>When Chaucer is an intro-level class and other problems with "recommended" prerequisites

>From the nine comments on my last post — not a very good sample, I realize — it seems that most of you want me to write about teaching issues, particularly the inter-related problems of multiple audiences and students putting off “recommended” pre-requisites. And so that’s what I’ll do, mostly through the lens of my Chaucer class from Spring. I don’t really have any answers here, but maybe we can at least start a conversation and share some ideas.

First, though, some background. Our English major consists entirely of 3000 and 4000 level classes. The 1000 level is reserved for composition and the 2000 level consists of general education courses that don’t satisfy the major. To me this seems like an obvious system where each level corresponds roughly to a year in college — 1000 for first-year stuff, 2000 for more advanced general education courses you should be finishing up in the sophomore year, and 3000 and 4000 level courses for the major, which you’re largely doing in your junior and senior years, and where 4000 level courses are more advanced than 3000 level ones. This is partly reinforced in our major requirements where the 3000 level courses have names with “introduction” and “principles” and words like that in them, or where they’re called “X 1” and the 4000 version is called “X 2.” And a bunch of these courses with the seemingly obvious names are specifically required. So it should seem to the casual observer that one is supposed to take those 3000 level “introduction” courses first. Obviously. Or, at least it’s obvious to me, and it was so when I was an undergrad at an institution with the same kind of system. (Where it *didn’t* seem intuitive at all to me was in the major at my grad institution, which had 1-digit, 2-digit, and 3-digit courses, and once you got to the 3-digit level, there was some kind of distinction, but it wasn’t quite clear what that was.)

But apparently it’s not obvious to our students. For one thing, I’m starting to realize that they don’t look at the major as a whole — or few do, anyway. They don’t make a long term plan or think in sequences. That’s not how our students pick their courses. Rather, they do so one semester or, at best, one year at a time. And from what I’ve heard from the advisers in various areas — not just our majors — a lot of them don’t come in for advising from someone with a longer view until their senior year or just before it. And left on their own, they make choices that seem strange to me. I know a lot of them search by day and time, and they use the electronic system that gives them only the course name and brief, general catalog description, instead of consulting the detailed descriptions we write for them in a document that is both mailed to them and available on the department website. Our undergraduate adviser is working on that by developing a booklet that every student will get when they declare the major, which lays out for them the logic and order of the classes and the underlying curricular purposes of the requirements. But I bet that doesn’t stop a lot of students from the short-term thinking or from simply picking what fits their schedule or what’s taught by someone they heard is a good teacher.

So why aren’t there computer-enforced pre-requisites? Honestly, I don’t know. I think this state of affairs is combination of various causes, some of them buried deep in the past. Looking at my Chaucer class, it has three “recommended” prereequisites, one of which is the course I think should be a computer-enforced prereq, and two of which are 2000 level general education classes, which these days we teach not as “gateway” courses to majors but as “appreciation” classes (for lack of a better word) to more general audiences. (Although, honestly, were I teaching them, they’d only be slightly different from the true gateway-to-the-major course. But that’s another topic.) My guess is that once upon a time the faculty wanted to encourage “converts” (those other majors who realized their true love was English after all when they took a particularly good English gen ed course) and wanted them to be able to move into the upper level courses more quickly. Also, if these three courses were originally more alike in conception and the way they were taught, you’d want any one to be a pre-req. Certainly a computer registration system could be programmed to accept an “X or Y” type choice, but that may have gotten all fouled up in a relatively recent switch to a new system. Or maybe it was beyond the old system. I really don’t know for sure, but I do know that our catalog of courses looks in many ways like the accumulation of piecemeal changes, and so the pre-req system (or lack of one) may be the result of that, too.

The other problem might be that the three concentrations within the English major didn’t used to have the same core required courses, and so a student in, say, the creative writing concentration wouldn’t have necessarily taken the same 3000 course that the English lit concentrators all have to take, but might want to take some of the same 4000 level courses, and so a computer-enforced prereq would require an override in such cases every time. (Or maybe such a pre-req wasn’t possible since the computer saw them all as English majors, regardless of concentraion.) But just recently this has changed, and *all* English majors have the same core requirements.

That change is due to our undergraduate advisor, who is also the head of the undergrad curriculum committee, who has been doing a bang-up job reorganizing the major and making it make better sense — that is, looking less like a bunch of accumulated, piecemeal changes. But he’s much more interested in the curricular and pedagogical logic of things than the nuts and bolts, and probably hasn’t thought of things like computer-enforced prereqs (or out of date recommended ones). [Note to self: bring this up with him!]

Then there’s the additional problem of the English-Ed majors. If they were still all English *and* Education *double* majors, it wouldn’t be a problem, but the school of Ed recently devised a single degree option and, frankly, gutted the actual subject content in favor of the pedagogical and curricular courses over in Ed. (The ambitious students still do both degrees, thank heavens.) Those pedagogical courses *are* important, I do realize, but right now the English-Ed single degree requires *no* 4000 level courses. and most of the content is from 2000-level general ed classes. And whoever designed what it does include — without consulting us — put in bizarre courses from the catalog that we don’t actually teach all that often. *headdesk* But more germane to today’s point is this: what those single degree English-Ed students have to take isn’t the same as what our English majors have to take, and that screws up the pre-req system as well.

OK, end of boring background. Now, what does this mean for the classroom?

It means that in Spring’s Chaucer class, as I only learned well into the semester — and in one case, at the end of the semester — I had students who were starting the major and simultaneously taking the intro-level class and mine; English-Ed students who were taking elective English content courses, and had had some English lit courses, but not the core intro class that most of us think of as the foundation of everything after; English majors who knew the ropes already; clueless students only just beginning the English major and taking Chaucer first before anything else; and, on top of all that, MA students of various backgrounds, abilities, and preparation. (Oh, and as a corollary situation, I had two students in my section of the intro level class who had taken all or most of my upper level classes already. They were both smart students who’d managed to find their way through those other courses, but they had a *lot* of eureka moments in the intro class that might have helped had they had that class *before* the others!)

Oy. How do you teach to that mix? In the past I’ve tried various strategies. In the two most recent go-arounds of Chaucer, I’ve redesigned the writing assignments to be a series of short papers that build skills every English major should have and that help students cope with the special challenges of Chaucer. I modelled it on the assignment sequence that Jeffrey Cohen once posted about over at In the Middle. They start with simple translation assignments with reflective essays about what gets lost in translation. Then they move to more complex interpretative assignments — close readings of passages, longer essays. They also review a secondary article (which I pick out, though there’s a choice) along the way, to help build to their final paper, where they mount their own argument in conversation with two articles they find themselves. So, it seems, that I’ve arranged a nice scaffolded sequence of assignments that build skills in relation to the subject at hand — Chaucer — and the discipline as a whole.

But as basic as those first assignments seem — and there were a number of low-stakes close-readings for them to learn from — a lot of them didn’t know what to do even after a *lot* of commenting on my part and dealing with individual sets of knowledge gaps student by student. The kinds of things they didn’t know how to do included a lot of the stuff I drill in the intro class, including: the difference between summary and analysis; the necessity of remembering that characters are not real people, that they’re illusions created by language, that they can’t make choices; the need to turn to the text frequently for evidence, and how to do that both in terms of the mechanics and the logic and argument; the need to *make* an argument; and the most difficult but necessary move from describing what a text does, however prettily, to thinking about what and how it means. Ideally, the upper division classes would be where we talk about that last point the most, and add the various methods and materials and knowledge for talking about that (theories, contexts, genres, etc.). But with many of my students — including, btw, an occassional MA level student — I didn’t get to that last point because they’re just getting the hang of the other issues. There was one student this semester whom I could never get to move past his personal reaction to characters. He wrote weird, angry essays about all the women who were sexually or emotionally unfaithful and claimed — when he had a thesis at all — that his disgust with them was Chaucer’s disgust. I really should have required that guy to come talk to me (I did urge him, but didn’t require him), not to berate him for his misogyny (although that *was* disturbing) but just to teach him that characters aren’t real and that his sitting in judgement over them said more about him than about Chaucer. (Although, in retrospect, I guess it taught me that Chaucer’s women push the buttons of certain kinds of men. OK, duly noted.) It saddened me that he could never imaginatively move out of his own point of view enough to see that maybe Chaucer was saying something very different and that maybe he might learn something from that (such as, for example, that women have sexual desires, which, judging from his screeds, he desperately needed to learn). Had he been in my intro class, he would have had many assignments and activities that precisely talked about how our immediate reactions to texts can sometimes be with the grain of the text or sometimes against the grain, and that one of the first things we need to do to be more analytical is make those kinds of distinctions and figure out what we think the text wants from us (or if that’s radically unclear, so be it).

I don’t mind having to reinforce lessons learned in the intro classes, or needing to teach the quirks of reading older literature (for example, that it rarely, if ever, is naturalistic or a depiction of everyday lives the way that, say, the social novel is). But it’s damned difficult to teach simultaneously to MA-level students with aspirations for the Ph.D. and student who are, for all intents and purposes, coming straight from their high school level lit classes where, appropriate to that level, they do tend to talk about how a text made them feel or if they liked a character or not. It’s hard enough to pitch any upper level course to a broad array of English majors who’ll go on to various careers and lives. And it’s a bit more hard to teach to that body *plus* the MA students. But then it gets a whole exponential level harder to add the underprepared students who are going through the major haphazardly. This has probably always been the case since I’ve been at Rust Belt, but it seemed a particularly intense problem this past semester. There were some “light bulb” moments and I have no doubt that a lot of the students learned a whole lot about thinking analytically about how literature works. If they realize that it wasn’t just about my course, and if they carry that knowledge to other courses, they’ll benefit in the long run. But some grades took some serious hits (and I’m sure my evals did as a result). And it was a harder struggle than usual — it was a Chaucer course lacking some of the joy that it usually has. I think that was partly because so many of the students were dealing with the anxiety that is Chaucer alone — it’s hard! it’s weird! it’s not a novel! — plus the anxiety that my assignments and comments and grades provoked.

And this isn’t limited to my Chaucer course. I had a lot of the same problems in the broader medieval lit course the previous semester, but that semester’s class was weird and wacky in so many other ways because of the personality clashes and dramas going on in it that the usual pedagogical issues were overshadowed by the rest of the nuttiness. And so I’m sure this radical mix of levels and preparation will happen in future courses.

So, what now? We could, maybe, enforce the intro-level class pre-req. We do offer the class every semester and in the summer, too. But what if we can’t? How do I (re) adapt what I’m doing to the various audiences and levels and needs of my students? Do you have any ideas, because I’m kind of fresh out.

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10 thoughts on “>When Chaucer is an intro-level class and other problems with "recommended" prerequisites

  1. >This seems quite familiar to me: my upper level seminar had a few majors who had had the required courses, a minor, and then some people who were taking it as an upper level gen ed (required in our system) but with no serious pre-requisites. I think that we're going to do some serious thinking about what we want to happen in our gateway courses so that there are some things we can take for granted in upper level courses. I think you lit folks are way ahead of the historians in thinking about the sequential skills you are teaching. Sigh.

  2. >You know, I'm not sure that you try to reach all of the different levels. You know my student population is similar to yours, and the way I've handled the competing audiences is to be very clear about what the class includes on the very first day, to launch in with something of moderate difficulty that they have to do in the first week, and to advise them that if they've not had experience with x, y, and z prior to this course that this course may not be right for them this semester. (Or, in contrast, to tell MA students that a course is just not appropriate for their needs, when that is the case.) Now, this does come off as a bit unwelcoming in the first week or so, and students don't feel like I'm "nice" or whatever. But the ones who aren't ready drop when they can still add another class, and the ones who stay are typically prepared and committed. This was the strategy I used in my Joyce and Woolf class last fall, and it ended up being one of the best classes I ever taught (if not the best). That said, only 13 of the original 22 students stayed in the course until the end. I think that's a good thing, ultimately, but some people might not. (I should note that I do not have that kind of attrition in all of the classes that I teach – it does seem to me though that a class on Joyce and Woolf is similarly tough for students, as Chaucer would be.)

  3. >This is a more mundane response (avoiding the deeper pedagogical issues!), but I have NEVER worked ANYWHERE with computer-enforced prerequisites. Seriously. I mean, I am sure it is just not. that. hard, from a programming point of view, for this to happen. But I have *never* seen it. (Rudbeckia Hirta of Learning Curves also regularly complains about this.) So I doubt the failure to do so where you are is about your institution or history as much as it's about schools just not doing this. Former College had a very clearly-structured major, where people took the intro classes as first-years or sophomores and moved into the upper-level stuff as juniors and seniors. On the one hand, it was amazingly neat to have a room full of students who understood, basically, what history was!!, so even though they had all kinds of assumptions about medieval Europe, at least they were pretty good on the basics. But FWIW, I think you do miss something from having a more homogenous group of students – I kind of missed the flashes of insight that came from the bio majors or the students who hadn't gone lockstep through the major yet and were kind of out in left field. But it is more exhausting to teach the varied group, and I don't have any great insights. (FWIW, although Former College didn't have computer-enforced prereqs, students did follow the preregs, but it was a really small place with intense individualized advising. A student wouldn't be able to register out of sequence because their advisor would tell them they couldn't. But that was very much about a specific culture and process probably not in place where you are.)

  4. >I wish we had a good pre-requisite system. Right now, the only pre-requisites that work are very basic (students must have completed a first year sequence in the major to enrol in one of the methods courses; students must be entering the 4th year of the program to enrol in a senior seminar).I get tonnes of students who've not taken a single pre-modern history course who end up in my senior seminar. At least they have some of the general skills from the major, but the enormous gulf between someone who's confined their studies to the last hundred years and a student who's taken all the possible building-blocks for this advanced topic makes for difficulties not only in assignments, but in managing class discussion!I do include a "recommended reading" as background for students who haven't gone through any related courses. It helps with the most motivated students (and gives me something to point back at for the slackers — "You don't understand this part of today's seminar because you haven't worked through these background readings as I told you anyone without the normal pre-requisite would need to do").A problem is that, with people needing to graduate, they end up stuffed into courses that are inappropriate given their previous studies. They're often resentful that they've ended up in a course in which they're only marginally interested, say. Telling them that they now get the privilege of doing more work to perform at the basic level just increases the frustration factor!I'm toying with the idea of teaming up students who've taken pre-requisites with those who haven't for the first weeks of seminars and have the pairs tackle analysis of selected sources, then discuss their insights. That might give the new-to-the-field students a chance to see what they're missing and the more seasoned students an understanding that the entire class doesn't operate at their level quite yet.

  5. >I agree whole-heartedly with the post, and I am trying to figure out how to nudge my department toward prerequisites. Things are even worse here because there is a college-wide upper-level distribution requirement. When students are required to take upper level courses outside their major, they tend toward English instead of math, for some reason.But curricular problems are tied to problems — or whatever the polite word is — with colleagues and administrators. The generation before mine stormed the battlements for student freedom, liberty of inquiry, and death to the canon. A number would be quite resistant to a system of prerequisites, suspecting (perhaps correctly) that a system of prerequisites may serve as a system of priorities.The administrative issues go beyond poaching majors who convert late in their careers to prop up funding. Prerequisites lower the pool of students who can take upper level classes, and that can lower enrollments. This is bad for the department, and it is bad for the individual faculty members, who may at the last minute have their class on medieval women cancelled and be forced to teach an intro to lit class to students who can't spell and don't care to show up to class (not that I'm bitter about last semester).Any advice on navigating these obstacles would be appreciated.

  6. >Anonymous — As I was writing I was thinking about enrollment issues, too, but because the post was already so long and so "inside baseball" I didn't write about that aspect. But it's very, very important in all sorts of practical, financial, *and* political ways. And I suspect that might be the historical reason why we don't have enforced pre-reqs for our classes (though "consent of the instructor" as second option to the pre-req might work, if the program works with a 'if not A, then B' algorithm). Because, yeah, as some of the other commenters have also noted, the mix of students can sometimes be a very good thing. I'm especially likely to have history, linguistics, and other language/literature majors in my classes now and then. Though the bulk of students who take my particular classes are English (or English-Ed) majors or minors. Still, in *other* upper division classes — say, the Victorian novel — there might be more non-majors and instructors might not want to keep them out for the reasons you outline and for the reasons others have noted.But then there's the problem Janice outlines, even with majors, and it's a problem I have, too. Our majors need to take only one course in a literature before 1800, and for many reasons they gravitate toward mine. But then almost everything else they've studied — with the exception of the intro to Shakespeare class, which is required — is 19th or 20th century. (And then, because they take things out of order, they put off the 3000 level required Shakespeare class.) I suppose chronologically speaking it makes sense to do *my* pre-1800 courses before any others, but I do have to do a lot of general teaching of how to deal with pre-print literature, which I'm not sure they always get.New Kid — I know that it's possible to have enforced pre-reqs because composition is one of the few that works that way. Though, as a student of mine in Spring discovered, if you *transfer* you can put off composition until your last semester if you like! (Why she did so is beyond me.)Dr. Crazy — I think I may do something like what you suggest, so that students at least understand what they're getting into. Mine probably won't drop for all sorts of reasons — the pre-1900 requirement being one of them — but at least forewarned is forearmed.Finally, back to Anonymous, your point about pre-reqs suggesting canonical priorities is a pertinent one, and I think that makes particular sense when the pre-reqs are survey courses taught in very traditional ways. But you can teach a survey in a non-traditional way that draws attention to canon-making. And in our program, we don't have surveys — and I'm glad, because I do have discomfort with them in all sorts of ways — but we have a more general intro to literary studies that supposed to teach how we do things — the questions we ask, the arguments we make, the terms we use, etc. — with a range of genres, and then we have two additional classes, one Brit Lit and one American lit, that's supposed add a little literary history to the basic skills. Both are recommended, but only one (student's choice) is required. Within all three of those classes, the choice of texts to assign is completely open. One could, for example, even do a colonial/postcolonial thing with any of them, and teach Anglophone lit in the Brit course or American multi-ethnic lit in the American course.So, in short, it sounds like your colleagues threw out the baby with the bath water, getting rid of pre-reqs instead of asking what *kind* of pre-reqs should/might you have.

  7. >V – forewarned is forearmed – also, if you're really serious, you can do what I do with my online course: email them a few weeks before classes begins to give them some sense of what they're getting themselves into.

  8. >Dr. V: thank you for the background and for starting this discussion. Some immediate thoughts I had while reading your posting 1. Perhaps the new booklet being created for English majors could include a 1-page visual "map" of pre-reqs, that could then be reproduced on your syllabus, and then, as Dr. Crazy noted, discussed on the first day (and yes, for online lit classes I send out a long, detailed inventory of what skills I expect them to already possess in order to succeed in the course). I do this, too: and yes, it's a bit intimidating, and yes, I do lose a few students (maybe even 1-2 who might have done fine), but during times when enrollment is strong and we have huge wait lists, this works out well for everyone.2. Our college has very, very few computer-enforced pre-requisites. We are an open admission community college (with practically an open admission branch campus of one of the state universities offering the upper division courses on our campus): both the cc and the university have only "recommended" prereqs for most courses. So, yes, it CAN be done (for some reason, but there are many, many many hoops to jump through to get approval for computer enforced pre-reqs—unless you are teaching in one of the professional/technical programs where the logic of sequenced coursework seems to be more readily understood by administrators and curriculum committee members (you shouldn't be able to cut down a tree in forestry, I suppose, until you learn how to put the safety goggles on).3. We used to have an English/Ed option (partnering with another state university) but that was cut a few years ago: and yes, they, too, focused more on the general education courses than the upper division lit courses. They are simply bowing to the reality of the state licensing test, which tests general, survey-course, knowledge of literature rather than higher level analysis and interpretation. 4. I love the scaffolding assignments (especially providing the article choices for the initial argument essay): I did that last year and it worked beautifully. What I didn't do last year, but need to return to this year, is to provide models (good and bad) for each assignment as a way to initiate discussion on those basics such as summary vs. analysis; the need for a thesis and evidence, etc. I teach the intro and 2nd year courses, mostly, but I have done something like that in the junior/senior level courses I've taught for the university (and since I teach the same students at the cc, I know from the start which students have been "trained" in intro/survey courses, and which haven't). So, in response to your final question of now what? Yes, try to enforce the pre-req (Intro to Literary Analysis? Intro to the Major? esp. by including the course mapping for the major on your syllabus and discussing the challenges of starting with Chaucer (such an ODD decision for any student, frankly–I thought that only happened to us Americanists!). Perhaps offer workshops outside of classtime for "review" of close reading and argument writing techniques? Or spend part of some classes going over essay models?

  9. >All I can say is : WORD. Your present aptly describes my deal, too. The way our major is structured, I had students in my medieval lit seminar who came straight from 100-level intro courses and had NO IDEA what they were doing. And only now are taking the 200 level gen ed survey pre-req. WTF?I think that Dr. Crazy's idea, of showing students just how hard it will be and early on, is a great one. I also think that there are so many students who think that taking medieval lit with a youngish female prof is going to be SO COOL!!! Dispelling that myth at the onset will save you trouble down the line.And I feel you too on the problem with some students who can't seem to get that literary characters are representations. Chaucer in particular draws out the ire and frustration over sexuality and gender, over whether the Wife of Bath is a 'ho,' over whether his ideas of marriage are 'appropriate.' And my students have been stunned when I press them on their assumptions which raises their own hackles. I have to plainly and repeatedly say, "I am not asking for your opinion. I am asking you to consider the idea that Chaucer is raising here." Novels seem to upset them less–they get the make believe a little quicker. I don't know why the poetic characters seem so 'real,' and such appropriate targets for rage at 'slutty' women with 'immoral' ideas about marriage and relationships. Sigh…

  10. >The English-Ed thing is utter crap. Do we want teachers who know things or don't we? At my college, they too come into upper-division English courses woefully unprepared, and the Ed. department, by virtue of its own advising, convinces them that those courses should be just like their general ed. counterparts (e.g. Shakespeare is like Intro to Shakespeare) because for the Ed. students, they fulfill the same requirements. So, the courses I teach where there are a mix of English majors (who have taken the gateway course, which is much like the one you describe) and English-ed majors are total disasters. They never end up being challenging enough for the majors and they are too hard for the English-ed majors (again, not necessarily because the English-ed majors are less intelligent, but because they don't know what it is we in English "do" and so I spend most of my time teaching them what they should know from the gateway course, which is all repetition for the English majors). I would never send my own children to a school in my state because of the way that the teacher education programs are designed here.

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