Well hello there! Miss me?
So the semester from hell finally ended and I am *determined* — DETERMINED, I tell ya! — to get back to blogging. And this time I’m going to *continue* blogging through the school year. Or, well, that’s the plan. And I hope not to go so long between posts any more. And I’m trying to be more active in commenting at *your* blogs, too. I should say, though, that I’ve been more active than it appears — a few of my comments have disappeared into the ether, especially at Blogger-hosted blogs, and I’ve been so frustrated that I didn’t bother reposting. But I’m reading y’all with interest!
Hey, btw, on a related note of reading blogs, does anyone have any idea why my site visits spiked on May 5? I haven’t posted since March, so it’s kind of weird.
Anyway, back on topic…I have some upcoming posts, including finally, about the details of that awesome class from the fall, but I want to save some of that until the medievalists are back from the Medieval Congress next week. In the meantime, I thought maybe I could start a more general conversation, about getting students engaged in their courses. It’s something that I’ve been either working on or frustrated by in all of my courses this year, and so it’s been on my mind a lot, and since a lot of you are also finishing up academic years (though I realize, not all of you), I thought you might also have some “year in review” musing to do on the topic.
My Fantastic Fall Class (FFC) was fantastic in part, I think, because I handed over a lot of the responsibility to the students. Now, I don’t mean I abdicated my responsibility as the expert in the room, but I put a lot of burden on the students through frequent short-writing assignments and discussion questions submissions, all of which were due *before* class started, so everyone came to class having something to say. (Well, theoretically. There were still silent students.) And though the class took a *lot* of time upfront, over last summer, to design effectively and coherently from beginning to end, it actually didn’t burden me with grading, because so many of the assignments were so short.
So, that’s the secret, right? Lots of low-stakes, high-engagement assignments that take less time to grade, right? Hang on, not so fast. *That* class may have been an *F*FC, but my other Fall term class, which we shall call *Dismal* Fall Class (DFC), didn’t go well at all, and I was using many of the same theories of engagement. I put them in charge of their own learning, I assigned lots of short and low-stakes assignments (that were easy for me to grade, too), and everything built to a single, cumulative experience that drew from all those past lesson (which was also true in the other class, btw). I even did what all those trendy TED-Ed videos are telling you to do and “flipped” the classroom. (Side note: can I tell you how much I hate the people who suddenly “discovered” that classroom time can used to do “active learning” instead of being used for passively received lecturing. No shit, Sherlock?) That is, students did a lot of the content preparation themselves, along with exercises designed to help them apply and test their knowledge, which we then went over together in class. And yet…DISMAL, I tell you. Students were deeply unhappy and frustrated, and they somehow managed to remain pretty passive in the face of the assigned work, despite the fact that it was supposed to force a necessary engagement. In fact, in a midterm self-assessment the students did, one student wrote something like, “I feel like you expect us to do it on our own and then you teach it to us” and ze meant that as a criticism. And this was someone who was simultaneously taking the composition pedagogy course and reading about taxonomies of learning and so on. Sigh.
Now, I’m leaving a few things out, things that probably give some context for the major differences in these classes. For one thing, FFC was a literature class, where guided discussion can rule the day easily, and technical stuff can be taught along the way, whereas DFC was a linguistics class, in which students have to learn basic technical stuff first before they can get to the Big Questions. And, for the life of me, I cannot figure out an interesting way to teach this technical stuff, which is why I “flipped” the classroom so I could spend less time doing boring presentations and more time helping them review higher-level learning in which they applied the lessons in the book. But I think part of what went wrong was psychological. The students told themselves that said technical stuff is hard. (It really isn’t.) And they freaked out because they think it’s hard. And “dry.” They love to toss around the word “dry.” Someday I’m going to ask them how to make it “wetter.” (I crack myself up sometimes imagining these scenarios.) And then! — wait, it gets “better” — when we got to the juicy, non-dry stuff, they were underprepared to really engage in it because they hadn’t done the hard work on the basics. They’d *done* it, but in a “have to get this done” way, and so it didn’t stick. I mean, I was launching all sorts of the sexy at them, but they didn’t get it, because to get it, you had to work out the boring technical stuff first. So they *couldn’t* be engaged then. By then it was too late.
And it probably didn’t help that I was kind of grumpy and stressed out Fall semester (except for getting married! that was awesome! and also about as low stress as a “wedding” can be, seeing as we eloped and everything), although that didn’t seem to affect FFC. Or perhaps it was class chemistry. There was a person with a really *strong* personality in the DFC class who was also one of the loudest malcontents, and I think a lot of the other students deferred to this person.
Here’s the other thing you should know about DFC: a lot of the most stressed-out students took it to fulfill a requirement. And those who take it for such a reason often assume, erroneously, that it’s the “easier” route to that requirement. (It’s not hard, but it’s not easy, exactly. And it takes diligent work.) So, yeah, I’m always fighting an uphill battle to begin with. And so maybe I’m answering my own (implied) question here, maybe *that’s* what the real, substantive difference in these two classes is. But then again, the FFC fulfills a requirement, too, and a lot of students end up in there — with a lot of trepidation — because of that requirement. So maybe that’s not *entirely* it.
Meanwhile, that issue of required classes, and the kind of student bodies you get in them, brings me to my Spring Shakespeare class. (Which I’m just going to name, because lots of people teach Shakespeare. The others I’ve named in other posts — and will again — but I don’t want my very obvious combination of courses in one post.) Anyway, I taught the required intro-level Shakespeare class again for the first time in 5 years this spring, along with two other courses in my usual rotation. Because it was the first time I’ve done 3 regular courses (plus I was also doing an independent study) in a number of years, and because I always find it harder to get the spring courses launched than the fall ones, and also because I was changing a number of things in the other two courses, I didn’t change Shakespeare as much. But one thing I did change was the final “exam.” Instead of an actual exam, I assigned students to groups to do a final performance of a short scene from one of the 6 plays we’d read that semester (they were assigned the play, too — that’s how I kept order), plus a short report on why their group picked that scene and why they made the choices they did as actor, director, prop master, or whatever their role was. Thus, it really did have an analytic component, although in subsequent years, I may beef that part up. At any rate, that assignment was *awesome* and I think the students got a lot out of it. Former lumps on the log performed in front of their classmates and made me wonder where they’d been all semester. Students who said they struggled with the language were up there reading like it was their own words coming out of their mouths. It was beautiful!
But the rest of the semester? Not so much. And I’m pretty sure it’s because I didn’t do enough to require the students to come to class prepared to talk and be engaged — or, more important in this junior-level class, to *teach* them *how* to come prepared. But I think that even if I start doing something like I did in FFC, the fact that Shakespeare is a required course will still put a damper on things. We’ll have to wait and see, though, because I’m not slated to teach it next year. Maybe the next?
So, what’s the take-away from all this? That you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink? I suppose that’s a part answer. After all, even in FFC, there was one student who was somewhat disengaged day after day, or only engaged enough to complete the assignments, not excel at them. (And yet, the course must have worked for hir in some way, because ze signed up for another of my classes next year.)
But I still want to start a conversation with you guys. Especially: what do you do to help students be actively engaged in the material in your courses on a regular basis? And what kind of material is it and how does that affect how you run class and design assignments? I’m especially interested in those of you teaching the kinds of things where you can’t just jump right into discussion, as it seems I’m having the most trouble with those kinds of courses.