“I want to look at X, what theory shall I use?” is a question I’ve not been faced with before. I’ve only been teaching since New Year, you know. Web design and web aesthetics is wrapped up, and what with all the nice things the students said yesterday, I’m really happy with it. Next time I need to be clearer about learning goals and structure and deadlines and what I expect – this time round I only worked that stuff out midway through the semester. There were some other problems, too, but lots and lots of things went really well.

This short little New Media Theory course I’m teaching into the MA in Screenwriting is a different kettle of fish. There are only five lectures (which is why I said yes), but half the students are distance students in South America, which is hard to deal with, and they’re all supposed to write essays. Also, a lot of the students find new media rather dull (“How is this ever going to engage a mass audience? It’s so boring and you have to work so hard and I don’t understand it or want to understand it.”) and would prefer to be making cinematic documentaries. I know heaps about online art and narrative, and about weblogs and communication and games, but these people want documentary and ask questions like “Can you call this a documentary when it’s interactive?” in the way narratologists ask whether hypertext can ever be narrative. It’s enlightening because the question seems so boring and irrelevant for someone who hadn’t realised that defining documentary is important to some people. (An admission: I’ve wasted lots of time on the “is this narrative” thing.)

So they’re supposed to write essays and need to get my advice before the weekend because I’m going to be away after that, so they ask me which theory to use to look at X, and I keep looking over my shoulder to be sure they’re actually asking me. I want to scream: I haven’t a clue, do I look like an expert? but I suspect that’s not quite the way to do it. I’m frantically trying to remember whether my lecturers and advisors ever told me what theory to use. I suspect they didn’t. Perhaps they too were looking over their shoulders, wishing someone else would answer.

I need to practice a line for this. Perhaps Eliza’s would work just fine: “Why do you think you need a theory in order to write about X? Tell me more about your theory. Does theory frighten you?”

If only they’d write essays about things I actually know lots about. “New media” is a horribly broad field.

3 thoughts on “advising

  1. George

    Based on your blog posts, I’m guessing you’re a very good teacher.

    You write, “Next time I need to be clearer about learning goals and structure and deadlines and what I expect”

    I’ve been teaching off-and-on since 1993, and I tell myself this almost every semester. What I’ve found (or decided) is that every semester is different, even for the exact same course material. Yes, I can be clearer about expressing what I expect from the students, but sometimes students are quite adept at hearing what they want to hear, instead of what (I think) I said.

    I’ve even taught two sections of the same course in one semester only to find that the morning section and the afternoon section are completely different. The morning class, for example, finds the material boring and confusing while the afternoon class sails right through. The material’s the same. I’m the same. The only variable is the students. You do the best you can but realize that not everything is under your control.

    You are, I believe, joking about taking the Eliza approach to students who ask “What theory should I use to look at X?” However, I think it’s probably a good idea. Students need to learn how to find the answer to that question for themselves, and I believe that asking them Eliza-like questions can help lead them to that answer.

    (Just for kicks, I went to the Eliza interface linked from your earlier post and asked which theory to use to approach a particular 18th-century novel. Eliza responded: “What would you like to know?” Not a bad answer, actually.)

    Some students view teaching/learning as purely an exchange of information. They have a question, you tell them the answer, and they go home happy. A different model is one where students learn from you not only how to phrase a good question (perhaps by your continually asking them new questions) but also how to find the answers for themselves. In this way, students don’t need to write about things you know about in order to learn from you. And this sounds like what you’re doing.

    Which is just fine, imho.

  2. Lisa

    Everything George said, Jill.

    And I think the fear among teachers that we are somehow frauds because we don’t know everything wraps its tentacles around us all. But we’re not frauds, we’re completely authentic. Experienced learners, there to assist less experienced ones.

  3. Jill

    Experienced learners. I like that. And thanks both of you. I’ve been fielding emails from students who seem to be from everywhere but Bergen all day, and it’s getting more and more obvious that there is no way I can be an expert in all the areas… Often I don’t even understand what they mean. Which, of course, lets me ask questions…

    I think I’ll think Eliza for real next email I need to answer. Which is coming in – right now! Phew!

    Teaching is obviously a huge learning experience!

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