Category Archives: Teaching Carnival

teaching carnival 4.5 now up at ProfHacker

As always, a bunch of interesting stuff available at the ProfHacker Teaching Carnival 4.5, this one compiled by Sara Webb Sunderhaus. It’s also nice that it featured my earlier pieces about course-blogs.

For my own purposes, though, I did enjoy Dean Dad’s discussion of reading semester’s end evaluations, with its sensible advice to administrators to look for “outliers,” faculty whose behavior inspired clustered comments from students; it was disappointing, though, to the extent that it lacked any guidance for faculty who wanted to improve their own teaching by reading their own evaluations.

I also appreciated the thoughtful discussion from In Socrates’ Wake on whether teaching should be considered a “calling”? It seems important to distinguish the challenges and satisfactions of the classroom from those of the pulpit, but sometimes students, teachers, or administrators can encourage this kind of confusion.

In any case, check it out, and let us know if you found anything there of use for your own teaching.  And thanks to George Williams and the ProfHacker crew for keeping the Teaching Carnival going.


congrats to george williams and profhacker; return of the teaching carnival, etc.

Two bits of welcome news: first, George Williams’s (and others’) Profhacker is now to be found on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website (and directing traffic here, incidentally;: hello, Chron readers!); second, George has announced the most welcome return of the Teaching Carnival, now to be hosted at Profhacker.

Congrats to George & Co. We’re looking forward to seeing more Teaching Carnivals in the future.


Gordon Ramsay and “teaching p*rn”

Note: I asterisked the title of this to make sure it didn’t come up in the wrong kind of keyword searches, if you know what I mean. 

Also, I wanted to steal AWB‘s useful term, “teaching p*rn,” which is not about teaching the kiddies about the classics of the genre, but about commercialized  simulations of teaching activities, which bear the same relation to teaching realities that, say, p*rn-flick pizza-boy scenarios have to the job of delivering pizzas for Domino’s.  And frankly, most of us, most of the time, are delivering pizzas for Domino’s, only not in a good way.

In any case, there are some blogging posts that are so good that you wish that you’d written them yourself, and A White Bear’s recent post about Gordon Ramsay’s pedagogical drama made me feel that way [h/t: the Salt Box Teaching Carnival].  Here’s a sample:

It’s difficult when confronting a student who admits he doesn’t like the feedback he gets from papers but refuses to admit there might be anything wrong with his writing not to scream, as Ramsay does, “You ungrateful piece of dogshit! I’m trying to help you!” Anyone who is friends with a teacher will know that we bitterly complain about student arrogance in exact proportion with how much we care about helping them. If you’re putting in countless office hours and even more writing emails and comments on papers, and a student keeps coming back to say, “How can I get an A?” without even trying to take any of the advice you give, you know how Ramsay feels. Sometimes, baffled, Ramsay will shout, “You bloody asked me to fucking come here!” If my feedback and advice is worthless to you, why ask for it? You clearly enjoy getting C’s.

I won’t embroider this too much, because I think AWB has nailed the frustration of the teacher with the stubborness of her student, while showing why this kind of drama is riveting to people who would never want to enter a comp classroom ever again.  So go read it, and then go read the long comment section, which shows just how well AWB has captured this kind of problem of the gap between student perception and performance, which an education professor would call the problem of “metacognition.”

AWB’s formulations especially interested me, because I’d long shared similar thoughts about the English obsession with reality shows (an obsession now shared by American television audiences, I suppose).   These shows seem to thrive on the self-delusions and stubborness of their subjects.  The visiting expert comes in, gives an accurate appraisal of the broken-down bed and breakfast, and then we watch the show’s subject spend the next 50 minutes denying the obvious and resisting the expert’s advice about improving the B&B.

The one point I would like to add to AWB’s post is that what makes shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares or Top Chef so entertaining is their fantasy of the authority-figures who assess the contestants.  Unlike ourselves, a Tom Colicchio or Gordon Ramsay as portrayed on these shows never evidences any self-doubt, never faces a contestant unprepared, is never at a loss as to what to do, and  never experiences a plausible challenge to his authority or his judgments.  The framework, the editing and the framing of the show’s challenges  all bestow an illusory authority on them that no actual chef, no actual boss, no actual teacher could ever project.  And that, my friends, is the difference between p*rn and real life.  As if we needed to be told.


the return of the teaching carnival

After some time off, the teaching carnival that George Williams and others have organized for the past few years is back, and the latest is from Jason B. Jones at The Salt-Box.  The 18th century blogging community is represented by yours truly, along with Chris Vilmar, but there’s lots of good stuff about course design, irritating college advice, and the university in a digitally networked age.  Go take a look, then start your own blog.


What is a wiki for?

Many of you have asked for an update about my wiki experiment of last year, and I held off on responding because it didn’t go very well, and I don’t really blame the wiki itself as a medium.

To review, what I did with my British Literature survey wiki was to ask students to research a topic of cultural, political, sexual, or economic history in Britain between 1600 and 1800. They were supposed to find a few good sources and sum up what they found in a brief and informative wiki article with citations, so that their peers could easily glean a great deal of interesting information about, for example, Restoration fashion, the Gunpowder Plot, or the social position of Jews in London in the mid-18th. If we had time, we could have revised, sharpened, and interlinked the articles to create a very interesting and useful resource.

I chose that assignment because I had done something similar when I was taking Nigerian Lit as an undergrad. The course was so packed with novels and plays that the professor did not really have time to lecture on the entirety of postcolonial Nigerian history and culture, so each member of the class developed a one-page annotated summary of a particular topic, which we briefly presented and provided for our classmates. It was an excellent wake-up call to me as an English-centric student that What We Do is so deeply tied into matters of history, political science, religion, and philosophy that we have to be able to do research in other fields just to be able to understand what we’re reading. We can’t just wait for a professor to give us all the context we need.

With a similar purpose, I asked my students to go to the library and look up things about their topics. I gave them names of books I knew might be good. I helped them get access to primary sources from the special collection I worked in. As far as I knew, everything was going swimmingly.

But when the time came for me to check in on the wiki, I was dismally disappointed to see that only a handful of them followed the directions. The ones who did produced interesting, lovely little summaries, often with visual aids and excellent sources. But most of them cited only websites (which I’d explicitly banned so they’d go to the library), simply copied paragraphs out of encyclopedias (again, banned, and, well, plagiarism), or did not do the assignment at all.

Grades plummeted. What happened here? I gave explicit directions, which several people were able to follow without incident. But when 2/3 of the class simply cannot do an assignment at a passing level, I have to assume that there is something wrong with the assignment. Because the resource they created was so poor as a whole, none of them read their classmates’ work, and no one bothered to create links between articles. As a wiki, it was not functional.

The following semester, I made this assignment extra credit, and, again, several of the articles I received were excellent, but many received no extra credit at all. In the end, the extra credit only ended up benefiting those who were sure to receive A’s anyway, which was proof enough to me that it was a failure as an assignment.

I asked, both semesters, what had gone wrong. The main answers I got were that they had no idea how to summarize (not surprising, given that an analytical summary is a pretty sophisticated rhetorical skill most students aren’t asked to do until grad school) and that they had no idea how to skim sources. I got many emails asking the repeated question, “Are you saying I have to read three 500-page books???” I’d say, no, you have to look in the index or table of contents, find the relevant information, and figure out what would be important for your classmates to know, regarding your chosen topic. Many of my students did not know how to find information in non-fictional texts. They are English majors, and they’re used to reading every word.

In addition, I fear that asking them to post to a website was just one more hassle on top of scholarly/rhetorical hassles that created an inappropriate amount of stress. All of these skills are important, and I wish I could say that I could teach all these skills in my class, but in the context of a Renaissance-to-Modernism survey, I just don’t have time to teach rhetoric, research, and reading at that level.

When I taught the class this summer, I dumped the wiki assignment, which was clearly going nowhere and was not helping the students it was designed to help. I refocused my efforts on getting my students to practice analytical summary (which, by hook or by crook, I’m going to teach them) and research. This time, I asked them to write a three-page summary of a significant critical article on a poem or poems from the syllabus, and another one on a prose work from the syllabus.

This assignment got them to isolate for themselves (a) what literary criticism is, and (b) what a literary-critical argument does, as well as (c) how that relates to their own reading of a work. I know this sounds very basic, but I’m not sure it’s something they think about when they’re writing run-of-the-mill research papers. Many of my students have somehow gotten through most of their coursework without really seeing that literary criticism is not about “facts” and “opinions” but about arguments that open texts up for more interesting and engaged reading.

The responses I got from this assignment were, on the whole, really magnificent. My students said they struggled with the summary mode, but the assignment was do-able, and they were happy to see how this would improve their research papers at the end of the semester. A few students turned in summaries of study guides on the literature, which was depressing, but depressing things in isolation are not as depressing as an entire class of depressing things. Most of them found really fascinating articles, and many of my more excellent students developed a strong attachment or aversion to the article they found, which often became the basis of a fabulous paper at the end of the semester.

This is where the wiki comes in. I was so thrilled by the work they were doing this summer that I’d like for them to turn their summary essays in to the wiki. This would create a genuinely useful resource for the class, helping them to see what kinds of literary-critical work is out there, and what a broad range of journals they could dip into. Of course, there is the mild concern that they will merely read a fellow student’s summary of an article and not look into the article itself, but there are easy ways of making sure they know that is not sufficient.

The point of a wiki, after all, is to get my students to have an attitude of collaboration, rather than competition, which is extremely difficult to instill in a population like Queens College, which doesn’t have dormitories or a “campus” mentality. I often fear that many students show up to school every day thinking about how they can beat out another student for a grade, as if it worked that way, mostly because they then get in their cars and drive home, out of the city. I feel like much of my work as a teacher, throughout CUNY, has been trying to convince my students that the sea of camaraderie raises all ships, and that I’m not interested in just focusing on a few brilliant students in the front row and leaving the rest behind. With the wiki, I’ve been hoping to allow them to see their classmates not just as personalities, but as other minds in the classroom who have something to offer them.

We shall see, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m not ready to abandon the idea of my class producing content for one another, so I will keep trying.

Apocalypse in my class

(Cross-posted at The Valve)

While teaching last semester’s Brit Lit Survey, I kept realizing that there were assumptions my students were making that did not seem conducive to a clear discussion of the works. There is a temptation when studying so much literature across so much history at a time to collapse all the historical and religious differences and see similarities between everything, especially in their papers. I was trying to find a model for getting them to think about conceptual differences this semester, so I came up with something that may sound a little crazy.

I said, “Imagine everything that you experience through your five senses that can be verified by someone else. If you see an elephant, you can ask a friend if she sees the elephant. If your milk tastes sour, you could ask someone else to taste it. Put all of those things in a circle and call it ’empirical experience.'” I drew a circle on the board.

Then I asked them to think of all the things that don’t fit in that circle and I wrote them up around the circle. Experiences with God, creative thought, dreams, ghosts, sexual ecstasy, madness, and the world that is too large or too small for human perception went outside the circle. They are all things that an individual might “feel” or “know” as an individual, but never be able to directly get verification of from someone else. For example, if I claim to have had a prophetic vision of God, you’re going to have to call me insane or trust me on it. I can’t ask you if you agree with my description of the vision because you can’t share it with me.

One of the ways I’m trying to get them to think about the history of English literature is as a series of shifting relations between the inside and the outside of that circle, and the methods by which writers attempt to transcend, destroy, or maintain that boundary. Does a writer use the verifiable as a source of metaphors for achieving the unverifiable, as in Donne? Does a writer try to show that the boundary is merely a construct, and that the outer lives within the inner, as in Blake? Does a writer assert the existence of the outer, but redirects the focus toward the empirical, as in Pope? Does a writer seem to deny the existence of the outer, by suggesting that no boundary exists around the empirical, as in Pater? (These are gross simplifications, but maybe useful for illustrating the variety of possible relationships to the model.)

We’re reading a number of poems about apocalypse this semester, and my students are always rather curious about why so many English poets are obsessed with it. A great number of my students were raised in the Christian church, but only one of my 50 this semester claims to have read Revelations, so they’re suprised to see its imagery so frequently employed in poetry when it doesn’t play a large role in their religious training. My guess is that apocalypse is what many poets see as the ideal end of poetry.

Most of my students are used to thinking of “apocalypse” as “the end of the world” or “nuclear crisis” or something. I’m trying to get them to think of it as what its Greek origin (apokalyptein, to uncover) suggests, that it is a removal of a boundary between the empirical world and the divine, allowing us to verifiably experience (directly, together) something beyond what our senses allow. For different poets in different eras, poetry can have the power to suggest what that uncovering would reveal, or that there is nothing to uncover, or that humans can’t imagine beyond that covering, or that poetry itself can perform that uncovering.

In some sense, a communal experience of the sublime in a poem is a moment of potential apocalypse, as it’s tantalizingly almost verifiable.

I am hoping that this model will provide us with a way of talking about religion, sexuality, and creativity without merely reverting to our own personal experiences with them. I am not someone who bans discussion of personal experience in any way, but I do find that a student can get hung up on thinking of a piece of writing as reflecting his own experience, and then arguing that it is therefore “true.” As Blanford Parker once told me when I complained to him about this, students need that moment of self-recognition before then being able to make finer distinctions, but getting them to move from pleasure to analysis is the most difficult step.

Teaching Carnival #19 up at Scribblingwoman

Another nifty bundle of stuff at Miriam Jones’s Scribblingwoman, at this address:

Enjoy, and thanks, Miriam.