Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How many licks does it take to get to the center of the survey course?

Hello! It's been a while, hasn't it? I have been all out of blogging mojo. And, frankly, teaching and grading mojo. I have no clue why this fall was so exhausting compared to other semesters when I have had a lot more on my plate, but that was the case.

I am debating shuttering the blog --- or at least I was for most of the semester, since I couldn't find the energy to say anything entertaining or interesting or even to think about posting anything at all. I was uninspired. And wondering if there was any point in keeping it up.

Today, however, I am visiting family and am bored. Everyone I know is still working this week, and my nieces/nephews are all in school still, so there is not that much exciting to do here. I am therefore dithering about with my spring courses as a pleasant time-killing activity until people are available to entertain me. And since no one is around here, I need to find people to be social with through the magic of the internets.

The problem is this: people, I am bored by literature surveys. Not that I don't like teaching them, but I think to myself, surely there is some more interesting way of assessing the students, is there not? As an undergrad my surveys were very traditional and held to the midterm-two papers-final exam format, which I always enjoyed and did well in, so I have followed that format in my own surveys. Now, however, I am suddenly bored by the thought of it. So come brainstorm with me.

If we throw out the traditional format of a midterm and final (for coverage and recall of lecture content) and two papers (to teach argument and analysis over a single text at length and in more depth) then we open up the doors for re-justifying the literature survey from the ground up: what is the survey supposed to do? what content goals do I have for the students to be introduced to? What skills and abilities do I most value and want my students to come away with? How important is coverage vs. depth? Textual reading vs historical context? Literary movements?

If I assign a traditional analytical paper, when should it be due? Should it cover a single text, compare multiples, be revised in light of later historical developments down the survey road? (BTW I have TA'd for a class that did this and I had many complaints about how lumpy and mechanical the "grafting" of the two texts/arguments was in the final product.)

If I assign a single large paper near the end of the term (and I really don't want to deal with research-type term papers in this survey), how does that link up with the lecture-discussion-quiz structure of the rest of the class? Or does it seem like some sort of random, disconnected assignment that a prof "throws in" near the end? I don't like that feeling so much. What sort of messages does that send the students about the importance of revision or drafting or planning the writing process? And why assign one instead of two, or three? How many licks does it take to get to the center of ... whatever pedagogical goals essay writing covers?

Maybe I should have the students create Youtube videos of cats, subtitled with the lines from one of the texts we have read. That sounds horrible. And yet...

Now if I assign a "creative rewriting" sort of project, does that emphasize creative connections at the expense of analyzing closely what is in the primary text? Someone I know has been doing imitations and creative rewritings based on the idea in this article that translating a text into a different expository format helps students understand/remember it more. I've had students re-write a text in the voice of another, or write your own sonnet using so-and-so's principles, but would having them write in other genres be helpful? Byron's OK Cupid profile? (with angry messages left from jilted ladies) MacBeth's resume? Frankenstein's creature's travel narrative with the Canterbury pilgrims? The lab report writing up the scientist's results in "The Birth-Mark"?

Leaving aside the point that with first-generation college students in particular, the results you get and have to comment on might be painfully egregious, I think these assignments may promote interesting connections and creative thinking, but not necessarily improve students' close reading or ability to sustain extended analytical arguments, which are sadly lacking in today's culture across the board. Then again, does writing one poorly-structured lit essay for me that gets a B- for "interesting ideas, but a lack of organization and development" actually help a student in any way? Particularly when I teach almost all non-majors and some of them might never be forced to write an essay in their other classes ever again? (Surveying, exercise science, I'm looking at you, majors...)

Likewise, I am interested in the idea of doing something "online" for an assignment but cannot think of anything with enough value. Blog posts and wikis, once you take away the public, shared aspect of them, end up being poorly structured analytical essay that students are even less likely to plan out or revise due to the immediacy and slapdash nature of the medium. And other suggestions I have been given involve new programs and mechanical skills that students need to take quite a bit of time to get up to speed on, time that I am not willing to take away from historical context or discussion of authors and texts. Hmph. I am willing to be converted, however!

Give me some suggestions. Give me bad and terrible suggestions as well as good ones --- the act of shooting down ideas often helps me clarify what I do want.


Fretful Porpentine said...

I've gone hard-core traditionalist and writing-intensive: midterm, final, four two- to three-page close reading papers with the option to skip one assignment or drop the lowest grade (they ALWAYS choose to skip), one five- to seven-page argumentative paper with a mandatory draft and conferences on the drafts. It is a HELL of a lot of work, and I probably would not be able to do it if I taught more than one survey per semester, but it's pretty much the only writing-about-literature instruction that most of the gen ed students have ever had, or will ever have, and I reckon they have to write several bad papers before they'll have a prayer of writing a decent one.

If I were going to go for a non-traditional assignment, I'd probably make it some sort of memorize-and-recite-a-passage activity, such as I do in my Shakespeare classes. (OK, it's not VERY non-traditional, but I think it focuses students' minds on the language in some interesting ways, and can serve as a good springboard for discussion.)

Dr. Koshary said...

I remember amusing myself for a brief time by composing psychiatric reports on Shakespearean villains, when I was working during the summertime in a law office. I thought it entertaining to view Richard III ("Richie Gloucester," for added verisimilitude) from the point of view of a prison psychiatrist taking notes on an apparent sociopath who spoke in iambic pentameter ahead of a court date.

I don't know if you want to give your students further license to psychologize about literary characters, since that way often lies navel-gazing, but it made me giggle while I wrote it.

Bardiac said...

I've had success with having students edit a play down to 100 lines (I think it was 100). They had to use lines from the play, but not necessarily from the same scene. It was good. And then a short piece talking about why they emphasized what they did in the text.

I love the word paragraph assignment you gave me.

I used to TA for a prof who gave a really interesting short paper assignment. He chose out a number of short passages, maybe 7, from different texts, and the students had to choose two of them and write a short essay that made sense of them together.

I think you're absolutely right that it's exciting to think about new ways to teach lower level surveyish courses. I'm fascinated to read what other folks suggest here!

Sapience said...

My favorite assignment for survey courses that leads into a big, comparative paper is an on-line group commonplace book. It's actually part blog, part short response paper, but more grounded in the time period I teach (I'm an early-modernist, so I teach the first half the brit-lit survey).

Basically, in a survey, I choose my texts organized around three or four themes, usually: good government, religious devotion, gender expression, and the power of language. (Yes, yes, religion, sex, politics, and writing.) I tell my students this up front, and their job in the online commonplace book is to track important passages on these themes, plus at least one other theme of their choice (I usually give them a few options drawn from actual commonplace books), and write short close-readings of those passages. Students are also expected to go out and find contemporary responses to the texts we're reading (adaptations, etc.) and comment on their relationships to the original texts.

Then, when they have to write a paper, I expect them to use the materials from the commonplace book to start seeing patterns in the texts and make arguments. It means the papers are really comparative, and students usually do a great job moving towards argument once I give them a bit of prodding.

Also, to address the problems with "creative" assignments, I require students to write a meta-paper, in which they ground their adaptation in an interpretation of the text. This *usually* improves the quality of the adaptation, and my willingness to be generous in my grading of the creative bits that don't work.

Maude said...

This is how I've come down to doing my survey courses, which I actually like, though I guess it's sort of traditional. I break it down into five periods: Romantic, Realist, Naturalist, Modernist, Postmodernist. It's easy for me, and it gives them something to grasp. I do 5-6 two-three page lit analyses (usually at the end of each "unit"). they have to pick 3. Above the three, I take the three best grades. The midterm and final are split into take home essay portions, which forces them to reflect on content and the readings, defining the movements in their own words, and then in-class portions based on the lectures and in identifying quotes. So far, for the five quarters I've taught this, this seems to be the most successful of the formats for my classes. It eliminates the longer papers, which I found, at least on the quarter system, to not be very good, and it left me with three days to grade 70 5-7 page "research" papers. I know some who do a poetry recitation as part of the final grade, too. I don't know if this helps. But that format has been successful for me thus far.

Psycgirl said...

If you really want students to use the programs or mechanical skills, I wonder if you could have a "lab" like component, as classes sometimes do in the hard sciences or social sciences, where your TA can teach the students the program/skills, so it doesn't take away class time?

I read an interesting article last week about professors who let their students basically design their own syllabus, in the sense that they can choose what assignments they will complete for what weighting. Personally it sounds like a nightmare for my own classes, but your students might come up with some interesting ideas. And the ones who wanted traditional papers could do them. Seriously, it sounds like a nightmare. But if you can't think outside the box on blog comments, where can you?

Susan said...

From a history perspective, at least in lower division courses I now do more short assignments so that I can scaffold skills. So you do three short (2-3 page) papers, and one longer (4-6) pager, but you've practiced basic stuff in the first three. (And one of them is just: what does this say, what's the purpose of this document)

If you want to build skills, that's how you have to design the course.