Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The pedagogical Hail-Mary pass

NON-MEDIEVAL ALERT! I just got back from my British Lit II class, in which we were slated to discuss Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. I've taught these texts many, many times, so I'm pretty comfortable with them, though they're obviously far outside my field. [NOTE: I need to write an entry about the joys and dangers of teaching far outside one's field] I never teach from lecture notes, but I do have some stock comments about these texts and a general approach to the class that has worked fairly well in the past. This semester, however, I'm consciously trying to run a more student-centered class. I've had them writing in class, discussing poems in pairs, etc.. Nothing terribly innovative, I know, but I've tried to disrupt my familiar, comfortable approach whenever possible. Don't want to get too fossilized, after all.

I walked into class with a lot of ideas but without a really clear plan. This strategy often works for me. I ask for questions and then riff off the questions toward the "big ideas" I want to cover. But today was a little less successful. We talked a bit about the "Preface" and Wordsworth's ideas of poetry, and then one of the students wanted to know how well-known Wordsworth was during his own time. Was Wordsworth like a "rock star," he asked. I talked for a while about the contrast between Wordsworth's undeniable influence as a poet and the fact that low literacy rates mean that most English couldn't even read poetry. This idea led me into a meditation on the split between "high" literature and "popular" literature. I think it was when I started comparing Seamus Heaney to the Harry Potter books that I realized I had left both Wordsworth and my students behind. I was losing them fast. I could feel it (and those of my readers who teach for a living know exactly what I'm talking about).

It was a crisis point. A small crisis, mind you, but a crisis nevertheless. I had to get back to Wordsworth, and I had to find a way to engage them again. Then I remembered my secret weapon. I had been keeping this weapon in my metaphorical back pocket for the past several semesters, just waiting for the right opportunity. Now, I realized, was the time. As a segue, I talked for a minute about the influence Wordsworth (or at least Romanticism as a philosophy) continues to have on the way we think about poetry and self-expression, pointing out that most popular music is essentially "Romantic," in the sense that it emerges out of emotional responses to personal experience. This was my opening. I fired up the LCD projector and subjected my students to the following masterpiece of pop culture/high literature fusion:

The reaction was immediate and signficant. I had them back, plus I had gained a few "cool" points for both knowing what YouTube is and having the nerve to show the video in class. Sure, the video had very little relevance to the "big ideas" I had wanted to cover (or even to the tangential discussion which I had wandered into), but I'm guessing that the students will remember it at least as long as they will remember anything from "Tintern Abbey." Plus, the squirrel is really cool.

I will never again question the value of technology in the classroom.


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I just wish that Wordsworth truly had added the occasional "Check it!" to his rymz.

BUT I do know what you mean about sometimes leaving the class behind. You're in the zone ... only no one else is there with you.

Prof. de Breeze said...

You mean the rap isn't an accurate performance of the poem???? The butler with the champagne is really in the text, right?

Hmm...maybe I should have read "I Wandered Lonely" before showing the video...