/2007 07:56:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Innogen: oh, it's happened. But no one told you.

     

  • At 9/18/2007 11:21:00 PM, Blogger Innogen wrote…

    Alas, thou hast fitte me, Hieronimo! (I'm sure everybody lobs that one at you).
    But I'll cling to my ignorance, in this case at least...

     

  • At 9/19/2007 08:47:00 PM, Blogger James wrote…

    A lovely waking nightmare from last week. I'm teaching Exodus, and have put my list of the lecture's important terms on the board, when one of my students asks, "Shouldn't that read 'Hyksos' and not 'Hyskos'?"

    She was right, of course, but how often in my life do interloping ancient Egyptian dynasties come up in conversation.

    What makes this worse is that this particular student is a supergenius prepubescent child prodigy, who caught my error because of the Egyptian history class she took two years ago, when she was twelve.

     

  • At 9/19/2007 08:53:00 PM, Blogger James wrote…

    Also, yesterday, I was told after class that I had managed to wipe black whiteboard ink all over my face during my Midsummer Night's Dream Lecture.

    I'm ready for this semester to be over.

     

  • At 9/20/2007 02:34:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Well, James, at least that's kind of in line with the darkness and lightness in the play, especially if you show them clips from the 1935 Warner Brothers film.

    My worst teaching experience, and a perpetual source of anxiety, involved email and hitting "Reply" instead of "Forward." Oh how I've wished for an email retrieval function.

     

  • At 9/20/2007 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Liza wrote…

    Simplicius, I feel you on the email thing. I once wrote a professor asking if he had a spare ticket to a Shakespeare play for a friend of mine. He wrote back an unhelpful answer, and I forwarded it to my friend with the annotation, "What a douchy response, oh well guess not." Then realized I had in fact replied. And sent an immediate, mortified email imploring him not to read the previous email. Oh it was bad.

    I still went to the play, because, hey, free Shakespeare, and at one point he slyly asked me what "douchy" meant (and pronounced it so it would rhyme with ouch-ee). I said something along the lines of, "uncertain," and slid away. The moral of this story: email is a dangerous tool, and old British professors are adorable. And that you should always use irregular morphologies of improper words so that people can't google your comments.

    If you ask me, it's amazing I've made it to grad school.

     

  • At 9/21/2007 11:51:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Yeah, my guy definitely knew what "a55h0le" meant. I just re-read his email, though, and, quite frankly, he was being an "a55h0le" (not that I needed to tell him that).

     

  • At 9/21/2007 06:19:00 PM, Anonymous jrochest wrote…

    Oh, I no longer have teaching anxiety dreams. The first meeting of my first ever Shakespeare course as a newly minted PhD met at 1:00 pm on Sept 11, 2001.

    I suffered from horrible anxiety that night, but by about 11:00 AM, my problems seemed small in comparison and they've never troubled me much since.

    But yes, over the years I've lost the my lecture notes on the way to campus, I've fallen off the dias, I've knocked the lectern off the dias and I've had my wrap-around dress come undone at a strategic moment (to the accompaniment of gratified hooting from the back of the room).

    Oh, and on the eve of my teaching demonstration for my first on-campus interview I discovered I'd left the notes I'd meant to use on the desk at home, and had to reconstruct the lecture from memory in 45 minutes.

     


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