Author Archives: Carrie Shanafelt

Wikis in the classroom, 2012 edition

It’s been years now since I’ve written anything here, but a conversation today on the Eighteenth-Century Questions Facebook page made me realize I ought to update my reports from Wikiland. I’ve been using PBworks for wikis since shortly after they began the site in 2005. (NB: I have almost always participated in “private” wikis, not anything searchable, and I guarantee to students that, no, a future employer is not going to read their notes on Moll Flanders.) Some friends and I learned how to use the platform by playing a writing game called Lexicon and by developing an enormous recipe collection with over a hundred participants. In observing my friends’ use of the wikis, I wanted to find out how the platform could be used to encourage students to write more willingly, to read more critically, and to participate in class more enthusiastically.

As I reported back in 2007, my first few attempts to include wiki assignments in my classes were failures. The assignment to create a page providing well-cited historical context (from a list of suggested topics) for the British literature survey was extremely successful for the students who did well. I recall some beautiful, thoroughly researched projects from about a third of every class. Another third phoned it in so depressingly I had no idea what to do, and another third either plagiarized the entire project (“Why do I have to read books and write about them when it’s just on Wikipedia?”) or could not be convinced to do turn in anything at all (“You will get a zero for this assignment.” “Yes, I understand. I will not do this assignment”). As far as I am concerned, any assignment that a third of my students would rather fail out of the class than write is a bad assignment.

Wiki Rule #1: Wiki assignments should create a reason for students to read one another’s work.

That was the first discovery. Students who were self-motivated or interested in my approval did a great job, and no one else seemed to care. Why would anyone in the class want to read their page on coffeehouses in London or sodomy trials or economic conditions in Ireland? While these might be topics of obsessive interest for yr humble svt, students are unlikely to care about reading their classmate’s pages. So instead, I started having them post 3-page critical summaries of scholarly articles related to the primary texts we were reading, resulting in a class bibliography. Students were more motivated to write clear, intelligent summaries of the articles because students used the class bibliography to find ideas for sources for their research projects.

The drawback to this assignment is that, despite my attempt to get every student to choose a different article, students still tended to pounce on a few simplistic topics (if I never read another paper about how Dracula is actually a feminist novel because Mina knows how to type, I will die a happy woman), and students who do not know what to write about will gravitate toward whatever seems the most popular thing to do.

Wiki Rule #2: Participation in the wiki should encourage students to develop their own individual perspectives, rather than turning them into the Borg.

Here’s where I start sounding like an anti-authoritarian radical. The best class wikis, in my experience, have been ones I didn’t grade at all, but served some incredibly useful purpose for the students. One of the best classes I’ve ever taught, in part because of the wiki, was a six-person freshman writing course in which the students read Nabokov’s Pale Fire extremely slowly. I put up a wiki in which there was a page full of random-seeming words (Automobiles, Birds, Butterflies…), each linked to a blank page, and I asked the students to annotate any mention they find of any of these things, and to add pages for other patterns they noticed. They should consider what information their classmates would need to find their quotation, and how much of the quotation should be necessary for context. I said I wouldn’t grade it; I just know that it’s very hard to see connections on the first pass through the novel, so they may need one another’s eyes to spot things.

Within the first few days, these annotations spawned conversations on the wiki about how to determine whether details are significant, what constitutes the “real” for Nabokov and for his characters, how to interpret passages in Zemblan by breaking down the grammar, and so forth. One student became the class expert on linguistics, another on art history, another on satire and rhetoric. They were excited about posting drafts of their formal writing assignments because they wanted to read the other students’ work, and after doing so, they often developed their own revision plans. While I initially itched to demand more formal punctuation (“OMG… YOU GUYS!!!!”) and citation on the wiki, I held my tongue and they developed higher standards for themselves as they saw contributions from others. (To be honest, though, I got a kick out of seeing how excited they were.) That’s how I learned—

Wiki Rule #3: Wiki participation should be allowed to create positive peer pressure.

When you have a particularly quiet group, and there’s just one student with a hand in the air all the time, you have a negative peer pressure situation. No one wants to be “that person.” So you beg and plead, you firmly call on students with their heads tucked under their wings, you try to get them to talk to one another in small groups—sometimes something works and they loosen up a bit. That feeling of pulling teeth is truly miserable, though. There has to be some way to get them to see starting projects early, eagerly joining conversations, and having interesting, thoughtful contributions as the desirable, fun thing to do.

In several different classes, I’ve asked students to use the wiki to call “dibs” on a part of the text for an analysis paper. In a Milton class of 30 students, each had to write about a different speech of over 20 lines in Paradise Lost. Eager students called dibs right away, wanting Sin’s “Hast thou forgot me, then” or Satan’s “O thou that with surpassing glory crown’d,” and less-motivated students realized they needed to get their heads in the game, lest they get stuck with Belial’s defense of cowardly sloth. Meanwhile, they commented to share some of their ideas about the speeches they’d chosen, and this seemed to inspire struggling students to do some serious thinking. In turn, I could easily see who seemed to be on track to complete the coursework and who needed some encouragement or guidance from me.

Wiki Rule #4: The wiki can give you as much feedback about what you are teaching as it does about what your students are thinking.

I hope I am not the only instructor who has cringed upon hearing a colleague report what students say they are learning about the eighteenth century. That’s, er, not quite what… um. Or one thinks we are all happily on the same page until one begins reading responses to exam questions. What the hell is “amriss complaint”? In recent years, I’ve started asking for a volunteer every day to take extra-careful notes in class and post them to the wiki. This solves a lot of technical problems, such as having a repository in case someone is ill or at a sports tournament and providing a refresher about early-semester material before the final exam. It does two additional things that are far more important to me: (1) It tells me when I need to clarify or emphasize something. (2) It makes students see one another’s competence as a resource rather than the enemy.

In discussing this particular use of the wiki, I have found it’s the most controversial among my friends and colleagues, in that it may promote absenteeism. I certainly have not found that to be true, and, in fact, I think it encourages students to realize that a lot has happened when they were gone and they don’t want to miss class again. I get emails from students who know they will be out of town for a tournament asking if I would please thank the note-taker on their behalf, and promise that they will volunteer first when they return. I find it makes them more conscientious and civil, and I certainly still have a strict attendance policy. It seems to make them more aware that it’s a community they’re missing, not just a professor.

Wiki Rule #5: Wikis do not replace traditional in-class discussion; they supplement and provoke discussion.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had students who struggle with speaking in class, due to ability differences, anxiety, or a lack of fluency in English, who have expressed gratitude for the open-ended nature of the wiki discussions. For students who have a hard time initiating a spoken comment, it can be extremely helpful to plan ideas and organize thoughts in writing ahead of time. The wiki can also allow a student to develop and explore a critical persona that can then be tried on more publicly in class. Rather than giving quieter students an excuse for not raising their hands, the wiki gives them a low-stakes place to put words to thoughts in ways that make speaking about those ideas much easier.

This is the main reason why I choose not to grade the work they do on the wiki at all. I set it up with a syllabus and assignment sheets, log them in, and step back. If they ask me to facilitate note-posting, I will. Mostly, I will post extra-curricular events or create pages for them to post drafts for peer review, but this is very different from the kind of Blackboard-discussion-question stuff that I hated doing when I was an undergrad. I don’t want to assign points or take off points for what they do there. I want them to feel free to post a video of a cute lamb while we’re reading Blake, or comment that they’re frustrated and confused by Crèvecoeur, without worrying that Dr. Shanafelt is going to thump them for it. The wiki can only serve my nefarious purposes if it’s a place where they can be honest about how the class is going and what work they’re doing.

Over the 2009-2010 year, I worked with faculty from several departments at Medgar Evers College at City University of New York to develop new assignments and uses for wikis in different disciplines, and the most frequent question I got from new users was “How do you make them do it if you don’t grade them for it?” I don’t. I don’t want to make them do anything. And certainly I’ve had some classes use the wikis more than others. What I know, and what I can tell my students, is that the work I’ve gotten from students who participate actively in the class wiki is almost always better for it. They learn more, they get higher grades, and they enjoy the semester more. There’s your carrot.

Part of all of this has to do with who I am as a teacher and the kind of environment I feel comfortable teaching in, and certainly I have worked with professors who have used wikis in a more directed, graded way. Some departments I’ve worked in have used them as a resource for all of their majors to understand the progress of their coursework, and others have used them internally to discuss the curriculum, assessment, and planning.

Have you used them? Do you loathe them? Do you fear them, but are sort of excited about them? What kinds of assignments and assessment strategies have you tried?

Eighteenth-Century Talks in NYC

The Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group welcomes you to our speaker series this semester. We have three events planned, all of which will take place on the second Fridays of the month at the Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave) in room 5414. For those who have been with us before, please notice that this is a different venue from our usual spot in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room, which has, unfortunately, been closed. This semester, we will be meeting in a room on the fifth floor that has windows and a bit more space to move around in.

If you plan to attend any of our meetings this semester, please let me know so I can know how much food and drink to provide. (If you don’t have a CUNY ID, you will need to sign in at the front desk, but they don’t need a list of your names.) The Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group hosts a wide range of talks on eighteenth-century subjects, each followed by lively conversation.

Our first meeting will be on Friday, September 12 at 2 pm in room 5414. JoEllen DeLucia of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY will be presenting “The Celtic Paratext of Radcliffe’s Gothic: The Mysteries of Udolpho and Scottish Enlightenment Historiography.”

Please also save the dates for talks by Kathleen Urda of Bronx Community College, CUNY (Nov. 14th at 2pm) and James Horowitz of Yale University (Dec. 12th at 2pm).

Please email me at carrieshanafelt@gmail.com if you’d like to attend or join the email list!

Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man

Once again, I apologize for such an extended absence. New York keeps getting more expensive, so I take on more teaching, and then try to fit degree progress in there somewhere. I’ve found setting unreasonable and frightening deadlines for myself to be just the thing. Currently, I’m getting the dissertation planned out for drafting. It’s the first time I’ve ever really needed to think about structure in a serious way, since it looks to be a rather enormous project and needs cement barricades around each chapter to keep any more texts from rushing in. I will hold off discussing the project any more here until more of it is done, since well-meaning suggestions of more things I could include will result in whimpering, and possibly tears.

For the fall, I’m planning three courses. One is a class at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women on eighteenth-century satire, and I’m very excited about it. Last semester at SCW, I did “The Gothic Novel,” which was an ideal first experience to have at a new teaching job. Nine novels of terror and romance, all about gender, class, race, nationality, religion, and criminal justice? Sometimes with ghosts? I need to do justice to my students, who were extremely smart and passionate, but whatever credit I might take goes to the books themselves. You couldn’t have a boring discussion about Wieland if you tried.

The satire course might be a bit tougher to sell. The material is great, of course, but it’s unnerving stuff. Just teaching Gulliver every semester is enough to depress me for three weeks. And Tristram Shandy is even more dangerous. What does one do if they don’t think it’s funny? Tap dance? Grimly lecture on Locke and then say “Haw, haw, get it?” Joke-explaining is, for me, the least rewarding part of teaching literature, so much so that I have instituted a rule after the first month of classes that I will only explain one joke per day. There is a certain kind of lecturing (and joke-explaining is the worst) that silences discussion instead of encouraging it. I feel it’s going to require a bit more effort on my part to keep the satire class from having too much chalk-and-talk.

Any ideas for making a class on satire more collaborative? I have had some good experiences with group exercises and Swift, but I haven’t taught Sterne before, other than small excerpts. All of my own classes on satire were particularly lecture-heavy, so I don’t have much to draw from.

Burney’s “The Witlings” in NYC

Sorry to increase your NYC regrets, Dave, but I have to post an announcement about the New York premiere of Frances Burney’s The Witlings from May 18th to June 1st at the West End Theatre on the Upper West Side. More information is available at the Magis Theatre Company website.

Another NYC C18 announcement!

I was glad to see many familiar faces at the NYU Writing Women symposium a few weeks ago. This upcoming May 9th, I’ll be hosting an event for the CUNY Graduate Center’s Eighteenth-Century Interdisciplinary Group and I hope to see you there.

Matt Williams, who recently defended his CUNY dissertation on eighteenth-century satire, will be giving a talk entitled “‘Subjects, Tales, Stories, and Characters of Invention, after the Manner of Lucian, who Copied from Varro': Delarivier Manley, Menippean Satire, and the Rise of the Novel.”

We’ll gather at 2pm in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room (C196.05) on the lower floor of the Mina Rees Library (365 Fifth Ave.), partake in refreshments, listen to Matt’s presentation, and enjoy plenty of discussion afterwards. Please email me at carrieshanafelt@gmail.com if you’d like to come, as I’ll need to give your name to the library security so they’ll be expecting you.

Writing Women 1700-1800 Symposium

Bryan Waterman at NYU just sent me a link to their upcoming symposium, “Writing Women 1700-1800,” and it looks really exciting! The plenary talk is by Paula Backsheider, and other speakers include April Alliston, Toni Bowers, Joanna Brooks, Simon Dickie, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and Mary Poovey will be the respondent.

April 10-11th at NYU’s Fales Library and Special Collections

Hope to see you there!

The slow drag of spring

It’s been quite some time since I did a teaching post here, but things have finally brightened to the point where I can see what’s been going on more clearly. I’m currently teaching two of my regular British Literature Survey II (late Renaissance to early Modernism) courses at Queens College as well as an elective in the Gothic Novel at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. (The latter is a particularly fascinating and wonderful class, and I plan to post about just that one soon.) It’s more than I’m used to teaching, and quite a taxing schedule, with one of my surveys as a three-hour Monday night class ending at 9:20pm, two hours from where I live.

But this isn’t a pity party! Had I written this last week, it would have been. I’ve been absolutely exhausted by the schedule, the commute, and trying to remember what’s going on with each of my 80 students. I’ve been worried about not keeping up with the flurry of small interactions that make class much more pleasant for them. At both of these schools, spring break is at the end of April, due to Passover, two weeks before the end of the semester. We all need a break, now, and they’re as tired as I am. It shows. Conversation in class often dangles when it should be getting exciting, and the small irritations they have with me and with each other are magnified on their faces.

My friends who teach seem to be facing a similar drag. I’ve heard stories of friends waking up their night classes by suddenly throwing chalk at the ceiling or openly demanding to know what’s wrong with everyone. I find myself teasing my class about possibly not having done the reading for the day, which isn’t necessarily fair. Most of my students are either incredibly overbooked or they’re working professionals with day jobs, and they’re often tired because they were up all night doing the reading and are struggling just to do the bare minimum.

So this week I did what I always do at this low ebb in the semester. I asked them to write me a letter in the first seven or so minutes of class. In this letter (which I ask them to start with “Dear Carrie” or “Dear Professor Shanafelt”—cheesy, I know, but enforcing that sense of a personal communication makes their letters less rambling and more direct), they must address four issues:

1) How is class going for you, in general? (Is the pace reasonable? Are you enjoying the readings and discussions?)
2) What can I do to increase your happiness and productivity? (Would you like more group activities? Should we sit in a circle? Do you want more homework?)
3) How do you feel you’re doing in the class? (What are you struggling with? What do you think you’re doing well?)
4) What plans do you have to improve your written work and in-class participation over the coming weeks?

It’s not like an end-of-class evaluation, in that it’s not anonymous, and they also have to evaluate themselves, so I am aware that I am missing out on some of the more deeply structural criticisms they might have of me and the class. But, in general, I find they’re surprisingly honest about what they need and how things are going.

Over the past few days, I’ve learned that some of my students are shy in class because they’re intimidated by some of their classmates (many of whom, it must be said, would have intimidated me in undergrad, too). Some are quiet because they feel the readings are so difficult and they’re too tempted to just listen and take notes. Many asked that I give them specific questions to think about before they do the reading, as opposed to when they arrive in class. And yes, several asked for optional homework assignments (for practice, not for me to grade) and for more group discussion activities.

They often include notes about which of the readings they’ve particularly responded to, as well as the ones they struggled with. But all of them named at least one major aspect of their efforts they’d like to improve upon in the coming weeks. A few invited me to call on them even when they don’t have their hands raised, because they need to learn to be more assertive about their ideas. Several offered a few thoughts on what they think they’re learning that will be useful to them in other classes, and even a few anecdotes about the ideas from class that they’ve applied to outside reading.

I’m really impressed, every semester, by their bravery in response to this activity. Their criticisms are extremely productive for me as a teacher, never the sort of crass “LESS READING! LESS HOMEWORK!” sort of stuff one might expect from such an activity. They don’t give excuses, either, though I do often learn some personal reasons why they’ve struggled recently. I often don’t know which students can emotionally handle being pressed on a bit harder, and many of them invite me to do so. I’d say only a small percentage exclusively said positive things, but even those were productive. (“I really enjoyed our group activity on Wieland. Can we do a few more of those?”)

I always read these things with one eye closed, waiting for someone to really blast me on something, but they never do. I’m quite positive that some of them aren’t the world’s biggest fans of my class, and that will come out in official evaluations and on RateMyProfessors.com, but on this activity, they’re pretty productive and courteous. I come away learning a lot about how to be a better, more responsive teacher, and they make various vows to become better, harder-working students. All this stuff about their goals might just be lip service, but it’s lip service that’s worth doing anyway.

In the past, I’ve seen post-evaluation classes take a remarkable turn for the better. What I thought were petty resentments turn out to have been mild grievances that are easy to address, or, even more frequently, expressions of self-doubt and exhaustion. Spring has been pretty relentless for all of us. After this evaluation day, we all seem to come to class with a slightly better attitude and a renewed sense of what we’re doing all this work for.

How about you? Do you face this same kind of mid-semester slump? What do you do to combat it? Have you tried a class evaluation day? How did it go?