Oberlin Blogs

Dazed and confused

September 6, 2009

First, a note from our sponsor:

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Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program:

Since several students have written about the excitement and sense of anticipation embodied in the start of the school year, I hope I won't seem too cranky in saying that Orientation always leaves me feeling at least as disoriented as the first-years. Don't get me wrong: I love my job, I love the idea of education, and the moment when summer slides over into fall is my favorite time of year. I was always that kid who actually got excited about the first day of school--new clothes, new books, meeting the new teacher--and I still get a vicarious thrill at the thought of people from all over the world converging on Oberlin in late August. But the actual transition itself is always a bit unsettling.

Partly it's just that it takes me by surprise, no matter how prepared I try to be. One day I live in a lazy small town, silent except for the mourning doves and the lawnmowers, and the next day there are minivans double-parked outside Dascomb and parents rushing around buying laundry baskets and toothpaste. This year I'd been in town ever since getting back from London in late June, mainly working on projects for Oberlin College Press: helping judge 450 book-length manuscripts for our annual poetry prize, and copyediting and preparing for the printer the fall issue of FIELD magazine and the next book in our Translation Series. I'd been busy, so the time passed quickly: it felt as though it had only been a couple of weeks when the orientation machine started cranking up.

It didn't help that this summer the basement of Rice Hall, where my office is located, was being renovated, so that up until a few days before the first-years arrived, all my books and files were in boxes. I'd barely unpacked and learned how to regulate the air conditioning when suddenly there were five new advisees in my office (hi, Gemma, Adele, Noah, Laura, and Sophia!) seeking advice about how to register for courses and otherwise succeed in college. Advice I was happy to try to provide, to be sure--I just couldn't quite wrap my head around the fact that it was happening. (Hey, what happened to August?!)

The first day of class is always somewhat disconcerting too. Even after years of teaching, I still get butterflies. I've blogged before about how my preferred classroom mode is directed discussion, which depends heavily on dynamic interaction, productive give-and-take. But on the first day, it feels as though it's all about me: it's my job to let the students know what the course will expect of them, so that they can be sure whether or not they want to take it--so I end up doing most of the talking. ("Trust me, gang," I want to say, "this will get much more interesting once you're talking back.") It's also unsettling not to know who the students are: this semester I have 60 students in my three classes, only about five of whom I've taught before, and on the first day I despaired of ever being able to learn their names. At the end of my third class on Monday (I somehow arranged to teach all three courses on a MWF basis), I staggered home, drained of energy.

Fortunately, by the end of the first week things are looking much brighter. Not a single student dropped any of the classes after the first meeting, which I will take as a good sign. I've learned about two-thirds of their names, and I'm confident that the moment is rapidly approaching when I will suddenly realize I know them all. Most importantly, as soon as I started asking questions, the usual classroom magic started to happen: students (who had all instantly learned each other's names) began to address each other, to build on each other's observations, to cite passages from the text. The analysis felt grounded, specific, alert to nuance and subtlety. We're obviously still getting to know each other, and especially in the Shakespeare class (which has 30 students) it's going to be a challenge to be sure everyone feels included in the discussion. But so far it feels as though we're off to a very good start. Rather than feeling exhausted at the end of the day on Friday, I felt exhilarated and rewarded. I went back to my shiny new office, packed up my things, and headed out into the gorgeous September weather. Not a bad way to end the week.

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Let me echo Ben's invitation: we're looking for some great new additions to the blogging team. First-year students especially encouraged to apply!

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Responses to this Entry

I know what you mean. I spent the summer here in Oberlin, and, all of the sudden, I can't get a table at Black River whenever I want. Plus, this weekend, I look out my window and what do I see. College kids up and down the street, heading god-knows-where to do god-knows-what.

Posted by: John on September 6, 2009 3:26 AM

I loved reading your observations on the Oberlin classes. My style is directed discussion also, and it's a struggle sometimes to get our students to engage. I even had a few discipline problems this past week in class. Sigh.

Posted by: Teresa on September 6, 2009 11:36 AM

Hi Teresa. Comments from you and others who teach elsewhere make me really conscious how lucky I am to teach at Oberlin.

Posted by: David on September 6, 2009 2:11 PM

We have discipline problems here, too. One time, in "Political Economy of Advanced Capitalism," someone actually tried to argue the merits of laissez-faire capitalism and untethered free markets. The class was astonished, of course, but the (admittedly flustered) professor was finally able to reign things in.

Posted by: Will on September 6, 2009 5:21 PM

From what I hear from friends at other institutions, discipline problems are increasing at many public and private schools. Mostly they are high school-type behaviors rather than students arguing about ideas, such as chatting in class, passing notes, texting, being disrespectful to the professor, etc. It is astonishing.

Posted by: Teresa on September 6, 2009 6:07 PM

Sorry, I should qualify that I was being facetious. (And, in fact, there exists a strong libertarian contingent on campus.) I am sorry to hear that those problems are present at your institution, though--like Professor Walker--pleased that I left those behind in high school when I came here.

Posted by: Will on September 6, 2009 8:18 PM

Who would drop a David Walker class?

Posted by: Aries on September 7, 2009 10:12 AM

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