Teaching, Mood Swings, and Literary Miracles

Teaching is such a capricious thing. It is definitely one of the professions that is mood-dependent. It has good days, great days, and absolutely the worst days. What works one time will not go well the next. What you considered as a boring activity is suddenly a hit among students. And what you have worked on during long hours or even days, feels flat and ineffective. You truly never know. You can plan and plan, prepare and prepare, but in the end you just have to go with the flow and be okay with the mood swings, unpredictability and an illusionary sense of control of the teaching job.

Danger! Teacher in bad mood.

It is challenging to lecture when you are in a bad mood. It is ever more demanding to lead seminars and motivate everyone to participate in the discussion when the only thing you want to do is stay silent with your own thoughts. While I think it also depends on the overall group mood, it is mostly up to an instructor to make everyone forget about the outside world for this one hour and plunge into the atmosphere created by a fictional story.

I teach literature at the university – it is a required course for first-year students. They come to my class or, as of now, join zoom meeting, with thoughts about their deadlines for other classes, projects for the courses they have as direct majors, and problems they may have in personal lives. Very often, they are not in the mood for literature, so my job is to change that. Every class is a little performance for me. Despite any issues going on in my life, in class they cease to exist. When the class starts, I find myself “in the element.” This one hour is not about me or even students listening to me. This is the time devoted to a character who struggles with a lethal disease. It is about a character who has broken relationships with parents. This is the moment to sympathize to a character who is abandoned by a loved one and relate to the feeling of loneliness and pain. It is the chance to reflect on life meaning, unfair politics, ongoing social issues, interconnectedness of everything and everyone. When I am in a bad mood, it is the literature that saves me. And I want my students to seek help in books. To forget about deadlines, tests, GPA, and papers. It is the time to think about people, relationships, ideas, truths, and values. Yes, my course is about writing essays and building strong paragraphs, but more than that, it is about building relationships with yourself and others. Science degree will help you find solutions to important issues. Business degree will help you establish successful enterprises and manage companies. But English classes, if you let it, can help you understand yourself and people better. The answers are all there.

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

Miracles happen when all of us – my students and I – are in a good mood. I do not even need to “teach” literature at those moments. Conversations go naturally with one student picking up the thought of another and leading the discussion to new, exciting directions. Revelations are made, and a deeper level of understanding is created. I do not even have to follow my lesson plan – it unravels the way it is supposed to. Students are inspired by the book, and I am inspired by my students. Sometimes I offer a spontaneous activity just because it is the right moment. It goes well at this moment; however, when I try to recreate it with other classes and other students, it does not “click” the same way. Spontaneity is good when it is not repeated or re-attempted. I learned this lesson by now. Every group of students is different, unique. Each has it own vibe, overall atmosphere. Every lesson plan needs to be readjusted, revised, changed completely for each group of students. And sometimes it all depends on the mood of every single participant in the discussion.

Teaching literature is impossible: that is why it is difficult.

I have been teaching literature for 6 years by now, but I still can never predict what activity will be successful among students. It is hard to figure out just exactly “how” to teach literature. Book clubs are usually created for people who share this common passion for reading – and very often they choose the genre they all enjoy the most. At university, however, every semester I have a new group of 40 students. They do not know each other. They do not necessarily love literature or any specific genre. They do not choose to read these texts to discuss them. And precisely for this reason, I find it even more exciting to persuade them that literature is something we can all develop taste for. Literature can unite us in a way no other political party or local community can. Yes, teaching is a capricious thing. It very much depends on the mood of a teacher or students. Yet, its whimsical nature is what makes every class distinctive and memorable. Every student, every semester, every lesson is unlike any other.

It is damn hard to teach literature. Sometimes, it feels utterly impossible, but I will still try to do it. As P. T. Barnum says, “Literature is one of the most interesting and significant expressions of humanity.” If I can teach even a tiny part of it, I will forever be proud.

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