Teaching to the Six, times 12


This past week I read a couple of articles in conversation with one another about teaching. Michael Berube’s “Teaching to the Six,” published in Volume 2 of Pedagogy, and KimĀ Hensley Owens’ response, “Teaching ‘the Six’–and Beyond,” published in Volume 9 of the same journal.

In the initial article, Berube, a professor of literature, describes “focusing pedagogical energies only on a small group of well-prepared, already engaged students” (Owens 389). Though Berube does preface this with six thoughtful and diverse talking points that range from thoughts about writing, and teaching and their relationship to each other, to comments on the purpose of undergraduate education, the take-home point of the article is that “six” is an ideal student population, and that teachers of literature in particular need only focus attention on those students who might actually go on to a career in literature scholarship.

Owens diplomatically calls this claim “provocative and interesting,” but I am not so generous. I was quite happy, then, to see Owens respond to Berube in a thoughtful and (in my view) pedagogically sound way that does not seem to neglect large swaths of the student population.

Berube comes up with his magic number–six–through describing a sample of twenty papers he received in the course of a semester, of which only six were “terrific.” And though he wishes for less “abominable” papers, Owens wryly counters, “but wishing, as we all know, does not make it so. Scaffolding might, however.

I appreciate that Owens provides a thoughtful critique of “Teaching to the Six,” while also supplying practical suggestions for ways to reach beyond one’s six top students, to the core of the class, and beyond. In her article she seems to be encouraging Berube, and others who might share his opinion, to not only view their students as fellow writers (“…consider the lessons …learned…the revisions, the time, and the scaffolding offered by editors” p. 393) but also to think more like teachers and less like beleaguered writer-researchers saddled with unwanted teaching time. My teacher-heart sung as I read:

“I taught the course with an attitude of genuine expectation, believing that my class–my entire class–could be composed of the brightest, the most engaged, the best-prepared students on campus.”

As a lecturer who specializes in First Year Writing courses, my job centers around teaching. I love it. I am, at the core, a teacher. (It is, as Parker Palmer would say, my vocation.) I am responsible for three sections (3/3) of my university’s general education requirement for Basic Composition each semester. In other words, I teach a cross-section of our students one of the most foundational courses. And I have upwards of 75 students each semester.

That’s roughly six-times-twelve students. Pardon me, Berube, if I laugh a little bit at your 20 papers and only finding a handful “abominable.” I am not insensible of the fact that teaching a literature course means teaching more experienced students, or that tenure track (or tenured) positions bring with them loads that are significantly lighter, more specialized and target more upper-level students than mine. But I think that is also a huge part of the impetus I have to teach to ALL my students, not just the middle, the upper half, or “the Six.” Teaching a general education requirement ties my work in the classroom closely (perhaps more closely than it should be) to the university-wide goals of student retention and graduation rates. It has become crucial for my teaching to reach my whole class, so that each and every student might be supported and retained and kept on track to graduate. Beyond those depressingly institutional-based reasons, I desire, as Owens does, to see in all of my students the spark of engagement, the creative fire of scholars appropriating their educations, the gleam of the “brightest and best.” I desire this, because I believe that my expectations can raise (or lower) my students’ performance.

“We can easily teach the six, but we can–and we must–also teach beyond the six.”

I couldn’t agree more.