What I Teach (and What I DON'T Teach)
This is the second part of a two-part discussion concerning my classes and what to expect on your part. Understanding the college experience is explained in the previous discussion called
Why You Are Here.
Now I'm going to explain to you basically why I'm here and what I do so you have a better understanding as to what to expect in my class.
ABOUT ME (not that you should care...)
Academically, I skated through high school. I was able to listen in class, sometimes barely, and figure out what was needed, and especially if there was a standardized test, I could breeze through it with a B or a C. I didn't consider myself all that smart, and I especially saw those who were excelling as able to do something I couldn't, which was study. I realized it was actually a skill that a person learns and can be taught. I also didn't realize how necessary it would be. I considered I would probably go to college, but I didn't really know what I want to do with it. Since I worked through high school, and after 16 I worked full-time, my focus was not on academics anyway. Working at a real job with people who do something for a living makes one realize how seriously someone takes their career, even if it's being a dishwasher or a fry cook. However, I was unprepared for what followed after high school.
When I got to college, I did horribly, especially in Math and Chemistry. I faithfully attended classes and did all the homework, but had a difficult time remembering formulas for tests or discerning which to apply for each problem. I averaged D's my first two quarters at Cal Poly (I was admitted because I had good SAT scores) and was subject to disqualification... in other words, they wanted to kick me out of college. I saw a counselor and began carefully taking courses that I knew I could do well in, while also focusing more on applying myself to the courses that challenged me. I realized that college professors had very little patience for someone who was unprepared. They did not care about my personal life or my job outside of school. To them, being in school meant that one focused on being in school. Thus, I also had to reevaluate working full-time graveyard shifts in terms of whether or not it would help me with my college career. I had to pay for my college, but if I failed, I was throwing my money away. I got a job at school and cut down my hours and lived even more meagerly and began to realize that I may have to change my major from science to something else. By the time I graduated, I had a bachelor of science in animal agribusiness and a minor in English. However, my overall GPA had risen from 0.6 to 3.01.
It was not a stellar way to try get into graduate school. However, I was accepted on a probationary status with the warning that if I got anything less than B, I would be summarily booted from the program. By that time, however, I had learned to study, I had learned to focus my energies on school, and I had been out in the real world doing real work long enough to realize that I want to do something with my brain to make a living...in other words, I was motivated.
WHAT I DO FOR A LIVING
I got into teaching because it was offered as part time work and work experience to the English majors, and as soon as I taught my first class, I realized I liked discussing literature, and I liked showing people how to translate things in a way they'd never seen before. Having been a student who actually struggled with material such as chemistry and math, I appreciated an instructor who explained things and understood that I was not mentally inclined to GET what came to others so easily. To that end, when I'm teaching my English classes, I do not expect that everybody in the course is an English major. In fact, even if you're taking one of my honors literature courses, I take for granted that you're probably not an English major. That means I try to explain things in a way that perhaps is more scientific...a bit more structured. That doesn't mean the English major suffers... that person who is naturally inclined to understand literature is going to get the elements of this method as well. However, it is important to reach out to everyone who needs this course, and transfer level English courses such as English 101 and English 103 are required by essentially every university program with few exceptions. My job, and I take it seriously, is to get as many of you through this with a clear understanding of the material as possible. For the English major, this course is also sometimes a new experience because in this case we're not asking the student to be creative. These classes are indeed about structure and about analysis in a very objective, dry way, and the student who excels in creative writing will often struggle because they feel they're being stifled by the process. This is not a matter of personal choice on my part. This is what the class is. If you want a creative writing class, take a creative writing class. My classes teach objective analysis which is a different skill.
MY CLASSES....and about this you SHOULD care....
The classes I teach are all university-level transfer courses, which means that if you were to take the same course at any other institution, whether it is a university or community college, you would have to learn the same skills. These courses, even distance ed., are not correspondence courses. They are not courses one takes for entertainment purposes, although some people do because they like discussing literature. For the most part, students in my class are looking for credits for a university-level course.
Thus, there are some very specific things that must be covered in the class for which you have enrolled. These elements, explained very clearly and carefully by me (at least so I hope, and I'm always trying to improve), are what make the course transferable to the university. If you do not leave my class with these skills, possibly one or more of the following problems may occur: first, on a personal level for you, you will be unprepared for the material that you're expected to know when you go onto other courses for which this a prerequisite. Some of those might be on this campus, and some of those might be at a different school. Secondly, it is plausible that over a period of time, failure to prepare the students for particular skills will cause a problem between my school and other universities in terms of accepting this class for credit. It is my responsibility as an employee at this institution to make sure that does not happen in the context of my courses. Further, other courses that require writing as a skill and that require objective analysis and that require the research paper as a process of evaluation are depending on English 101 and English 103 to be where the student learns these particular skills. While the reality is that many students wait to take English because they do not like reading or writing, these are actually supposed to be some of the first courses that you take when you get into transfer level classes at a college or university. The material that you learn in these courses is supposed to be applicable to your other courses that require writing.
WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU
To that end, the class has to be focused on what I do teach and what I don't teach.
WHAT WE DON'T DO IN MY CLASS
For many of you, success in high school and in other courses came out as a result of good notetaking. The instructor would very clearly give you some information, perhaps including dates and times, or perhaps even told you what something meant, and if you were able to take good notes and studied these elements well and remembered them for the test or were able to collate them for research paper, you got a good grade, a reflection of your ability to give back to the instructor what they gave to you in a very literal, direct way.There may be some instructors who teach that way, and if you want a class like that, go take THAT class. Many students view that as a great way to make a fairly predictable grade and actually thrive in that environment. Take really good notes and turn around and give the instructor that information back on research paper or test and get an A. Don't get me wrong; understand that rote memorization is a necessary skill as well. I have a science degree, and the ability to memorize biological systems and the interrelated connections between historical figures was a matter of taking good notes, studying those notes, and being able to replicate that on a test or research paper. However, a critical thinking English course is not about rote memorization.
Because I'm trying to teach you objective analysis, you will not be allowed to express your personal opinion. I do not want you to refer to yourself, nor do I care to read or hear about what you personally think. It doesn't mean that what you think does not matter on some level for you, and it does not mean that it won't make its way into your work. It does mean that you will not make it an obvious part of your analysis. Your ability to identify what other people have researched and presented and to present it yourself and incorporate it into some kind of objective analysis is a skill that you will need in many courses that require objective analysis. In other words, not everybody is going to ask you for your personal opinion, and in many courses, your personal opinion is irrelevant. There are different courses that do want your personal opinion, and usually the instructors will make that clear. Your debate courses and some humanities courses will ask you to incorporate your own personal knowledge and experiences, but this course is not one of them. If you want that kind of class, take a different class.
A note to English Majors:
this is not a creative writing class. This is not about you being creative and trying to find different ways to retell a story that you just read, nor is it your opportunity to review something or write about a works connections to another work you may have read. That is a different style and skill, and this class does not cover that.
WHAT WE DO IN MY CLASS
THIS IS A SKILLS COURSE.
These classes teach you a skill. One of those skills is the college-level Research Paper.
I teach you the research paper (or expect you to demonstrate you know how to write one), which is not only used in other English courses, but also in other research-based courses including the humanities and science. That means I focus on those elements exclusive of the other things. This particular style and format of research paper, including the use of quotations and citations and notation of references is something you will use throughout your college career in one form or another. Frankly, most students get that right away.
The courses that you take with me involve critical thinking. That means I am not telling you WHAT to think. I am telling you how to develop an analysis process that will actually allow you to have your own opinions and ideas about something, but will also make you realize that not only does everyone NOT share that opinion, but some of your own perceptions might be based on being misinformed or might be more about belief than they are about fact. To that end, I'm not inclined to get you to change your opinions. That's up to you. You just need to understand what the rest the world thinks as well. What you do with that ultimately is up to you, especially after you leave this course. To that end, this course will not tell you what a story means. There is no rubric or list in which I explain what symbols get translated in a particular way in a specific story to give you some kind of cohesive template that you can turn around and spit back to me in terms of translating any individual work.
It does not work that way.
I teach you Critical Thinking.
LITERARY ANALYSIS/CRITICAL THINKING
A more complicated and subtle part of this transaction has to do with the literary analysis portion of the class.
The skill has to do with the ability to translate literature in specific ways, whether it is through the thematic elements of English 101 or it's the critical perspectives used in English 103 and higher. I am not teaching you what a particular story means. I'm teaching you how to evaluate and translate all kinds of works by using the stories and poems and the drama that we do cover as examples, and you're not learning a singular meaning of any individual work... you're learning how to use tools of thematic elements and critical perspectives. In fact, for English 103 and above, the whole idea behind critical perspectives is that there is no one translation for any piece of art. If there were, there would be no need for movie critics or book reviews. Everyone would know exactly what any work means, as there'd be only one answer.
Instead, the whole notion behind critical approaches is that different people translate things in different ways for very specific reasons that make not only art, but in many cases, most every facet of life a constant discussion as to who's right and what's right and who's wrong and what's wrong. That means no matter what stance you take on something, I'm going to challenge you to support your argument. If you have a strong belief in some kind of religion or belief system, you may have a very difficult time taking a stance that goes against that very belief system. Ultimately, I'm may force you to and if you can't, it's going to affect your grade. The ability to identify and utilize a critical perspective and to apply it to work as honestly and clearly as possible, demonstrating what the critical perspective does to affect the translation of that work, is the point of the class. To that end, I really don't care what your personal beliefs are because it doesn't matter in a course like this. What matters is your ability to utilize critical perspectives and literary devices. To give you an analogy, if you hate the color orange, but you're in an art class in which you have to construct a work completely out of reds and oranges, you'll have to learn how to use that color. It doesn't mean you have to love it. It just means you have to be able to identify its effect on a work in terms of impact and viewer response, use it yourself, and distinguish it from other colors. Likewise, you do not have to love all or any of the critical perspectives or the literary devices you learn this class; you must be able to identify and use them.
Be aware of what you're getting into and make the most of this particular type of class. It may not be the course that you wanted, but it is likely going to be a course that you need. My job is to give you the tools; your job is to demonstrate that you know how to use them.
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: October 25, 2012