You know it’s not going to be a great day when only 13 of 22 seminar students are there at the start of class. A few wander in late, but not many. What’s so tough about a 9:30 timeslot, midweek?
Then the stonewalling start. The readings amounted to less than two dozen pages, admittedly not the easiest material but I deliberately downsized my page counts from the last time I taught this seminar on early medieval histories, hoping that quality of analysis would trump quality. Matters aren’t looking so good three weeks into our course.
Some of the students do very well. They participate fairly readily and show that they’ve done the readings. They ask questions when they’re unsure of how to interpret an event, word or entry, but most of the time, their readings are insightful and interesting.
Then there are the students who feel inhibited by their lack of background work. For all sorts of complicated reasons, there’s no way we can require prerequisites even though I always ensure that I offer a suitable prereq the year before the related seminar. So I can’t simply growl at them to take the prereq. And suggesting they pick up a general textbook on the era doesn’t seem to crack the nut of “I don’t know nothing about the Middle Ages, Prof A!”
Others are simply unsure of themselves, despite having done quite well in the prereqs. Perhaps I intimidate them when I make an offhand joke about the sources we’re studying or try to fill in the overlong silence by sharing an anecdote about the Emperor Valens. I reassure them that they’re not expected to know Latin or master the whole period just to participate in class, but I sense their disbelief in face of my reassurance.
Finally, there are some students are simply not going to speak up unless I prod them directly. There are always a few of those, so I’m not too worried. I was just hoping with only twenty-two in the class, they’d have nowhere to hide. But the vast majority of the class, either by physical absence or ducking the participation expectations, drag the seminar experience down.
Next week we’re tackling Jordanes’ History of the Goths. The page count goes up a bit and I’m biting my nails already, wondering how class will run.