swift and literary studies, for the umpteenth time

Those who follow this blog know that I’ve taught this course for some time (in fact, umpteen times), but its usefulness for me comes from the way it helps me learn about the most effective forms of teaching at UH, where the students are eager but often ill-prepared for serious academic work.  As a course required for students in the literary studies concentration of the English major, this “intro to literary studies” has helped me stay in contact with our majors, their abilities, and their needs for almost 15 years. 

Teaching this gateway course over the years has helped me learn about incorporating critical theory into literary studies; about the value of groups and groupwork in the undergraduate classroom; about the usefulness of annotated bibliographies for teaching research; about the need for library, electronic database, and ultimately information literacy instruction to improve their research;  and about the usefulness of courseblogs.

In keeping with the spirit of the “What I’ve learned” observations I discussed in my previous post, I’ll share a few more observations from last semester’s iteration:

  • Forget the coverage model.  Because Hurricane Ike blew a 2-week hole in our schedule, I backed even further away from the notion of coverage in my lectures, and decided to make this a permanent arrangement from this point on.  I found this semester that it’s a much better use of my time to ask them to produce questions on the readings, then work together to answer them, in class and on the blog, rather than spending that time lecturing.  So this term we followed the usual sequence of authors, but spent less time trying to cover the entire reading assignment.  Though I always enjoyed giving those oral discussions and summaries, I never saw much evidence those lectures were retained by the majority of the class in their research and writing.  And not worrying so much about the coverage gave us the time to concentrate on the research paper at the semester’s end. 
  • Student-generated questions rule.  These remain the best starting-points for classroom discussion, because they indicate where students are in their comprehension of the reading, and what they still need to learn.  The bonus here is that students will understand your lectures better if you frame them in this way.  And using their questions, and discussing ways to refine their questions further, also helps them to understand how to do it for themselves.
  • Reading secondary criticism together is the key to teaching students how to read better.  Once you’ve given them the time to read the primary text once through in a careful way, students need to incorporate additional information with each additional pass through the primary text.  Consequently, students seem to gain a better understanding of primary texts by mastering certain select secondary sources and/or critical debates, and the contexts they open up, rather than just going over the same primary text again and again.  This spiraling pattern (return to your initial text, but with the benefit of new information) allows students feel that they are entering into an existing scholarly discussion rather than writing in some contextless vacuum.  To do this, however, I need to teach those scholarly articles as much for argument and conventions as for content.  In other words, I need to model precisely how they should read a critical essay and extract an argument or additional sources from scholarly articles, and provide feedback to their approximations/summaries etc. of others’ arguments.   They need to understand something about the conventions and genres of scholarship in order to produce it themselves.  This is how the annotated bib assignments, which I now have students post online at the blog, should help students see not just the outlines of their particular assigned context (e.g., Swift and English politics), but its potential relationships to other contexts (e.g., Swift and femininity).
  • Research exists to be shared.  The courseblog’s three chief functions are for serving as a portal for students’ own electronic research, serving as a forum where ideas and questions can be aired for further classwide discussion, and creating a place for them to share their findings, which I think is one of the most important roles a courseblog can play in structuring course discussions.   Students really benefit by looking at each others’ products like annotated bibs, and really get a kick from seeing how others use their findings and observations for their own projects.  Unlike other kinds of web interfaces, the blog seems to encourage students to bring forward their own information into class discussion.
  • Critical theory needs to be taught within contexts, and outside of given contexts.  What I mean is that students, in order to make use of theorists like Derrida or Said, need to be able to see the historical contexts in which those writings were initially produced, but then also how these theories can “travel” outside those more or less given contexts into new and unforeseen areas (Said).  In other words, strategic decontextualizations are as important for productive research as our historicist, contextualizing work.  So I use the blog to encourage them to think about both kinds of potential connections.  I’m a lot freer now in using contemporary news, popular culture, etc. to point out the dynamics of the theoretical texts, and this kind of leapfrogging from theories to the world and back again is a good use of the blog’s public space.
  •  Research paper assignments need to be broken up into increments.  From a UH grad student KE, who’s probably our most effective teacher of second-semester comp, I learned that the best way to get students to hand in better research papers is to break up the final assignment into a series of incremental steps, with feedback at each stage.  So this time, I asked for a 1st para w/claim+ 4 relevant secondary sources, first page, first five pages, first 6 pages + annotated bib of 4-5 sources, final essay.  Breaking it down in this way is exhausting, and wouldn’t be practical if I had large classes, but the positives are pretty striking: this process ensures a much better final product from a much greater percentage of students than I usually have with my typically haphazard and rushed approach.  What’s more, the feedback is all up-front, rather than backward-looking (why didn’t you do X, Y, Z, etc.?), and so I don’t need to comment much on the final version, since the biggest problems should reveal themselves early on in the process.  Since I find it irritating to comment on final papers that students rarely pick up, this again seems like a better use of my time, and I allow students who want more extensive comments to give me an SASE for returning it by mail.
  •  Self-assessments make the final grading process much easier.  Though I haven’t gone completely in the direction of portfolios (I’m still wavering on this), I learned a lot from Ann Dalke’s Bryn Mawr courseblog and her Critical Feminist Studies class, which features some really nice self-assessment prompts that help students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses.  For a number of reasons, I did this on the final day of class, as a brief in-class essay, but even a 20 min essay can give you a much better picture of students than you would get from other kinds of writing.  I learned, for example, that not a single student came to class expecting to enjoy Swift, and maybe 2/3 had never heard of Swift before they arrived.  So this is what the instructor of a course like this is up against.  It is a required course, after all.  But virtually everyone said that they were planning to use the research and writing skills learned here in subsequent courses.  So the course does work, at least at this level.  And when I do teach the same students in more advanced courses, they do seem to be capable of conducting independent research, which to me is the best measure of my work as a teacher nowadays.


UPDATE: It seems that a few people have been thinking about these questions before me.  But it’s nice to know that what I’ve gradually learned over the years has been confirmed independently by others’ research.

3 responses to “swift and literary studies, for the umpteenth time

  1. Thanks for this, Dave. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate criticism into my undergrad courses (specifically the Defoe course I’m offering for the first time this semester) and you’ve given some great suggestions. Is the Swift courseblog open to outside readers?

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Gena. The courseblog is closed to general webtraffic, but I can send you a link offline now that the semester’s over. Let me know if you have any questions about it, or use it in your own teaching. DM

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