My annual series of posts on ‘This Week in My Classes‘ has come to an end, once again, with the end–not of term, since I won’t file my grades and move on until the 125 exams coming in later this week are marked–but of class meetings. So it’s time again to reflect on what it meant for me to write here about my teaching.
Not much has changed since I first wrote about the experience back in 2008. Then, I emphasized how my initial motivation, to make my work as an English professor more transparent to a skeptical public, had been replaced by a sense of the intrinsic value of being more self-conscious about one of the most important and time-consuming aspects of my job:
I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other ‘non-professional’ interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.
I also noted the benefits of writing more, and more openly: “Though perhaps nobody will read your posts, somebody actually might! And once you realize that, you try to write better–just in case.” And I liked contributing what I hoped might be useful material to the vast reservoir of expertise and enthusiasm that is the ‘blogosphere.’ All of these things are still true, though as I cycle through my classes over the years I am finding that it seems pointless to reiterate what I’ve said before about the readings or themes. I do change up the book list almost every time I offer a course, but rarely by more than one or two books (or else I lose the hard-won benefits of having “prepped” most of the material before–which can be a huge and essential time-saver as I become more senior and take on more administrative responsibilities, and as class sizes, also, creep up, creating more paperwork and demand for my attention from students). Still, this year with the Mystery class in particular it felt a bit repetitive writing up the weekly reports. Yet I still find that when I sit down and make myself give it some thought, I pretty much always get caught up in writing about something that I find interesting. Indeed, my posts seemed to just keep getting longer!
The biggest teaching challenge for me this year was this term’s Brit Lit survey. I wrote often about the rapid pace of it and the disorienting experience of teaching a great deal of material well outside my comfort zone. Intellectually, though it was exhausting, it was also exhilirating, not least because of the treat of returning to writers I hadn’t paid much attention to since my own undergraduate survey class–though it was also interesting to note how the list of potential inclusions had expanded since those long-ago days (I’m quite sure, for instance, that we didn’t read any Elizabeth Barrett Browning back then, not even “How do I love thee?”). Although the day to day prep was intense for this course (the pay-off will be in the fall, when I get to do it all again), the hardest work I put in was before it started, when I researched and then committed to an assignment sequence involving having the tutorial groups build their own Study Guides using PBWiki. I’m in the middle of evaluating the finished projects now, and I am certainly glad I thought so hard about how to explain the assignment and the evaluation criteria. I was full of zeal and enthusiasm about the wikis when the course began, then I began to feel frustrated when I saw what my current review is confirming: most of the students did just fine on their assigned topic but very few entered with any spirit or creativity into the collaborative aspects of wiki-building. On the other hand, as I read through the final versions of all the pages, I’m satisfied that on the whole they put together a valuable resource–something I expect they are realizing now too, as they turn to them to study for their final exam. Some of them put in a lot of effort, too, and some of them, I think, had a little fun. They all learned something about using computers actively, rather than passively consuming content. These seem like good results to me. I don’t know what they thought about having to do this. I’m sure their course evaluations will tell me!
The other experiment I tried was having my graduate students maintain a course blog. Once they warmed up and got over their self-consciousness, they did a great job: they posted question sets and then followed up with comments, and every week there was a lot of lively online discussion that I thought made our classroom time more focused and energetic. I’m hoping they will post some retrospective thoughts about the pros and cons of incorporating that kind of writing into the seminar. I didn’t think it was that different from posting questions and responses to a discussion board, but several of them hadn’t done that for classes before either, and those that had seemed to find this form more exposed, even though the blog was (and so far, remains) password protected.
Writing this post, I realize that though blogging about my teaching has been interesting but not that revelatory this year, blogging has clearly affected my teaching, by giving me experience in new forms of writing and thinking that I think are worth using in pedagogical contexts and by exposing me to a community of innovative scholars like those at the very successful Profhacker site whose posts on using wikis in the classroom gave me courage (and know-how) to be a little bit innovative myself.
Regardless of your feelings about them, your weekly posts about teaching always seem fresh from my perspective. Although I’m now longer on either side of the pedagogical podium, I still find discussions of teaching exciting and I really appreciate that you take the time to discuss yours experiences and experiments.
Thanks, Colleen! And I do typically find something ‘fresh’ to me too–as I would hope, I suppose, or otherwise I’d be turning into one of those parodies of an academic who turns up with yellowed notes and nothing new to say…
I’ve found it very interesting indeed to see what you are teaching, and how you are approaching it. And I love the idea of a graduate blog and wish such things had been possible in my day! I’m not even sure I had email back then…