Or at least it seems that way now – I’m sure I’ll be slammed when I actually do what I intend to do.
What am I talking about, you ask? Well, updating a course that I’m teaching in the fall, you sillies! This will be the first of four posts that I’ll do in this vein, and if all of them go like this one did, well, it’s smooth sailing! (Famous last words).
The course: This is a course that I’ve taught only one time before, a theory course for master’s level students that focuses on one particular “strand” of theoretical inquiry. If you want to know more precisely what theoretical strand, I’m happy to talk about that, but for the purposes of talking about the updating, it’s not necessary for me to go into detail about that.
Successes the first time around: The first time, I invested a lot of energy on the front end in designing the course, from figuring out the pacing of the readings (and what to assign) as well as to constructing a lot of “stepping-stone” assignments that would lead up to (in theory – ha! see what I did there?) the students being able to write a successful theoretically oriented seminar paper at the end of the whole shebang. Looking back on that part of things, the structure that is, I’m still really happy with the design of this course. However, even with that being the case, I didn’t feel approaching this second run-through confident in just keeping everything as it was.
Challenges the first time around (I almost wrote failures, but I don’t think that’s actually the right word – not that I wouldn’t admit it if there were “failures” but that just wasn’t quite how it went): I think the challenges were twofold, both of which relate to the student population for the course, but one is a more “macro” issue and one is a more “micro” issue. On the macro level, our M.A. program is new-ish (and at the time that I first taught the course it was NEW). Most of our students are returning after some gap after undergrad, and they have chosen to pursue a master’s degree for one of two reasons: personal enrichment, or promotion at work. Further, our program is an M.A. in English and not an M.A. in Literature, which means students aren’t necessarily heavily invested in literary theory or in criticism. Most, in fact, come to us with an interest in their own creative writing or with an interest in professional writing. So while literary study or theory is part of the program, it is not it’s primary purpose. In other words, our grad students aren’t heavily invested, at least upon entry into the program, in the work that this course does, and they don’t necessarily enter with a foundational background from undergrad in how to approach theoretical reading or how to approach their own writing from a theoretical vantage point. This then leads to the micro problem(s) in the course: 1) I did not adequately communicate to students in the first week exactly how much the course would kick their asses (which resulted in high attrition, ultimately); 2) in spite of all of my scaffolding, I did not clearly and explicitly build checkpoints into the syllabus for things like me giving a sample presentation, meeting with me, workshopping drafts of the seminar paper, which I did do, but I did it on the fly and so students didn’t know up front that it would exist and some of them missed out on crucial “checkpoint” moments.
Now, let me pause to address what I suspect some people might say about the above. I suspect that some people might say that these students shouldn’t be in an M.A. program. I suspect that some people might say that my “hand-holding” does them a disservice. Here’s the thing that I’d say to both of those potential criticisms: I’m trying to respond to the reality of my teaching situation in the most ethical and effective way that I can imagine. Now, I could ignore that reality, and say that I should run my seminar just how I experienced seminars in my graduate programs, and that would make a certain point, but I wouldn’t likely get work of the quality that my grad instructors got. I also wouldn’t likely be doing my students any favors in teaching them (most of whom are first gen college students, let alone grad students) the level of expectation for graduate study (and by the time they finish our program a fair few do decide they want to go on for terminal degrees). I hope that what I’m doing is giving them some tools to be more independent as they move forward in the program. And I hope that what I’m doing is to ensure that I get work to evaluate that really is of the quality that I think graduate work should be. I don’t know that my choices are the only ones or the “right” ones, but they are what I’ve come up with.
What’s staying the same: Actually, nearly everything. I still like the majority of the readings I’ve chosen and the way that I’ve paced them, and I’m still happy with the set of assignments that I developed. I didn’t know that until I’d hunkered down and actually forced myself to look at the damned course for this updating project. So that’s the good news, and this is the reason that the updating was so much easier than I’d imagined it might be.
What’s changing: Small things, but I think significant ones. 1) I’m going to be much more explicit about the quantity of work the course entails and the quality of the work that I’m expecting on the first day. I did a bit of that the first time around, but I was afraid of scaring them off. Now? I don’t think I did them any favors by taking a softer approach; I think that actually accounted for the mass exodus that happened in the first 4 weeks. 2) Remember those “checkpoints” I discussed above? I have included a mandatory individual conference with me that must take place prior to week 6 in the course; I have explicitly noted various “checkpoints” on the syllabus, and in so doing I have made transparent the “support” toward completion of assignments that I will give students and when that will happen – no more flying by the seat of my pants with that stuff. 3) I have added a film to round out the “non-theory” weeks in the course. The last time I had two films, but there was something missing. Now, I have Black Swan to view on the first day. I think this is going to be crucial toward easing our way into the first four weeks of the course. It also alerted me to the fact that somehow Laura Mulvey had been left off the course in its first carnation. Whaaa? 4) I switched out the bulk of the reading for the final reading week in the course, and changed it with something that is both more accessible and which directly connects to my own research. Also, and this is even more important, it gives a sort of “where are we now” critique of most of what we’d read in the course to that point, which will be a nice “conclusion” to the course, which I didn’t have before – before the course just sort of petered out at the end. It’s a bit long, but since we won’t meet during the Thanksgiving week, they will have two full weeks to get through it. And also? This is graduate school. Suck it up.
The Take-Away: I’m really glad that I was encouraged by Virago, among others, to write about this, because it made me actually stop procrastinating and work on it. And in the working on it, my excitement about actually teaching the course returned, and I accomplished something that I needed to accomplish, which is a Good Thing. Going along with that, it’s very easy in the summer to get so into one’s head that one forgets about how the work that one is doing relates to other people, and teaching is the thing that consistently (and wonderfully) brings me back down to earth in that way. Less generally, and about this class specifically, the take-away for me is that I’m really happy with what this course aims to do, and I think that the design of the course is solid. I still think that it can improve (obviously), but I don’t feel like the whole course needs to be scrapped and envisioned anew, and that’s important, too, that confidence that I do actually know what I want to teach my students and the faith that I have in them that they can succeed even though I’m presenting them with challenging stuff. Also, I saw that in my own pedagogy I am really trying (if not always succeeding) to create something that is akin to what I myself experienced in AST, and that was nice, too, to realize that I do strive to be the sort of teacher I admire – that I’m not just phoning it in.
I’ll warn you, though, I’m not sure that the take-away from the next three classes that I need to update is going to be all so warm and fuzzy. Those courses present different challenges, and I’m much less psyched to return to at least two of them. And one of those three is going to be online for the first time, for lots of good reasons for the institution, for students, and for me, but I can’t claim that I’m super-stoked to be returning to the online teaching or that I’m very hopeful about how that all will turn out, for a whole host of reasons. I mean, I think it will be fine, but I tend to aim for more than “fine” in my teaching. So. And one of those classes is freshmen comp, after a long break from the comp classroom, so revisiting that syllabus, that course, and just the teaching of writing in general I expect to be a brutal re-entry. (But let’s note: I volunteered to put that back into my rotation. As much as I loathe comp, I really love working with first-year students. I certainly hope that my little newbies are going to be a fun group, because if they’re not…. wow will that suck.)
So that is my pedagogy post for the day. And I probably should stop working, but I’m thinking that maybe I’ve hit a stride and I should press onward? Ah, hell, we’ll see how I feel after I have some dinner.
Oh, and on a unrelated note, I had a fabulous lunch today with CC, CF, and TT (another colleague) and it was a very good lunch indeed! Both in terms of the food and in terms of the conversation and I hope in terms of a new bond forged. There are some things that are excessively irritating to me in my department dynamics right now, but I have hope that those will fizzle as we embark on the new academic year.