Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 2. In which I discuss teaching

I taught a lot as a graduate student. I twice TA’d for a large survey course, but most of my classes were independent: I taught lots of first-year writing classes and a couple introductory literature courses, so I’m pretty comfortable putting together syllabi, choosing readings, designing assignments, and tasks of that sort. My course load this year is 3/3, which seems pretty standard for a VAP; I’m also serving on one master’s thesis committee. This fall I am teaching two sections of a survey course (the second half of a British literature survey required for English majors), and an upper-division course, for which I’ve chosen the theme (Dickens and Childhood); my spring courses are not finalized, but right now I’m scheduled to teach a Romanticism course for majors, a first-year composition course, and a literature for non-majors course. My college has an the evening degree program, which caters to adult learners from a variety of backgrounds. All my classes will be dual enrollment, which means both day students and evening students can enroll.

I imagine a fair proportion of my posts will be about teaching: getting used to a new demographic and a higher teaching load, more upper-division teaching, etc. Today I’ll cover preparation/syllabus construction and the first week.

The Survey Course

When putting together the syllabus for this course, I deliberately chose texts I have taught before. My college uses the Norton Anthologies, so that decision was made for me, and I had no qualms about assigning mostly novels I have taught before — and ordering the same editions I have taught from, so that the page numbers line up and I can recycle teaching plans from past semesters. The texts are pretty standard, I would think, for an 18th- and 19th-century British Literature survey course: Joseph Andrews, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, and Silas Marner. I also added Dracula to the syllabus, which I haven’t taught before but know fairly well. Choosing readings from the Nortons was straightforward, too: with only a few exceptions, I selected poems, essays, and plays I’ve taught in the past. I was able to fairly represent the three periods — 18th century, Romanticism, and the Victorians — without burdening myself too much with new reading. (I’ll cover other parts of the syllabus, like assignments, as they come up, or by request).

Though I have two sections of the same course, they already feel different. Even more different than two sections of a class typically are. One of the sections meets three times a week, in the afternoon, and has an enrollment of 18 — so, basically the same kind of class I have been teaching for the past five years. The other section meets once a week, and has an enrollment of 9. I have a mix of day students and evening students in both classes, but as you might expect, the afternoon class is mostly day students (all but three), the evening class mostly adult (all but two). The prep has thus far been similar — we’re reading the same texts, after all — but I’m learning that what works in one class doesn’t necessarily work in the other. I’m sure I’ll post more about the differences as the semester progresses.

The Upper-Division Seminar

This was, understandably, the class I was most excited about, and most apprehensive about. I’ve taught only three of the novels before, and as a graduate student I never had the opportunity to teach an upper-division class. I have assigned a lot of reading — it’s a Dickens class, after all — and a lot of secondary reading: for each week I paired a novel with a critical article, though we will spend two weeks on the longer novels. The last chapter of my dissertation is about Dickens, and with one exception (Our Mutual Friend) I have written at least a bit about all the Dickens novels on the syllabus; I also included Jane Eyre, which I’ve read only once, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’ve read a couple times and have taught before. Also Harry Potter, the very last week. I aimed for a mix of critical readings, from George Orwell to Gilbert and Gubar to very recent criticism. I want students to be exposed to a bit of criticism, and one of the assignments is to summarize an article for the class.

This class meets once a week, in the evening, which is an unfamiliar format for me. The enrollment is also small: I have just five students. This will have advantages and disadvantages, but so far has been great. Senior English majors, it turns out, even if they don’t know much about Dickens, know how to close read and definitely know how to participate.

The First Weeks

I posted earlier about the bumpy start to the semester. In addition to the jet lag and being moved out of the building where I will usually hold classes, the bookstore didn’t order enough copies of the Norton anthology, so many students didn’t have a copy. I provided readings from online — creating pdfs and emailing it to the class — before it finally dawned on me that I could just scan the Norton itself. This is one example of how I need to stop thinking like a graduate student: doing it myself, it was easier to find digital copies than to scan the Norton, but with the aid of work study students who are always willing to help, it’s much easier to jot down the page numbers and give them the book (this is better for everyone, since students then have the right text and page numbers).

I take the first day of class very seriously, and try to get started with real work right away. My very first class I couldn’t get the projector turned on — turns out the problem was with the building, not me. I didn’t get too thrown off by this, and I did have handouts of the reading. In the thrice-weekly survey we read a section of Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis,” and talked about the expectations of close reading; in the section that meets once a week, we read Dryden, some Rochester poems, and a selection of Locke’s Essay. Both classes went well, once the technology problems were either overcome or set aside. We’re now two weeks into the semester, and discussions have been running smoothly.

In my Dickens class, we spent the first hour talking about childhood and reading Gray’s “Eton College Ode” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode.” The second hour we talked about Dickens. I asked students what they already knew about him: initially, they thought they knew nothing, but with provocation they knew a fair amount — that he’s a 19th-century British novelist, that he wrote serial novels about London, that he wrote A Christmas Carol, etc. I had created a handout with the first paragraph from each of his novels, and we spent some time talking about the variety of prose styles Dickens can muster. For our second meeting we read Oliver Twist, and selections from J. Hillis Miller and D. A. Miller (the double Miller was not intentional). Students did great with the novel, and our discussion was lively; they struggled a bit with secondary readings, which are admittedly not easy. We’ll continue to work on those. I haven’t yet started regretting assigning so much reading, in part because I know Oliver Twist pretty well: I’ve written about it and taught it before. We’ll see how next week goes.

We also had our first faculty meeting: nothing of particular interest to post here, except that I learned there were over 400 applicants for my position. We also talked about department t-shirts, the search the department is doing (not for a position at all related to my field), and other business-related matters.

I haven’t done any research or job application work since I’ve been here, but then, those things are always tough at the beginning of the semester. I’m hoping to get started on some things (including a conference paper) next week, and plan to address the teaching load balance. Check back.


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