The Perils of Teaching

This year, I was asked by one of my colleagues if I could give her students a seminar on essay writing. She teaches history and SPS – Social and Political Sciences to give it its proper name, or silly, pointless studies as it tends to be informally called. And I thought it would be rather fun to try out a group exercise, as an hour of conversation with new students who don’t feel they owe you anything can be remarkably hard going. So I wracked my mind for something that would convey the difficulties of university-level essay writing, the mass of information to be dealt with, the problems of structuring a response, the complexities of reaching a conclusion. In the end, I decided to let golden age crime help me out. I concocted a whole list of factual statements about a supposed crime, rather in the way a detective might in the closing stages of a criminal investigation just before the denouement is reached, and decided to let the students solve the mystery.

A brief outline of the information I gave the students is as follows: It was 1950, and the Major had been shot in his study at 9.30, his body discovered an hour later by his butler and time of death established by the local doctor. His wife supposedly went to bed early and took a sleeping pill, missing the whole thing. His son was working in his artist’s studio all evening and also heard nothing. Earlier that day, the Major had had an upsetting conversation with the vicar, whom he suspected of fiddling the parish accounts. He was also on bad terms with his son, having discovered he was a homosexual, and was threatening to disinherit him. His wife was having an affair with the local doctor, who was becoming increasingly unhappy at the thought of being involved in a scandal with a married woman. Also in the village was a war veteran who had been involved in a disastrous mission with the Major that had caused him post-traumatic stress disorder. He was under care of the local doctor, suffering from blackouts that could last for several hours. I added a whole lot of other details – muddy footprints at the French windows, a blackmailing past for the butler, cigarette butts in the ashtray, available guns stashed about the house, any number of clues, suppositions and red herrings. What I would ask the students to do was to recreate the crime and denounce the murderer and, along the way, to build up a case for one other suspect which they would then dismiss en route to their conclusion.

The whole point of this was that any of the protagonists could have committed the crime; the effort called for from the students was to piece the necessary information together, present it logically and tidily and come to a reasoned conclusion.

So, last Friday I set out with my photocopied sheets to a pre-booked seminar room in the newly-opened Corfield Court. This courtyard is just outside the main precincts of my college, tucked away behind the old school of divinity and in the midst of a maze of buildings. Someone involved in the design has clearly gone mad on the security issue as there are gates barring the two entrances (which come out on opposite sides of the courtyard onto different streets) and even an internal gate whose purpose is there solely to confuse. It took me forever to find the part of the building housing the seminar rooms and once inside nothing was intuitive. Somewhat rattled, I tried to hold open a heavy internal fire door with one foot while searching for the light switch to the stairs on the wall behind me and ended up wrenching my shoulder. Finally in the room, itself triangular with no place for the lecturer to sit down, I felt flustered, sore and late. Fortunately, the students had even more trouble finding the place than I did, and were even later.

Teaching adolescents is like teaching toddlers with surprisingly good motor skills. Barely had they all sat down than one girl asked if she may be excused; she was receiving texts from a friend headed to this seminar who was lost – could she go and rescue him? I said she could, and kept on explaining. A few moments later, both returned, but not for long. It soon transpired that the latest arrival had somehow contrived to lose his wallet whilst searching for us – could he go and find it? This was a particularly restless group but I adhered to my usual policy of transcending all minor disruptions. I split them into two groups and gave them the exercise, instructing them to designate one member as a witness to the process they were engaged in. The boy returned sooner with his wallet than I had feared and quite quickly they settled down to business. Despite the fidgety start they soon were completely into the task.

I do love watching groups at work, seeing who emerges as the main spokesperson, watching the interplay between the strong characters and the mild ones. After a while I went and spoke to each group in turn, to see how they were getting on. Group A was working with order and harmony. One boy, with a lively aureole of curly brown hair, was the naturally ‘loud’ member, but he was quite ready to balance his presence out with that of the two girls, who were quiet but tenacious contributors. They had written out a list of the suspect’s names and were eliminating them one by one. ‘Don’t forget that there are several people who could have committed the crime,’ I told them. ‘That might make it easier for you.’ The other group was falling into an acrimonious dispute. There were four members of this group and two were quite headstrong. One young woman, dark, pretty, clever, had taken a natural, early leadership, but this was being continually challenged by a boy, the kind of slightly plump, unsporty boy (but clearly very bright), who had found a way to subvert the usual typecasting by setting up as devil’s advocate to his peers and gaining attention and respect from his alternative viewpoint. He was maintaining that the murderer was Nigel, the war veteran with the blackouts and he was unwilling to let go of his idea until it had been acknowledged by the rest of the group. This was something that the dark girl was stubbornly refusing to do, insisting his solution was perverse and only chosen as a provocation. ‘Do remember that any number of people could have committed the crime,’ I said. ‘See if you can make a case out for all the suspects who appeal to you, and then decide which one looks the most convincing.’ They unwillingly went along with that, and shortly afterwards the impasse seemed to have been breached.

After a few more moments I called on them for their solutions. Both groups had done a very good job. Group A had decided that Tristan, the Major’s son was the murderer, arguing that he had been afraid of being disinherited and needed money to fund his actor partner’s drug habit. The alternative solution had been the Major’s wife, but they discounted her on the grounds she would have feared the blackmailing butler. Group B were running with the theory of Nigel, the shell shocked war veteran as the culprit, but they plumped in the end for the Major’s wife, claiming the need to protect her son, as well as avoid a divorce provided her with the strongest motive. Instantly an argument broke out between the groups over the strength of the threat posed by the blackmailing butler, but once that had subsided, there was only one thing they wanted to know.

‘Who did it?’ they cried. ‘Who was the real murderer?’

‘Well I did tell you at the start,’ I replied. ‘There is no single solution. Any of the cast list could have done it. The point was for you to assemble evidence and argue a case.’

At this there was a notable outcry.

‘But this is how it is to write an essay,’ I pointed out. ‘There is never one final conclusion or one right answer, no matter how much you may want there to be, or how strongly you feel about any one argument.’

There were still grumblings but they died down for the moment.

‘So,’ I said, ‘what did you learn from the process of doing this?’

‘That everybody hates me,’ said the plump boy, partly out of mischief, partly out of genuine wounded feelings.

There was much laughter, a few protests, and the danger of the old argument starting up again.

‘Opposition is a useful thing to think about,’ I said. ‘When you write an essay, you have to think of yourself as a diplomat, ensuring that all sides of any argument get heard, even when you don’t agree with them. Also, there will always be conflicting evidence and opinions and you’ll have to think about how to deal with them, how to incorporate the most significant elements of each into your own exposition. Anything else?’ When they were quiet I added. ‘You did well, you know, to handle all that mass of information and emerge from it with strong, coherent arguments and well-argued alternatives. You dealt with your uncertainties and conflicts and you can be proud of what you put together.’ This went down with far less cheerful receptiveness than compliments usually do. I looked at their mournful, resistant little faces and knew what was wrong.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘You really, really wanted there to be one murderer, didn’t you?’

‘Well who do YOU think did it?’ burst out the boy with the curly hair.

‘I told you there isn’t a solution,’ I said. ‘But… oh I don’t know. I suppose the Major’s wife and Nigel have perhaps the best claims to the murderer’s role.’

‘No!! It was Tristan!’ wailed Group A. ‘It had to be Tristan!’

And so it went on. Ever since I’ve been doing study support I’ve been increasingly intrigued about what people can hear. I told them all at least twice that there was no one solution to the puzzle and yet it never made the least impact on their comprehension of the task. Which makes me wonder whether I should alter the scenario for next year and turn it into a soap opera script whose outcome they can decide upon. The principle of finding a logical route through a mass of information would be the same. And yet, and yet…  I sort of cling to this overturning of their desire for clear cut answers, even in the places where we most expect and desire for them to be. To accept complexity, lack of resolution, ambiguity and the absence of closure, is difficult to do, but it is a step towards genuine learning and mental growth.

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14 thoughts on “The Perils of Teaching

  1. This makes me remember both why I miss teaching and why I really don’t miss teaching. When you have students who are engaged in a project as this it is wonderful and I miss that every single day, but then there is the ‘can I be excused?’ moment as well and those seemed to grown exponentially in direct proportion to the development of technology. If you have a chance listen to the first of the lectures on I Tunes University from the Modes of Reading Series from Warwick University. It embodies every lecturer’s nightmare.

  2. People do like neat and tidy endings don’t they? I’m getting better at ambivalance, but I think I still have a ways to go. I was just reading a post on Sarah Waters new book and time and again I’ve seen the same response as this readers–I really liked the book but hated the ending. In this case the ending was not clear cut and fairly open ended for the reader to make of what he or she will. I actually liked it for that very reason. I don’t think I’ve ever really written a proper essay, but I like thinking about it in the terms you lay out and will have to apply them next time I read an essay–see if the writer did as you describe. I do have to say that building sounds like a bit of a nightmare. It sounds like it’s more a design thing because the architect liked the look rather than a functionality thing–I deal with that where I work to a certain extent as well!

  3. Litlove, this made for fascinating reading on so many levels, but I’m just going to concentrate on one aspect of your exercise. I think with crime there’s a particular dissatisfaction in not catching the killer. Leaving aside the break with the rules of the genre, because it’s a great, fun and engaging exercise for students with so much to recommend it, the idea that it could have been *any* of the cast is counter-intuitive because we don’t really think anyone is capable of murder. Plus, by saying it could be anyone, you’re ultimately saying it’s no one… There’s an injustice they perhaps feel on some totally sub-conscious level, that at the end of their energetic investigations, no *one* killer – the true and usually very particular villain, unmasked – is brought to account. I think I’d find that deeply unsatisfying too.
    Loved this whole thing, by the way. I love it when you write about people almost as much as I love it when you write about books!

  4. I think the students were more interested in the story than in the point of the exercise! Your difficulty in finding the location is also interesting and the fact that you actually found it before the students! Mmm – is that significant??

  5. Really enjoyed this post! It’s sounds like a very interesting class, with an excellent point made as regards the difficulty in identifying one particular solution. Personally I rather enjoy a choice of several possible answers, although it is quite a challenge in an exam situation!
    I am now definitely looking forward to my years as a ‘toddler with surprisingly good motor skills’!

  6. What a fabulous idea litlove! I might have to steal it. We are about to start training our New Grads and Summer Clerks in a few weeks and although it’s too late to change our programme now, I mentioned your idea at work today and we’re sure we can adapt it to suit our needs. Even when they’re really keen to learn it can be hard to keep their attention as we usually don’t see them until towards the end of two weeks of grueling induction.

  7. Can I just say, that is the coolest exercise ever. If I had done this at university, I would have loved it that there wasn’t a real answer & no definite murderer. I like a good ambiguous ending that lets you choose how you think it ended – in fact that is my very favorite kind of ending.

  8. What a brilliant assignment! And it was very fun reading about the students and how they came to their conclusions. The fact there was no one right answer is very hard for anyone but I think even moreso for students. One of the librarians I work with who used to be a practicing lawyer has told me many times how students hate it when there is no clearcut answer, how shades of gray drive them crazy, and how they long to find in their case research soemthing that sings out as being THE solution. But that never or very rarely happens and it is fascinating to watch them as they struggle to come to terms with it.

  9. Ouch your room finding sounds hazardous, where are the health and safety precautions when you really need them? At least the students found it, I remember many lectures where I just went home in frustration.

    That sounds like a great exercise to explain the essay. So many people get hung up on having the right answers (a carry over from school) and before you know it they’re the kind of people whos opinion is ‘always right’ at dinner parties. You’re saving the world from future party bores!

  10. Ann – it’s been a frantic week here but I will certainly find that lecture you refer to and listen to it. Other people’s nightmares have the virtue of being other people’s! And yes, the engagement is fun but the distractedness and the fidgeting can be wearying. Over the years I’ve built up a bulldozer approach in which I keep going, regardless, but there are probably better ways! :)

    Danielle – it was sort of odd writing this after doing a post only a week or so ago in which I reveled in the delight of a final conclusion in crime fiction! I love neat and tidy endings – they are so satisfying, but alas my poor students are better off not expecting them in an essay.Or at least, you can have a neat ending in an essay but it usually involves sidestepping the issue or thinking around it laterally, and I admit that’s not easy. I am very much looking forward to reading the Sarah Waters and am most intrigued now by the thought of that ending! And goodness the building was confusing. I had to go there again yesterday and I was a bit more used to it, thankfully! :)

    Lilian – oh thank you, that’s so kind. Gosh, I wish you could be in my class!

    Doctordi – and there you have the exact counterargument that runs through my head against the crime fiction scenario. I agree; the hunt for the one killer is deeply ingrained. And then, I think about alternative scenarios to use with them and I can think of none in which it isn’t obvious that there is no particular answer. And I really want them to come up against that desire for an answer. I will keep thinking on it!

    Booksplease – lol! I happened to set out earlier on my quest for the room than the students did. Clearly they thought they could make it there in no time at all. There was one frustrating moment when I could see the pack of them, headed in the wrong direction, but couldn’t get the sash window open enough to yell! And you are quite right; they really enjoyed the story but found the learning point hard to take!

    Dear nephew! – so happy to have you comment and also to know that you enjoyed the exercise. Actually I have to baulk at the thought of transcribing that description of adolescence onto you – you may just be one of life’s grown ups! And good on you for embracing ambiguity; that’s going to stand you in very good stead next year. :)

    apiece – oh I would love for you to use it if you think it would help. I do feel for you having to do something with the students at the bitter end of induction. That is hard work. I can assure you they really enjoyed the exercise, even if they were not at all keen on its outcome! Do let me know if you use it – I’d love to hear how it goes down with another group.

    Jenny – if you ever feel like popping over for one of my seminars, you just say the word. I could use people like you in my groups! :)

    Stefanie – I’m so glad you liked the idea of it! I have to say that the law essays I see strike me as by far and away the most difficult in the humanities. They are SO complex and nuanced and sophisticated. The lawyers are required to express themselves with such accuracy and concision, and some of the issues they debate just make my head hurt. But a well-argued legal case is just exquisitely beautiful and crystal clear. I bet the students have a nightmare getting to that point! :)

    Jodie – lol! I think it was me being a bit stupid, really, once I’d got flustered (this often happens). Mostly Cambridge buildings are not large enough to get lost in, but I think you might be able to disappear into the university library and not reemerge for many a long week. How lovely of you to think I am saving the world from party bores. If only I could make such a validating claim! That would really be worth doing. :)

  11. Oh, how fun! I love the exercise, and the way you used it to teach them a bunch of things about writing. One of the best things one of my dissertation advisors said to me was that a dissertation is basically all made up — there’s no truth out there I’m finding; rather, it’s something I’m creating out of the evidence I’ve found. I found that advice very freeing.

  12. Litlove, as I was reading this I thought: Brilliant! I spent quite a few years teaching advanced level writing to ESL students, and I am very impressed with your creative pedagogical tool. I have to agree with doctordi that using the mystery genre set the students up–they expected a solution, despite your clear instructions. But it is perhaps that very frustration that will make this learning experience unforgettable for them. I have often found that people remember the “lesson” when they need it–sometimes it seems like you’re talking to a blank wall at the time. In my own case, someone can say something that has a huge impact on me LATER; however, at the time they said the wise or helpful thing, it merely dripped into my consciousness like light spring rain.

  13. Dorothy – what lovely advice from your advisor and I think I will have to snaffle that myself to pass on to the students! Anything that liberates the mind and frees up creativity is good. Get the students to be both creative AND tied to demonstrable knowledge and you’ve made it! :)

    Bej – what a lovely comment and I DO hope that is so. The mystery genre was just so tempting because it is inherently motivational – the search for truth is instinctually put in play and without caveats, but it does put a certain process in action that is frustrating when thwarted. I do like your thought that the very frustration itself might become a positive thing. That is a thought I will be holding onto! :)

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