Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Grading. Grading. Grading. Grading.

Did I mention I've been grading for a week?

I hate grading. Especially papers from ENG 220 (Reading Poetry), which is the stack on my lap right now. Why?

I always think, at first, that it's the problems with the papers. So many of my students struggle to articulate ideas, to say or see anything clearly themselves, that it's hard for them to follow even the simplest, supplest piece of verse. Instead, they hack the poet's leaping, athletic sentences into so many bloody fragments, each of them twitching, galvanically, with deeper meaning. "This is a 'close reading'?" I ask myself. "It's barely reading! Feh."

Then there are the students who are deaf, but deaf, to tone. The ones who think that "One Art" is a "jokey" poem (like, all the way through). Or who can't hear the shifts from broad humor to sentimental musing in Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps." Or who import their own agendas--racial and otherwise--to Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B." These students get more sympathy from me, since they've been systematically deprived of tonal variety by TV and talk radio and the like, but the papers still wear on me.

(On the radio, appropriately, come The Ramones: "D-U-M-B! Everyone's accusing me!")

When the smoke clears, though, I realize that behind all this bitching and moaning lies frustration with myself. What did I do wrong? What have I not taught well enough, about poetry or about this assignment, to produce such work? What did I want from them, anyway?

Perhaps, if I want them to do close readings, I shouldn't teach poems at all. Maybe I should teach them a set of close readings, instead! No, seriously. I could assign a book like Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn and tell them do this! Each class we'd go over one of the poems she reads and her essay on it, and then the kids would try their hands at replicating her method, her results. Why not? I did something like this once or twice with Molly Peacock's How to Read a Poem (and Start a Poetry Circle). Why did I stop? Why did I write this syllabus? Why didn't I just teach the class the way I always have before?

Oh, I'm just full of questions and ideas when I grade!

(All I want is for them to be infinitely sensitive to language. Is that so much to ask?)


Anyway, now that the grading is done, I have three sets of papers. The "A" set, who are ready to go on and learn, I don't know, meter or genre history. The "B" set, who could move on--they just didn't push themselves hard enough, as a rule. And then the "C and Lower" set, who need another five weeks on close reading. So what do I do? Lose a third of the class by moving forward into new material? Or risk boring the other two thirds by continuing to teach what I've been teaching, just with new poems?

Oh, a professor's life is not a happy one!


Decision time: I'm going with the lowest third. We're going to proceed thematically: poems of love, war, and "ideas" (a catchall term for "those longer poems I never teach in an introduction to poetry class) over the next nine class days. I'm going to cross my fingers and hope the poems themselves will keep the top 2/3 of the class engaged. Meanwhile, I've divided the class into two groups, alternating Questioners and Answerers, to encourage discussion. This worked splendidly with Bishop's "Filling Station" yesterday; we'll see how it goes next week!

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