Three weeks in…

…and already I feel so very, very tired.  But happy.  I’m glad to be back in the thick of things.

Today’s supposed to be a writing day, but I had an early morning meeting, followed by an hour and a half spent at a health care facility getting poked and prodded and giving the world’s longest personal health history (long story — may blog about it later), and then I called my sister to tell her some news, and now I’m too tired to do the hard writing.  So I shall write this blog post and then do some grading and service-related work and that will do very nicely today, since I actually already met my week’s writing goal anyway. So there!  (Woah, I just turned into Dr. Crazy there — I *never* use the verb “shall.”)

Anywho, I’m now three weeks into my first semester back from sabbatical and I have to say: I’m actually happier than I was during sabbatical.  Tired, but happy.  Seriously, I do not do well mentally in the slough of despond that is the isolation of sabbatical (or dissertation fellowship or whatever), at least not when it’s a whole year long and I don’t have a major project to *finish*. Don’t get me wrong — I got a lot accomplished over sabbatical.  I did the major chunk of the initial research for the still-inchoate second book (or whatever — it might not turn out to be a book, exactly, but it’s big) I’ve started; I edited most of my half of a co-edited anthology of primary texts and co-wrote its introduction; I drafted 15 pages of an article (ideally one I should’ve finished this past year, but which I’ve put off until this year and next summer to finish); and I read three books in the field of historical English linguistics to help make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English linguistics courses, and maybe more prepared to teach History of the English Language if we never get a line to replace our retired historical linguist after the VAP line we currently have runs out. Oh, and I also did a lot of preparatory reading for the brand new early medieval lit class I designed because I had never previously read all of The Tain or Grettir’s Saga, etc.  I did not get as far in my plan to re-read my undergraduate classical-to-renaissance great books syllabus (in prep for *another* new class next year), but I did at least re-read The Iliad, the Homeric hymns, and all of Sappho’s poetry.

So, I got stuff done.  But.  Even so, I felt like sabbatical kind of sucked. I think I might have done all of those things more efficiently with just a semester off.  Or maybe not — it did take me almost all of the first semester to remember how to organize my own time, and planning and preparing for the six-week research trip to England took a lot of time.  But still, I’m a lot happier with a lot of different tasks on my plate.  And I’m even making more headway on a couple of other writing tasks than I was making on them over sabbatical. (Good thing, too, since they’re due in November and December — though I can get, and will probably need, an extension on the November deadline.)  Check out the meters I added over in the sidebar of my homepage.  The first one is the one I’m working on now, so expect it to grow this semester more than the other one does.  The second one is the one I made headway on over sabbatical, but then stalled out on; however, as it’s related to a talk I’m giving in the spring, it might start to grow a little, too.  I also joined ADM’s and Notorious’s awesome bloggy writing group to help spur me to keep up the progress on number 1.

I think that I’m just a lot happier with multiple tasks going on at once, and with the adrenaline that juggling gives me. As tired as it makes me, it works for me better than the quiet contemplation of a year of reading and research.  However, *perhaps* if I’d had a discrete (but large) project to *finish*, I would’ve felt better about sabbatical  My second dissertation fellowship year was a *hell* of a lot more productive and satisfying than the first, but that’s because I had the dissertation all mapped out and just need to write the damn thing down.  I had a writing group of sorts, then, too, with the screenwriter across the courtyard from me. (Have I never told you that I spent my grad years in Melrose Place?  I kind of did — different address and no pool, but movie industry “aspiring types” and plenty of drama.  Beside the screenwriter across the courtyard and the costumer downstairs, one of my neighbors was this actress.) Anyway, the screenwriter guy decided that one page of my dissertation was about ten pages of his screenplays, and so we’d each try to write at least that much every day.  Some days I’d come out with ten pages (really!) and he’d be all like, “No way! I’d have to write a whole script to keep up!”  Hells yeah!

So, in short, I like structure, and sabbatical didn’t give me any.  I tried to *make* some for myself, but it never felt right.

Sabbatical was really good for me in some ways, though: in addition to the work I did get done, and which I couldn’t do during the school year (e.g., do manuscript research in the UK), the break from teaching alone did wonders for my morale and the teaching part of my job.  And it gave me a clear break from being grad director, since I wasn’t around for students to say, “I know this isn’t your job any more, but could you just…”  And man, was I burnt out from being grad director!  Teaching, too, though I think that may have been colored a lot by being grad director.  I like my professional distance and compartmentalization, and as grad director (which also means instructor of the intro to research course for the first year grad students), I saw some students way more than I might have liked — in class, in my office, in their exams.  Too much!  And that’s true of the easy students as well as the needy ones.  As the person teaching Old and Middle English, which a buttload of grad students take (both courses) to satisfy various language-related requirements, I still see a lot of the grad students, but outside of the bounds of the course, they are not my problem any more.  And since this is the first I’m meeting them, I also don’t have any history with them.  Clean slates are *awesome*.

But if I had to do it all over again — or in ideal circumstances, anyway — I might have waited to take sabbatical when I had a clearer long project to finish, some more concrete, anyway, and I might have taken only a semester.  Oh well, something to keep in mind in another seven years, if they haven’t done away with sabbaticals altogether.



That’s how I feel right now. Plus, I’ve got worse than normal “first day of school” butterflies. I *always* get a little nervous as we get closer to the start of a semester, especially in the fall, but this year is worse than normal because it’s been 15 months since I’ve been in the classroom. Ack!

Lucky for me, I’ve had my classes prepared — syllabuses made and printed, all assignments designed and put up on Blackboard — for about a month now. So there’s that.

But still.


Just thought I’d share that with you all.

Making my classes better for them *and* me

So, I’m revamping one of my fall classes — the only one about literature — to encourage more student engagement with the text and more participation. I have some assignments that already do that, but with some classes, discussion falls flat on the days something like that isn’t due, so I’m folding more of them into the regular rhythm of the class. I also want to get them talking and listening to each other more, but I want to make that worthwhile for them, so I’m trying to design ways to get them to offer better quality participation in the class. My goal with these assignments is also to teach students how to read in a more engaged way, more consistently throughout the semester, which, I hope, will help bring about all of the above goals

Anyway, I had already started doing this when Dr. Crazy wrote about revamping one of her courses and Sisyphus wrote about needing to change one of hers, so I thought I’d jump into the nascent conversation. (And actually, I egged Dr. Crazy on in comments to an earlier post and promised I’d write on the same topic.) I’ve actually kind of written about this particular course-revamping before, but the pedagogical stuff was embedded in a post about the specific subject matter, and I wanted to pull it out and highlight it — that way more of you who aren’t medievalists might see it and comment on it. Plus, it’s further along in the planning now.

My thinking about all of this actually started with thinking about final exams. Awhile ago, I read a post by Tenured Radical (which I couldn’t find now if I tried) about why final exams are a good thing. And more than once JJC has posted at In the Middle about the high-energy final review sessions he and his TAs run for his Myths of Britain course, where suddenly they see the contours of the class through the students’ eyes. All of this inspired me to add a final exam back into my literature classes. I had gotten rid of them in part because I had also unfairly maligned them, but also because I needed to make room for research projects, which I wrote about here. But for reasons that are too dull to go into, I thought for my fall literature class an exam would make sense again (the other class is a language class — it already has an exam), and would make more sense than a research project. So my revamping all started with thinking about that exam.

I find that the best exam essay writers are not always the best paper writers, but they are the students who have been dutifully paying attention all semester, taking notes, and, I assume, reviewing their work. They are also good at synthesis, a skill which, like analysis, needs to be taught. What’s more, I’ll admit that some of my past exams are guilty of asking questions that reflect the way I’ve been thinking about the texts all semester, but in ways that haven’t always come up in discussion or in what mini-lectures I do. So, I needed to think about how to teach students to synthesize and make connections, and how to avoid making the exam into a “how would Dr. Virago answer this?” game.  In addition, I wanted to continue to teach students the close reading, comparative, and other analytical skills that are important to how we think about literature when we study it. And, last but not least, I wanted to create assignments and other tasks that got them to do both synthesis and analysis on their own, actively and independently, before and after class, so they weren’t just sitting there waiting for me to fill them up with my knowledge.

There, now that I’ve sketched where I’m coming from, this is what I came up with. First of all, I set up the schedule of readings so that it does more lumping than splitting, so that it encourages making connections and comparisons. You can read about that more in the older post I wrote. But the rest of what I did is all about the assignments.  Here’s a quick summary list of what I’m assigning, all of which I’ll talk a little more about below:

  1. Crux-Busters, a short-form close reading assignment I’ve done before, but which I’m changing up a bit
  2. Discussion Questions — that is, ones *students* write and then answer together in class
  3. A participation grade that actually matters, the formula for which I reveal to students, and one which has its own set of guidelines
  4. A medium-sized (6-8 pages) paper which builds from the skills that 1 & 2 reinforce
  5. A final essay exam planned in part with the students’ considerable input and based largely on what comes out of the class from 2 & 3

I’ve written about #1 before (see link above — credit for the assignment name goes to Rob Barrett), but I’m changing it a little this year. Because I’ve got a lot of somewhat complicated and unconventional stuff going on in this class, I wanted to simplify the Crux-Buster rules, since students are always a little freaked out by the assignment at first. To review, a Crux-Buster is all about learning how to see the parts of a text that offer rich possibilities for analysis and discussion and doing a very close reading of them. Crux-Busters are mainly about the micro-level of analysis. In the past, it asked students to pick two short, non-contiguous passages from the day’s reading to analyze and write about for 1-2 pages. So previous Crux-Busters emphasized seeing patterns as well as doing local close reading. I’ve got the pattern issue covered elsewhere, so I took it out of the Crux-Buster assignment; this time, students will pick only one passage. And since they’re writing on less, the assignment got shorter, too — this time it’s 250-300 words. My assignment sheet for it is pretty darn long — all of my assignment sheets are (which I’ve talked about here) — but that’s because it teaches them how to do a Crux-Buster well. In the past, students have asked for a sample Buster because they were so anxious about the strangeness of the assignment, despite my many pages of single-spaced directions. Well, whatever, eventually I obliged them, once I had a good one (took awhile in that first class). But now, since I’ve changed it again, I just went ahead and wrote my own on a short text easily available for them to read (and Old English Riddle) so they could see what it was I was expecting. I hope having a model from the get-go will inspire good work and less anxiety sooner in this fall’s class. But mostly, I find, if they’re *trying*, I still get good discussion material from the students who’ve done a Buster that day (they have somewhat flexible due dates — usually either day of a given week.)

The second important assignment in terms of getting students to come to class having engaged more deeply with the text(s) and having something to say is the Discussion Question assignment. There, I ask students to come up with questions that they’d like the class to consider and answer, and I’ll use the best ones in shaping my lesson plans for the day. I’ve written a longish assignment handout for this task, too, including listing both what a good discussion question does and also, what it *doesn’t* do. (I’ve also banned “did you like/relate to ____” questions.) In the Crux-Buster assignment, I tell them all about close reading and what it’s about, why it’s important; so here, while I say they can do a question that asks the class for close reading, I’d also like them to pitch questions that emphasize “far reading” (seeing the whole) and comparative work (drawing on other works we’ve read in class).

In both of these assignments I lay out explicitly how they’ll be graded — that is, I tell them they’ll get the usual letter grades, but also I tell them what those letter grades signify in terms of the particular assignment. I’m trying to be much more transparent in telling students why I’m giving them a particular assignment — what I hope they’ll learn from it and why it’s suited to the course content — but also how they’re being assessed. On that note, I’ve also designed the course — especially these two assignments — to offer high challenge and low stakes. Crux-Buster and Discussion Questions are weird and not your conventional assignments, and I expect very high quality to earn an A grade — thus, high challenge. However, each Crux-Buster is a mere 5% of the total grade and each Discussion Question is 1%. What’s more, with the Discussion Questions, they can do up to 15 over the course of the semester, but I’ll only count the best 10 (and they need do only 10 — so students doing well out of the gate can take a break and others have the chance to catch up). And with the Crux Busters, I’ll drop the lowest scoring of their eight and double the highest.

Since students do Discussion Question on days they don’t do Crux Busters, that should solve one of the problems I’ve had in the past with Crux Busters only: that is, great discussion on days that a critical mass turned in a Buster, and lackluster discussion on days when few or no students turned one in. There will still probably be days when only a few students have done one or the other — especially since they are required to do only 10 Discussion Questions and 8 Busters over the course of 30 meetings.  But maybe that will be enough to jump-start the energy in the class.  (I should note that both of these assignments are due hours *before* class — electronically submitted — so that I can read them and use them to shape my plan for the day.)

I am also hopeful that the need to take some responsibility for when they do a Buster or a Discussion Question — since they both have variable due dates, especially Discussion Questions — will also spur students to take more responsibility for what level of engagement they bring to class. I hope, too, that my transparency about how much of the course’s success depends on them has that effect, too. That brings me to numbers 3 and 5 on the list above (I’ll set 4 aside for the moment). I am also transparent about my expectations and methods of assessment for participation in this class. Instead of just saying “participation matters” and writing a paragraph about it on the syllabus, I’ve given it its own assignment handout; after all, it gets a grade, so it should have directions and expectations just like other assignments. On that handout I define what makes for good participation and what’s merely distracting or even disruptive. I make room for thoughtful listening (note-taking is required — that’s how I’ll measure “thoughtful listening”) and set up opportunities for shy students to earn bonus points in office hours, but I do put the emphasis on contribution in class. (That said, my use of a person’s Discussion Question or Crux-Buster to inspire discussion counts as “contribution in class.”) And I penalize for disruptive behaviors, which include things like coming late or leaving early, phones ringing, etc. (I actually have a policy of “no electronic devices allowed” with the justification that they must give their full attention to the class — the material, me, and their classmates. I do, however, make an exception for documented needs of the disabled, of course.) And I lay it all out for them in a points system. If you show up to class every day and listen attentively, you’ll earn 2.5 points for each day. The highest grade possible for doing that every day is a C — a fair and just grade for someone who gains from the class but doesn’t contribute.  If, however, you contribute to class in a meaningful way, you’ll earn another point that day, for a total of 3.5. Someone who does that every day could earn an A+ — the only possible A+ in the class.

The idea that students must contribute to the class and well as take away from it (and that they will get more from it by giving more to it) is a recurring theme throughout my syllabus and assignments. More than once I use the computer programmer mantra “Garbage in, garbage out” to explain to students that what they get out of the class will only be as good as what they put in. And I emphasize that they are there to learn from each other as well as from me and the subject matter, and from doing as well as from receiving. My participation guidelines and note-taking requirement emphasizes listening to each other and not only me, and noting what we all have to say, even if it turns out to be misguided or wrong (since that sometimes leads to fruitful questions, discussion, or explanation). And all of that builds towards the final exam, number 5 on my list, which they will help create. I hope that after a semester of writing Discussion Questions and of attentively being present in class, they’ll be able to brainstorm questions for the exam. So, for the final week of classes, we’ll convene on the first day to list all the possible themes and topics that came up in class, that cross multiple texts, and that might generate questions and then they’ll go home and draft a few. Then, on the last day of class, we’ll meet to vet their drafts together, refining them and picking the best. The following day, a week before the exam, I’ll post the 10 best on the class Blackboard site. Only 5 of those will show up on the exam, and they’ll have to write on only 3, but they’ll at least then have a guide to prepare for the exam.

The final exam preparation also has its own handout. Basically, I’m trying to teach them how to be better students through many of these assignments. And I’ll emphasize to them again and again that they can take these skills to other classes, even if they’re not officially “required.”

I skipped over #4 on my list, the conventional medium-length paper. In and of itself, it’s probably not that interesting to talk about, but I wanted to mention that it’s an important piece of the over-arching plan here. Since we’re reading all of the texts in this class in translation, I ask students to find three translations of a given text and write a paper analyzing their difference in content and effect on them as a reader. Thus, I see this assignment as pulling in both the close- and far-reading skills of the Crux-Busters and Discussion Questions, and adding a little research-related problem solving and use of the library and its resources (they have to find the translations, and I’ve set explicit parameters about where they must come from, forcing them into the library). This is the same class for which I ordered The Saga of the Volsungs and had that problem with the e-text — which I’m going to bring up on the first day — so I’m hoping this assignment will make them sensitive to the importance of reading a good translation (and also the ways that translation is interpretation).

But also, this is the one assignment that the student works on by him- or herself for him- or herself, and I thought it was important to give at least one opportunity that wasn’t all about public presentation of one’s work and contributing to the class. That’s the other underlying impetus for reshaping my classes here — I wanted to divvy up the kinds of assignments to emphasize different skills and modes of writing, but also to to play to different kinds of student strength.

So that’s what I’m doing with one of my classes this year. I think I’m going to take the same principles, at least, to my other two literature classes in the Spring and revamp those, too. (And some of the principles — high challenge, low stakes; multiple opportunities to learn and different ways of learning — are at work in my language classes, too.)  But it remains to be seen how it goes this fall, and I’ll try to remember to keep you updated (remind me if I forget).

So what do you think? And what are you doing in your fall classes?

>My super-awesome, brand-new early medieval lit course for the fall; or, something to be excited about!

>OK, I should be doing research work now—I still haven’t been as productive as I’d like to have been this sabbatical—but I’m excited about one of my fall classes and I wanted to tell you all about it, both in terms of its content (which the medievalists should be interested in and can give me feedback on) and in terms of its methods, objectives, and assessments, which just about anyone in literature or the humanities more generally might have something to say about. And can I just say that I’m glad I’m finally looking forward to teaching again? Some of you may remember a post from last semester in which I admitted I was burnt out as burnt out can be. It’s amazing what time away plus a revamped course can do to get you excited again!

First of all, let me give you some background on the revamping. Here in the RBU English department, we have one undergraduate course on the books for the broad medieval period (which, btw, is “slashed,” or combined with the lower-level MA course). We also have a Chaucer course. I can come up with other courses and offer them as special topics, but our students seem to be allergic to special topics, thinking they won’t count for anything, even when they will—even when we say so in the course description. (Problem number one is that they don’t always read the course description—the one written for that semester’s particular version of the course—and if they read anything, they read the brief, vague catalog description.) Anyway, in previous years I treated the everything-but-Chaucer course as a kind of smorgasbord introduction to the entire medieval period, from the Anglo-Saxon period through the 15th century and even a little into the 16th (if we count the performance history of medieval drama). I used to put up a timeline on the first day to show them that we’d be speeding through more centuries of literature than all of their other English literature courses combined! It was enough to make my head spin, and I’m used to thinking across large swaths of time. In the very beginning, I tried to get some Irish and Welsh literature in there as well as Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, and Latin literature, but the one time I did that, the class was an amorphous mess of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be The Táin ” kind of sampling. Bleh. So after awhile I started whittling down to the texts I most loved to teach or knew best. And for awhile that worked, but I knew that my students and I were both missing out on so much other good stuff, and I was starting to feel my brain atrophy. So, two years ago, with the encouragement of the undergraduate studies chair and the vote of the faculty, I changed the course description in the catalog to say that subsequent semesters would alternate between the earlier and later parts of the 8+ centuries of the medieval period, with some semesters offering thematically arranged topics across the whole period; it also directs students to consult the course description on the department website to find out the current topic. We also made it possible for students to repeat the course for credit if the specific topics are different (this is especially important for any MA students who are interested in the Middle Ages, but may also be true of some undergraduates).

So. Here we are approaching book-ordering and course description-writing time for next fall and I have to make good on my promise! This fall I’ll be devoting the class to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (ASNaC) literatures, roughly those written or thought to have their origins before the full conquest of the Normans (for the Anglo-Saxon, Irish, and Welsh literatures) or from roughly the same period for the Old Norse literature—basically up to the 11th century for the Anglo-Saxon literature and up to the 12th and 13th centuries for the rest. There will, of course, be a little fudging, but the next time, I’ll start with the Norman invasion in England and stick to the British Isles. And then after that, having taught a bigger range of texts, I’ll know better what works for the students and what works together, and I’ll come up with a thematically arranged class.

Of course, my more historically arranged courses aren’t going to be without their themes, and one of the driving themes of this ASNaC course is the interlocking contact of these cultures. The Irish sent monks to England; the Vikings invaded England and Ireland; Wayland the smithy shows up in the both Old English and Old Norse contexts; shape-shifters appear in Norse and Celtic texts; the warrior-poet (or at least the articulate warrior) is a recurring figure across the cultures, and text after text brings the poet and/or the scribe into the narrative; the surviving texts are all written or written down by Christians but often draw on the pagan past even for explicitly Christian subjects; and so on. I know that it’s really difficult to show or prove direct influence between the vernacular literatures in these cultures, but I want to create a general impression of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, vibrant—even violent—state of flux for the insular and peninsular cultures of the North Sea in and around the British Isles. And so my syllabus isn’t going to be arranged in any neat geographic or chronological way (which would be really hard to do, anyway, given how many questions there are about dates and places of origin for so many of these texts). I don’t have it all sorted out yet, but on the first day I’ll show images of three material objects—The Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Franks Casket (especially the Wayland/Magi side)—to stage the shared cultures and influences, and also to begin pointing out the blend or juxtaposition of pagan and Christian narratives and themes (well, in the Franks Casket, anyway). The next day I’m thinking of either doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and the Eddic “Lay of Volund” (to continue the “Wayland is everywhere!” theme, and also to set up the poet-as-hero idea with the first two), or else jumping into The Táin (after all, the Celts were in Britain first!), and doing “Widsith,” “Deor,” and “The Lay of Volund” after Beowulf, which I’d do after The Táin (to contrast “epic” heroic tales from two cultures). At any rate, I’m definitely going to intersperse appropriately analogous Eddic poems throughout the reading of Old English and Old Norse texts, and I may assign Hrolf Kraki’s Saga right after the Beowulf -“Widsith” sequence, to get all those references to Hrothgar together. Usually I teach Judith after Beowulf, since they are manuscript neighbors, after all, and because I like to teach Judith as a response to Beowulf—especially as a rather critical response to the heroic drinking culture—which complicates the whole “yeah, we’re Christians, but we admire our pagan ancestors” idea. But Judith could be fruitfully put off until after Hrolf Kraki. And skipping to the end of my syllabus, I’m going to put the Welsh last just to honor the fact that they were the last to fall to the Normans among the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. Well, they’ll be sort of last, because on the very last day of reading, I’m going to assign “Pangur Ban,” which is an Irish poem (and one of the oldest poetic texts on the syllabus), but which uses a Welsh word (“pangur”) in the name of the poem’s eponymous cat. And I’ll be assigning it in Seamus Heaney’s translation in order to reinforce the continued and very present-day vibrancy of this very old body of literature. (I also think it’s a great poem to end with right before final exams since it depicts the scholar at work.) But The Mabinogi and Taliesin will get pride of place just before “Pangur Ban,” even though the Book of Taliesin and “The Tale of Taliesin” are later in their manuscript forms than the dates I’ve imposed above. Like I said, there will be fudging.

So that’s roughly the content of the course. I’ve got the list of texts I want to do and some rough idea where they’ll go in the syllabus, but I haven’t worked out the finer details yet, and in order to do that, first I have to, ahem, *read* some of these texts. I’ve never read most of the Old Norse material (or only in excerpt or summary form), but thanks to my friends on Facebook, I got a lot of good suggestions for stuff to assign and I’m going to sort through it this summer as I prep the class. And I’m excited to read it, too, because, hey, new stuff! (Well, new to me.) But I’m just as excited about the shape of the rest of the class—its assignments and their conception—as I am about the content. So lemme tell you about that, too, K?

For the undergraduates, there are going to be five graded components: participation, which counts a variety of ways of “participating” (10%); 8 one-page response papers (40% – 5% each); 10 submitted discussion questions (10% – 1% each); a 6-8 page essay in which they analyze at least three different translations of a text (20%); and a final essay-exam (20%). In the past I’ve taken exams out of my course assignments and replaced them with more writing assignments, but I’ve decided to put an exam back into the equation in this class for a few reasons. First of all, since one of the overarching themes of the class is the connections between the bodies of literature we’re reading (even if those connections are nothing more than thematic), I want assessment that emphasizes seeing and articulating those connections, analogies, and parallels. A final, cumulative exam does that better than discrete papers on individual texts. I’m also going to emphasize making connections in the ongoing short assignments—the response papers and the discussion questions—both of which will also serve to keep students engaged in the material. Between the response papers and the discussion questions, they’ll have to have thought deeply about at least 18 different texts assigned in the course (because they won’t be able to do a response paper and a discussion question on the same text), which will set them up well for the exam. Still, concentrated focus and sustained analysis of a text is important, too, and that’s what the translation analysis paper is about. And the response papers are about close reading, so those assignments are related in their skills, as well. But the other reason why I decided on a final exam rather than a final paper is something Tenured Radical said (though I can’t find the exact post now) about giving students different ways to succeed in a class. Some students get neurotic about papers; some get neurotic about exams. I’m hoping that the short and largely informal nature of the response papers will keep the paper-writing neuroses down to a minimum, plus students can write them quickly (like an exam) or fuss over them, if that’s their wont. And then the exam will be there for those who do well under pressure.

Meanwhile, the way I’ve set up preparation for the exam—especially since there’s only one and it’s cumulative—should help the students feel really invested in it and in the content of the course, as well as prepared for it. I’m really excited about this bit, because it’s the first time I’ve planned something like this. Instead of assigning any new texts to read in the last week, the students and I are going to use that time to collectively write the exam. Like the discussion questions (and to some extent, the response papers), this is planned to help students realize that in many way they make the course what it is and determine what they get out of it; what’s more, in both cases, I hope they’ll learn by doing, rather than by merely responding. But again, it’s also about the content of the course, about making connections. So, on the penultimate day of class, students will be charged with coming to class having reviewed the semester’s work (oh, and yes, I’m going to emphasize note-taking in this class) and being prepared to talk about the themes of the course and its texts. (I am partly inspired on this point by Jeffrey Cohen’s “Myths of Britain” class and their final review session, which he blogged about here.) And here’s where I go crazy: after that class, they’ll be charged with coming back on the final day with three potential final exam questions they’ve written themselves, based on the list of themes we’ve generated together. And we’ll use that last day of class to select and hone at least ten questions. They’ll know that the three final exam questions will come from that list of ten which they have helped to write, but I get to choose the final three. Now, I’m going to let them know this—and everything above—from the very beginning of the semester. In many of my classes, I give out the complete packet of assignments on the first day of class, and I intend to do that here, too (and schedule time to talk about each one on subsequent days). And so they’ll know from the beginning that they’re going to be responsible for helping to create the exam, but also that I reserve the right to do it myself if I think they’re slacking or trying to get away with something. And the discussion question assignment will help them learn what really generates essay-length discussion and what doesn’t. The pedagogical goal here is to get them actively making connections, cataloging, and sorting ideas as we go and in summary at the end of the semester. That’s what a final exam is traditionally supposed to get students to do, but I find my students often regard a final exam itself as an opaque and mysterious thing and don’t know how to go about making the broader-stroke connections it asks. If they have a hand in making it themselves, perhaps it will become more transparent to them—and that’s a lesson they can take to other classes, too.

That’s the undergraduate side of things. The graduate student side is a little different. First of all, I don’t expect many graduate students to take the course, but for those who do, they’ll have to do the response papers and discussion questions, too, as well as participate, of course. But instead of the short translation analysis and final exam, they’ll have a graduate-level research paper in three stages: preliminary abstract/research question; polished abstract and annotated bibliography; and final paper. And I intend to make them meet with me for one group session about how best to go about the research and for individual sessions as they tighten up their research plan. But in keeping with the meta-theme of making connections—as well as accounting for the fact that it’s rare that I have graduate students who want to be medievalists (the last two years bringing a plethora of exceptions, but still being the exception)—I’m going to allow them to write on issues of reception and revival if they wish. So if they want to write on Taliesin in The Idylls of the King, or Heaney’s “Irishing” of Beowulf, or neo-Norse paganism and American pop culture, or whatever, they can. It might be harder for me to help them do it, but I’ll enjoy learning something from their work.

So there you have it: a fall class almost ready to go on February 1st! Can you tell I was procrastinating? So, what do you think?

>Job dissatisfaction

>This might be blasphemous to say, but I need to say it: I’m not looking forward to going back to the teaching grind next year (and let’s not even start on service obligations). It’s not because I’m enjoying my research and unscheduled time so much (see this post about how I’m just figuring out how to handle that unscheduled time; note how many times I mention how boring some of my work is). Nope, it’s because I really kind of dread the whole package of teaching — not just the worst parts (grading! oy, the grading!) but also the frenetic, when-will-this-semester-be-over grind, and even, I hate to say it, being in the classroom. I can’t even put my finger on why — I have always liked our students (well, most of them) and they have told me many times over that they like me — but the excitement is definitely gone.

Maybe it’s because next year I’ll be facing another year of Old and Middle English, which I have to say, I kind of hate teaching. Oh, there are moments where I love it, and there were two sets of classes some years back who geeked out with me and made it awesome, but – ugh! – how can I possibly look forward to talking about weak adjectives and strong verbs and Middle English Open Syllable Lengthening…OMG. Kill me now. Horace, who just wrote a joyful post about what’s cool about being a humanities professor (and whose positive post title I’m riffing only negatively) gets to talk about “the nature of time and the past in literature, about how drama and performance help us understand our very identity, how the language of advertising leaves us without a language of our own to describe our experiences of the real world.” I, on the other hand, get to talk about i-mutation. Zzzzzzzz…And what’s even worse is that it didn’t used to bore me. But the thought of doing this over and over for the next god knows how many years is making my head explode.

And not even the thought of teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare in the spring term, or a newly designed Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic syllabus in the fall cheers me up. Something is seriously wrong with me if the thought of “The Miller’s Tale,” Twelfth Night, and “The Cattle Raid of Cooley” can’t raise my spirits or at least make up for strong verb paradigms and brace constructions.

I have a feeling that part of what’s coloring my attitude is the woeful morale at our university and especially in our soon-to-be-dissolved-and-chopped-into-three-colleges college. But I keep telling myself that that shouldn’t really have an effect on my day to day experience, especially not in the classroom. Perhaps also, because I’m on sabbatical and not as crazy-busy as usual, when I witness just how burnt out and dog-tired Bullock is because of his overload of advising and service responsibilities (a situation created in part by the shrinking of his department by retirement and death without any replacements), I feel it more strongly than I would if I were distracted by a frenetic pace of my own. Or maybe my mood is a response to the bigger war on the humanities and higher ed in general here in the US and elsewhere (especially in the UK). One my Facebook friends (and who still reads this blog, I think) asked for robust language to defend the humanities. Once upon a time I could give it; now I just want to give up.

Tell me that this is what sabbatical is for — to rejuvenate, to re-energize — and that by next year I’ll feel ready to take it all on again. Tell me that I’m just burnt out and I’m expecting to rebound too quickly. But most of all, tell me it’s OK sometimes not to like my job.

>Giving directions for writing assignments: I’m doing it wrong

>Over the years my handouts for writing assignments of all kinds — short, long, research papers, close reading analysis, whatever — have gotten longer and more detailed. These days they have a structure that looks something like this: general overview (including goals and point of assignment); format requirements (sometimes this comes later); details of process (what students will need to do *before* writing); summation/repetition of over-arching goal, often underlined or written in bold. So that last bit on a short assignment might say, “Write a short essay (about 4 pages) in which you address X and Y. Be sure to give concrete evidence to support your claims, state those claims with clarity, [etc. — insert appropriate necessary move here].” And it will essentially repeat what the general overview said, but with more language about the “how” (the process detailed above it). The longer the assignment, the more complicated this summation might be, but it’s never longer than a short paragraph.

So, in other words, I see my assignments as teaching student how to do what I want them to do, rather than just assuming they know what’s expected in whatever the assignment is asking. And in the process section, I often point out that the order they *do* things is not necessarily the order they will *present* them in the finished product, or that they won’t ultimately use everything they discover in the process of preparing.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like I’m setting them up for success, doesn’t it? And in some ways I’m even writing my assignments like a well formed essay or narrative, with a beginning, and middle, and an end. And yet, somehow it doesn’t work. More and more students seem to miss the point, the big picture, even when it’s underlined and in bold and repeated at the beginning and end. And the students who miss this big picture include English majors, honors students, and even MA students. I had one assignment in my graduate methods class that was an utter failure — not as single finished assignment addressed the big picture.

Instead, they get all hung up on the details. In that grad assignment, for example, they were seriously angsty over how to site the web page for a scholarly journal. Seriously. A whole bunch of them. I couldn’t figure out why so many of them were spending so much time on those web sites. And no one asked me substantive questions about the larger point of the project, which was to report on journals in a given subfield and educate each other on what journals were out there, what their emphases were and what kinds of articles they published, how difficult it was to get published in them (in terms of time and percentage of accepted articles, etc.), whether they published scholarly articles only, or other kinds of writing (forums, reviews, etc.). It was clear in many of the assignments turned in that no one in some the groups (it was a group assignment) had even bothered to open an issue of the journal! I should have known that they were missing the point from the weird questions they were asking. In fact, I’m now thinking that instead of asking students if they have any questions about the assignment that I should say, “OK, who can summarize the point of this assignment for the class?” I think I might a) catch misunderstandings and b) open the eyes of a lot of other students.

And recently, in another class, a short assignment had final directions along the lines of “Once you’ve done all that, write an essay in which you draw from the evidence you’ve gathered and answer the following two questions: what does that tell you about X and how can we apply it to Y.” More than half the class forgot to address the “apply it to Y” part and the ones who did threw it in as an afterthought. And the practice of “apply it to Y” has been part of every assignment this semester. As in the graduate journal assignment, I think theses students also got so hung up in gathering data that they forgot why they were doing it and what it was supposed to be used for.

So, clearly, something’s wrong with the way *I’m* doing things, if all of these different groups of students are missing the point. I have to say that I long for the approach most of my undergraduate professors used. Twice a semester they’d say, “Go write a paper.” Seriously, the syllabus (which was usually a single page, btw) would have two days marked “6-page Paper Due” (or something similarly laconic) — one before the midterm and one after — and that’s it. And then there was a midterm and a final (no details about those, either). Of course, that would be going to the other extreme and there all sorts of reasons I can’t do it that way with my students.

At any rate I’m starting to think I’m giving them too much guidance and they’re getting lost in the details. And I’m also giving too many assignments. While that theoretically gives many more opportunities to learn, I’m not sure the students who need it the most take those opportunities. It definitely gives students more grades (each weighted very little), but then some of the flakier ones fail to do every one. And it burns me out on grading.

So what do you all think? Give fewer directions? Let them work out the how? Or maybe move the process-oriented guidelines to an appendix and limit the first page to big picture stuff (and move it all there)? A perverse part of me now thinks I should have a class day dedicated to how to read assignment instructions! But that would be a little insane. What do you think?

>Team teaching is teh awesome!!1!!!

>So I’m team-teaching a small seminar. We spent all summer and a little bit of fall planning this class because when you have to run everything by your co-instructor, everything takes twice as long. No, even longer — it has an exponential effect, since the co-instructor might have to read something first to decide whether it will work in the class, or even if it’s a simple question, they have to get your e-mail and respond to it. None of this deciding on your late-paper policy as you put the syllabus together at 2am the night before the first class business! I even wrote up a sketch of a lesson plan ahead of time for every day I’ll be teaching this semester so that my partner won’t be going in blind. And in this case we come from two different disciplines — theater and literature — so we do things differently, in terms of both our approaches to drama and to classroom policies, assignments, etc. That’s supposed to be the *point* of team-teaching — bringing these approaches together — but it still makes the logistics more complicated. (If it sounds a bit like I’m dominant in the class, I am. But that’s because he’s directing a production related to the class, for which I’m the dramaturg, and so that’s where he’s the boss. And also, I’ve taught a class on the topic multiple times and he hasn’t.)

But since neither of us had done this before, we weren’t exactly sure how it was all going to come together, and in the first week of classes there was still some fine-tuning, especially since on those days we were sharing the time. (Starting this week we alternate days. More on the awesomeness of that in a minute.)

On the first day of class one of the students asked what the benefit of team-teaching was. We gave him some canned answers about interdiscplinarity and multiple points of view and learning from each other, since, after all, we hadn’t done this before. But now, even after only three classes together, I can already see the benefits and the canned answers don’t sound like empty boilerplate eduspeak any more. We are already learning from each other, and presumably the students are learning more from both of us than they would from just one of us. He’s got a much broader knowledge of theater history than I do; I’m a medieval-early modern gal, and know England much better than the continent. That said, I have a deeper knowledge of the language, literature, and socio-economic culture of the period of English drama that we’re studying. He’s also a director and dramaturg, so he brings practical production knowledge to the class. In fact, that’s our organizing principal for the class — we’re studying these plays in their historical contexts (textual, literary, social/cultural, and performance contexts) *and* thinking about how to perform them now. Although this is an oversimplification, I’m “then” and he’s “now.”

And it works beautifully together. Case in point: yesterday, I was getting students to notice the symbolic significance of movement and space in the play we were reading. And then I got them to talk about how bodies and physicality matter thematically to the play. And then we talked about gender. After class, my co-instructor noticed a way to connect the gender issues to the movement issues in a way I hadn’t and it sparked his ideas for what he’s going to do in class on Thursday.

And the fact that I have one less class to prep for Thursdays for most of the rest of the semester (except during tech week of the production, when I’ll take over for my swamped co-instructor on both days) is suh-weet! But lest there’s some troll out there thinking, “Hey, my tax money is paying her salary and she’s not working!” let me remind you that we spent all freakin’ summer (when we *weren’t* paid) putting this all together. So the time was simply displaced. (Plus, I have plenty of other paid work to fill it, including putting together a handbook for department graduate directors, since I’ll be on sabbatical next year and have, up until now, kept everything in my head. Yeah, not good. But that’s a subject for another post.) And I still have to do the reading he’s assigned for his days, and I still come to class, which I am looking forward to with great enthusiasm, for — hooray! — I get to be a student once a week! How fun!

But one of the coolest little surprises of the semester so far is that we have great co-teacher timing. We don’t jump into each others’ presentations or discussion leading often, but when we do, it reinforces what the other is doing. And we seem to have great dorky comic chemistry, too. (Yes, the students are laughing, too. Well, most of the time.) For instance, yesterday, we were discussing a play with a rather strange anal fixation. All or most of that embodiment I was asking the students to pay attention to kept coming back to the ass (or arse, actually — it’s an English play, after all). So we got to talking about farts and fart jokes in the play and one of the students wondered if it told us something about audience, on the theory that physical humor and “toilet” humor appealed only to the less educated. I gave the student my skeptical look and my co-instructor and I had the following exchange, totally deadpan:

Me: I like fart jokes. Fart jokes are hilarious. (looking at co-instructor) What about you?
Co-instructor: Love them. Can’t get enough of them.
Me: And I have a Ph.D. And you?
Co-instructor: Me, too. Ph.D.
Me: But seriously….

And then I started giving a potted history of the fart joke in English literature (no, really) and talking about how the idea of “low” humor is a culturally contingent thing and how “less educated” is a difficult or different thing to talk about for the Middle Ages, anyway. And my co-instructor talked about farts on the stage up through the 19th century (no, really), including a French performer who used to perform entire songs via fart for wealthy and cultured audiences (seriously, not making this up). And we hadn’t planned *any* of that. And yet the whole performance went off as if it was a well-practiced routine. It was awesome.

And that’s the other thing that this class is doing for me: it’s bringing my teaching energy back. In my other classes, even though I’m changing the content and the methods, as well as the assignments, all the time, it’s still my shtick I’m doing. And frankly, I’m sick of me — or classroom persona me, anyway. I *really* need that sabbatical I’ve applied for. (This, btw, is the great benefit of sabbaticals to *students*. We need a real break from teaching to keep it fresh and effective. Summers help, but they’re too short to really recoup and by the end of them — or in the case of the team-taught course, all through them — we’re thinking about teaching again.) After last semester I thought this one was going to feel like a death march. But the team-taught course is re-energizing me, and as luck has it, my Middle English course comes later in the day, so I can go into that a little more hyped up and enthusiastic. (Oh, and also, I seemed to have no problem students so far, knock wood — not even the one I thought would be a problem.)

So if you have the opportunity to team-teach something, and it’s in load (in my case, happily, it is) or you can handle the overload, I highly recommend it. Well, at least for now, in the second week of classes! I’ll keep you posted if the honeymoon phase wears off!

Edited to add this PS: Also, my co-instructor is bigger hard-ass on deadlines, plagiarism, etc. I always try to present myself as one, but then I usually show mercy. So I don’t pursue plagiarism to the dean, but give an F on an assignment. And I’ll take a late assignment under conditions not listed on the syllabus. But not co-instructor! So yay! *He* can be bad cop!

>The best professional moments of 2009

>Since my last post had a little bit of the professorial gripe to it, and was also ridiculously long, I thought I’d counter that with a briefer post on what made me happy in my professional life in 2009. It’s still the first week of 2010, so I’m still allowed to do a 2009 retrospective, right?

In our annual reviews, we have to categorize all the work we’ve done in the previous academic/fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) in the three usual categories of what professors do all day: teaching, research, and service. So I thought I’d give you my three most gratifying moments or element of 2009 in the same three categories.

Service is technically the smallest part of my workload (20%), and I definitely don’t do as much as some people in the department. Most of my service work in 2009 was in three areas: serving on the committee that hired our most recent faculty member; serving on the department personnel committee; and being the director of graduate studies, which entails both service (administrative stuff) and teaching in the form of advising, and always poses problems for me when I’m trying to decide what part of my annual report to put its activities on. But this is my blog, so I’m counting my most gratifying moment as grad director in the service category. This year the associate chair proposed the idea to me of assigning one or two outstanding graduate student teachers to their own sophomore level literature course and we decided to do this through a competitive application process. So I was charged with drafting the application with the rest of the graduate committee. With their input, I put together an application that I think will not only give us a good way of assessing the proposed courses and the individual student’s potential for success with it, but that will also teach all of the students something about course design, teaching portfolios, and job applications (that was the model) and give them materials to use if they apply for community college jobs after the MA. So I was pleased with the end product. And most gratifying of all, so was the rest of the faculty, including the composition faculty, who were worried that it would seem like we were “rewarding” students with a literature class over composition. In other words, I seem to have pleased everyone. Yay me!

My most gratifying “moment” in my research was actually, technically, a series of moments, but I’m still counting it as one: that is, the three very positive reviews that my book received in 2009. Even more gratifying was the fact that they were by scholars in three slightly different fields of late medieval literature: one works largely on gender and vernacular devotional literature (including the genre that’s the subject of my book, but not exclusively); one works on literature and the social class that’s part of the subject of my book; and the last one works specifically in the genre that was the subject of my study. Once again, I seemed to have pleased everyone — or a range of someones, anyway.

I’ve actually saved the best for last, the most gratifying moment in my teaching. Oh sure, great reviews of one’s book are *extremely* gratifying, but I’m pretty sure that over the course of my career I’ll have more students than readers of my scholarship, so I’m going to rank teaching as the place where I could potentially have the most impact on the world, even though teaching and research are weighted the same in my workload – 40% each. The most gratifying moment in teaching was a small one, but it meant a great deal to me. Last spring I taught the “gateway” intro to literary study course for the major, which allows me to stretch myself and teach all sorts of cool texts beyond the medieval period, and I always make a point in such courses of including one or two relatively recent American works, or else my tendency might otherwise be to stick to British literature, medieval to Victorian. This year I ended the course with short stories, capped off with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” as it originally appeared in The New Yorker. I’d never taught it or been taught it; I just decided to do it. We’d been talking a lot in class about the ways in which modern and post-modern fiction writers convey subjective points of view through narrative form, diction, imagery, and so forth, and that’s largely what we did with this story. And I’d also been showing clips of movie adaptations of a lot of the texts I taught to talk about film as interpretation, and to show the formal changes necessary, as a way of drawing attention to the formal elements of writing. Anyway, I did this with “Brokeback,” of course, showing the heartbreaking scene of Ennis visiting Jack’s parents and finding his own shirt hidden inside Jack’s in the closet. In doing so I think I indirectly steered us towards a discussion of the depiction of love rather than sex, of emotion rather than sexual desire. I didn’t plan it very consciously this way, but I think that’s what made the discussion so good. But it wasn’t the discussion that day that was so gratifying — though it was good and blissfully free of awkwardness. The moment came after class. One of my best students, who had taken a number of courses with me, came up to me and said that she didn’t expect to like “Brokeback Mountain,” and in fact, had expected to be offended by it because it conflicted with the way she was raised and with her religious beliefs. I was afraid that what was coming wasn’t a “but” or “however,” and braced myself, but I should have known better since this was a truly thoughtful and empathetic student. And indeed, she did say “but.” She said that and more, that despite what she expected, she found herself deeply and powerfully moved by the story. It’s really a compliment more to Annie Proulx than to me, but the student did thank me specifically for assigning the story and forcing her out of her comfort zone. I’m not really sure why this moment meant so much to me. Perhaps because it came from one of my “fans” who was simply telling me that she was still learning from me, even when it wasn’t medieval literature. Or maybe because at its heart, I think that’s what the value of a liberal arts college or university education in the traditional classroom is about: it’s about the encounter with others.

So what were your most gratifying moments of 2009?

>When good classes go bad

>OK, first of all…Damn, did I really write only 20 posts in 2009? Wow, that’s really lame.

So let’s start this last-day-before-I-must-start-work-in-earnest-again Sunday afternoon in a still new year (and new decade!) with a substantive post. And let’s simultaneously make a resolution to write at least twice as many posts in 2010 as in 2009, which would still be many fewer than in each of the previous two years, but let’s not get too crazy with the ambition.

And no, I don’t know why I’m speaking in first person plural. I am not actually royal. There, now that I’m back in a singular state of mind, on with the actual post topic to which the title refers.

My Old English class sucked this year. It really bums me out, too, because it was so awesomely enrolled: 34 students! And Middle English is equally awesomely enrolled, and so I’m a little nervous about it because I think maybe that relatively large size was part of the problem. But also part of the problem was a critical mass of “difficult personalities” (probably my own included) which led to a sucking of the energy in the room and made the routine but necessary parts of the class seem duller than necessary. I want to break down what happened, perhaps go over what I might do differently next time, and also recount some of the successful emergency measures I took (perhaps too late), but first let me briefly recap the last three times I taught this course, which made the anxiety-dream-causing suckitude of this semester seem even worse by comparison.

Now, my first OE class didn’t go particularly well, but I didn’t actually have very high expectations because it was my very first semester as a tenure-track professor, the first time I’d taught any kind of language class (let alone one in my secondary field, in which I’d only ever had one graduate level course!), my first semester of teaching undergraduate/graduate courses, and my first semester in a new town at a new job. All that might have added up to a nightmare, but I was in kind of a “this is all hard” daze. Still, that class did have its difficulties and challenges. The two biggest problems were graduate students who really shouldn’t have been admitted to the program. One ended failing all of her courses because she just wasn’t prepared enough for graduate level work in English. (She was a non-traditional student who’d come from another, *entirely* unrelated field. We used to admit more of those, many of whom were pursuing the MA for pure pleasure — and I don’t knock that at all — but too many of them floundered and so we’re a little more skeptical of their applications these days. It’s no joy to say “yes, come to our program” and then follow that with “sorry, you’re failing our program,” especially when we’re taking their money, as they usually don’t qualify for TAships.) The other seemingly did well enough in his other courses but he got an F from me for plagiarizing his final translation and annotated bibliography project. (Thanks to him I now give final exams in that class.) And like most plagiarizers, he did a smashingly stupid job of it, by plagiarizing the very text I’d partly modeled the assignment on, Corey Owen’s hypertext edition of “The Seafarer.” My student didn’t know that I’d modeled my assignment on this work, but he should have known better than to steal directly from Owen’s summaries of articles written in German, since my student didn’t read German and yet there they were in the annotated bibliography with their German titles! D’oh! And what’s more, I’d already pulled him into my office for plagiarizing someone’s translation once before! So he knew I was on the lookout.

But what made the semester so torturous wasn’t that these two students were struggling students or even than the one panicked and resorted to dishonesty; rather, it was their attitudes throughout, which culminated in both of their failures, and I imagine had a causal relationship to them. Student 1, the non-traditional student, performed poorly on everything, but in the beginning of the semester, she tried to seek help. I say tried because she initially came to me asking for tutor. When I explained that knowledge of Old English was pretty specialized and there really wasn’t anyone around except me, and offered to set up an extra weekly meeting with her, she reluctantly accepted, but stopped coming after the second meeting. And she subsequently grew surlier and more disruptive in her behavior in class. Then one day she melted down. We were going around the room, going over the translation homework, and the guy before her had just given a particularly sound translation, and since he was someone struggling in the class, I gave him extra praise. And then she took her turn and read something truly unintelligible. “I’m sorry,” I said gently, “that’s not quite right…” But before I could get to the explanation, she burst out, enraged, “Why does HE get a ‘YES’ and I get a ‘NO’?” It was really unnerving, especially since it was my first ever experience of such disruptive behavior in the classroom. I thought I handled it OK, saying very gently that it wasn’t personal, but that her answer was empirically wrong — for one thing, she made a very clear subject an object and vice versa — and his was right, but that tomorrow it could be the opposite. Well, it seems she thought my frequent but gentle corrections of her were personal, because the next day I got a three-page, hand-written screed from her (slid under my office door) decrying how inhumanely I was treating her. (It turns out she wrote similar to letters to all of her other professors, whose classes she was also failing.)

Meanwhile, student 2 usually complained about something every day in class. He was also struggling, but concerned only with the effect of his struggle on his GPA. He, too, tried to come to office hours, but gave up. In his case it was less out of a paranoid sense that I was out to get him — as in student 1’s case — and more out of a deep-seated lack of interest in the necessary intellectual work. He actually said to me in one office meeting, “Why do we need to learn this stuff, anyway? Hasn’t it all been translated already?” *headdesk* He was the kind of guy who, even as an MA student, would ask “Is this going to be on the test?” Oy.

By now in this post you might think that *that* was my worst OE class ever. But it wasn’t. It’s definitely in second place, but it didn’t bother me as much as the most recent class. As I said, I expected things to be hard, anyway. But also, every other student in the class was a joy to teach, and there was a cohort of smart, funny, geeky students who loved when I got excited about geeky linguistic stuff. And the class was small and intimate, and so the other dozen students easily communicated through body language and expressions that they sympathized with me and were equally frustrated with the two problem students. In the beginning they reached out to them and tried to help them, but they got no further than I did. A number of the engaged students later joined me for a Beowulf reading group the next semester, so it was also clear they were learning and interested. One of those students later went on to do an MA in Medieval Studies at York (after taking every class I ever offered while she was an undergraduate!), and she was the energetic center of the enthusiastic majority in that class.

The next two times I taught OE, the classes were composed mostly of students like the enthusiastic ones in the first class, and blissfully free of problem personalities. Like the first class, those classes enrolled about 15-18 students, and since many of them took both OE and ME, there was a high energy going into ME (that was also true of that first year of ME, since the two problem students failed OE). The second time I taught OE and ME, I taught them in the same semester, in the same room, back-to-back (because I’d been on leave the previous semester and certain students needed both classes, usually offered only every two years) and I took to showing goofy language-related YouTube clips or SchoolHouse Rock videos in between classes for edifying entertainment, a habit I carried into the courses two years later (though to do so I had to arrive to class early — didn’t want to use actual class time). OK, so some of the videos weren’t exactly edifying, but one silly one — the now somewhat infamous “Pork song” — was at least inspired by a class conversation about “r-colored vowels.” Just about every student from those last two classes is now a Facebook friend of mine, so if you’re my Facebook friend and you’ve seen my status updates about the grueling OE class this semester, you’ve likely seen their comments bolstering my spirits. (And since a couple of them know about this blog and might be reading: thank you! That meant a lot.)

So what went wrong in this year’s iteration? Well, for one, that huge enrollment turned out to be a problem. This is something that I learned (and that I did to myself) that needs to be repeated over and over to anyone who wants to raise course caps and replace small classes with large ones (whether with or without discussion sections): the same content taught by the same teacher will paradoxically not be the same course if the enrollment is doubled. It might not be a worse class, but it won’t be the same. And in my OE class’s case, it was definitely worse. Alright, so there are other variables involved, I know, but I can tell you that it was much harder for me to reach and engage and keep track of the performance of 34 students than it was to do the same for 15-18 students. There were more students who were struggling and there were more students who’d stumbled into a class that was over their heads. I tried to head this off at the pass by e-mailing the syllabus weeks before the term started, but our students don’t drop classes. (Or perhaps they didn’t read the syllabus carefully.) This time, one of the struggling students at least did actively seek out extra help, and this time, having had three cohorts of OE students, many of whom are still in the area and seeking work, I was able to rustle up a tutor for said student.

But even with a tutor working with that student on the side, my student still came to my office hours every week. On the one hand, I’m glad she didn’t give up like the two the first year, but on the other hand, she sapped a lot of my energy, and I needed that energy to deal with the rest of the class. Meanwhile, there were three undergraduate students with strange, disruptive behavior. One missed about half of the semester, either by missing a whole class or else by coming in extremely late, sometimes 45 minutes late! I could see this and it was clear the students in the back of the room, nearest the door, were distracted by it, as they took to keeping track of when she arrived. And when she was in small groups she wouldn’t speak to the other students. At all. Strangely, though, she would sometimes speak up in whole class discussion, so I don’t think it was real shyness. And on more than one occasion, when it came around to her to translate a line from the homework, she wouldn’t have it prepared, in which case she’d just stare at me silently. And yet she’d come up to me after class — after not having been there half the week — and argue for fractions of points on graded assignments.

Then there were two other students who had the opposite problem: they didn’t know when to stop talking. They both had a version of what I’ve heard parents of small children call “interruptitis.” One of them would most often interrupt me; the other would interrupt me or other students. The first would argue with me when I was trying to explain why her translation wouldn’t quite work tonally or stylistically or logically. Often she wouldn’t let me explain what wasn’t quite working with her translation; she’d interrupt and argue. These were often issues less concretely wrong or right than the situation that inspired the outburst from student 1 in the first year, but in each case, there was still something wrong and I knew that from my knowledge and the authority of many other scholars and translators, which she either didn’t realize I had or didn’t seem to accept. It wasn’t always transparently clear why what she did was wrong, but she didn’t wait for my explanation. She seemed only to want me to say “yes, your version is acceptable,” rather than to learn why it wouldn’t quite work. And in arguing at all, she delayed class for no good reason, because in each case there was nothing at stake or it was something peculiar to her translation and not common to the class. What I’ve learned from this is that I need to learn to say more quickly, “That might take me too long to explain and we need to move on, but I’d be happy to discuss it in office hours” or “Did anyone else come up with the same result? If so, let me explain to you all why that’s most likely not going to work.” Or just to say, “Give me a minute to think of a way to explain that to you,” because honestly, sometimes it was something I knew but hadn’t articulated yet to myself. On top of that, she’d also sometimes correct me spontaneously, interrupting me in mid-sentence as she did so. She did occasionally catch a slip of my tongue — the class was so wearying that I sometimes had bouts of mild aphasia, where I’d flip terms (strong for weak, for example) — but usually I’d catch myself a split second later, so I didn’t really need her. Honestly, I’m usually appreciative of a correction, but not unnecessary ones. If that had been the only problem in the class, it might not have rubbed me the wrong way, but combined with everything else, it was a major irritant. And she also had a seemingly condescending tone every time she did this, although later I decided that she was actually pretty uniformly affect-less, even when she was talking about something she was supposedly enthusiastic about, so about two thirds of the way through the class I started getting irritated a little less. I also managed her and the rest of the class better. More on that a little later. Apparently she also did the same thing — the seemingly condescending, spontaneous correction — when other students were talking, but only the students around her heard that, because she kept it sotto voce. But that was irritating them so much that they started dreading class and it affected the atmosphere.

That was on one side of the class room. Meanwhile, on the other side, something similar was going on. Another student there had a similar kind of academic Tourette’s, interrupting me and blurting things out at inappropriate moments. But hers bothered me less at first because it didn’t seem laced with bad attitude; rather, she seemed to me to be bubbling over with enthusiasm. But then she, too, started correcting other students. Or sighing or snorting. And by the end of the semester, when we got to the literature and the discussion, she’d respond to my questions by starting with such locutions as “Well, you have to understand…” And then she’d say something totally wrong, or at least ill informed. (Often it was out of date blanket stereotypes of the Middle Ages, or a confusion of the content of the literature with the life of the day. I think she might have been home schooled or at least an autodidact in my field. She was a big Tolkien fan and might have just decided to start reading what he’d read. She’d clearly read a lot, but had no real guide to what she’d been reading.) Of course, I’d correct her, gently, which sometimes got snickers from her classmates who were less patient with her outbursts, and she’d look crestfallen (clearly not realizing she did the same to them). She also had a tendency to call herself, out loud, “stupid! stupid! stupid!” when she missed so much as a point on a quiz, which was hard to take in its own way.

And then, on top of all of this, there was one of my best grad students, who has an unfortunate habit of sighing audibly when he’s frustrated. And he, like me, was frequently frustrated in this class, as were many of the other students. Furthermore, as in many of the former iterations of the class, there were a lot of high-performing but neurotic students, who radiated a lot of nervous energy even under the best circumstances. But add that to the powder keg of the difficult personalities, and you’ve got a lot of extra strain and stress.

The combination of all of this sucked the energy out of the room. I and many of my best students dreaded coming to class. Showing students paradigms of verbs and such isn’t the most exciting thing in the world in the first place, but in most iterations of this class I at least brought energy and dorky enthusiasm to it. Even without the difficult personalities, I think the bigger class size brought the energy level down. When students are five rows away, you’re lecturing, not showing or discussing or explaining. I think this semester, in Middle English, I’ll make myself move around more to combat that. In Old English, I did a lot more small group work than I might have otherwise done to get one on one with students, but in much of the semester, too many of the struggling students or the ones with clashing personalities were grouped together simply by virtue of the geography of the room. So finally, about half way through the semester, I spent a few hours making a group assignment chart, being sure to keep apart students I knew didn’t get along, and making people move across the room to meet people they hadn’t met before. I put one of each of my smartest, best performing, and also most confident students with each one of the two interrupters, so that they’d see that they weren’t the only ones quick on the uptake. (Indeed, the median and average grades in the class were consistently As. I had a lot of high-performing students and then a significant drop off to the struggling students — another problem of the class, I think.) I stopped using my old method of going around the class and having each students translate a line or two — which works fine in a small class — and had students in small groups compare their translations to mine, note meaningful differences, and try to teach each other where they went wrong. In other words, I took myself in person out of the equation for a little while (though obviously my authority was still there in the translation). Of course, I’d go around to each group and I’d answer questions as they came up. And since I’d carefully designed the groups, I made sure to put students who I knew could teach each other well in each group. Having done this, the last third of the semester was much more pleasant than the first two thirds. Plus, by that point, we were done with the crash course in the grammar and syntax and on to the literature, which also made things more fun.

Looking back, I think I learned from that class something about how to manage people. It took me awhile, but the assigned groups did eventually solve some of the major problems. And they worked happily together, so I seem to know something about what personalities will mesh and which won’t. But I wished I’d learned it faster. And I wished I’d learned faster all of the things I’ve suggested above that were going wrong and were in my control. But I do think a lot of it was just the bad luck of bad chemistry. We’ll see how much of this shows up in my evaluations (or, how many perceptive students will realize that it was less about the class content and me and more about the chemistry).

But one thing I’m thinking about changing is the way I assess the students. For three iterations now I’ve been using quizzes, following by translation assignments, followed by a final exam. I’m thinking of swapping the quizzes for homework, which means I’d have to change the final exam, too (or maybe just get rid of any big capstone project entirely — just add more short translation work or other short assignments). Whether I use Jambeck and Hasenfratz’s book or Baker’s book, both now have fill-in-the-blank or sentence translation assignments (the former in their book, the latter on his website) and I could use those for both graded and ungraded homework. I could also use Michael Drout’s website King Alfred’s Grammar, although I’d probably do so in conjunction with Baker. The idea behind the paradigm quizzes was that students needed to have the basic structure of the language at their fingertips, and would then only need to refer to the grammar paradigms later when necessary to check their work or when memory failed. In other words, it was about approaching some basic fluency. Admittedly, it was an old-fashioned approach, the way I’d been taught both Latin and Old English. But I don’t think that really worked in such a short class or with a larger group. (With the smaller, more self-selecting groups, it worked fine.) I think perhaps it might be better to concentrate on how the structure works in action, in sentences and short passages. I tried that the first time I taught the course, and it didn’t really work — and it was those students who suggested that I institute quizzes — but I think it was more in the details of how I did it than in the larger concept. I also think that the move from quizzes to translation in this most recent class actually inspired some of the more annoying personality issues, because we’d moved from assignments that were black and white (you either knew the dative singular for a strong masculine noun or you didn’t) to the more nuanced practice of translation, which starts with grammar and can have elements that are wrong or right, but also has more interpretative elements, some of which are more arguable than others. I taught a lot of that debate — especially some of the more famous critical cruxes in the poetry — but many issues were less up for debate and more a matter of students’ inexperience, and that unnerved a lot of the students. In other words, I think I accidentally did a bait and switch on them, and I’m sure that contributed to the weirdness of the course’s chemistry. Middle English is a very different course, and I use writing and translation assignments in that class — no tests — so I expect some of these structural problems to disappear. Also, some of the most difficult personalities won’t be in it. But I’m still stealing myself for the large class and what new weirdness it brings with it.

OK, I have babbled on for long enough. Anyone who has any suggestions for how to manage a class of difficult personalities, or how to effectively teach Old English or another ‘dead’ language (i.e., where conversational fluency is not the goal), have at it in the comments. I’ll probably need your advice for Middle English.

>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.