This Week In My Classes: Letting Go

scaffoldingWe are rapidly nearing the end of term, which means a lot of time and thought on all sides is going into final assignments. In my Intro to Lit class, I’m particularly conscious of this phase of the course as a time in which I pull back and see if the scaffolding I have tried to build for the students, starting on the first day of classes, supports them now that they have to do their biggest independent project. Last week I gave them a self-assessment exercise that, among other things, asked them to let me know what they thought the teaching staff could do to help them succeed — what else, I should say, since it’s not as if my TAs and I have been passive so far. It was useful to see what they identified as their own strengths and weaknesses. Their anxiety pretty clearly centers on building a viable and interesting argument out of the details they notice while reading. A number of students said that they wished we would “explain” the readings to them more clearly: as I discussed with the class, if this means “tell them the answer to the readings,” tell them what to argue about them, then they aren’t going to get their wish, since learning to develop and support their own interpretations is really the primary course objective. I’ve been stressing the process that leads to a good interpretation, which is what we model and practice in every class, but I’m not going to offer them a “nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks and keep on the mantel-piece forever,” even if (as Woolf ironically observes) this is “the first duty of a lecturer.”

Still, I can see that it’s stressful working towards a goal that maybe you can’t quite picture, not having seen a strong thesis before, or not having seen details from a close reading integrated into an essay’s overall argument. So I devised a couple of exercises that I hope have helped bring that desired result into better focus, including a handout with a sample paragraph drawing on an example we’d worked on together in class, and in today’s tutorial we’re working with a sample thesis statement for a text they aren’t writing on for their final essays (as I told them, I don’t want 61 essays all arguing for my interpretation of Unless!) and, again, a process-oriented worksheet focusing on choosing good evidence and organizing it into an interpretive argument. I hope this boosts their confidence about what to do — what steps to take — and makes them feel better about the fact that they need to do it in service of their best reading and thinking about the novel. I have said since day 1 that there aren’t “right answers” to the kind of work a critic does. There can be wrong ones (if you just flat out misunderstand the words on the page, for instance), but after that there are just better, more convincing ones or weaker, less persuasive ones. Next week they have drafts due and tutorials will be spent on peer editing, so that gives them one more chance to run their plans past another reader before they commit fully.

mylifeinmiddlemarchMy graduate students too are facing end-of-term hurdles. Here my scaffolding has been somewhat less meticulous or overt, but I hope our directed conversations all term have given them lots of ideas to work with as well as a good sense of how to talk about them. They also wrote proposals for their final essays last week, which I have returned to them with comments and suggestions. For the next two weeks, our class time will be dedicated to their presentations. In previous years I’ve integrated presentations into the term’s work, but this year I wanted to use them to extend our class discussions beyond the assigned readings, so I have two students presenting on works by George Eliot that weren’t otherwise on our syllabus, and three presenting on contemporary interpretations of Eliot’s work — Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda. (These were the students’ choices from a menu of options I gave them.) I’m looking forward to these! I have kept my own reviews of Souhami and Mead a bit under wraps (though I suppose the students might turn them up during their research) as I didn’t want to preempt what might be very different responses.

In terms of my own teaching chores, I’m in a bit of a lull at this point. There are still classes to prep on Unless, but I’ve got notes to work with, and I’ve drafted both the quiz I still need to give in Intro and the peer editing worksheet they’ll use. It will all come crashing upon me at once as soon as classes actually end, though, with both sets of papers coming in and the final exam for Intro scheduled the very first day of the exam period. I’m taking advantage of this week’s lighter demands by getting a start on the syllabi for next term. I’m also digging in to Portrait of a Lady, which I had been making only slow progress on. It really isn’t that irritating, it turns out — or maybe I’m just acclimatizing.

Update: As Stacey requested in the comments, here are the handouts I drew up for my Intro class to model and them help them practice moving from close reading details to using those details to support an interpretation: English 1010 Worksheets Close Reading in Context.

7 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Letting Go

  1. Stacey Donohue November 27, 2015 / 3:34 pm

    As always, thank you for your This Week in My Classes Post! They are always a pleasure to read.

    Would you be willing to share the assignments you tried below, Rohan? I have tried something similar with sample paragraphs and essays, but struggle with the choosing good evidence and the explanation of the evidence bit: I either get a paragraph full of quotations and no explanation, or vice versa.

    “So I devised a couple of exercises that I hope have helped bring that desired result into better focus, including a handout with a sample paragraph drawing on an example we’d worked on together in class, and in today’s tutorial we’re working with a sample thesis statement for a text they aren’t writing on for their final essays (as I told them, I don’t want 61 essays all arguing for my interpretation of Unless!) and, again, a process-oriented worksheet focusing on choosing good evidence and organizing it into an interpretive argument.”


    • Rohan Maitzen November 27, 2015 / 8:49 pm

      Sure! I’ve added a PDF to the end of the post, since I wasn’t sure how else to include them. The first handout with the sample paragraph drew heavily on a class discussion we had of a particular excerpt from the novel: many of the “close reading” details in the paragraph come straight from things students said about the example. I wanted to give them a model of how to use what they had already shown they could find in the text. Then I’ve asked them to go through the same process with another example — I’m trying to build their confidence about the process so (to address Jo’s point below) they won’t worry so much about “right” answers but will focus on how to explain and support their own conclusions.

      During class I also pointed out how the suggested argument I gave with my sample paragraph actually contains a kind of road map in it for what the essay as a whole needs to do. I tried to figure out, again, how to get them to practice that process, but without my just handing them an argument to make about Unless — so I turned back to “Araby” (which we read earlier this term) and tried to break it into steps.


  2. Jo VanEvery November 27, 2015 / 7:24 pm

    I think one of the underlying problems, especially for first year students, is that many of them don’t believe that there isn’t a right answer. Their experience of education to date has been that there are preferred answers and some will even have had the experience of teachers saying they don’t mind but very clearly having strong opinions.

    The move towards assessing schools by their students’ performance also means that many have not been allowed to take risks because if those risks don’t pan out the school loses out (not sure if that is as big a problem in Canada as in the UK, but I suspect it is there).

    What you are asking them to do is take risks. This is important and what university ought to be about, but 1st year students find it pretty daunting, despite the scaffolding. It sounds like you’ve got quite a lot in place so I hope their experience of taking this risk is a good one so they can continue to do this kind of thing and develop those skills.

    This is probably the hardest part about teaching first year though: the enculturation.


  3. Ali November 28, 2015 / 9:20 pm

    I am fascinated by this post and read your worksheet with avid interest. In high school (ninth and tenth grade English–I went to a rigorous private school), we learned to do something like this. I have always loved English and literature classes, but I was not as strong as I wanted to be at writing papers like this about novels. I went to one of the larger Ivy League colleges took a few English classes, one of which was a small seminar. We had to read a book every few weeks, and I recall writing a paper about Sister Carrie and getting a B because I didn’t provide good enough arguments or evidence. Because I never got the knack of writing papers of interpretation, I decided to major in history–I was much better at writing those papers (and of course, I did enjoy the subject matter, too).

    Today I write proposals for a living, and while I am a strong writer, I still battle with some of my old challenges (like structure and phrasing). I am much, much better at editing than I am at writing, and I know my grammar rules very, very well. (I took Latin in additon to French in high school so that helped tremendously, but I diagrammed sentences as part of my education–and I had an English teacher who gave automatic Fs for comma splices!) It’s funny now because I find that some of the English professors I work with have a harder time writing and structuring proposals than the scientists!

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post, and I find it interesting to see how you teach fundamental topics for your writing class. Also I’m curious if you ever did work like this in college, or if you learned this information before college?


    • Rohan Maitzen November 29, 2015 / 5:54 pm

      Ali, it sounds like in some ways you had much better explicit training than I did! Never once during my undergraduate degree did I ever get detailed instructions or models for writing an interpretive essay. I got no handouts even remotely like the ones I show here: at most, at least as far as I recall, we were told paper topics, and then expected to figure out what to do. And I got very little feedback on essays: I still remember verbatim the comments on a paper I worked really, really hard on — “This essay gets off to a slow start but then gives a good analysis of [the assigned topic].” That was it! Perhaps if I’d been worse at it (rather than pretty good at it, through whatever combination of instinct and talent) I would have been taught more about it.

      Even as a graduate student, when we took a training course in “teaching writing,” the emphasis was more on basic essay structure (and basic writing skills) than on analyzing literature. Over the years I have come to realize how much tacit knowledge is required for success at this, and I have tried to find ways to make the expectations explicit instead, without reducing them artificially to a formula. I have no idea how idiosyncratic my attempts might be — sometimes I worry about this! But at any rate I’m emphasizing a process that can (I believe) be learned, rather than something you either “get” or don’t.


      • Stacey Donohue November 29, 2015 / 6:57 pm

        I actually did have ONE class, as an undergraduate English major, called Introduction to Literary Analysis, where we were given explicit instruction in analyzing literature; however, like Rohan, I don’t remember getting much in the way of explicit advice on my essays., and certainly not the sort of scaffolding that you and I are using in our general education literature courses today.


        • Ali November 30, 2015 / 1:06 pm

          Thanks for the interesting replies, Rohan and Stacey. It seems you really do have to be creative and explicit with many of your students so that they understand how to write the kind of papers you assign.

          Oh and ps: I stated I knew my grammar rules very well, and I found a lot of typos after I posted! Such are the problems of writing on a iPad!


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