My Somerville Summer Continues: Course Planning!

I continue to read both primary and secondary sources in preparation for my fall seminar on “The Somerville Novelists.” Most recently I’ve been going through Holtby’s Women and a Changing Civilization and Brittain’s Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II, as well as reviewing some of their journalism: my idea at this point is to launch the course with some excerpts that will both give a sense of their voices and use their own work to set up some of the major themes and contexts, from the history of women at Oxford to the relationship between gender and literary form. Ideally, the bits and pieces I choose will show off their personalities and get the group excited to learn more about them. Then I think we’ll read a small sampling of some relevant critical writing, again to set up themes and contexts and to give us some frameworks for discussion going forward into our four common texts: Testament of YouthSouth RidingGaudy Night, and The Constant Nymph.

I often organize my upper-level seminars around group presentations, usually one for each major reading, with individual reading responses and final papers for the other assignments. This time I’m thinking that one major component will be a collaborative wiki: given the relative obscurity of our readings, I think it’s apt (and hope it will be motivating) if we think about the class as an opportunity for genuine knowledge creation, building what might actually be a resource for other people interested in our authors and topics. I’ve used wikis in a larger lecture class before (following very much the model used by Jason Jones, described here) but that was less about generating ideas (though I hoped there would be some of that, and there was) and more about recording and synthesizing. In this case, with a smaller group of more advanced students, I imagine deciding as a group, after we’ve been reading and talking for a while, what kinds of information and what kind of organization will best serve what we are thinking and talking about. I’ll have to frame it carefully to make sure we have a shared sense of what we hope to accomplish and how their contributions will be evaluated–that’s going to be the tricky part, balancing what I want to be more open-ended and creative participation with the pragmatic bottom line that I have to give them grades and my expectations thus need to be clear and specific.

We’re reading only four texts together, chosen partly based on what’s available and partly to leave them room to explore in other directions: there is no “canon” of readings for a course on this topic (and even the topic itself is more of a convenience than a coherent category). So my idea for another course component is to provide a list of further reading and have each of them choose, study, and then present on one of the books there. I think they will also create wiki pages on their special topics. In order to allow enough time for presentations on twenty different authors (or at least twenty different books), I’m considering using the “Pecha Kucha” format (discussed here, with links). Even with those limits, in order to allow for transitions between students and some time for Q&A, I’ll need to set aside nearly two weeks worth of class meetings for them, but I think it could be a great way to have everyone involved individually while everyone is looking at, or for, patterns and connections across a diverse range of material. We would be working out our own ideas about literary history this way, looking at how whatever narratives we come up with fit or don’t fit into the ones we will look at in existing histories of early 20th-century literature, asking questions about what’s missing and what matters and how we decide what’s included. Though I love the idea of bringing this much variety into the class–and letting students follow their own interests, in making their selections, which should bring a high degree of buy-in to the project–I think there’s a risk that this process could feel quite miscellaneous: again, I’ll have to set up the assignment with enough structure that everyone feels confident about how to proceed.

At the moment, I am thinking that there will also be a more conventional critical essay as the final course requirement, probably focusing on at least one of our four core texts.

If I go ahead with the wiki-based projects, one thing I’ll also have to use class time for is some hands-on training. I used PB Works before and expect to use it again, as it is quite user-friendly. What I had the hardest time with on my previous wiki assignment was getting student participation beyond the bare minimum I had set as requirements, particularly with “gardening” (regular fixing and tidying and improving and weeding and pruning, as it were!). Ideally, the students will feel accountable to each other and invested in the work out of interest, as much as they feel answerable to me. Overcoming any technological anxieties and making it seem easy and fun will be key! And in my experience these are not “digital natives,” at least not in a way that means anything in the context of actually building things online, as opposed to tapping apps or texting.


2 thoughts on “My Somerville Summer Continues: Course Planning!

  1. Erin Johnson July 26, 2012 / 4:11 pm

    Goodness, this sounds like fun (though also hard work). As a doctoral student looking forward to doing some teaching in the fall (Oscar Wilde, Oxford tutorial-style), it’s really interesting to see some of your thought processes regarding assignments, material coverage, and assessment. Thank you for discussing these things on the blog!

    Also, this sounds like a fascinating course. I really need to go ahead and visit Somerville; I’ve been curious to see what it looks like inside ever since arriving in Oxford.


  2. Rohan July 27, 2012 / 11:02 am

    Thanks, Erin: it’s actually quite helpful to try writing out some of the ideas that are turning around and around in my head. I didn’t go see Somerville when I was in Oxford a couple of years ago and now, of course, I wish I had. You should definitely wander by!


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