“Dear Students,” Teaching as Relationship

School of Athens

I’m on dangerous ground here. What I’m about to share with you should inspire stern rebukes from many people. I invite this. Please do share your opinions about what I’m doing in my classroom. I hold to no ideologies about myself or my teaching and I’m always ready to revisit my methods and theories. Comment freely below and let me know how wrong or right I am, because I am surely both, simultaneously. In short, spank me if I deserve it (and no, that’s not meant to be dirty).

I was recently inspired by a Slate piece that looked at an assignment prompt Kurt Vonnegut used in a class once. I’m obviously no Vonnegut (insert predictable “so it goes” comment here). However, I love the idea of treating students as if we are in a relationship with them. I don’t conceive of education as merely information transmission. I like to think of it as an energetic, unpredictable mix of sharing, mentoring, and mean-spirited badgering. All because we love our students so dearly, and we want them to become something better than they are. Raphael’s great masterwork “The School of Athens” is perhaps to blame for my delusion, but it is my inspiration to do my work and to get better at it. It shows students and teachers talking, discussing, and even fighting. In short, it imagines education as a human relationship. The letter, as a replacement for the authoritative assignment prompt, is a genre that speaks to this relationship more productively, I believe.

So I gave it a shot. I have yet to see the final versions of this paper, so this may have turned out to be a narcissistic, brutal failure. I can, however, say that each day students come into my class to run their ideas by me. Not their semi-colons or run-on sentences, but their ideas. This is heavenly for me. So, here is the prompt in its entirety for your judgment. One thing: I must credit my own friend and mentor, Rob Spadoni, for some of the language in this prompt. Hey, if you can’t improve on something, just steal it, right?

Anyway, be brutal. I’ll thank you for it.

Dear Students,

To help you gain experience in writing research papers for college, we are going to undertake four major assignments this semester. Each task is meant to help you focus on a specific aspect of thoughtful research writing.

For this first task, which will be worth 10% of your course grade, you will write a literary analysis. I know that this seems like a specifically “Englishy” thing to have you do, and that you may not immediately see how it is relevant to the math, science, psychology, and business papers in your exciting futures. I just ask that you please trust me on this one.

I’m having you write about a short story because I want you to focus on something complex and outside yourselves. You are all very good at writing about yourselves and your opinions. Now I’d like to encourage you to push yourselves and apply that skill to the larger world. This will be a struggle for you; I don’t want it to be easy. I want you to exercise your minds through the practice of engaging with great literature.

Here is the assignment in a nutshell: Pick one short story from this list to write about:

“Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Jewbird” by Bernard Malamud

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

It is to your benefit to read each of these stories before deciding. There may be questions about any or all of them on the final exam, and experiencing each for yourself will greatly increase the chances of finding one you’re truly interested in. So read broadly before making your selection.

You will need a thesis to argue in this paper. Read your story more than once, several times is ideal. Take notes as you read. After time, your own unique perspective and ideas will start to emerge. This will be the material that your argument rises out of. Your notes will also serve as a kind of working outline for convincing your reader that your thesis is both original and plausible.

Use the terminology we’ve learned in the course. The DiYanni reading should help you ground your arguments in concrete, formal specifics. Talk specifically about things like plot, structure, character, setting, point of view, style, irony, symbols, and theme. But – and this is important, so please pay attention to this – do not make your paper a list of identifications of this or that element. That will bore me to tears and I will have to give you a low grade for doing so. Instead, draw on your originality and ideas. Each of you has something special and interesting to say about any number of things. Organize your analysis of the elements of fiction around your thesis and argument. That will impress me and make the whole process more pleasurable for you as well.

If you’re nervous about this undertaking, there is a sample in the DiYanni reading that might give you an idea of what a finished product might look like.

Finally, since this is a research class, I would like you to include at least two sources in your paper. You practiced quotation integration a bit last semester, so draw on that experience. Wikipedia is an alright place to start, but do not cite from it. It might provide you will other resources that are acceptable, but it is not a legitimate source in and of itself. Your quotations should be from reputable sources like academic journals or books. We have many of these in our wonderful library, so use them, not Sparknotes. In fact, avoid Sparknotes at all costs. I want this to be your own original thinking and relying on this second-hand smoke is cancerous to your own process of discovery. I will deduct heavily if it becomes apparent that you’ve incorporated Sparknotes or anything like it into your work, so don’t even look at it.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions, in class or in my office, about anything in this assignment or the Checklist for Essay Writers.

Good luck, everyone. I really do want this to be a fun assignment and my rules are meant to make it so. Go forth.

Your professor


23 thoughts on ““Dear Students,” Teaching as Relationship

  1. Sounds pretty good to me, sir. Respect your students, but make them work for it, and let them know what you’re looking for. Clear and direct.

    • Well thank you sir! I completely agree with you that we must allow students to earn their intellectual gains. Education is something we have to all pursue ourselves. My job as a teacher is to assist them in that. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. I’m a fan of authenticity. People respond well to it. And if it gains us trust and credibility, and we can take the opportunity to be honest about our hopes and fears about them as people we care about. I like the guidance, and the language with which it was delivered.

      • Frank Marousek says:

        Spot-ON!!! I congratulate your courage to develop relationships and all the demands. It is so much easier to lecture, pontificate and give exams and remain aloof..

      • Well thank you Frank. I have seen a big jump in office visits this semester, with some students just stopping by for no reason. I happen to like this and I hope it encourages a sense of engagement with and ownership of their education. We’ll see when the grades come in, I guess. I do appreciate the encouragement, though!

  3. Danielle says:

    I really do enjoy this concept. May I steal it for my upcoming poetry close-reading? Not only are the students being asked to their education, but the relationship you’re setting up is so important. One thing that I am particularly struck by is, that it is just an assignment, but the framing of it as a letter, rather than a “Title/Due Date/Page Requirement” heading helps ground it as personal.

    (On a side note, are you liking the DiYanni? I used it in my advanced composition class my first semester, and my students did not particularly like it. I think it may have been too elementary).

    • Steal away, Danielle. I stole it first, remember. You might want to look at the Vonnegut original as well. He’s obviously a better writer than I am!

      As for the DiYanni, I only had them look at one chapter of it as the rest of the class is about research writing in general, not specifically the Humanities. It seems to be OK. Maybe the simplicity is a benefit here? I’m not sure. When I teach our Intro to lit class, I’ll probably go another direction.

      Let me know how it goes!

  4. gary stonum says:

    Danny, is the Sparknotes reference from you or from Rob. I ask because last week I led a workshop on teaching novels, and to my surprise the specific question of Sparknotes came up and seemed to be of major import to current students at your alma mater.

    • Hey Gary. That one was mine, but I’m sure I adapted it from Rob’s concern about DVD commentary tracks. So ownership is a little hard for me to trace at this point. He has a document called “Checklist for Essay Writers” that I’v adopted a version myself. I’m sure his commentary track statement is there.

  5. Have you also done this assignment? I teach a boatload of composition courses and find that doing my own assignments gives me perspective. I just take it through the rough draft. That’s not critique or advice, by the way. I just want to know. 🙂

    • Wow, that is a really interesting idea! I guess the short (and honest) answer is no, but I think it’s a fabulous idea. Frankly it just never occurred to me.

      I do, however, think that subconsciously I did write this prompt with previous essays of my own in mind, if that makes any sense. I guess I wrote this as a kind of reverse engineering of some of my own close readings. Not sure if that counts or not.

      But what a fantastic idea you’ve given me. Doing the assignment along with the class! I will most definitely try and incorporate this into my next syllabus. Thanks so much. This is exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping to generate from this!

  6. It reminds me of more of a Hebrew teaching style where the student and teacher are not in a classroom, but rather are in a mentor-mentee relationship over many years. Obviously we must still use the greek-style classroom education but I sense a meshing of these two concepts. I like it. I think there are huge benefits to this.

    • Well, it’s funny you put it that way, Brent. I’m personally very influenced by the 20th century cultural critic Lionel Trilling, who was – you guessed it – greatly influenced by Matthew Arnold. Trilling was Jewish and his project has been described (by Joshua Miller) as “Hebraic American Arnoldianism.” So I think that the connections you are making have something to be said for them. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I sense a hybrid of the Hebrew-type long-term mentor education and the Greek-type classroom education we are accustomed to. I think there are huge benefits to this. The only downfall I see is having enough time to “mentor” or engage relationally with every student on a deep level.

  8. I continually seek putting the student at the center. It seems you’re inviting them here into a collaborative inquiry in the writing process. This is not something they are doing for you, but with you – that is, in relationship. Teaching without relationship is going down a dead end street. This act of student centered teaching is one of the themes within my blogging. Enjoyed reading this and the ensuing discussion.

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