Homework! Oh, Homework!

It’s a necessary component of learning and teaching: homework. Oh, the dreaded word! The painful obligation! It must be the world’s leading cause of procrastination. Oh, that most delicious of clichéd doggy treats! The Jack Prelutsky poem sums up how most people feel about homework pretty succinctly.

But it isn’t just for students, is it?

I’ve taught French language and literature classes as well as English conversation classes over the years, but for some reason, now that I am a bona fide “professor,” I realize that the homework I labored over as a student is not a thing of the past. If anything, it is ever more present and pressing, only it has changed form. Granted, as Dr. Gina, I get to decide what the homework is and how much of it there is to do, but it is easy to forget that I must also do the much of the homework I assign to my students. It’s a great built-in system of checks and balances: never assign more homework than you care to do yourself!

Students are routinely told to expect to do two to three hours of work outside of class for every hour spent in class. This is extremely difficult to measure depending on the type of work assigned as well as the amount of concentration, motivation, and thoroughness with which students approach the homework. I wonder what the rule is for the instructor? My students may well spend two to three hours outside of class for every hour in class. All I know for sure is that for every time they read an article or novel, chances are I have read it two or three times, if not more.

I am teaching a brand new class this semester, as I have written about previously, and I read everything I put on the syllabus as I was designing the class. I didn’t want any surprises. But June and July were ages ago. I have also forgotten a lot since I was not taking very good notes as I tried to wade through piles of material as quickly as possible, so now I am re-reading everything as I teach it. It’s almost like the first reading doesn’t count as a real reading because so much gets lost in the newness of it all. I can only hold onto so much in my brain with each read through. A very few of the works I am using were already familiar to me from my dissertation or my course work in grad school and still I re-read the ones I practically know by heart for a refresher. One of the great “pleasures of the text” is re-reading anyway, right?

The more complex, theoretical articles, however, I could probably read four or five times and still not feel sufficiently secure about my understanding of them, let alone my ability to help students understand them. But as Nelle points out in a previous post, one of the best ways to cement your own knowledge of a subject is to teach it.

Anecdotal supporting evidence: this week, I had two relatively tough articles to discuss in class, one left over from last week and another one that was new on Monday. I had read them, taken notes and felt I understood the arguments they were making at the moment I was reading them. As soon as I took my eyes off them though, I seemed to lose my grasp on them, not forget exactly, but their complexity made it difficult for me to feel like I had a secure overall view of the important points being made and especially, what I needed my students would come to understand in class. I can make all the outlines and underline as many passages as I like, one crucial detail tends to slip away from me while I am busy trying to get my head around another.

I generally go to class with a vague sense of foreboding. My students always have at least some notion of what is going on in a given text, but as soon as they start to ask me to clarify or explain this or that, things can go horribly wrong, and sometimes do! I am not one to believe I ought to know all the answers, or worse, that I do know all the answers, but I strive to know as many as I can or, failing that, to know how to seek them out and bring them back with me the next time. So far this semester, as I muddle through my own, self-imposed homework, often with the nagging worry that I am not ready, possibly not smart enough to teach these texts, I am happy to report that it’s been going pretty well. In fact, this is one of the moments when teaching can be quite a rush, for me at least.

Something really interesting, almost magical happens when I am up in front of my students teaching these difficult, scary texts. If I have done my homework, even though I feel unsure of myself, I somehow manage to articulate the take-home message to my students in a way I feel totally incapable of doing when I am sitting at my desk writing my lesson plan. Is it because the classroom situation makes the material more “real” than when it is just me staring at it alone? Is it because the pressure to perform actually suits me and propels me into action, stripping away the fear and insecurity so I can focus on the task at hand? Am I delusional and blurting out utter nonsense like a partygoer who swears she speaks German perfectly when she’s drunk? A little of each, perhaps?

All I can say for sure is that it feels like an out of body experience. A student asks a tricky question or points out a difficult passage. Suddenly, I hear a voice speaking clearly and confidently, saying things that sound reasonable and coherent. But wait! The voice is mine and it is coming from my mouth. I am the reasonable and coherent one, explaining the “thing” in a way I have never heard myself do before, what with this being a new class and all… Whereas I had expected to stutter and nervously flip pages of notes to bide time, I hardly look at my notes except to verify numbers and dates. I have read, I have re-read, I have taken notes and planned my lesson. I have learned this stuff and now, I am teaching it.

I am the professor!

It’s kind of euphoric.

How do you prepare to teach new or challenging topics? Do you ever feel ready?

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