Category Archives: Pedagogy

incremental learning (on all sides)

Now that the term is over, I’m doing my usual review of the previous semester, and a question came up in my mind: why is it so much easier to improve your teaching incrementally rather than all at once? Why do the attempted, full-scale reinventions fall flat, when longer-term, more piecemeal improvements seem to work better initially and have more lasting results?

There are trade-offs both ways. Doing it all at once gives you the opportunity to start with a clear conception and see it all the way through.  Tweaking is less risky, because you’re usually beginning with something that you’ve inherited or established that feels at least functional, but often you feel like you could be doing things without really understanding the rationale.  The initial impetus has gone away.  But I can say that my most successful teaching has always been in the long-running courses that I’ve had the opportunities to rework year after year.

This semester in my Swift and Literary studies course, which I’ve previously blogged about, I had some small assignments that seemed to help my students in significant ways.  I created these largely because I was concerned about the reading skills of students coming into this course, the gateway for the English major. Here they are:

1. “Representative Passage” assignment for Gulliver’s Travels. I developed this because I felt that students were reading so much criticism and theory that they tended to focus on very obvious passages or episodes from GT for their final assignments.  This assignment was based on some exercises I found in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice and Blau’s Literature Workshop (discussed earlier on this blog).

The idea was to get students (most of whom had never read Swift or GT or studied much prose besides short stories) to record some key information for each part of GT, then select a passage related to some question for that week’s discussion. Each week, students individually filled out a worksheet describing their choice of passages, then discussed their selections in groups, with the groups choosing one passage then reporting their choices out to the class as a whole. Afterwards, I’d look at the worksheets and recorded discussions, give them a check, check minus, or check plus credit, and return them. I repeated this exercise four times, once for each part of GT. At the end of term, a number of students mentioned how helpful this exercise was for them to hear about other students’ thinking about the selections. And the final papers did feature a wider than usual range of GT passages than I’d seen before.

2. In-class essays. I originally assigned short response essays on topics in critical theory, but I eventually realized that they wrote better timed in-class essays than response essays on these topics.  Then I started collecting their questions on the theorists to create the in-class exam, adapting them as necessary but still leaving them options so they could choose their questions.  Finally, rather than doing these simply as open book or open notes, I allowed students to create a single typed or printed page of notes to bring to class, on the condition that these were handed in along with the completed in-class essays. These note sheets helped me assess students’ understanding and synthesis of the material on the essay, and like their essays, when handed back with feedback, these sheets became another source of ideas for their final research projects. They repeated this cycle twice, just before embarking on the final projects. I think this kind of cycle (questions, note-sheet, in-class essays, feedback) is a good way to teach theoretical topics that ordinarily only the most self-assured students feel comfortable enough to discuss.

What I’ve learned from this is that incremental, recursive cycles during the semester really help them develop the confidence to learn and discuss what they’re learning, but that this is in effect my cycle, too, as I teach the course from term to term.

DM

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blau’s literature workshop: interpretive dependence

Apart from his interesting views about the theory/practice split in literature teaching,  Blau has some good insights into the “interpretive dependence” we help instill and reinforce in literature students when we teach in the conventionally authoritative ways.  (This seems equally true in both lecture- and seminar-style courses, incidentally).

In the conventional scenario, the literature professor usually acts as the authoritative source of knowledge. This kind of professor anticipates student confusions with carefully synthesized prefatory lectures; confidently answers questions (because he* [*since this version of authority is heavily gendered] has  answered them a thousand times before); and spontaneously produces the summary remarks that tie together in-class conversations with the authoritative views of experts.  And hey presto! you’re done.

This is the kind of pedagogical model many of us remember from our own education and would love to emulate, because who wouldn’t want to become this kind of authority?  And I admit that even though I share Blau’s skepticism about this kind of teaching, my bad days with things like groupwork or student presentations sometimes make me wish I had a more traditional classroom.

So what is wrong with this model of teaching?  What we should notice is how the satisfactions and learning end up belonging to the figure of authority.  Its successes are not successes of learning, but of teaching.

Blau points out that this kind of teacher-as-authority has cleared away the precious source of any inquiry, which is readerly confusion.  Though Blau doesn’t quite say it this way, the difficulties we encounter in literary works are not obstacles to understanding, but the best way in to deeper, more refined, better integrated understandings of the works we study, through independent inquiry.  His heuristic principle is that “the only texts worth reading are the texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you don’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (24).

From the pedagogical perspective, students need to know that it is the texts they don’t immediately understand that may be especially worth reading, because “the process of figuring it out will constitute a process of advancing or deepening your vision.”  This is his way of arguing the value of unfamiliar (yet canonical) texts to the hostile, skeptical or indifferent student who will blurt out, like one of the students he observes, that “this play sucks,” when the class is reading Shakespeare. (Note, however, that this kind of student resistance happens at least as often, if not more, when reading more recently canonized authors.)

From the disciplinary perspective, though, Blau seems to have identified an important aspect of professional literary study, which we might call the literary counterpart of Wineburg‘s “historical thinking“: “interpretive thinking.”  This emerges from his account of the differences between professional and novice readers of a Thoreau passage, where the professionals are actually eager to find the areas of difficulty or confusion that leave novices frustrated, stymied, or depressed at their own insufficiency as readers (28-32).  And the predictable response of such students is to desire, or demand, that an authoritative teacher clear up those problems that could serve as the beginning of their own learning.

Blau’s alternative is the “literature workshop,” which models to students a collaborative, self-revising, process of discussion and synthesis that will support its members as they work their way towards those more refined understandings.  Students should watch teachers engaged in their own struggles to understand questions and devise solutions, and realize how much individual work and outside feedback is necessary to arrive at a finished piece of scholarly interpretation. Though Blau treats the literature workshop as a way of training students to engage in individual inquiry, it seems to me equally important to persuade students to commit fully to a collective process of inquiry and synthesis of multiple perspectives that will benefit them all.

Blau observes that this process-oriented, workshop model is commonplace in first-year and creative writing pedagogies, but much less common among literature instructors.  It would be an interesting question to investigate: in what ways does the study of literature reinforce the traditional dyad of interpretive authority and dependence? And why might this kind of interpretive authority and mode of interaction be seen as a problem, even by some literature scholars, at this point in time?

DM

blau’s literature workshop: some premises

I’ve been thinking about Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop for a while now, because I’m slated to create and teach an advanced graduate course in pedagogy in the spring, and I’ve been looking for approaches that would give more experienced teachers some new concepts and practices to use when they return to the classroom.  The emphasis on the “advanced” pedagogy comes from my experience that most texts on higher ed teaching seem designed for beginning instructors. Texts like Jim Lang’s On Class or McKeachie’s Teaching Tips do this job very well, but they have almost nothing to say to the teacher who already knows how to face a class on the first day of the semester, plan a syllabus, or grade a paper, but would still like to improve her teaching in specific ways.

In other words, once we get past our existential fears of facing students and acting as authority-figures, how can we identify and work on the things that still trouble our work in and out of the classroom?  Unlike the fears everyone experiences in their first years of teaching, these problems come at us in very specific ways throughout a semester, and will continue to visit us semester after semester, if we cannot find good solutions.

Compared to the worries of beginning teachers, the problems faced by experienced teachers are both very concrete and frustratingly difficult to overcome, since they often involve working between contradictory pedagogical or professional principles that need to be maintained simultaneously. How to provide better feedback, without losing oneself to a stack of papers every other week?  How to lead discussion more effectively, given the unpredictable mix of passivity and self-display your students might demonstrate?  How to design better assignments, if you feel that your current assignments are only reinforcing their worst writing habits? And so forth.

One of the Literature Workshop’s virtues is Blau’s decision to honor the experience and practitioners’ wisdom of the English teachers he addresses, whether these are teaching in secondary schools, community colleges, SLACs or research universities.  This stance derives from the book’s origins in the National Writing Project at UC Berkeley, and its founders’ decision that its professional development would present “pedagogical ideas to colleagues largely in the form of demonstration lessons that model actual classroom practices, and then in reflecting on those demonstrations and their origins as a way of drawing a rationale or theory for practice from the demonstrated practices themselves” (15).

This characteristic integration of practice, reflection, and theorization into a recursive process honors the NWP motto of “teachers teaching teachers,” and it avoids the typical professional development scenario where teachers have to sit through lectures by outside experts or consultants who often have no concrete experience with the types of teaching being done by their audiences (17).  The danger of this kind of top-down, tone-deaf “professional development” is that it often comes from administrators or staff who have never, or no longer, face the same daily teaching challenges that faculty do, and who therefore lack credibility.  For this reason, NWP presenters like Blau only present on strategies that they themselves have practiced and refined in their own classes for an extended period of time. Convincing experienced teachers to do the uncomfortable work of reexamining what works, and acknowledging what doesn’t work, in their own teaching requires the “teacher who teaches teachers” to have some insight into the potential difficulties of such a process. For this reason, the credibility of this kind of teacher is essential for the process to have any lasting or deep effect on its audience.

There are two interesting consequences of this experiential approach to pedagogy: the first is that the kind of generic “universal teaching manual” for a particular kind of class or discipline (along the lines of McKeachie or Lang, as good as they are) seems impossible, since even the most dedicated innovator will be working in a relatively restricted curricular area.  In other words, the experience grounding a particular faculty-member’s teaching strategies will remain bound up with the type of school, student, discipline, course, and curricula that gave it a context to begin with.  This is by no means a bad thing, but it does mean that any account of teaching is deeply contextual, and requires that context to be understood in order for its lessons to be learned and implemented in a useful way.

The other consequence is that Blau’s version of English literary studies remains, in his words, “anti-theoretical,” in the sense that he is most interested in encouraging students in his introductory literature courses (and in his graduate courses for English Education students) to read and discuss literary works–at least initially– in their own terms.  He encourages his students to pursue their own lines of inquiry without having to be lectured in historical or theoretical contexts beforehand, and allows theory to “break out” (in Graff’s terms), when “agreement about such terms as text, reading, history, interpretation, tradition, and literature, can no longer be taken for granted, so that their meanings have to be formulated and debated” (5).

The result is not that theory is denied or disavowed, but that it does remain tacit, external, and undeveloped until students themselves can be brought to understand the implications of their own interpretations and interpretive debates.  This approach to theory, which makes eminent sense given Blau’s own teaching audience and courses, means that Blau’s work has less to say about other kinds of work in the English major, particularly historically-, theoretically-, or research-based-work in more advanced courses.  However, I still think there is much to learn from Blau in terms of eliciting responses from every level of student, and especially in leading discussions and designing assignments.  I’ll discuss these in another post.

DM