Saturday, June 2, 2012

Summer Latin Institute - Day 1 minus 9

Presessing (Institute-speak for when the teachers prep prior to the start of the program) has been a mixed bag for me. In these sessions, we faculty members take turns "fake-teaching" homework assignments: one of us plays the role of teacher, and the others play the role of students. Generally speaking, I have left these sessions feeling a bit disheartened, which is probably to be expected, since I have not taught in this program before, and the Institute methodology involves a lot of very specific syntax questions formulated in very specific ways and anticipating very specific answers from students. But yesterday was what I thought has been my best pre-session to date. I walked out smiling for the very first time (to meet my husband, the poet, teacher, and scholar Jason Schneiderman, in the Graduate Center lobby to go have dinner and see Evita on his birthday; show was great by the way: Elena Rogers is amazing, Michael Cerveris is fantastic, and Ricky Martin did a yeoman job as Che. Orchestra and staging were flawless).

What made yesterday's presession different is that I came with my own notes. All spring, we have been working with a list of syntax questions potentially to be asked about each and every sentence we assign for homework throughout the summer. This list has been described by one colleague as "Talmudic," an accrual of every question that has been asked about each sentence over the preceding however many summers. The list is invaluable, but I have not always found it completely helpful, simply because it does not always match the way I think about a Latin sentence and how I would be inclined to lead students through the drill on a particular homework assignment.

It was a big and difficult step for me to take, but in preparation for yesterday's presession, I grabbed a pad of paper, sat down with my Moreland and Fleischer, and made my own list of questions for each and every sentence. I certainly referred to the "traditional" notes while I did so, and made sure that I covered all the same points, but I did it in my own way, in my own style, in my own order, deciding to leave out some questions that were in the notes, and adding others that I thought were pedagogically important but not previously included. Very transgressive! Very scary!!

But when I fake-taught my chapter this time around, I felt much better about the whole thing. Afterwards, when it was time for my colleagues to critique my efforts, they certainly had some things to say about my performance. It was by no means flawless. But this time, the criticisms had to do with choices I had made, and therefore that I felt in control of modifying, if (and only if) I thought the criticism was valid and required me to change my approach. Some criticisms were valid and I made a mental note to change my practice is light of them. Other criticisms may have been valid, but did not, in my opinion, require me to change my approach. For example, in the eyes of some, I may have seemed a bit overly pedantic about some things (the Institute is quite a pedantic environment to begin with, but every teacher has his or her own sense of how far is too far). Depending on the situation, I'm fine with my students thinking I'm a jerk about something now and then. I don't actively want them to hate me, and I do actively want them to have a good overall experience, but I am not there primarily to be liked: I am there primarily to teach them Latin. In my experience, students like it when you have high expectations of them and insist that they follow a particular procedure completely and consistently. Even if they groan under the weight of your demands for the moment, at the end of the course, those points of pressure are the things they remember as the highlights of their educational experience.

And what I have just said above is in fact completely consistent with Institute methodology as I understand it, and I think my colleagues would agree with how I characterize the situation. But as I said, what I feel comfortable being pedantic about may be different than what one or more of my colleagues feels comfortable being pedantic about. And as far as I'm concerned, that's fine. As I've stated in other posts in this category, the Institute to a great extent involves, for both students and teachers, a certain amount of automation and robotics: becoming a "syntax machine," as it were. But, as improbable as it may seem, this still leaves plenty of room for individual variation in faculty personality and teaching style.

I think in the past week I experienced once again a phenomenon I have experienced before: I tried doing it (whatever "it" is) someone else's way because it's in my nature to please others and be a team player. But it's not in my nature to remain a team player, 100% that is, if I don't think the team's approach is the best way for me to get my job done. And so I "took back my power," as my old Gestalt psychotherapist might have said, and started doing things my own way: not staging a complete revolution or becoming totally uncooperative; but just tweaking things around the edges to suit my own personality and style, consistent with my experience and judgment, which is, I must say, not immaterial or insignificant.

I like the results.

More soon... 

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog entry are those of the blogger, and do not represent the opinions of the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute, its students, faculty, or administration.

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