February 9, 1998
Volume 50, No. 20
Conversations on Teaching:
Rusche, Bugge on teaching challenges in a material world
Last week, Emory Report featured the first of a two-part discussion by English professors Harry Rusche and John Bugge on teaching, learning, students and changes at Emory since they began their tenures in 1962 and 1968, respectively. Karen Poremski, a graduate English student who assists the Commission on Teaching, served as facilitator.
Karen Poremski: Is there anything about teaching you don't like?
Harry Rusche: I would say grading-I hate to give grades. I don't mind evaluating and reading papers and commenting on them, but there's something so naked about a letter grade.
John Bugge: I agree-a letter grade can't really do justice to all the complex interaction you've gone through with the student over the course of the semester. One thing I don't like about being a teacher in a university in 1998 is the attitude of consumerism, which really flies in the face of the whole idea of the life of the mind. I don't think all that many students feel that way, but it's too large a minority. And it happens everywhere, I'm afraid, not just Emory.
Poremski: How do you shift students' focus from grades to the task at hand?
Bugge: Gyrate, jump up and down, whatever you can. Teaching Chaucer is not very hard because you can cut to the Miller's Tale-and if that doesn't please them, nothing will.
Rusche: A consistent remark I get on my teaching evaluations is that students can tell I love the material. This may or may not be true all the time, but if you can give the impression that you really care about this, and that every time you read this it's like reading it anew, they sense that.
Poremski: How have changes in literary criticism and your specific fields changed what you do in the classroom?
Rusche: The authors I teach are so canonical-they'll never disappear-but what you find is you're raising issues of, for example, homoeroticism in Shakespeare, or you talk more about women. Just as I used to teach an archetypal approach to The Tempest, now I use that time to talk about colonialism. The criticism has changed the way I teach, though I will say those are often topics I introduce rather than the students. The students are interested in the big questions-life, death, sex, taxes. But I feel it's incumbent upon me to let them know that we're talking about those things in criticism. It also sometimes changes what material I teach.
Bugge: I've been revolutionized in my teaching of Chaucer, especially on the graduate level. The course I best enjoy now is "Chaucer and Gender," which to some people doesn't sound like a logical or likely topic, but indeed very important issues arise. Frankly, I did what Harry did-I initiated the discussion. What expanded my knowledge was the students who responded to the invitation to go ahead and talk seriously about such issues. I learned a lot from that class and continually learn from it.
Poremski: Could you speak a bit about the interaction of teaching and research?
Rusche: I count everything I read and learn as research-whether it ends up in a publication or not, it's still research. I think some teachers lose track of that and are no longer able to connect with students in a really meaningful way, nor are [those teachers] able to use the reading they're doing.
Bugge: If you don't read and keep up with research, you're really reduced to your own level of competence in a classroom-all you can tell them is what you know.
Poremski: Is there subject matter you don't bring into an undergraduate classroom because it's too esoteric?
Rusche: One real challenge is to help students go and find material on their own. They may not do it on a very sophisticated level, but they bring that back to class and talk about it and begin to contextualize the poetry. For instance, in World War I poetry, I'll have students do outside reading on the Zimmerman telegram, on the Lusitania, have them read about the home front and study the popular music. Suddenly they see what this poetry is responding to, that it's not written in a vacuum.
Bugge: The material the student brings into class is infinitely more valuable to him or her than any material that you could give to that student. The act of discovering it for himself or herself makes the difference. I think students are ready for "esoteric" material, but what you have to do is hit them at their own level.
Rusche: One other thing about teaching I've just learned in the last 10 years is that students love to be told how they're being taught. If you tell them what it is you're aiming to do, how you aim to do it and ask them to be patient, to play the game and follow the rules, they respond very positively. If you want to bring something into the classroom that's esoteric, tell them why, tell them "Here's what I would like to do with this material; let's see how far we can get-it's an experiment."
Bugge: That hasn't changed since the '60s, when the great nationwide campus revolt issued in a call for relevance. Students want to know why what they're studying is relevant to their lives. I think many people who teach college students never tell them why they ought to be in that classroom. They never explain what difference it's going to make 20 years from now that they took this course, and I think students desperately need to know that.
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