Higher EducationPedagogy

I am teaching a class right now that sucks balls.

Hey, at least I didn’t make the mistake of saying it “literally” sucks balls, right? Because that would be weird.

But seriously folks. This class is awful, and it’s breaking my heart. It’s an intro to the English major for sophomores, so we cover genres and fields of criticism at the introductory level, and when I taught it in the past it was glorious. I couldn’t wait to do it again. Our enrollment is low this year so class sizes followed suit, meaning I ended up with only nine students in the class, which I expected would make it even MORE awesome. Discussion! Circled chairs and intense sessions of academic discovery! Me, unable to get a word in edgewise because of the frenetic student engagement!

It is not like that. It is a dead class. Not resting or pining for the fjords. It’s bleeding demised. Gone to meet its maker. Oh, they’re pleasant enough. They smile at me, even snicker at my jokes, but otherwise they are stone silent. We’ve been talking about poststructuralism for a week–and I’m sorry, but that shit is interesting–and I can’t tell if they even get how much they are not supposed to get it. I hop around at the front of the class like a Saussurean signifier of desperation, and they sit there like effing Easter Island statues. Staring. Mute. Inscrutable.

Yesterday I showed up with discussion questions and copies of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror.” Only seven students had deigned to appear, so I made them circle their chairs to face each other, put the questions up on the Smart Board, and commanded them to produce ONE set of answers, agreed upon by all. I hung around for about twenty minutes, during which time only one student made a serious effort to start a conversation while the others sat there copying down the questions. (The hell? WHY ARE YOU COPYING THAT? You’re supposed to be talking about answers! What is this, fourth grade?) Finally I decided I might be intimidating them, so I went down the hall to my office. When I came back–when there were still twenty minutes left in the class period–they were GONE. The paper was on the desk, the chairs back in their oppressive rows, and the students had excused themselves, without even bothering to send an envoy to my office to let me know. I could not believe it.

This colossal fail is beginning to interfere with my sleep, not to mention my self esteem. Being an effective teacher constitutes a sizable chunk of my positive self image. I was the goddamn Regents’ Superior Teacher last year! What is happening right now?





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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. October 12, 2013 at 10:06 pm —

    No better proof that every class has its own dynamic, even two sections of the same class in the same term. Sorry this is happening to you–there is really nothing worse than killing yourself to try and motivate classes like this.

    • October 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm —

      So true. Thanks for the commiseration. I’ve been really down about this.

      • October 13, 2013 at 11:38 pm —

        At least occasionally those classes are partially saved by at least having one student that takes an interest or does good work…maybe things will turn around for one or two of them…

  2. October 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm —

    Oh, that’s awful! A class like that can destroy your entire term. Remaining positive in that situation is damn hard. How are your other classes going? Do you have any bright spots?

  3. October 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm —

    As an undergraduate student (Sophomore, Environmental Science) this is actually kind of nice for me to read. Not because you’re having a bad experience – I really feel for you about that. Instead, it’s helpful for me to know that sometimes professors hate their classes as much as students sometimes hate our professors or our classmates. I’m in a Multiculturalism class this semester that is simply awful – some of my classmates are fine, but the instructor is painfully out of date and totally unaware of modern social justice movements. Plus, half my class has given up and stopped doing the readings, which makes it hard for any conversation to take place. It’s a terrible experience. The good news is that for both you and I this term will end eventually. I’m on the quarter system, so I have 4 more weeks.

    • October 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm —

      We do have them. Lucky for you, students can write off those experiences as the fault of the professor without feeling responsible for a class going off the rails. Teachers always have to confront the spectre of professional failure, and it’s a hard one to shake even when you are clearly not responsible for the problem.

  4. October 20, 2013 at 12:49 pm —

    I appreciate the sympathy! The thing is, when I just stand up there and talk, they’re fine. They smile and nod and laugh at my jokes. I just can’t get them to talk. I guess I will just keep lecturing, though that’s not something I ever do in English courses with majors. Usually you can’t get English majors to shut up.

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