Category Archives: Teaching

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.



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.


Robert Scholes’ Rise and Fall of English, take two

I finished Scholes’s Rise and Fall the other day, and when I was done I felt that it was a lucid attempt to grapple with the largest questions surrounding the future of English Studies, as these problems were perceived circa 1998. Some of these issues still seem apposite, like the relation between K-12 and higher ed teaching; some, like his meditations on theory in the classroom, less so.  However, I left it wishing, perhaps a little unreasonably, that it had been written a little more boldly.

One of the problems that I had with the book was that it seemed specifically addressed to an audience of tenured, historically-based literature specialists who seem a lot more marginal now than they did in 1998, without it having much to say to the once-marginalized groups (the rhetoric and composition specialists, the creative writers, the underemployed adjuncts or the ambivalent graduate students) who really do make our departments different than they were in the 80s or 90s.

Even if some of the problems and solutions struck me as dated, though, there are still lots of moments worth pausing over.  This is one of my favorites, from Chapter 5, “A Fortunate Fall,” which I offer to you for consideration:

The idea of academic research as a “contribution to knowledge,” the ideal of “original research,” requires an assumption of progress toward more adequate descriptions of reality. In the sciences, research receives its justification and its support–despite all the lip serve to “pure” knowledge–from the exploitable discoveries or patents to which it may lead.  In the humanities, research receives its justification–despite all the lip service to the advancement of learning–from its applicability to teaching.  In fact, I would say that all important research in the humanities is simply teaching by other means than the lecture or the seminar.  And conversely, published work in English studies that has no use in teaching or makes no contribution to learning is unimportant–trifling stuff.  When Chaucer said of his Oxford Clerk that he would gladly learn and gladly teach, he was implying that the two activities were connected by more than the repeated adverb (172).

I happen to think this is true, and I was happy to see a figure like Scholes saying this as directly as he does.  Having said that, it seems that all the growth areas in literary scholarship are occurring in fields developing a dimension of exploitable discovery in their research, either in the hopes of Digital Humanities scholars to digitize, assemble, and analyze unprecedented amounts of verbal materials from the past and present, or in the continued effort to assemble, collect, and analyze more and more literary and cultural productions in the present from groups previously underrepresented in our cultural record.

So here’s my question: do we need to recognize Scholes’s allusion to Chaucer to conduct such research? And how might this kind of research activity relate to curricula and teaching, if this is where the scholarship of the field is indeed moving?


soren hammerschmidt’s new course blog on 18th century media

I’m posting this link to Soren Hammerschmidt‘s new course blog, Eighteenth-Century Media, because I’m always interested in ways that we can make our research and teaching in eighteenth-century topics more public. This seems like an interesting approach, with blog visitors able to observe the conversations going on in the class, and follow along with the syllabus and readings, if they liked.

Here is Soren’s description of the blog and the course it emerged from:

This blog represents the public face of an MA seminar on eighteenth-century British literature and other media forms, at Ghent University in Belgium. On this blog we want to show how fascinating the media landscapes of eighteenth-century Britain were and still are, how forms of media like song, writing, painting, gardening, or stage performance interacted and intermixed with each other in that period, and what connections we can draw between the situation in the eighteenth century and our own vibrant media landscapes. You will also find the official course description, reading schedule, and links to the course materials (some of which require certain sorts of access rights) on these pages, so feel free to browse around and read and look with us. We hope you enjoy it!

So what do readers of the Long 18th think about this experiment as pedagogy?  And how might conceptualizing this period’s writing as a part of a vivid, mixed media “landscape” alter our sense of their impact?


What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

Back to School

Some of the advice in this post by Mary Clement on course evaluations and what students want might seem obvious to the experienced, but I thought it was a very good summary of some basic practices that really make a difference so I am passing this along.

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?

MLA 2012: When Assessment Goes Bad

[x-posted at]

On the first day of MLA 2012 I attended “Assessing Assessment(s),” chaired by Jeanne A Follansbee (Harvard), with talks by Donna Heiland (Teagle Foundation), John M. Ulrich (Mansfield University), and Eve Marie Wiederhold (George Mason). Reed Way Dasenbrock was unable to attend, which is a shame because I heard an excellent talk that he gave last year and was looking forward to his perspective on this issue. (I have also taught his essay from Falling into Theory in my “Critical Methods in Literary Study” class.)

All the papers were sharp and interesting, with Heiland considering the role of assessment in cultivating student learning, Ulrich reporting on the highs and lows of his institutional practice, and Wiederhold offering a vigorous critique.

But what really enlightened me at the panel was the Q&A, during which it became clear that there was a lot of really terrible assessment going on out there. One speaker described how an “assessment professional” had been hired at her institution to set the learning outcome goals for all the programs. Another reported that he regularly turned in a series of graphs charting student grades, much to the delight of local assessment administrators.

I had mostly assumed that everyone hated assessment because it is part of the paradigm shift described by Tagg and Barr from “Instruction” to “Learning” (a point discussed by Heiland) which pretty radically goes against the status quo and thus makes people anxious. (Maybe this goes back to Dave’s discussions of “threshold concepts.”) Further, I too hated it at first, as it seemed redundant and intrusive. Now, though, I see it as part of a potential change from counting credit hours (or as my former provost used to say, “butts in seats”) or relying on student evaluations (or, as Roksa calls them, “student satisfaction surveys”) to opening up new ways of emphasizing, appreciating, and thinking about learning itself as the goal, which in turn leads to thinking that there might be better ways to get there than counting up things up, be they credit hours or survey scores. So while assessment has the reputation of bean counting, in fact we are currently wading through heaps of beans (credit hours; evaluation scores; grades; office hours; chairs bolted to the floor; multiple choice tests) without even noticing them as they have become so natural to our environment. In a true “culture of assessment,” there would be fewer beans.

It seems, though, at some institutions assessment has not been part of a larger consideration of student learning, but instead the evil bureaucratic exercise that many feared it would become.


This article should be available to any library that subscribes to SAGE journals online.  It stresses that collaboration is something that needs to be taught and practiced in formal courses, and divides up the instructor’s duties into the stages of preparation, practice, and performance review.

Especially helpful are these recommendations for keeping in-class group activities on track:

  • Focus attention on the purpose of the project: In small groups, ask students to brainstorm methods of refocusing a group discussion. Ask students to role-play reactions to statements and list the methods in order of effectiveness.
  • Encourage participation and positive collaboration: Address active listening, questioning, and restating techniques to ensure that students participate and provide input during group discussions. Encourage students to engage in positive collaboration among team members and
    referee any unconstructive feedback or personality conflicts.
  • Establish a timeline: Demonstrate how to create a timeline by working backward from a deadline. Discuss delegation and prioritization techniques to ensure a balanced yet productive group experience.
  • Keep the project on track: Although individual team members may
    work on separate tasks, students should be coached to schedule team meetings throughout the project to discuss progress, encourage group feedback, and share ideas. They should also be coached to accept new ideas and revisions to the plan that enhance the project (rather than perceiving changes as negative aspects that prolong the team endeavor).
  • Negotiate conflicts: Ask students to role-play the differences between
    affective and cognitive conflict and practice impartial methods to resolve any problems.

Well worth checking out.


Why do students hate groupwork? Part 2

[X-posted on Assessment for Learning 101]

One of the most-read posts on this blog is David Mazella’s classic, “Why do students hate groupwork?”  The original post prompted a lively discussion, including comments by students themselves telling us why, in fact, they hate groupwork.

I was thinking about this discussion yesterday at my MLA panel, “Academically Adrift,” which featured Josipa Roksa, one of the authors of the book after which the panel took its name.  Offering a brief overview of her findings (with co-author Richard Arum), Josipa introduced the section on study groups by saying, “This is the one that always gets me in trouble.”  And indeed, part of the discussion that followed concerned this issue.

In short, Arum and Roksa found that students who worked in study groups showed significantly lower learning than those who studied on their own.  What does this mean for collaboration?

To me, the most interesting point that came out of the conversation was that the problem might not be group work itself, but the way it is done.  Roksa speculated that there is a tendency for the professor to assign group work without enough structure and also without providing any training for students in collaboration itself.  We tend to come up with a project, give it to a group of students, and say “go collaborate,” which turns out to be ineffective.  She briefly discussed a colleague of hers who teaches a semester-long course specifically on collaboration.  So perhaps her answer to the question posed by Dave’s original post might be that students hate it because they don’t know how to do it and as a result they don’t learn much.

What I found particularly interesting was Roksa’s emphasis on collaboration as a skill that needs to be learned.  As someone raised on theory that taught me how gender, race, and all kinds of identity formations are constructed, I had never given much thought to collaboration as “constructed” as well.  Perhaps for too many of us, it seems like something that students should just know how to do.  But apparently they don’t (and in fairness, we often don’t either).  I wonder, then, if we should be thinking about ways to get collaboration skills into the curriculum—not just in the form of collaborative assignments but as a learning outcome goal in itself.