February 15, 2006

Shifty drifty.

I'm about a month behind in posting an entry that's actually about my classes. Let me start the catch-up process by saying that while they're generally tipped toward the good side of the scale, my LGBT Studies TA and I are going to kill each other before the end of the semester. I haven't gotten his thoughts on this plan yet, but, then, that might very well be impossible to do anyway.

The thing is, I adore my LGBT Studies lectures. The instructor is passionately, nay, manically involved in the subject material. Each lecture is a 90-minute barrage of information and ideas, varying from highly focused and easy to follow to highly tangential and worth making the exhaustive effort to follow.

Discussion section, on the other hand, is the definition of vague. No -- it's some general ideas to keep in mind when considering a possible definition of vague. Today I walked in and the TA said, "I'd like to start by having you all take a few moments and write down some of your thoughts on this module that we've been working on." The module in question is a two-week-long segment of the class on the 1960s and 1970s, the proliferation of general and specific liberation movements therein (gays, women, sexual revolution, racial, etc), and an introduction to mid-to-late-20th-century sexual politics in general. That's 6 hours of lecture and about 12 readings; I have something like 17 pages of notes on it all. A few moments, then, to write down, "well, anything really; some questions that this all raises, some ideas, a couple of points, whatever you want." After stewing for a few minutes I decided on some points raised by one of the readings, and, when called upon, tried to discuss them.

Me: [point raised by author about appeals to rhetoric and values that can be relied upon to move a major portion of society, and the importance of incorporating them]
TA: Okay, go on.
Me (floundering slightly in the absence of feedback): [point about playing into social structures in the service of attaining liberation from the oppression of the society which embraces them, and possible ideological conflict therein]
TA: Can you say more?
Me (getting rather snippy at this point): About anything in particular?
TA (dreamily, to self): Oh, that's priceless. That's amazing.

I can't stand it. I can't go from the relentlessly informative lecture, or from the mind-bogglingly abundant and enlightening reading, to drifting in a total lack of specificity when it comes time to actually discuss this information with someone. I'm developing a cringe reaction to phrases like, "it's just something to think about" because they always seem to be followed by a statement that we don't really know how [very large general concept in question] might apply and no, there are no examples of possible interactions between [that thing] and [some other thing] to which we could turn in some kind of analysis, but the general concept should just sort of generically inform our rather floaty thoughts on the matter. Gaaaaaaah!

Perhaps this calls for a new model of what's going to happen between this TA and me before the semester is out. I'm going to use my very specific, rigidly defined and literal boot to kick him very hard in the unelaborated and undifferentiated matter that may make up the general area and sphere of influence of his shin. I'm going to do it every time he seizes upon the phrase "in terms of" as the most important part of someone's comment without discussing to which terms that might apply and how we might want to consider them. I'm going to do it again every time he gives an assignment with the word "anything" in it. Then, I'm going to stand in the middle of Memorial Glade and scream loudly.

Loudly and specifically.

Posted by dianna at February 15, 2006 01:09 PM

Your TA appears to have made a very specific and explicit ideological commitment to vague, ill-defined non-commitment. I've encountered it before, and it's infuriating.

I've had this ideology explained to me by someone more sympathetic to it than myself. I think the idea is that to think about ideas is to corrupt them. Or, rather, when you have an idea, you need to blurt it out quickly so it can be seen in its rawest form, to be admired and smiled at (but not criticized!). To apply linear thinking to ideas is to pervert them. You twist them around into some grand design of yours, and in the process destroy their beauty and spontaneity.

While I try to be very open-minded and accept people's beliefs on their own terms, I have to say that this is bunk. It's a way for fuzzy-thinking people to justify their fuzzy-thinking ways, and in the process act holier-than-thou towards people who organize their arguments in a coherent and linear fashion.

A lot of my anger comes from reading far too many essays by people who subscribe to this school of thought. Essays written according to this style are a nightmare; they're stream of consciousness collections of whatever ideas pop into their heads on some vague topic, with a conclusion along the lines of "So there are many ways of thinking about this topic and here you've seen a lot of ideas about it." It's maddening, particularly if you're being tested on their brain droppings.

Posted by: Zach S. at February 15, 2006 03:19 PM

I had a very long response to this from the "as a TA" perspective, complete with my full unsolicited thoughts on everything that went wrong in that situation and what it sounds like your TA is trying, quite badly, to do, but I'm going to hold my tongue for a moment and ask: what are your other sections like? Or seminars, if you're taking any? And more to the point, do you like them any better?

I find myself (decreasingly often, but sometimes) trying to remember what kinds of strategies my TAs at Berkeley used, because I had amazing TAs in the English department, but I also am recalling that I had some pretty bad ones mixed in there. Now, more often, I wonder what kind of pedagogical training the grad students there get. Ours here is worse than useless. This year's incoming grad student cohort actually rebelled and forced the TA trainer to pull the plug on the pedagogy course because they just couldn't take it anymore.

Posted by: katie at February 15, 2006 04:28 PM

I'm going to agree with Katie and say that most of my TAs at Berkeley were very good. Better, in some cases, than the professors. At the same time, I didn't actually have much contact with TAs in my major, because History only had TAs for lower-division courses. Still, my Legal Studies and English TAs were all top-notch.

Posted by: Zach S. at February 15, 2006 05:12 PM

Well, it goes something like this:

Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers: essentially comparable to having teeth pulled. The instructor is good at presenting information, mediocre at explaining it, and terrible at discussing its significance. I've found the reading (which is unarguably dry, technical, and jargony) more interesting and comprehensible so far than his lectures. No discussion section.

Mediterranean Anthropology: nearly unadulterated joy. I've had this professor before and like him; he's engaged in what he's talking about and is prone to my all-time favorite lecture device, the spontaneous informative digression. The reading has been both worthwhile and painless so far. Also no discussion section, which is a bit of a shame.

LGBT Studies: as stated, a profound mix of excellent lectures, very good if unreasonably abundant reading, and infuriating discussion section.

Salinger de-Cal: fun reading, extremely manageable assignments, slightly frustrating class discussions by virtue only of being a painfully shy individual in a subgroup of other painfully shy individuals who are asked at each class to work out ideas together and present them to the whole class, but totally fine for a de-Cal.

I think I predicted that I'd have two good classes out of four, so I think I'm not too far off that mark. It's okay; I just wish now that I hadn't dropped the more-interesting-than-expected class on oral history in favor of the less-interesting-than-you-could-ever-imagine one on hunter-gatherer archaeology. Too late now, and so on.

Katie, I'd like to know what it was that you were going to say from the TA perspective. In fact, I would love to know. You know that when you tantalize me by proposing to expound on a subject and then don't expound, I'm going to beg you to expound anyway. Please?

Posted by: Dianna at February 15, 2006 08:19 PM