Happy New Year!

2013 wasn’t a bad year or a particularly notable year, though Bullock and I did celebrate 10 years together, and I was named Humanities Institute director. Otherwise, it was a kind of normal year, I guess. We didn’t quite end the year in a particularly good way, though — Bullock had a root canal and Pippi had to be taken to the vet for a foot injury, both on the last days of the year. My two gingers are recovering now.

Professionally, 2013 was solid. The anthology that I co-edited technically came out in 2012, but Spring 2013 was the first semester it was used in classes, and it did pretty well for such a specialized volume. So that’s cool. And I taught our gen-ed poetry class three times in a row (well, two consecutively) to reasonable success. Since this was the first time I’d taken on this particular class, that was good. (But I’d forgotten how much non-majors balk at having to learn technical terms. Seriously, guys, when in Rome!) Oh, and I *finally* finished the Article That Wouldn’t Die (or whatever I called it last) and submitted it to Dream Journal. This is the first time I’ve blindly submitted an article since my very first article submission — everything in between has grown out of something else (like a conference) or been invited in some way (but often still peer reviewed). Scary! Fingers crossed!

2014, however, is already shaping up to be a little more eventful, at least professionally. Here’s what I have planned so far, a list of bullet points I offer in lieu of resolutions.

  • A presentation later this month at a selective, by-application workshop for manuscript scholars that I *hope* will jump start where I need to go next on my in-progress not-quite-a-book-yet research.
  • A trip to Hong Kong for the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes annual conference. I’m looking forward especially to the workshops for directors and for the public humanities, and to being in Hong Kong! I last visted HK in the early 90s, but got sick on the way from Guilin to HK and spent the whole three days of our visit in the hotel room. So I added three extra days in the city — one before and two after — to just be a tourist. The conference and thus the hotels are in Sha Tin, which is outside of the city center in the New Territories (where the university hosting the conference is), but I’m actually kind of looking forward to getting around on public transportation and off the beaten track a bit.
  • A trip to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I’m especially psyched to visit a new country. NCS has arranged a lot of excursions of the kind I might have taken anyway, so I’m only adding on two extra days for being a tourist on my own, especially since, holy crap, hotels in Iceland are freakin’ expensive in high season! Strangely, Hong Kong is cheaper. Even at the non-conference rate, I’ll get to stay in a *swank* high-end hotel with a Tolo Harbor view in Hong Kong for about the same as I’m paying for a two-star, bare basics Reykjavik hotel at the conference rate! (Yes, yes, I realize that the Yuan is artificially controlled and that the hotels in Chinese cities like Hong Kong are probably also partly subsidized to encourage tourist and business travel. But still, it kind of surprised me.) Bullock was going to go to Iceland with me, but when we realized that the two of us could take a non-work-related trip somewhere else less expensive for the cost of taking him to Iceland with me, we decided I’d go solo.
  • And I’m excited about what I’m doing/presenting at NCS, too. My anthology co-editor and I arranged a seminar (something relatively new for NCS — I’m interested in seeing how it goes) on a text near and dear to us both. And I’m presenting on a teaching panel about something I’m doing in my medieval lit class this spring, which brings me to…
  • My awesome medieval lit class this spring! I haven’t been this psyched for a class since I did that awesome ASNaC class in 2011. (That’s Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, btw.) It really deserves its own post. Maybe the next one. Anyway, this time I’m focusing on manuscript collections and anthologies from the Exeter Book to the Morte Darthur (which I’m reading, somewhat atypically, as a collection of sorts), with a bunch of miscellanies in between (Harley 978, with Marie de France’s Lais and Fables — collections in a collection! — and “Sumer is icumen in”; Laud Misc. 108 with Havelok and Horn and saint’s lives; the Auchinleck MS; and so on). I’ve arranged the syllabus by MS collections and paper assignments are all going to be about how we read such collections (e.g., read a work not assigned for class from one of our collections and write about how it fits the whole or works in tension with it). There will be lots of digital resources, too, to give students a sense of the material book. And I think I finally figured out how to give the grad students in a “slash” course a more graduate student worthy experience — they’re going to present their research projects in the two-hour time slot reserved for the final and the undergrads will be their audience and interlocutors (something I can totally repeat in future classes).
  • And the Humanities Institute will be up and running soon! Our first event is the first of our Humanities Happy Hours. I’m still trying to get a big speaker for a major event — important people are bad at answering emails! — but I’m actually more excited for the Triple-H (as I call it) series, which will showcase *our* humanities scholars in a public-friendly way.
  • I’m also going to write and submit my first big organizational (as opposed to individual) grant for our HI. I’m going to start with a regional one and then if that’s a success, maybe aim higher next year. I’m kind of looking forward to this. Yes, I know I’m weird.
  • I’m also writing a short essay on “managing down time” for a collection of essays that Greg Semenza is co-editing as a companion to Graduate Study for the 21st Century. So, um, first I must manage my down time! 🙂  (Seriously, no big plans for the personal life — just the usual making time to relax and exercise and all that. And maybe get back to teaching myself Italian, which I started last summer and then dropped.)

So what are your plans for 2014, professional or personal, or both?

What do your essay assignments look like?

Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches on an assignment sheet for one of my classes and I looked down at the word count: 1,003 words.  Hm, you’re probably thinking, that seems like a lot, but it depends on the assignment.  The assignment, my friends, was for two 500-word short essays.  That’s right, I wrote as many words *describing* the assignment as I expected the students to use in *doing* the assignment!

Is this bad?

On the one hand, I feel like I should point this out to students and say, “Look, if I can write this many words just telling you what I expect, you should be able to produce this many words on the more substantive topic of your essay. Easy peasy!”

On the other hand, maybe I’m overwhelming students. And yet, I’ve had students praise my assignment handouts because I lay out my expectations so clearly. But still, there are students who are almost certainly reading only every other bullet point (and sometimes reversing what I say there even when they do read it, despite the big DO NOT in bold and all caps, or whatever), and least judging from the work they turn in. So, for them, it’s too much, or overwhelming, or confusing.

Part of why my assignment sheets are so long is that often my assignments are as much about the process as the product, and I lay a lot of that process out. I want students to learn from the assignments, to learn from doing, as much as I want them to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they’ve developed. And sometimes I want to teach them more effective processes. So, for example, if I want students to do a close reading of the interaction of form and content in a poem, I tell them explicitly NOT to consult any other sources (other than, say, the OED, or other reference works), and especially to stay away from the internet. Instead, I tell them, read the poem over and over, first all at once, then section by section, word by word. Make multiple copies of the poem and mark them up, I tell them. Use what you’ve learned in class, I say, and consult your book and your notes.  Sometimes in a set of directions I’ll give them short examples of effective and ineffective methods or argument or whatever (so, for example, an effective thesis and an ineffective one; a smooth quotation of a poem and an awkward one, etc.). And so on.

To be clear, they are *not* anal-retentive checklists of things that must be in an essay.  For as much guidance in the process I give, I leave a lot of openness to content and its organization. (A frequent exchange I have with students: “How should I organize my essay?” Me: “That depends on your argument.”) Often, in fact, my essay prompts raise a number of questions and then I say, “You do NOT have to cover all of these questions in your essay. They are here to generate your thinking.”  For example, here’s a passage from the assignment I was writing yesterday for my upper level undergrad/MA level Old English class, in which one of the essay topics was “What got lost in translation [in the class’s collaborative translation of Judith]?”

Write a thoughtful and detailed essay about what your new knowledge of Old English language and literature lets you see in this poem that you would not have seen from reading it only in translation. Tell me about some of the choices you had to make (or that others made) that shut down multiple possible meanings, or that lost meaningful structural or grammatical forms of the Old English, or that obscured significant qualities of the poetic form and its conventions. (Or maybe even discuss points of confusion.)

Words that have multiple possible translations are a good place to start, but try not to limit yourself to that. Think also about poetic form (the structure of alliterative line and its beats), sound effects (look for “noisy” scenes in the translation and then look at what the OE is doing), poetic conventions (including compounds and kennings, but also variation, poetic vocabulary, the OE love for litotes and other irony, and the conventional motifs of poetry), ambiguity, and also the effects of the flexible word order of OE poetry.

You don’t have to cover it all, but a successful essay will dig into the subtleties of what’s lost. It will also put its discussion in context of understanding the poem Judith as a whole.

In other words, my assignments and their focus on process are an extension of my teaching, where I also try to emphasize the processes of reading and interpretation (and research, too) rather than single readings. And they are so because many (perhaps most) of my students need to be taught *how* to do these things well (where “these things” vary by the level of the class). When I was in college (at a more selective college, with a very different student body, I realize — also back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), instructions for essays in all sorts of classes from the freshmen core classes to advanced classes in the major amounted to a line on the syllabus that said: Essay due.  I don’t want to return to that, especially since that wouldn’t suit my students. I need to teach them where they are.

But maybe I should simplify?

Oh wise citizens of the intertubes, what you do you think?

The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

So I’m teaching Old English again. And I’m doing it in a quasi-flipped way which requires the students to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting before they come to class, which, for the moment, has some of them freaked out. But I’ll report on how that has actually worked when more of the course has gone by.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a sentence from one of the exercises on Peter Baker’s terrific, interactive web site, “Old English Aerobics.” And I want to share it because I’m kind of fascinated by it and I think it says something about conceptualizing teaching and what teachers do.  First, a bit about this web site: I’ve been using this site in its various incarnations over the years, but it recently got even better when Baker turned his old PDF exercises into interactive online exercises compatible with multiple platforms (and especially nice looking on an iPad). Students (and I!) can now do the exercises and immediately find out if they’re wrong or right, and sometimes, if the answer is “it’s complicated,” a little pop-up gives a further grammatical note. [Note: when I first started teaching the course 10 years ago, he had an older version of these exercises with technology that had its problems even in 2003 — it was very browser-dependent. I think it was made with Java? I don’t know enough about applet programming to know, but I do know it seemed already a little creaky and dated already in 2003. Great concept, but it took the latest version to work out the execution problems.]

Anyway, there was a question and answer recently that gave me such a hard time that I actually had to contact Baker about it. It was an exercise on pronouns and case, and here’s what the sentence looked like:

Se lārēow onfēng þone esne and lǣrde ________ þā Engliscan sprǣce.

For those of you who don’t read Old English, it says:

The teacher took (or received) the young man (or slave or servant) and taught _________ the English language (lit: the English speech).

OK, in Modern English, the blank would be filled with “him” and I think we should analyze that as the indirect object and “the English language” as the direct object. (Although I should say that syntax is *not* my greatest strength.) Here’s how I think of it: Taught what? Taught the English language. Taught it to or with respect to whom? Taught it to him. Are you all with me now?

Let me explain a little more. Bear with me — this is necessary for the point I’m trying to make (although those of you who know Old English can skip this paragraph). Old English had cases — inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjective that marked their grammatical function in a sentence (subject, object, possession, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.). We still have this in Modern English pronouns, although (in standard English) we use the same form for both direct and indirect objects (and also for objections of prepositions) and generally call it the “objective form” — me, us, you, him, her, it, them. Old English had a few more distinct forms (although not in first person — those look much like ours) especially in the third person. In the third person, “him” is the dative form of the masculine singular — used for indirect objects and objects of most prepositions, among other uses — and “hine” is the accusative form for masculine singular, used for direct objects.

Still with me? OK, given that little bit of knowledge, would you chose “him” (the form for indirect objects) or “hine” (the form for direct objects) for that blank? I chose “him”….aaaaaand the system told me I was wrong. The correct answer, according to the computer, was “hine.” What? But isn’t “þā Engliscan sprǣce” the direct object?? (It’s feminine accusative singular, for those who care.) Stymied, I contacted Baker, and even he agreed it was odd, but a check of the Bosworth-Toller dictionary showed an example sentence for the verb “lǣran” (to teach) with both the person taught and the content taught in the accusative case. So Old English does it differently and “hine” was indeed the correct answer.

And that got me to thinking: maybe Old English does it *right*. The Modern English possibility of saying “…taught the English language *to* him” sounds a lot like the “banking” model of education, as if we take a student and fill him or her up with the content of what we’re teaching. But the way Old English expresses it, the student receives the action of “to teach” directly, not indirectly. What do we teach? We teach students. And actually, this sense of direct object *is* still there in Modern English in the very sentence I just wrote: we teach students.* We shape students, educate students (draw things *out* of them rather than depositing knowledge into them), and influence students. The *students* are the object of education, in more ways than one. This especially makes sense if/when you realize that “lǣran” also means to exhort, advise, and persuade, which we also often do where students are concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that the content of what we teach isn’t important, whether it’s “þā Engliscan sprǣce” or something else. It is *also* the object of education. Both the student and the content area are our objects. We teach students but we also teach [fill in your specialty]. And our teaching lives, from syllabus design to what we do each day in the classroom to creating assignments and grading them, is often dominated by trying to maintain a balance between those two objects — what we want them to learn (or what the skill or topic requires to be learned) and what the students can reasonably achieve in a given setting.

So, the Anglo-Saxons got it. They understood that the student and the content of what we teach are both our direct objects, and cannot be easily divided.



*The more I think about it, maybe in the sentence “I teach students medieval literature,” both “students” and “medieval literature” are direct objects even in Modern English. But since we don’t have cases, it’s not obvious. Eh, the Old English still got me thinking about this and that’s what matter for the rest of this post.

The difference class size makes

I may come back and revise this after I’ve taught more than one week of classes this semester, but so far, I’ve seen a striking difference in the two sections of gen-ed poetry I teach, and I think a lot of it has to do with class size. One class is an experimental 8-week section that meets four times a week, and so I’ve essentially taught two weeks of it already; the other is a conventional 16-week class that meets twice a week, so I’ve only seen them twice. But still, I’m seeing differences in the two classes and what the students and I can accomplish in them, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the 8-week class has only 5 students in it, while the 16-week class has 33. (NB: normally the administration wouldn’t let a 5-person class run, but the whole 8-week thing is part of a program the dean and higher admins are keen about, because it’s meant to allow students to get three-year degrees, so they’re letting the small enrollments slide. Why they’re all gung-ho about three-year degrees, since our students pay per credit hour and not per academic year, I don’t quite understand. [Edited to add: Which is not to criticize the program — I’m just expressing my puzzlement.] I guess it saves students a year of opportunity costs? [ETA: Bullock tells me they actually worked out a tuition savings, too. OK, now I get it.] So far it doesn’t seem very popular, but maybe it will grow?)

Anyway, the five students and I in the 8-week class are so far digging deeper into the poems we discuss. We get further with them than we do in the bigger class. Part of that is because this is a self-selecting group of ambitious students, I’m sure. But it’s also because with only six of us in the room, people are quicker and more willing to speak up, conversation is a little less intimidating — it’s conversation and not discussion, in a way — and so things move faster. And in this class we already know each other and feel comfortable with each other — I can tell you all their names and majors! — and the students talk to each other. This means already if one of them thinks the other is a little misguided in how they’re interpreting something, they’ll actually jump in and gently respond to the misguided reader (and then I can say, “So and so is right” if the misguided student doesn’t buy it). If the other students are doing some of the correcting and not me (except to reinforce it), the misguided person is less intimidated, and continues to talk later — they don’t do that shutting down thing. So conversation continues apace. Or they reach different but equally valid interpretations of something, and they are not afraid to say so — that gives me a “teaching moment” to talk about interpretative ambiguity, the possibility of different readings, etc.

Now, there are plenty of students capable of this in the other section, too. In fact, I can tell I’ve got some really sharp students in there. But I also get the sense that I’ve got students getting lost already. But I’m not really sure, since they don’t talk and I haven’t given a quiz or paper assignment yet. And no one talks to each other — they face forward and talk to me. I can encourage them to respond to each other, but it’s not going to happen as easily, naturally, or quickly as it has already in the other class. Meanwhile, in the other class, I know exactly who is really getting things and who might be struggling a little bit more just from our conversations, and I even know the different things they struggle with. Since *everyone* talks, I’m getting a sense of where they all are already, after only 4 class meetings.

Now, I’ll sooner or later understand where each student is in the bigger class, but they won’t get the personal attention that the 5 students in the other class will get. Yes, I’ll spend the same amount of time on each student’s papers and other assignments in both classes, but it’ll be spread out over time, and have less of an impact than the personal attention that happens daily in the smaller class. And yes, I can do things to make smaller units in the big class — group work and the like — but it won’t be as sustained as the class that’s essentially a small break-out group every day, and I won’t be able to observe every small group all the time, as I can with the small class.

I’m not saying that all college classes should be 5-person classes. I know that’s not realistic. But I think those schools that advertise their small classes are absolutely right to do so, and I think it’s a “feature” worth paying a premium for if you’re a bill-paying parent or student. This isn’t really news to me (or to you, I assume) — I’ve seen the difference from one class to another because I teach a range of classes, from MA seminars to big general ed classes — but this is the first time I’ve had two sections of the same exact course with such different enrollments. So far the effects of those enrollments are subtle, but they’re noticeable. We’ll see how things pan out by the end of the semester. Maybe the other class will catch up, or maybe the small class will always get something more out of the class.

Have you ever had substantially different enrollments across two different sections (or terms) of the same course? Did you see a difference?

Encouraging and grading participation, preparation, and engagement in a class

Hello all. Time to get back to some substantive posting, now that the semester is *almost* over here in Rust Belt. I’ve got two more classes to teach this week, then a final to give and grade, and a set of grad student papers to grade, and I’m done for the school year! Huzzah!

Anyway, calculating and tallying some final grades in my classes got me to thinking about how and why I grade participation/preparation/engagement in my classes, and why I run them the way I do, with so much of the burden to “bring it” on the students. But this semester I was also reminded of how I really need to be more transparent with the students about why I do this and how it benefits them, and I need to give clearer instructions in what is and isn’t productive participation. In some of my upper division classes where I have a rather complicated system of short assignments that are specifically geared towards participation, I have equally detailed handouts on the do’s and don’t’s of participation, and on what counts, how it’s scored, etc. Although I think my gen-ed classes would be overwhelmed by such a document (and also would never read it), I think I might use an adapted form there.

But first, let me tell you what I do, why I do it, and how I grade it and see what you think. Partly because I came up through a grad school department with HUGE survey classes run as lectures with discussion, I got a lot of training in running discussions as add-ons to “content delivery” in the lectures, and I got used to running my classrooms as discussions. But more important, I saw that a lot of the core skills that students learned and *retained* from those survey classes were gained either from what we did in section or from the papers they wrote (usually seeking one-on-one guidance from us TAs), which the TAs advised and then graded. So there was a clear if tacit connection between discussion section and assessment. (There were usually prof-designed final exams, too, but they always seemed secondary to the papers. And even there, it was the TAs who ran review sessions and taught students *how* to do those exams well.) This is not a charge against the engaging professors who ran the lectures — it’s really more about the lecture form itself.

But when I was in grad school, I was working with a population of students who were MUCH more willing to talk, to try, to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, than are my current students. They were also really freakin’ driven to come to office hours for extra help. We used to have lines snaking down the hallway of students waiting to see the survey course TAs. But here at RBU, not so much. Polite, reticent, midwestern, working class — whatever the explanation, I don’t get as many lively conversations here as I did in grad school, unless I prod with carrots, sticks, and tasks. (Although, as I mentioned on Facebook a few weeks back, the general ed students — the *non* English majors — are more willing to talk about literature than the English majors are. Theory: less is at stake for them.) So that’s one of the reasons why I grade it, to give an *incentive* for participating.

Over time, though, I’ve refined it from a mere “say *something*” grade (which just unfairly rewards natural extroverts, some of whom talk just to talk) to a “you contributed to the value of this class for yourself and others” grade (which still leaves out the really shy folks a bit) to a “you’ve been actively engaged in this class on a regular basis and may also have contributed to the value of it” grade. Here’s why — and then below, I’ll tell you how. As I said above, I learned early on that students learn from discussion and active engagement, and I don’t have to tell *you* that. Talking through things is a great way to learn, even if you say something off the wall at first. Talking can also be full of blather, so it gives me an opportunity to rein in the kind of flabby, off-topic free-association that students sometimes give into when interpreting a text for the first time — so I can teach them not to do that in their written work, where they’re graded more for *how* they express themselves and their arguments. Or, I can urge them to be more specific, to give examples, to *show* me in the text — things I’m likely to write in the margins of papers if they don’t practice avoiding those pitfalls beforehand. All that counts in my book — it’s a conversational rough draft of thinking, and I want to value it as such. But what also counts is being visibly engaged in other, quieter ways: taking notes, listening and thinking (you can often tell by people’s expressions). And being prepared counts. I kind of slacked off on this in my gen-ed poetry class this semester, but at the start, I’d planned to note who had notes from their reading and preparation and who didn’t, but I *did* know when someone was trying to interpret something on the fly that they were reading for the first time. In some classes — for instance, my Old English class — not being prepared is more obvious (either you’ve translated that line or you haven’t!), but it’s noticeable in discussion, too. (And it’s especially noticeable if I start class with in-class writing based on the reading, something I need to do more often!)

What doesn’t count, as far as I’m concerned, is bs and posturing (OMG, do *not* say, “I haven’t done the reading, but…” to me or make it obvious in other ways that that’s the case), or talking just to score points, or monopolizing the conversation. Or interrupting and blurting things out before other people have had a chance to process and contribute. I’m a muller myself, so I want to make room for mullers. Plus, I’m losing my hearing, and blurters and interrupters make it harder for me to hear/process what other people are saying, so they’re essentially disrupting someone else’s contribution and learning. And lately I’ve been getting a lot of students who just want to restate facts or share some random trivia from the text that they remember or read elsewhere or that’s only even vaguely relevant. I need to make clearer, in the nicest way possible, that that’s not really productive participation, that it’s not interpretative enough. I say in “the nicest way,” because I suspect a lot of these guys — and they are mostly men — may be on the autism spectrum or something. I know they can’t change entirely if that’s the case, but I need to make room for the productive “thinking through” kind of participation I want, and so need to get them to dial it back as best as they can.

And that’s what it’s really about for me — the “thinking through” — and why I work so hard to encourage students to come to class with some nascent ideas and to develop them more in class. It’s not about brownie points or being charming or getting attention. But I think I need to make that *all* clearer to the students, that what counts is *productive* participation and engagement. And I need to make clearer to them that it’s OK to get something wrong or say something wacky — better in discussion than in a paper or on an exam. About half way through the semester in one of my classes this year, there was a moment in class, something someone said, that kept me thinking about a poem all weekend after the class. And so the next week I told them that, and used it as an example of how their *classmates’* comments, too, matter, and can be spurs to their own thinking. I need to say such things early and often, to make clear how it all matters to them and their learning — and hence their grades. I also need to make clear what’s *not* productive because — oh my! — the last three semesters running I’ve had some of those blurty, oddball, non-stop talkers in every one of my darn classes and they eventually drive everyone nuts to a greater or lesser degree, and that’s just not good for anyone, including them. And I think some students think that participation is some kind of zero-sum game — that if they’re not talking at all times, they’re losing points or something.

But that’s not how I grade it. I actually have a very generous system, but you’d be surprised at how many people blow it. If you come to class, assuming you don’t do something negative to *lose* the points (e.g., putting your head down on your desk and going to sleep, at which point, you might as well not be there), and assuming you don’t do something to prove you haven’t actually come prepared, then you get 2.5 points. Then, if you engage productively (by any of the ways mentioned above, including the quiet kinds) — and once is all it takes — you get another point. I generally have 30 class meetings a semester, so a person can actually earn an A+ in participation and preparation. A person can also miss three classes (absences are zeroes) and still get an A. Most students who blow the grade do so by excessive, unexcused absences. I give ‘make-up’ points for visiting me in office hours, too, and talking about the material. In a lot of my classes I lay out this system in the same handout that details the do’s and don’t’s. Again, I think that might be too much in a gen ed class, but I think I need to give students a clearer understanding that yes, they really are being graded. (Oh, and btw, at the end of every class, I *immediately* enter those scores. And yes, my classes are small enough that I can remember distinctly who talked and what they said — or who left early or interrupted constantly or did something else distracting.)

I have assignments that foster engagement, too — discussion questions, ungraded but required homework (as in Old English), close reading exercises, etc. — but I still find it important and worthwhile to have a separate participation and preparation grade, and in many classes, it’s a high percentage of the grade. At another institution I might not give it such a big role, but at RBU, where so many of the students don’t know how to “do” college because they’re first-generation students, and don’t understand that discussion is practice for papers and essay exams, or that class isn’t just a passive content-delivery system (in the humanities, our classes have been “flipped” for a long time), I think it’s an important and valuable part of the learning process. And students at my university are more likely to take something seriously if they get a grade for it.

So, do you grade some form of participation, preparation, or engagement. If so, how do you grade it? What do you do to encourage it? Or, are you virulently opposed to the idea of a participation grade (I know some people are)?

My position is obvious

So, like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, I had to write a short “position paper” recently. Mine is for a special issue of a journal dedicated to new research and research opportunities in the sub-field of medieval literature for which I am currently most know. Yeah, you know, the one that is the subject of my book and in which I have a co-edited anthology coming out in two weeks.

Like Jeffrey’s position paper, mine had to be short (although I had 500 more words that he did), and that doesn’t leave you much room to be subtle or to make nuanced, carefully constructed arguments. So I kind of feel about it the way Flavia feels about her SAA abstract, as if it’s a RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS!  Seriously, over in Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group this week, I had this to say about it:

[It’s] kind of stupid. It’s supposed to be a short “position paper” and the position I took was, “We need more of this thing we’re already doing! Because there’s not enough of it! Even though some of you might think there’s lots of it!” And then I added, “because of this trendy new way of thinking about these things!” Yeah, dumb. Sigh.

But I suppose if my dumb piece gets people’s knickers all in a twist and makes them shake their fist and me and shout, “But we’re already doing that! And how is your trendy way of talking about it any different from what we’ve been doing in any practical way?!” then I guess it fulfills the editors’ call for something that “provokes” — although I’m not sure they meant “provoke” as a synonym for “annoy.”

Anyway, I’m writing this in part because I’m in sympathy with Flavia and Jeffrey right now, but also because, like Flavia, I need to remember that this is often how my students feel about their writing, although probably with even higher levels of anxiety about how “dumb” what they’ve done is. Between Flavia’s post and my own thinking about this “dumb” position paper, I’ve been reminded that I need to be gentler with my students and their writing, but also more open about how it *is* a struggle, especially when you’re writing about something difficult or trying on ideas that are new to you, and that the struggle is part of the process (if you’re doing it right and not coasting), one that I go through as well, even at my stage. I also should remember that it can take me all semester to write 2500 freakin’ words (at least 2500 *good* ones).

Put your hands in the air like you just don’t…know

So I did that thing where you pretend you don’t know something in order to get students to show what they know.  At least I think it’s a thing — I read it on a blog once, somewhere, one day, and now that I’ve done it, too, that makes it a thing, right?

Anywho, this was in my intro to literary study class, and we’re doing the unit on poetry, and people clam up when we do poetry, even though I think poetry can be so much easier than more narrative modes (it’s shorter, you can “cover” it all, and it’s often playful and clever and invites you to generate readings). But, you know, it’s technical (or it can be), it takes liberties with language (or plays with the liberties it gives you), it’s sometimes purposely evocative without being concrete, and it’s often both elusive and allusive. That all adds up to scary or challenging or, for some students who haven’t yet realized that there’s more to literature than “story,” pretentious and precious.

But yesterday, all sorts of people started talking who hadn’t previously talked, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I pretended not to know what certain strings of imagery were trying to convey in a poem we were doing. I even misinterpreted a word (one with multiple denotations) on purpose. And students jumped into the wide gaping hole I left open for them and straightened us all out (all very politely, actually).  I started by saying something like, “I want to talk about this line, which I find really beautiful, but don’t know what to do with. What does it mean?  And I mean that in the sense of, ‘No, really, I have no idea what it means.'”  And later, as we got talking, I said, “I think this word means X, rather than Y. Let’s go with that.” And then, as discussion progressed, a student said, “Actually, I think it might make more sense as Y, because then…” and she opened up an oblique part of the poem that was related to the poem’s imagery, but not in any obvious way. And I said, “Oh, yeah, then that makes sense of [its immediate context],” and then other students chimed in and said, “And so then….” and “And also…” and away we went!

Whew!  I wasn’t sure it would work and I’m not sure I could do this all the time — one does have to establish some authority and knowledge, even in a class where you’re teaching the basic skills of the discipline — but I might try it on a regular basis in my gen ed poetry class next semester.  Of course, if I do it too much, students might catch on.  We’ll see.

So, have you ever ceded your authority in order to get students to seize theirs?

ETA:  Hey, it’s my Blogiversary!  I’ve been blogging for — gulp! — 7 years now! Wait, *how* is that possible?? (Actually, my original blogiversary is a few days earlier, but I deleted those posts here, so now the oldest post is from Sept. 5, 2005.)

Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both?

OK, so do you all remember the Saga of the E-Text Saga last year? Well, it’s grown epic this year. (There’s a dorky joke in there. Last year’s saga involved an actual Norse saga. This year’s version involves classical and medieval epics, among other genres.)

Here’s what’s going on. The ‘bots at the Barnes and Noble money-making factory have foisted 6 different e-texts on my students, only three (or three and a half — more, below) of which are actually the same edition and translation as the texts I actually ordered. For the moment, let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not I want e-texts at all, and whether or not an e-text is conducive to the kind of close study of texts we do in English. Of those three correct matches, two of them have hideous formatting issues — clearly no human editor was involved in putting together these electronic editions. One of them is a facing-page translation of Dante’s Inferno, which means that in the electronic version, the Italian and English is all mixed up. The other is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the long verse lines get all broken up in random ways, and the table of contents is not navigable enough for someone who wants to assign selected parts, rather than read from beginning to end. (I think maybe the novel — and the way that “book” and “novel” are synonymous for so many people — is to blame for the assumption that one would read every book that way.)

Meanwhile, they associated two *different* translations of the Metamorphoses with the book I actually ordered, and, of course the cheaper one is the wrong translation. What the hell?! Of course any student who decides they’re going to get the e-text is going to go for the cheaper one! But it’s the wrong text, so then they’re going to have to buy the slightly more expensive one after all, and they’re out the original expense entirely, because e-texts are non-refundable. Argh.

And then there’s the random piece of crap edition of Twelfth Night that the ‘bots picked out for one of my other classes. It’s from a freely-available public domain edition, which means it’s some poorly edited 19th century edition, and it is, of course, utterly free of the apparatus that most students need for Shakespeare: glosses, notes, and introduction. And what really chaps my hide is that B&N is still charging $0.95 for it, despite having added no value to the text that a student could find for free on the web. (At least it’s not $6.00, like last year’s public-domain Saga of the Volsungs was.)

Listen up, Barnes and Noble! Different translations and different editions are DIFFERENT (disappointed professor is disappointed!), and those differences matter! Would you give a science student a 19th century book called Biology for their biology class? (Well, maybe you would.) Get someone to program your book-seeking ‘bots better or — and here’s a radical notion — hire real live people to review things!

Had I not just talked to a friendly and helpful staff person in the bookstore, who was able to remove the offending title from the web site, I’d be angrier about this. (Last year it took a call to corporate to get rid of the texts. This year, they’ve got things set up to give the local bookstore more control. Now if only the professor could have that control, please and thank you.) And I was even angrier earlier this summer when the ‘bots had assigned recommended reading to go with my books, which turned out to be yet more translations of the texts I’d assigned. Because yeah, apparently a Barnes and Noble ‘bot knows more about the best translations of Virgil than I do.  Grrrrrrrr.  But those recommended texts soon disappeared, and I’d like to think it’s because our awesome bookstore staff said, “Hey now, I don’t think corporate gets to recommend books for our professors’ classes.”  Maybe. Who knows what happened. Maybe it was just a glitch to begin with.

I could have just had all the e-texts removed from my courses — the bookstore staff person was willing to do that — but I decided I might try an experiment and let students order e-texts of one book in each of the courses with available ones — where it’s the correct translation/edition, of course. In the classical and medieval European lit class, I’m leaving the Nook edition of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid, and in my introduction to literary study class, I’ll let them buy the electronic version of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, if they so choose (no edition/translation problems with that text, of course!).  But, I’m going to tell students that if they use electronic editions, they must have a portable reader they can bring to class and must be responsible for knowing how to get to whatever part of the text I ask them to turn to.  I figure it would be good for me to have some concrete experience, good or ill, with students using electronic texts in class, especially if I’m going to make arguments about why they don’t work in a literature class. So this year will be a bit of a pedagogical experiment.

But I have a feeling most of our students, especially in these two classes, won’t get them, even though they’ll save a few bucks. First, most of my students are English majors, and they seriously fetishize printed books. Second, they know it’s hard to follow or take notes if you’ve got a different book than everyone else. And third, most of them *don’t* have tablets and smart phones and the like — our students are broke-ass people — and some of them don’t even have their own computers, so it would be all that much harder for them to get access to these e-texts.  That last point is one I really want to beat into the heads of all those futurists out there who keep claiming that e-texts are the salvation for the debt-riddled student. Yeah, well, the Mandelbaum Aeneid might be $4 cheaper in e-text than in new paperback, but not if you don’t have your own equipment on which to read it! Duh!

And finally, given that we’re in the incunabula stage of e-texts, I really shouldn’t have to take the time and money to vet all the e-texts the Barnes and Noble ‘bots pick out for me. Instead, if *I* want to assign an e-text, I should have to order it just like I would a print book. It’s my damn class, after all.


Let’s talk about student engagement

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.

What a semester!

I haven’t been blogging as much as I intended to this semester, largely because this has been an insanely busy semester — busier than most. (I do have a few posts brewing, including one on whether tenure robs you of the incentive to work hard.)  Some things you know about — buying a new house, getting married — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  So, in a nutshell — or in bullet-point lists, actually  — here is what my semester, which is actually still not over, has looked like:


  • Having changed my English medieval lit class so that it alternates, on a three-year basis, between early medieval (Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic — ASNaC for short), late medieval (after the Norman conquest), and a topic across the period, I taught the ASNaC version for the first time.  This included teaching many texts — all of the Celtic and Norse stuff — for the very first time as well as *reading* much of them for the first time.  Here’s some advice based on my experience:  do not assign a 250-page Old Norse saga you’ve read only in excerpt, or at least don’t schedule it for the two weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • I also changed the assignment sequence in my Old English class — a class I still feel I do not know how to teach! argh! — so that I was doing a lot of fresh work in that course, too. It didn’t take much time for me to do said work, but it caused morale/attitude problems with the students.  That’s something else I want to blog about in more detail later.
  • To review: I had two mostly new preps this semester (my own damn fault). I am an idiot. On the bright side, the complicated assignment sequence I did in the medieval lit class seemed to have worked well.  More on that later, too.
  • In service-related news, I served on the personnel committee of another department because they’re too small to field a full committee from their own faculty.  Said DPC had to vote on a fifth year renewal, a promotion to full, and two tenure cases, one of which was hugely contentious (and ugly — really, really ugly) and involved meeting after meeting after meeting.  I counted up the hours of meetings:  twenty freakin’ four!
  • Oh, and I also got into an ugly fight with a colleague in my department — so ugly that it made me cry in a professional situation, something I haven’t done in about 20 years.
  • In more positive news, I’ve got two contracted professional publications in progress (one a companion-to article, the other an anthology of texts which I’m co-editing). Alas, though, I feel constantly behind on them, despite working diligently on them.  And I’m waaaaayyyyy behind on the review essay that I’m supposed to have written by the end of this month — I haven’t even finished the books. Ack!
  • Oh, I also had to deal with two minor academic dishonesty issues this semester. See Flavia’s post on the topic for a reflection of how I feel and think about these things. (Also, read the comments for SEK’s hilarious story.  I so want to be able to quote that ad infinitum.)
  • And this was all in my first semester back from sabbatical.  Hey, welcome back, Virago!


  • At the very beginning of this semester, I had minor, out-patient surgery. Everything’s fine and my prognosis is excellent.  But still, it took up a lot of time, including a couple hours of pre-surgery testing and medical history recording a few days before and then all day for the surgery and a weekend to recover. It was also the first time I had real surgery or general anesthesia.  (And boy, anesthesia is *weird*!)
  • I crazily flew off to Amsterdam for 4 days over our long-weekend Fall Break for a girl’s weekend with an old friend.  Here’s proof:

    This should totally be a postcard that says "Welcome to Amsterdam."

  • Got married. As you know.
  • Bought a house. We closed on it yesterday and get possession on Monday. For some reason, in this state (or it may just be this county), a seller can stay in the house after closing, free of charge. The standard time is 30 freakin’ days, but we negotiated down to five. We really wanted  immediate possession, but we compromised. Anyway, now we own two houses — crazy! (Well, Bullock does. Technically I’m a renter in the current one.) The plan is to remain in this one while we do some remodeling in the new one, and to use the new one to declutter this one in order to make it look good when we list it.  We’ll likely move in February.

I am exhausted!  And next semester isn’t likely to be any less crazy.  We’ll be moving, the Pastry Pirate is coming to visit (if her car, which has been in storage while she’s been “on the ice” in Antarctica, manages to start), and I’ll be going back to a three-course load.  (I know, many of you do four, and that is definitely more work. I am privileged to have a 2/3 load.  But three is still an adjustment for me, since it’s been five years since I’ve done that.)  I’ve scheduled my classes for four days a week, which I’ve never done before, because I thought that might be less exhausting than three in one day.  We’ll see.  And, of course, I’m changing things in all three classes (although mostly just assignments, not readings).  Oh, and just two days ago, I agreed to do an advanced Old English independent study with one of the students who apparently actually *likes* Old English.  I was so happy that some good has come out of that class that I agreed. I did warn him, though, the emphasis may be on *independent*. At least I know he’s a student who can handle that — he’s smart and super-competent. Plus, he’s a really nice guy; I love working with nice people.  In professional news, I’m going to MLA, where I’m participating in a pre-conference digital humanities workshop (so excited about that!).  And also, in late March, I’ll be giving an invited talk (my first!) and a seminar at a flagship university in another state, and I’m crazy nervous about it. The work I’m presenting/workshopping in each case is so in-progress that I’m not even sure what titles to give it and I need to do that soon.

So, just to give you a heads up, if this blog goes totally silent in April, it may be because I’m dead from exhaustion.