Leading the witness

Please forgive me if my recent posts are devoted more to teaching than to poetry, gardening, and speculative philosophical thinking–the semester end approaches, and I am endeavoring to ascertain whether my students have acquired any new knowledge about poetry and literary analysis. There are these supposedly-evaluative items known as “grades” which I must register for the college administration.

Spring and AllSo, exactly what, if anything, have they learned thus far? Considering that for the first few weeks of class I practically had to apply forceps to their vocal chords to get them to speak in class at all, let alone express a thought concerning poetry, most of them have progressed. Only a few students volunteer to answer a question I pose or offer an opinion in response, but when I look one of them in the eye and ask “What do you say?” I now get an answer instead of an embarrassed shrug.

This is headway indeed. Granted, the method I have used to initiate response might more accurately be called “leading the witness,” as opposed to Socratic inquiry. Most college sophomores I’ve met are so stymied by the whole genre of poetry that the classic method of advancing knowledge through inquiry results in nothing but puzzled silence and guessing, most of the time. I soften the approach by suggestions that, I hope, will lead to inference on the student’s side but that do not give away exactly what I am looking for. Because I do not always know, myself, what I am seeking. Because I want, once in awhile, to be surprised and delighted by a student’s inference–usually a point of view I have not previously considered (because I am not 19 and not a literature novice).

One of the things I love most about good poetry is the opportunity to be surprised, and perspective shifts offer the unexpected. I can lead the witness, perhaps, but I cannot lead all 30 witnesses (or whatever number of them happen to be paying enough attention to be led). The student I call on will respond directly and then inspire other, slightly variant, responses from classmates.

A discussion may actually ensue! Oh, joy!

I try to take note of which students seem to be engaging most actively so I can somehow calculate that into the evaluation, but I have not really developed an effective way to indicate the hoped-for “a-ha!” moment into a grade.

Theoretically, grades are objectively based upon a carefully-constructed rubric that reflects what the student knows about the discipline or subject area. I have therefore invented criteria, percentages, and the like for assessment as required by academic best practices–or at least by academic protocol. Having been always a student at seminar-style, narrative-evaluation-based higher education institutions, I admit that I find the typical grading methods disheartening and arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I continue leading the witnesses until the end of the semester.

~

By the way: It is April, and once again National Poetry Month. Please, go out and purchase a book of poetry. Or borrow one from the local library. Shout your barbaric yawps into the springtime air!

IMG_0575Iris reticulata

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2 comments on “Leading the witness

  1. KM Huber says:

    Again, I really enjoyed this post, as it brought back teaching memories. The joy of discussion–those seemingly few times it erupted–I had one class that from the first day “clicked” or “gelled” but whatever it was, it was the finest semester of my teaching experience. Never again did such a gathering of minds come together as they did in that class.

    For all of the other times, I went back and forth with final grades in the hope they really did reflect what occurred in that classroom. Finally, I would just have to let the grades be. May the end of the semester come together for all you .Regardless, I know your students are most fortunate to have you.
    Karen

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