The past week has been all about getting organized: packing and cleaning up from Christmas, sorting the kids out to get back to school, and sorting myself out to be ready for the start of winter term classes tomorrow. I wasn’t starting from scratch, happily, but I made some adjustments to my plans for my Introduction to Literature class, which continues from last term, and finalized the plans for The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy, which is just beginning.
Reflecting on the first term’s work in Intro, what I decided was that this term I want to get the students more involved. They’ve been a good group: diligent, attentive, and basically cooperative for class discussion, group work, and peer editing. My sense is, though, that most of them did not sign up for the class because they were passionately interested in literature or in becoming literary critics. For most of them, English just seemed like the default option for their mandatory writing requirement. Dal’s writing courses are based on a ‘writing across the curriculum’ model, though, which means that our courses are not composition classes but are intended to introduce students to the methods of our discipline. Most of our upper-level courses have one or the other of these introductory classes as their prerequisites, with the program as a whole building up to increasingly specialized critical work. I’ve always taken this discipline-specific mission pretty seriously, not by working in literary theory or anything but by focusing on ways to talk precisely about things like poetic form or narration or characterization, and by working hard on how to develop and support an interpretive argument. Though this does vary by background and training, first-year students very often arrive having done little analytical work in English classes: their experience tends towards book reports or personal (or even creative) responses. So there’s lots to be learned, and that’s what we focused on in the fall.
Now I’d like things to — not loosen, so much as liven up. There is still a fair amount of uncertainty about literary terminology and about how to think your way through to a strong and interesting thesis, but the focus will be on practising, on doing, even more than before. So I want more class discussion, more partner and group work, more students talking in class, and maybe to the rest of the class. I want them to feel in their bones that class time when I’m not talking can be some of the most valuable, rather than least valuable, time: that trading ideas with each other and challenging each other is our version of doing labs, and, above all, that just staring at the words on the page is not enough to prepare for class. Finally, having spent a lot of the first term telling them what they need to learn and do, I want them to take over the task of motivating themselves: I want them to identify their strengths and weaknesses and consider these in relation to their goals for the course. One way to put it is that I have brought them to the water and now they need to decide if they will drink ! Another way to put it is that having, I hope, established a clear framework for their learning, I can gradually get out of their way.
I don’t think I’m talking about a drastic shift (it’s not as if I micromanaged every aspect of their work or our discussions last term) but it is something I want to be deliberate about. So what I decided to do this week is to work on personalizing the course for them by replacing a couple of our first class meetings with one-on-one conferences in which we’ll discuss their work in the course so far and their goals and expectations for the rest of it. I’m asking them to do a self-assessment for their first journal assignment, to bring along to the meeting with me: that way I know they will have given some thought to the purpose of our little chat. I think it will be useful for them to take stock, and asking them to so in writing that they submit will show them that I am interested in their ideas. My experience has also been that individual meetings help students get more comfortable with me, and help me understand better who exactly they are and how I might be useful to them. It’s relatively rare for me to have a small enough class that I can afford the time to require such conferences, but in this case not only is it the smallest intro section I’ve ever taught but it’s also a full-year course–a real luxury these days–so the logistics aren’t overwhelming. Here’s hoping the effects are beneficial.
I taught the Dickens to Hardy class just last winter, but with a book list that was 100% different, so I won’t be just coasting along this time. This year’s reading list is thematically unified (sort of) around troublesome women, and it includes two novels I’ve never lectured on (Cranford and Tess), so I’ll be busy finding out what I have to say, and what I want us to discuss, about them. I’ve also tweaked the assignments again, introducing online reading journals and what I’m calling “mini-midterms” as ways of stimulating and measuring attention on a regular basis, and then assigning one short paper for everyone followed by the option of a longer research paper or a final exam. I found I just didn’t have the stomach for the letter exchange assignment I used for many years. While pedagogically I think having them write really frequently is very beneficial, I was exhausted by organizing all the bits and pieces and dealing with students who (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for no reason at all) messed up the system. For the short papers this time, I’m allowing them to choose which of our first novels they write on and thus which deadline they meet. I almost decided against this because I was worried they’d all gravitate towards the latest deadline and thus (oh no!) nobody would write on Bleak House (which we’re reading first). But then it occurred to me that I don’t much want to read essays on Bleak House by students who don’t actually want to write on Bleak House, and the mini-midterms give them an incentive to read it on schedule, at least … and the same goes for the other books. Surely I can trust them to manage their time and follow their hearts. In the worst case scenario, I get 40 essays on Lady Audley’s Secret and they have to wait a while to get them back.