“I hate science so much, Mom.”
This is my daughter, to me, every week, on the day she has science class. She is eight. She already hates science. This is also new. When did she start hating science?
“The science teacher won’t stop talking. Ever. It’s just an hour of talking. We don’t get to do any science. Ever. We just sit there.”
I correct her, because language matters, especially to a smart little girl who in fact up until this year, loved science and math and problem solving. Still does, as a matter of fact. And a little brother who hangs off of every word she says and internalizes the lessons she speaks. “You don’t hate science,” I tell her. “You hate the way science is currently being taught to you.”
Her frustration is not born of a hatred of science, but from a deep love of science steaming from her curiosity about the world around her and the world she can’t see. My son loves bugs and volcanoes and rocks, while my daughter loves levers and chemical reactions and animals.
She already hates lectures.
I love to lecture.
There, I said it. I come from a traditional discipline where lectures where and still are the norm. I got into teaching because I was told I was a natural; in other words, a dynamic speaker, good at improvisation, quick on her feet, friendly, approachable, entertaining. When I was put in front of my first undergraduate classroom, no one asked me if I actually knew what I was talking about, but they knew I could talk.
So talk I did.
And I love the feeling of holding a room, the attention of the students, of weaving a narrative, of unfolding a truth, a meaning, an added depth. I think out loud, and I discovered more about my subjects, my research, during those lectures than I often did reading on my own. I, perhaps unsurprisingly, burst with words, with wonder, with passion, with knowledge. Look at (or rather listen to) all that I know, that I have to offer you, that I have accumulated.
And I was rewarded for talking well. Certainly, I asked and answered questions, tried to leave space for “discussion” but it was easier to fill the silence with my words. They didn’t read, so I talked. They couldn’t get it, so I talked. They didn’t know what they needed, so I talked.
And then I stopped, because I realized, it had only ever really been about me.
“Get back to the fun stuff.”
I get this comment from one of my students today, written on an index card, offered as a suggestion. It was like a knife driven into my heart.
We had started the semester looking at the works of literature they most loved or that were most significant to them. We looked at non-traditional forms of scholarship. We designed brilliant projects that engaged they favorite works in creative and critical ways, pushing them to begin to explore “next level” questions and discourse.
We were having fun.
And then the real semester started.
We read short stories and a play. But the class quickly took on a traditional tone and dynamic. We annotated, we discussed, but we always eventually ended up back in the familiar role of students and lecturer. Their brows furrowed and their eyes glazed over. They dutifully read and participated but something had dissipated from the space.
They weren’t having fun anymore.
And I always have to remind myself that what I think is fun and interesting and engaging is much, much different than what they do. There was no “we” in the classroom anymore. There was just me and them. And it is heartbreaking because I love literature more than just about anything is the world, except maybe teaching literature and potentially opening up a world to students they can take with them always. Instead of building on the love of literature we nurtured in the first part of the course, I was surely stamping it out.
What is our goal in these introductory classes? Do we create “life-long readers” by requiring them to read and then lecturing about as much literature as possible?
I was so caught off guard by the student’s honest comment that I did end up largely lecturing the whole course. Should I have come up with a fun activity for the class, on the spot? Yes. But I was so shaken that I fell back into default mode, a mode that has been there for me for all these years.
Tuesday, I have another chance. Tuesday, we are going to be reading one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite authors. How did I have fun with it? I wrote multiple essays. How will we have fun with it? I have four days to get my act together to figure it out.
Because it’s not about me.