This semester I am teaching a course on Modernism, which has a focus on literature with some visual art and film. This is a final year course for our undergraduates, and is a core course on a few degree pathways. Having spoken to friends who have studied English, I am increasingly aware of the importance of courses in Modernist Literature. The iconic images are seared into the mind and nearly everyone I spoke to had really vivid memories of their first experiences with this searingly original and complex body of literature. With a movement which is politically engaged and geographically disparate, you really don’t want to lose any of the nuance but still keep students eager to learn more. You also need to think carefully about how to make sure no-one is overwhelmed by authors who often prioritise difficulty and disorientation.
Here I will offer a few thoughts on teaching difficult topics, which might be of use to people getting stuck into teaching for the first time or beginning to develop challenging courses. I welcome comments and your experiences either here or on Twitter (@drmagennis).
– Be realistic. When you love your topic and want to convey this to students, it is often tempting to overload them with reading in an attempt to provide a rigorous engagement with the topic. Be careful with this or they will resent both you and the subject. I am as clear as I can about reading expectations in the first sessions: warning that there are thumping great novels coming up and discussing reading tactics with students. At least discussing reading planning will hopefully put a few off doing a Ulysses all-nighter. For lit courses, I make sure to check out other deadlines and try to structure the less onerous reading around potential busier weeks: films or poetry that can be read through in class. Speak to your colleagues who are teaching on modules your cohort are taking and co-ordinate when you can.
– Don’t shy away from controversy but prepare for it. I know there are competing thoughts on trigger warnings (worth reading is Jack Halberstam’s http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/you-are-triggering-me-the-neo-liberal-rhetoric-of-harm-danger-and-trauma/) but I think a few carefully placed words at the beginning of an optional module may well be useful, especially if the course contains material which might be especially traumatic to students who are survivors of sexual violence. This is not to say that difficultly or controversial material is something to be feared: but giving a head’s up at the beginning of a course will help students make an informed decision.
– Be clear about what language is acceptable. Now, I’m not personally offended by swearing at all (as long as it’s about a subject not aggressively at a person) but some of your students might prefer it if certain words weren’t thrown around. As a classroom tutor, it is your duty to make sure that no-one feels marginalised. Sometimes a simple ‘Come on now’ and a look can defuse most situations, but an email saying you would prefer it if the student didn’t use X word in class although you value their contribution might be needed. We’re not in the business of policing language or the expression of ideas, but we need to provide a place where everyone can contribute. Ask your Module Leader or a senior colleague for help on dealing with tricky situations.
– Don’t be afraid of complexity, but do prepare for it. Whether you’re teaching Modernism or Quantum Physics or the Russian Revolution, make students aware that there is content coming up that they may feel challenged by and that is ok. More than ok, actually, the challenge is the important bit. Explain that decades of scholars have argued over what happened in 1917, or those petals on a wet, black bough. The important thing to get across is that we all find things rough going at times, and that we’ll get through it together. Make sure they know that you’ll sit down with them in your office hours and go over anything they don’t get. In the case of literature, making the point that ambiguity, difficulty and obscurity are often the point.
One last note about teaching live political issues. Technically all humanities (and beyond) courses offer some comment on issues with are politically current, be they race, gender, sexuality or disability and others. But, sometimes, you might be asked to teach a topic which is shifting and often very emotive for your students. I have taught Northern Irish literature in Belfast, often to students who had experienced loss through the troubles. This is where you need to take particular care to ensure that feeling in a room doesn’t eclipse anyone’s connection with a text while acknowledging the relevance of historical and political analysis. It’s an issue that requires empathy, patience and common sense, and where knowing your students and promoting a welcoming, inclusive classroom right from the start are paramount. Don’t shy away from difficult topics or content: they have been some of my most productive teaching experiences. If you prepare well, and make sure your students are comfortable to express their ideas, it will be the class they will never forget.