TeachingTolkien.org—Pedagogy Introduction

By Associate Prof. James I. McNelis III, Ph.D.

Last modified November 30, 2006

This section of the site, to start with, will consist simply of this page, upon which I will indicate some of my approaches to teaching collegiate literary classes in general, then teaching the Tolkien course in particular. Discussion is not only welcome but necessary for this to be a particularly useful aspect of the site; accordingly, please participate in the Pedagogy discussion on the Discussion section to present your own contributions on this question, or to respond to/contradict/elaborate on the points I have raised here.

I. Collegiate pedagogy in general

My qualifications to address this topic are viewable on my c.v.. Briefly, I have taught about 75 collegiate sections in the areas of English literature, English language, and professional writing, on a 4/4 or equivalent basis, over the last ten years. My full-time teaching has occurred firstly, at the undergraduate and graduate levels at a medium-small (ca. 6,500 enrolled) state comprehensive in Pennsylvania which enrolled few undergraduates who had been in the top quintile of their high-school classes. My current position is at a smaller (ca. 1,150 enrolled) private undergraduate college in the ex-urbs (or "rube-urbs," as these areas have been characterized) of Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus. 40% of our students tend to be drawn from the top quintile of their high-school classes, with a somewhat overly steep drop-off after that (faculty feel we have an under-representation of B students, with lots of A's and C's on the other ends of the curve). Accordingly, although my own background and my graduate training are from the "blue dots" of the west coast, my approaches to teaching have been developed in the context of working with primarily rural/suburban students, overwhelmingly white and Midwestern, primarily majoring in sub-professional vocational fields (including my English majors, most of whom are actually secondary-education majors). To put it another way, my classroom situation is probably as near the average/median condition in American higher education as anyone's, at least in terms of traditional-age students. Accordingly, I am hopeful that much of what I say here will be useful to other American collegiate-level instructors, even if their institutional and student profiles vary from mine; with adaptation, most of my materials and approaches should work in most classrooms. The caveat, as always, is that in such a classroom the range of student aptitudes, interests, and preparations/backgrounds is always so hopelessly wide that the aim to engage the majority of them, without failing to exercise the stronger ones, is always a particular challenge that needs to be kept uppermost in mind when preparing one's courses. This is, however, less of a problem in the Tolkien course than in any other I have taught, with the exception of senior-level majors courses, as I will discuss under the Tolkien-pedagogy section below.

A few notes for those who may not be up to date on all the latest, and largely depressing, news in terms of student attitudes and work habits. For simplicity's sake I will phrase this as if addressing an adult who is not experienced in higher education; however, even one who is a professional instructor will hopefully find something new here. A lot of what follows is bad news; the good news, however, is that as in so many things, the Tolkien class often stands as an exception, for the reasons I will discuss in the section following this one.

When Hazel Hunter Haley, America's (apparently) longest-serving high-school teacher, retired this year after 69 years in the classroom, she mentioned in an interview on NPR (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5421344) that teenagers haven't really changed, regardless of popular music, etc. that comes and goes--except for one thing: that unlike the preceding generations, she is struck by the number of students in today's classroom who are absolutely incurious and uninterested in acquiring any given body of knowledge. She characterized their approach as simply to learn material for the test, then to flush it from the mind immediately afterwards.

Along with this disengagement by many (though thankfully not all) students comes a precipitous decline in time spent on one's studies. The average American HS student does less than 5 or 6 hours of homework per week, and incoming college freshmen state that their expectation, as full-time students, is to do less than 5 hrs per week for all of their classes put together. While not everyone may ever have done the traditional prescribed 20 hours per week "back in the day," the challenge of trying to get them to do any homework at all these days is very taxing, and must be carefully thought out and vigorously prosecuted to have much chance of success. I have no idea what the average parent thinks their child does with their schoolwork during HS; most seem astonished when informed of this kind of thing. It may be as simple as assuming that a child who either spends time playing sports, working a parttime job, hanging out with friends, or else left alone in a room with computer, internet, iTunes, computer games, TV/DVD/cable, and a cellphone is devoting hours each day to homework--or, it may be that they are satisfied by high letter grades.

The news there is bad too: the number of HS students with a C+ or lower GPA, formerly 23.1% in 1968, had plummetted to 5.1% in 2003. The percentage of A-average GPAs rose from 17.6% in '68 to 46.6% in '03. A related, or contributory, or subsequent aspect is that, as of 2003, the number of students who estimate their own ability as either "above average" or "highest 10%" had become 69.7%. From '85 to '01, the number of HS seniors who report being "frequently bored in class" rose from 29.3% to 41.1%. (See, for example, the studies done by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/heri.html).

Another aspect of poor student preparation and work habits is that male students seem to have had a particular performance decline in recent years, making up fewer of each year's collegiate class than the year before, and being more firmly outperformed by the women, especially in the humanities (see., e.g., Prof. Tom Chairella, “The Problem with Boys,” Esquire magazine, July 2006; “Skipping School: Men Lagging Women in Pursuit of College Degree,” Seattle Times, 8.13.2003). Since 90% of American parents who attend PTA meetings are Mom--Dad goes to watch the games, instead--the message that school is for girls and sports is for boys (along with the inexcusable delusion that the average boy has even a one in a thousand chance of playing professionally in a major team-based ball-chasing big-money sport) is driven home early and often, and difficult to challenge after they have been in school for 12 years. It is sad, but true, that a large number of the more loutish male students honestly suspect that any man who is interested in reading literature, especially poetry, must be homosexual (never mind their laughable premise that homosexuality is somehow incompatible with athletics--one is tempted to post a link to the Gay Games when that topic comes up). This whole topic can be brought back to Lord of the Rings with the infamous quote that in secondary school, "boys either played sports or read Tolkien." At the same time, the question is being debated as to whether the problem is simply that women are doing better and gaining faster--for example, with both numbers of men and women in college rising, that the number of women is simply rising faster than the number of men (see, e.g., this report from Educaton Sector, "The Truth about Boys and Girls," http://www.educationsector.org/analysis/analysis_show.htm?doc_id=378705). Regardless, it is established that boys are scarce in literary and linguistic studies, perhaps the most relevant point in terms of Tolkien, as we will get to below.

Apart from lack of homework time and a related propensity to cheat (75% of HS students cheat now--see the Center for Academic Integrity, www.academicintegrity.org), greatly augmented these days both by the Web and by students' inability to conceptualize (or care about) the use of scholarly sources or the difference between original and cribbed work, another problem involves, simply, the reading of books.

I have students in my courses who have never read a full-length adult book before, and I have them every single semester--not just occasionally. You almost certainly do too; if you make it clear that you are not judgmental towards them and want to know what their situation is, they will eventually admit this to you, as they do to me.

Conclusion: On average (and again, bear in mind we are speaking only of averages), American college students generally:

I suppose the good news is that so many of these factors are pegging the meter, either at zero or 100 (whichever is worse for the given criterion), that there is really nowhere to go but up--or at least little basis for fearing any further decline.

My own pedagogical approaches (apart from specific lessons/plans, itemized under the Assignments link from the main page) attempt to keep these challenges in mind. I believe that by and large, most of my students are induced to more or less keep up with the assigned work. Granted, this presumably occurs at the cost of hours not spent working on their other classes--but each instructor must cultivate their own garden in these matters.

The tone of the above discussion, while it may seem negative, is borne entirely of documented research and/or my own experience, and does not reflect a lack of enthusiasm for the class, its text, or the students themselves; I hope this will be apparent in the explanation of classwork presented in Assignments.

II. Pedagogy in the Tolkien course in particular

Course type: I have taught at least one section of my Tolkien course, and often two or three, since I first developed it in 2002. The course is usually a writing-intensive section, with enrollment limited to 22 (though I usually cave and add one or two overloads when begged to do so). The course counts in the three general-education categories of humanities, writing, and international-emphasis (a category developed as a somewhat-compensation for the abandonment of the foreign language requirement around 1970. Like other colleges, we are now wrestling with how to re-implement FL, but for the time being the "international" requirement still stands). Student preparation: As with all of our other introduction-to-lit sections, this course will be attractive to any student seeking to satisfy multiple gen-ed requirements with a "triple-dip;" nonetheless, it is far more likely than other sections to be preponderantly filled with students who are sincerely interested in this particular section's subject matter. It often fills with graduating seniors and a few juniors who were able to get in. Some will have already read LotR and other Tolkien all the way through; a number will have read LotR more than once (or even twice). Stephen Yandell, of Xavier University (Cincinnati), has a Tolkien-fan-quotient survey that both entertains the class and reveals the extent and depth of Tolkien fanaticism early on (e.g., has one ever named a pet animal after a Tolkien character, or spent over $100 on a Tolkien collectible?). It's useful for the instructor to gauge the class's background, and also as an object lesson to any students who more or less drifted into the class that they are in the company of peers who really, really care about the material. Presumably this may be of some value in putting them on notice that enthusiastic effort is going to be the order of the day--whenever peer pressure works for you like this, I say leverage it to the hilt. I warn the new class explicitly that, in the event they have never read any adult book previously (see Pedagogy above), this one is more difficult than is prudent to choose for one's first effort (admirable though I find their courage in undertaking the effort to be).

Apart from the common, though not universal, background in reading Tolkien, many students will have read other fantasy literature, and perhaps science fiction (though the latter is not common at my college, which currently lacks major programs in engineering, physics, or computer-science--and consequently, also lacks the students who are inclined to study them). As usual, one finds far more common ground when referring to a library of mass-market American films of recent years, since these are texts they do all know.

General approaches: