This Week In My Classes: Coercive Pedagogy

keepcalmstudyMonday was my last day of class meetings, and now I’ve moved into the exams-and-essays phase of the term. I have mixed feelings about both final exams and final essays, but for different reasons. Final essays can be triumphant culminations of a term’s work, the products of significant reflection and practice.  But they can also be perfunctory hoop-jumping or last-minute rush jobs, and because they are final, there’s no hope that you can turn them into learning opportunities. I still comment pretty thoroughly on them, but I bet we all have that disheartening file of uncollected papers stashed away in our offices: for some students, the recorded grade (which we often see as the least important part of our evaluations) is all that matters. (One of my favorite things about electronic submissions is that I can email them the marked papers, which at least puts the ball back in their courts — and doesn’t increase my clutter.) I often rethink how I approach or build up to a final essay assignment, but I never rethink including a final essay, or essay option, in my courses: organizing ideas about literature into well-supported analysis is just too fundamental to my goals for the courses, and indeed to my ideas about the discipline of literary studies.

I do often rethink holding final exams, however. Again the results for individual students can be triumphant or passable or disastrous, but though they can produce flashes (occasionally even pages!) of brilliance, and though I try to make them meaningful reflections of the course objectives, I don’t really believe in the exam as a form that’s intrinsically worthwhile. Yet especially in recent years I hold exams in every class except 4th-year seminars. Why? Because knowing that there will be a final exam turns out to be highly motivating for a lot of students in ways that benefit them, and the course, over the rest of the term. It encourages attendance, note-taking, and (most important) doing the readings, which means it reinforces the things students need to do to be actively rather than passively present (and by actively present I don’t necessarily mean participating vocally in discussion, but just being ready and able to follow and mentally engage with what’s going on). Even for students who are highly motivated intrinsically, there are a lot of competing demands on their time and effort, and it’s rational (if sometimes regrettable) that they make choices about how to invest them based on the immediate consequences of not doing so. If mine is the only class in which the consequences are not conspicuous and quantifiable, then it may lose out in the inevitable triage. Exams, then, are one of my strategies for literalizing and enforcing my expectation that they do the work for my class too. And it does help: one sure way to focus the attention in the room is to point out that whatever we are doing — whether it’s sorting out some details of literary history or analyzing a passage from a novel — is the kind of thing that they will also be expected to do on the exam.

But final exams seem pretty far away for most of the term, and students can count on having time to catch up on notes or readings after classes end. So like most teachers, I require students to do a lot of other things that have both pedagogical and coercive aspects — depending on the class, these might include reading quizzes, in-class writing starts, online discussion threads, question sets, or reading responses, for example. The primary purpose of these smaller assignments (as opposed to the weightier ones like essays or seminar presentations, which have loftier aims) is simply to encourage students to keep up with the reading — so, they are pedagogical tools because in an English class, the readings are the main focus of all of our class time, but they are coercive because, oddly enough, students often don’t seem motivated to do the reading if there aren’t marks immediately tied to it.

I kind of hate the whole circular logic of that, though. If I tie marks to doing the reading, I am tacitly agreeing that you should be rewarded for doing what I actually believe you should just do because after all, if you don’t, what’s the point? Aren’t you in class in the first place because you want to learn about the books on the reading list — not just to read them but to grapple with them, question them, argue about them, make sense of them, see how they work? If you decide you’re fine with just showing up and letting everyone else have the fun of actually knowing what we’re talking about, isn’t that your problem, anyway, not mine? But then I go around the question again and think how often we all need to be prodded into doing things that, afterwards, we realize the benefit of. And I think how much better the class meeting is when a critical mass of students can contribute in an informed way. And I remember the arms race we’re all in: if their chem prof, or their stats prof, or their Spanish prof outbids me in the quest for their time and attention, then nobody wins! We’ve all seen attendance drop off in our intro classes around midterm time, right? And how many of us have had students tell us blithely that they missed class for a chem lab or a math midterm, or something else they felt they couldn’t fudge? I want to at least be in the game.

letter_paper_and_pen_vector_275746In my 19th-century novels class this term I tried what I hoped would be a more flexible and intrinsically valuable approach than the reading quiz: I required students to keep an online reading journal, using the journals tool in Blackboard. (I don’t like Blackboard in general, but this particular feature seemed unusually streamlined and user-friendly, so I took a chance on it.) The requirements were simple: three posts per novel minimum (no more than one per day for credit), at least 150 words and in full sentences. This way I figured they could keep track of their reading at their own pace, get regular small-scale practice writing (with the chance of regular quick feedback from me), and end up with a useful record of ideas and observations. After the first round, though, I realized that I had not been coercive enough: easily 75% of students did all three of their journals on the last three possible days, and often their posts suggested that they were way behind on the reading. What I hadn’t done, you see, is explicitly tie credit for the journals to the portions of the novels assigned for each class meeting, or insist that they stagger their work so that they were writing and thinking throughout our time on each novel. Silly  me: I thought they would just be doing that anyway, and that self-interest and forethought would motivate them to do a journal here, a journal there — rather than piling them all on at the end. But apparently all that many of them wanted (and therefore got) out of the exercise was the credit for having done it. There were certainly some students who approached the whole exercise in exactly the spirit I hoped for, and kudos to them. My strong suspicion (and in some cases, my past experience) is that these are the students who don’t need coercion anyway: they’re just into it, and more power to them. But they are a minority.

So my question heading into the next iteration of this course is just how much more coercive I should be: is it really up to me to micromanage when students write and what they write on in order to make them get the wider benefits from the exercise if I possibly can? It’s exhausting, after a while, providing all the incentives and policing all the rules. But it is also exhausting asking provocative questions about Tess of the d’Urbervilles and getting mostly blank stares in response (and shocked gasps when I “reveal” how the novel ends!). Must I make it worth their while in some tangible way to show up ready for that conversation? I’d really rather just expect them to and not be disappointed. I’m thinking, though, that next time I try this I won’t make it three posts per novel but one, or maybe two, posts per week, and I’ll tighten the requirements for getting full credit so that their posts must reflect specific knowledge of the reading installments assigned for that week. At the very least that will distribute their work (and thus mine) better across the term.

Do you fret about how to get your students to do the reading for your classes? A colleague of mine recently expressed concern and frustration that often her students are showing up without even bringing their course packs to class — not having the text in hand even if you’ve read it (and I think she believes they are also not doing the readings) is also a real problem for class discussion. But are we just perpetuating the wrong idea about why to do things (to get a gold star!) if we give marks for something as fundamental as that? Or (to go around the circle once more) are we pragmatically using whatever tools work to make sure everyone gets the most value out of the course experience? And is it their problem if they aren’t doing the reading, or ours — or both?

5 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Coercive Pedagogy

  1. Stacey April 16, 2013 / 1:07 pm

    Great column, Rohan, and so timely. I, too, do low stakes in class writing to “get” students to keep up with the readings. But this term, I’m framing them a little differently. As I’ve explained to students, the in class freewrites are effectively serving three purposes:

    a. to encourage them to keep up with the reading
    b. to give them space to develop ideas BEFORE we discuss the novel in class–in fact, I ask them to ADD to their own writing during and after class discussion to see how their original interpretation/analysis deepens, or changes.
    c. to serve, possibly, as a very rough draft of their formal reading journals due every other week and/or their midterm/final take home essay exam.

    It feels less like busy work to me and to them when I use the in class writing as scaffolding. Interestingly, the freewriting I read last night was fabulous—lots of great ideas in messy handwriting!


  2. Yonina Hoffman April 17, 2013 / 7:17 am

    What an eternal problem! In my classes, I tend to do regular reading-check quizzes – they take ~6 minutes and I have heard explicitly from students that it’s enough of a motivator to keep them on track. Otherwise, I try to keep them on their toes by using random notecard-draws to cold-call (they fill out the card at the beginning of the semester, I have them every class, and it ensures that no one feels as if they’re being unfairly picked on). When we don’t have time for a reading quiz or I feel confident that most of them are on track, that’s my preferred method. I understand your worries that this gives them credit for doing what they’re already supposed to do, but you could also see it in the reverse – a pre-set penalty for having failed to do their work.

    It’s unfortunate to wield power that way, but I’ve learned that most will consistently do as little as possible (whether out of laziness or, as you say, competing demands on their time). I recently gave a student a low grade on an essay, and after his initial response of “English isn’t supposed to be this hard,” he started coming to office hours more than any other student.

    Force them to take class seriously and, I think, most of them will – to everyone’s benefit.


  3. Rohan April 18, 2013 / 4:35 pm

    Stacey, I really like the idea of having them add to their writing during class. That connection between their work and our collective work is one I’m always struggling to make.

    Yonina, I hate to concede the “as little as possible” thesis and yet … my experience does back it up for a majority. Your anecdote suggests the stakes need to be high enough. I have always avoided cold-calling, because I was a quiet student (everyone who knows me now is thinking “that has changed!”) and got very anxious at the thought of being called on unexpectedly. But I may try a version of those calling cards in my intro class next year – again, low stakes, but setting the expectation that they are prepared and present not just physically but mentally as well. It’s the kind of thing that could potentially be discontinued if they prove willing to contribute spontaneously.

    And I think next term’s Victorian novels class can look forward to the Return of the Reading Quiz.


    • Yonina Hoffman April 18, 2013 / 6:12 pm

      Yes, the plight of the anxious student. In one of David Foster Wallace’s syllabi he advises students that they will need to engage in discussion, and if they are too shy/anxious/uncomfortable to do that in class, then they will need to visit him for discussion in office hours.

      It seems like that could be sensitive to outliers and yet maintain a standard of engagement – and I’ve had some pretty productive one-on-one conversations with students in this way.


  4. Elizabeth April 20, 2017 / 2:34 pm

    I’ve tried short quizzes, but I found I hated keeping up with the tiddly grading more than the motivation factor was worth. This semester I’m trying very brief reading journals that I take up two or three times, and they have been most helpful for the students who, I suspect, would have been doing the reading anyway. This last round, I found at least one journal that had obviously been written up in one fell swoop, with 13 entries getting sketchier and sketchier until the last few were just a few lines randomly copied from the text.

    I think next time I might combine these journals with Yonina’s “random note card” method for cold-calling, as it seems it would both motivate regular preparation and prevent me from relying on those who are already likely to volunteer.


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