Learning to Let Go: My Friday Non-interference Pact with my Students

Waterskiing cat soaring above the water


Jake Ptacek

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I think virtually every newcomer to collegiate teaching realizes early on, with varying degrees of dismay, that “teaching” and “parenting” are closely related functions.  I find my students often find it hard to think outside of a kind of parental relationship: they are legitimately shocked when I tell them, for example, that I don’t care why they missed class, or that their C (or B, or A-, even) is neither a reflection of my personal feelings about them nor assigned punitively but rather my best assessment of their performance on an assignment ruled against some form of index.  But the thing is, I find myself at least as often somewhat neurotically embodying a “parental” role.  I reward my students for good behavior (“We’ll have cookies next class to celebrate your revised papers!”), scold them for bad (“Why did no one show up for cookie day?”), feel a general anxiety about how they perform in front of strangers or in statistical comparison (“Please let them behave well on evaluation day!”), and worry about their health, happiness, class attendance, and a million other small things.

So part of my goal this semester has been to try to let go of some of this parental anxiety, as well as to cede some pedagogical control over my class to the students.  I teach a 314L course on Banned Books, which means it’s a relatively small class (I have 22 students) that is required for English majors and encouraged for most humanities students (through interdepartmental flagging).  The goal of the course is to introduce students to reading critically at a collegiate level and the fundamental goals of literary research; so a good deal of the class is devoted to teaching how to close read (and, more challengingly, teaching students the rationale behind choosing a passage to read closely), how to use theoretical models when making an argument, and resources for developing those arguments.  Though my students are finding the texts we’re reading (texts like Lolita and Beloved) by turns bewildering, challenging, exciting, and ultimately rewarding, I often have that “new instructor” / “parental” anxiety: are they getting this?  Are they taking away from the text the right stuff?  I have so much to say, and teaching literature is so genuinely exciting, that I feel that all too often, in my anxiety over their progress, I’m steamrolling what they have to say, forcing them to talk only about what I’m interested in.

So to my solution: beginning now, with the second half of the semester, every Friday is given over to my students.  We don’t have any readings assigned by me, and I don’t plan any material for the class.  Instead, small groups of 3-5 students are responsible for determining the day’s content and executing that.  Against all better judgment, I haven’t given the groups much more definition than this: you need to plan some sort of activity that will last at least 30 minutes; it must engage the whole class; and it must relate in an immediate way to the text we are currently reading.   Otherwise, you are free to plan what you want, and I won’t interfere.

This was initially—and remains—somewhat anxiety-producing to my students.   The initial response was universally, “Part of my grade depends on this and you won’t tell me what to do?”  After the anxiety wears off, though, my students often seem to engage with the activity remarkably well.  It encourages ownership of the material, it provokes them to think in depth about a week’s worth of reading, and the discussion that have come out of it (so far) have turned out to be really enlightening. 

This was—and remains—anxiety –producing for me as an instructor, as well.  It’s hard to give up directing the conversation, steering students towards thinking about thematic meanings or linguistic questions that resonate—but of course, I still do that Mondays and Wednesdays.  And what I discovered is that this group of students, at least, generally comes around to the right questions and interpretive moments, anyways.  Today one of the group members asked about tree symbolism in Beloved.  “Perhaps it’s coincidental,” one student said—and this is the moment where I’d normally jump in with a long-winded talk about the painstaking construction of the novel, or about the often futile hunt for symbolic meanings.  “Well,” another student answered, “it’s hard to imagine that it would be coincidental—think of all the planning that went into the novel.”  And from there they were off, debating the symbolism and even debating the value of reading for symbolism, thinking about intentionality and narrative structure and a whole host of interesting ideas that I almost cut off with a well-meaning interjection.  Though their arguments often lacked an advanced theoretical vocabulary, my students were really thinking at high levels with great rigor.

The pedagogical point of all this, if I have one, is not that everyone should take one weekday off from teaching.  Every class is different, and what works for your 10:00 class may differ wildly from what works for your 11:00 class that same day.  But it is that there is a real value in letting go of control of the classroom for a while.  Let your students make mistakes, and see if they can sort them out on their own.  Let your students talk about what they’re invested in, what they find compelling about the topic at hand, what they don’t care about, and why.  Let go of being a classroom “parent” and let your students take responsibility for themselves.


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