This Week in My Class Prep: Sorting, Drafting, and Pondering

The beginning of classes is getting close enough that working on class prep no longer seems like just a way of avoiding more amorphous (and thus more stressful) tasks like research and writing. All summer, of course, I’ve been doing reading and thinking with my seminar on the Somerville novelists in mind, but now I’ve got a draft syllabus including a tentative assignment sequence. I’ve also been working on a prezi to accompany my opening remarks on the first day. At this point my plan is to sketch out the contexts that I think will be most relevant to our discussions of our four main texts: the history of women at Oxford, the suffrage movement, World War I, and modernism. As I work out details for the course requirements (still only provisionally decided) I am trying to balance a more open-ended attitude than is typical of even my upper-level courses with enough structure that everyone feels confident about expectations and standards.

Right now I’m feeling a bit panicky about this course, to be honest: I am personally very interested in the material, and I’m hopeful that the students will also find it interesting and have enough genuine curiosity and drive to make it work. But at the same time I worry that my expertise won’t be deep enough to support them if their interests take them too far afield, and that what seems enticingly open-ended to me will feel aimless or vague to them. Still, I’m glad not to be doing yet another round of one of my more familiar seminars: even though I could set up and run ‘The Victorian Woman Question’ or ‘Sensation Fiction’ or even ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ quite easily, as I’ve taught each of these seminars multiple times now, it is more exciting and intellectually challenging to be trying something new, and my being fresh has got to be beneficial to the students at some level. As I finalize the organizational details, I’ll keep reading background and critical sources to build up my confidence in the course content. This week I solicited advice on Twitter and got a great list of recommendations for books on World War I, most of which I was able to round up from the library. This week I’ll be adding to my collection of sources on women and modernism, and doing some reviewing of our four primary texts to help me decide on the reading installments for the schedule. And tidying up instructions for the wiki assignment. And … so many other things.

Because I won’t be changing much at all in this year’s version of the Mystery and Detective Fiction class (I shook up the reading list last year), my other main worry right now is my section of English 1000, Introduction to Literature. It hasn’t been that long since I taught an intro class, but most recently I’ve been doing one of our half-year versions, whereas in 2012-13 I’m doing a full-year section for the first time since 2000-2001! The half-year course I did was just “prose and fiction” (there’s a second course on poetry and drama that completes the intro requirement for students). The full-year version is supposed to address all of the major genres, so that’s one difference. The other difference, of course, is just having a lot more time with the same group, which is a great opportunity to develop both relationships and skills. Because book orders were due in the spring, that part of the course planning was already done (and there too I got very helpful input from people on Twitter, especially about choosing a contemporary novel to round out the syllabus). Now I’m sorting the readings into some kind of order and mapping out writing assignments, keeping in mind the various rules for the university’s Writing Requirements and our departmental policies on first-year courses.

The objectives for Introduction to Literature are quite broad and include both literary and composition skills. Aside from having to work on all the major genres, practice writing about literature, and give explicit attention to grammar, punctuation, and citations, what we do in Intro is pretty much up to us–which is nice, of course, but it also leaves every decision pretty wide open. So far I’ve decided to use the fall term for units on essays, short fiction, and poetry, drawing on the anthologies I’ve ordered, and to bundle the longer readings in the winter term. I’m pairing Night and The Road, and doing a poetry interval on grief, despair, and death to go along with them; and then I’m pairing Unless and A Room of One’s Own, with a women’s poetry cluster including Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Margaret Atwood to set that up. We won’t be spending a lot of time on drama, but we’ll be reading one short play in the fall term. There’s time for me to add another one for the winter, but I’ve already discovered that once I set aside time for writing workshops, peer editing, and so forth, there’s not enough time to read all the poetry I’d like to cover, so I’m reluctant to crowd the schedule even more. I know some of my colleagues don’t assign any essays in their intro sections, so I figure I’m following the rules at least as well as they are! I really look forward to teaching poetry, which I don’t typically get much chance to do (last year, with English 3000, was another welcome opportunity). Students often mutter things about not “getting” poetry, or simply declare that they don’t like it–to which I typically reply that they should not, then, be English majors! Though novels are my first love as a reader, I do consider poetry the highest form of literary art.

At 30 students, my intro section this year will be the smallest first-year class I’ve ever taught at Dal: as part of a curriculum restructuring a couple of years ago, we introduced one extremely large section (largely with the aim of guaranteeing our TA allotment and thus funding for our graduate students) and (the silver lining) turned some of the remaining sections into these little baby ones. 30 isn’t really tiny, of course: at Cornell, I got to teach a writing seminar capped at 17, and that’s a size that makes serious one-on-one attention possible. Our sections of 30 will have no TA support, so it will be just me and them–all year long! Though with no TA I’ll have the same marking load as in the formerly-standard sections of 60, I will certainly be able to give them more personalized attention overall, especially during class discussion and workshops.

Demand for these small sections has been very strong: I think they all have waiting lists of at least 20. I hope that the students who get spaces in them appreciate that it is increasingly rare to be face to face with a (relatively senior!) professor like this for a full year. Inevitably I’ve been reflecting on all the hype around MOOCs as I plan my classes this year and trying to understand why it is so easy for some pundits to talk as if a teacher’s personal interaction with her students is an expendable part of the learning process. I know that many kinds of interaction are possible online (given my own range of online activities, I hardly need to be told that!), and for years I have supplemented my classroom time with a variety of technological options, from holding office hours in chat rooms to curating discussion boards or hosting class blogs and Twitter feeds. So much of the inspiration and motivation for students’ learning, though, comes from what happens between us when we look each other in the eye! And I don’t mean just for them: for me, too, it is often critical to be focused completely on the student, which often includes interpreting what they are trying to say, rather than what words are actually coming out. Moving towards understanding is a very fluid, dynamic, interactive process. And I do so much more with their writing than mark things right or wrong–and it takes so much time! With adequate resources, I suppose much of this could be done in some virtual way, but at some point, without that live classroom experience, this would cease to be a job I’d want to do. I guess I feel that way particularly at this point in the summer, when my own energy and motivation is flagging from sheer lack of human contact. When colleagues ask me how my summer’s going, they typically look shocked when I reply that it’s going slowly and I miss the energy of the teaching term (even though I do  rather dread the hectic pace of it!).  I had just this conversation again just yesterday, in fact. But it’s true!

5 thoughts on “This Week in My Class Prep: Sorting, Drafting, and Pondering

  1. Alex August 18, 2012 / 4:54 pm

    I simply never understood those of my colleagues who prefer the university when it’s quiet without any students around. I could never wait for term to begin.

    I’m interested, what is your one play? I suppose because drama has always been my first love I used to fill my Introduction to Literature course with modern drama, probably at the expense of the poetry.


  2. Dorian Stuber August 19, 2012 / 10:44 pm

    You have colleagues who don’t assign *any* essays in an intro course?!?!


  3. Rohan August 20, 2012 / 9:29 am

    Alex, it’s Susan Glaspell’s Trifles: we’ll also be reading the short story version, “A Jury of Her Peers,” so I hope this will open up some helpful discussion about the difference genre makes.

    Dorian, just to be clear, I mean few or no essays for the students to read, not that they don’t have the students write essays!


  4. Susan Messer August 20, 2012 / 10:24 am


    Thanks for this post. I love these behind-the-scenes looks at class preparation and professorial anxieties and aspirations.



  5. Dorian Stuber August 21, 2012 / 1:28 am

    Ah, phew, glad to hear it!


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