How to Teach 150 Years of Literature in Four Weeks (without Drilling and Killing Your Students)

photo credit: IronRodArt – Royce Bair (NightScapes on Thursdays) via photo pin cc

I just finished up my summer short-term American literature survey course. It’s a grueling ordeal, for instructor and students alike. My course covered the late-19th century to the present day. I had to provide a foundational knowledge in this period of American literature in a matter of four weeks, which meant meeting for two and a half hours four days a week. Normally, this type of accelerated literature survey course is handled via a brutal schedule of lecturing for the entire class period with a ten minute break at a convenient stopping point. Some instructors give a midterm two weeks in, while others just give a final on the last day of class. I don’t know why students voluntarily subject themselves to this, but they do, in droves, every summer.

The problem, for me, is that I no longer believe that the lecture model is an effective way for students to learn, and it certainly is not an effective way for them to engage with the texts they’re being asked to read. I suppose this is why so many students choose summer survey courses; under the lecture model they don’t even really need to do the enormous amount of reading required because they can show up, try to copy down everything the lecturer says, and then regurgitate it on an exam, and, vóila, they’ve dispensed with having to do any kind of real learning or thinking about the texts themselves because the instructor has pre-digested them for them (because of the short nature of the course and the inordinate amount of reading required, there are generally no research papers or other types of projects). So, the problem that I faced was how to make such a course an active learning environment.

Firstly, I had to re-think how to best use the two and a half hour class meetings. While a discussion-based model was the most obvious method for putting more onus on the students, I couldn’t expect them to carry a discussion for the whole period. Plus, I’ve been teaching long enough to know that students often need coaxing and cajoling when it comes to in-class discussion; they’re not ordinarily forthcoming with ideas and arguments about the texts they’ve been asked to read. So, I also had to consider how best to use their out-of-class time to help them prepare for in-class discussions.

One of the best methods that I’ve used for encouraging in-class discussion is to have students begin thinking and talking about the texts before class meets. Since the class was small (ten students), I thought that a class blog would be the best way to do this, so I set up one on WordPress and gave each student authoring status. I had to spend some in-class time at the beginning of the course showing them how to use WordPress, but everyone caught on pretty quickly. I then divided the class up into four groups (one for each meeting of the week) and made each group responsible for both blogging about their assigned readings and leading the in-class discussion about them. On days when they weren’t responsible for blogging, they were required to read and comment on their peers’ posts. If the class had been larger (it caps at 30), I think Twitter would have been a better option than a blog.

In addition to encouraging the class to begin thinking about and discussing the texts before arriving in the classroom, once in the classroom we repositioned the desks into a circle (which I joined) so that we were all facing each other and everyone was accountable for contributing to the discussion. At first, to discourage the class from relying on me to facilitate the discussion, I refrained from speaking for the first 20 minutes (this was harder than I thought it would be, especially when students said things that I found to be thought-provoking); once I was certain that the class no longer looked to me as arbiter of the discussion, I reduced my enforced silence to 10 minutes.

Since I was asking students to begin to engage with the texts via the class blog, I decided to make the workload less onerous by approaching the content via an uncoverage, rather than coverage, model, focusing on depth rather than breadth. I decided that two to three short stories or two to three poets per class meeting was a good number. But I still had the task of reducing three volumes of literature down to thirteen or so authors. I considered allowing the class to select the texts, but decided that the brief nature of the course precluded this option, so I decided that a thematic approach would help make the process of elimination and selection easier. I settled on the theme of “outsiders, outcasts, outlaws, and anti-hero(in)es” and selected texts accordingly, making sure to have representative texts for all of the major literary movements that the course objectives required me to cover. I also decided to make the course as visually interesting as possible by including film adaptations of some of the texts as long as the films themselves had artistic merit (I ended up selecting A Streetcar Named Desire, Slaughthouse-five, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Smoke Signals, and Fight Club).

In addition to requiring that the students initiate and facilitate discussions of the texts, I also asked them to take an active role in how they would be assessed. We spent part of an early class meeting discussing and establishing guidelines and criteria for the blog posts and comments and the in-class discussions. And I asked the class to create the final exam by submitting potential exam questions each week; these questions were to be developed based on the discussions of the texts that took place both on the blog and in the classroom, as well as the mini-lectures that I gave periodically to help students understand the historical and cultural background of various texts and the major literary movements that they were a part of. I tried to keep these lectures as short as possible and used visual media to give students a sense of the time period and events within which the texts were situated. After providing some basic background information, I then asked the students to work together to develop lists of the themes and characteristics of the particular literary movement under discussion, using the stories, poems, and films that they had read to help them to do so. In terms of the exam questions that they developed using our discussions and these lectures, the class agreed that there should be a balance of closed and open short-answer questions, so I had them post their questions to a Google spreadsheet to ensure that students didn’t use the same questions and that each of them submitted the appropriate types of questions. What I found was that the students developed exam questions that were very similar to what I would have developed myself.

Despite our limited time frame, I wanted students to see the relevancy of the texts and the issues we were discussing to contemporary issues and their own cultural environments, so I required a capstone project in which students selected a text (either a story or poem, film, music video, or song/album) that represented a character or group that they saw as being outsiders, outcasts, outlaws, and/or anti-hero(in)es and then create a multimedia presentation with the purpose of teaching the class about their selected text and how it fit in with our theme. This required dedicating an entire class meeting to the capstone presentations, but I think that the sacrifice was worth it, as I think it forced the students to apply what they had learned over the term to a text that they normally would not have thought of as requiring or benefiting from a closer analysis and I think that the class, as a whole, enjoyed seeing their peers’ interests and being exposed to texts that they normally would not have been. The selection was varied, from Twilight to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The Help and from “Kick Push” by Lupe Fiasco to “Poncho and Lefty” by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

I think that, overall, the course was a success. While some students clearly put more effort into their blog posts than others, and some students still did not fully engage in classroom discussions due to shyness, I think that all of the students took something away from the course and were forced to engage with the texts in an active way. The biggest surprise for me came on the last day of class, the day of the final. When I walked into class, the first thing that students wanted to know was if they could take the final as a class. I was puzzled by the question and asked why they wanted to take the final as a class. The response was equally surprising: they had worked together as a class all term to understand, analyze, and situate the texts; to them, it seemed only natural that they would demonstrate what they had learned as a class as a class. I expressed concern about the method for assessing them if they took the final as a class. But they had that figured out as well: they would sit in a circle and take turns answering the questions on the exam orally; if they couldn’t answer the question, they could pass on it and go to the next, but they could only pass on a question once without it counting against them. If they could not answer the question completely on their own, then their peers could offer them help by posing additional questions. Originally, I had pooled 30 questions for their exam and given them the option of selecting 15 of those questions to answer. Using the students’ collaborative method, all 30 questions were answered during the final exam and every question was answered correctly by someone, with only three students needing to use their pass and only two having to pass more than once. What’s more, the class was able to elaborate on answers and point to connections between texts that they had not noticed or had time to discuss during our previous meetings. So, using the students’ collaborative method of taking the final exam turned out to be both a way for me to assess their learning and a way for them to continue to learn more about the texts and issues we had uncovered during the term.

I don’t know that this would work with every literature survey class. It may be that this one was blessed by serendipity: that I had the right number of the right kinds of students. I don’t know that I could have done this with 30 students. I don’t know that I could have done this with students less motivated or engaged with the content. But I do know that I will never go back to the way I used to teach my literature survey courses. And I will never forget the semester when my students sat in a circle and answered every question that I threw at them and supported and helped each other to think harder and remember more and make connections they would not have made on their own.

If you’re interested, you can view the class blog here. And I’m interested in what you think about the course, especially the idea of collaborative exams.

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