Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tinkering Aloud

First, thanks for the nice wishes expressed in the comments to my last post. I am feeling better, although I still get achy and tired pretty quickly when doing normal things (like hanging laundry). I'm officially banned from strenuous activity for two weeks, and honestly I have no inclination to do any--but I am looking forward to feeling better and being able to get some exercise, for god's sake. It's been ages.

On to more, well, current matters. Pressing, even. Classes start tomorrow, and I'm in the endless-tinkering phase of syallbizing. (By the way, I agree with Crazy that we should just lop off this first week. It's goofy. And I'm not ready.) Once again, I'm changing the structure of my assignments for the survey. Let me review my iterations: First, I tried four response papers, two major papers, and a midterm exam. Then four response papers, two major papers, and no exams. Then three "position" (aka response) papers, two major papers, a midterm, and a final. Reinstating the midterm and adding the final were an effort to get students to quit summarizing things like the characteristics of Romantic poetry in their papers--to give them, in other words, a space to regurgitate course material that was separate from the space where they were supposed to engage in analysis. Then, in response to complaints about "two finals" (since the final paper was due at the end of the semester), I used the same set of assignments but staggered the papers so that the final paper was due a couple of weeks before the exam.

This year, I decided to try a new approach. Response papers (or "position" papers, the new name being an attempt to move away from "I love this poem because it reminds my of my boyfriend" or "I think that Byron is boring") were a source of endless frustration to me. While the students who had a lot of experience with college-level English courses usually did fine--thereby accruing a bunch of easy points, which was a problem in itself--those who didn't get it were disasters, and, for those students, nothing I said seemed to clarify that these were academic exercises and not personal reflections. So I jettisoned them. Basically I realized that most of the students in the class either were taking it for gen ed credit, and therefore didn't have the basics of college-level literature writing, or were early English majors, who may still not have that much experience with close reading, thesis-driven literature papers, etc. I also decided that their awareness of such historical information as the definition of "metaphysical poetry" or the differences between Old and Middle English, while important, was not as important as their acquisition of the ability to discuss literature in an intelligent way, and that I couldn't necessarily cover both of these things well. Or, at any rate, I needed to try focusing on the skills and ability development for a while, since trying to do both created far too much work for all of us (not to mention shoddy results on both counts).

So this fall, I gave them six assignments: a close reading paper (which I demo'ed in class), a Chaucer presentation, a dramatic interpretation (the latter two were done in groups), a paraphrase and analysis of a poem, a paper in which they attacked or defended a thesis that I gave them, and an original thesis-driven analysis. It sort of worked. Grades in this course were actually a little higher than usual last semester.

This semester, then, I'm trying something similar, only with seven assignments: A one-page (essentially diagnostic) response to a Wordsworth poem (in light of the Preface), three two-page close readings (one on a Romantic poem, one on a Victorian poem, and one on a passage of Modernist prose), and, interspersed throughout, long(er) papers for each major movement: one on the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century narratives that we're reading, one on our Victorian narratives, and one on a topic of their choosing (with some suggestions provided by me).

And I'm stuck on a couple of stupid things. Should the Victorian paper be four or five pages long? It's worth 20% of the grade; the Romantic paper is only four pages and 15%. Should I specify the topic for the Victorian paper?

I also worry that I (habitually) assign far too much in this course. Fretful Porpentine writes about selecting the big novel for Brit Lit II; I teach, well, at least two big ones (Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, and also To the Lighthouse, which is shorter but harder), but those also seem to be the texts that everyone gets most into. (Well, maybe not Lighthouse, but I heart it and I think that it's a far more compelling introduction to Modernist prose than Joyce ever is.) At this point, they've bought their books, and I'm not changing this stuff, but goodness. Is this course way too much work? Maybe the four-page Victorian paper will be okay. And should I throw away Jekyll and Hyde, of which I'm heartily sick, despite its cool pairing with The Lifted Veil?

Boring post, yes. Clearly I need to just shut up and go print the suckers out.


Dr. Crazy said...

Heu, from what you describe, you assign about a thousand times more than I assign in the survey.

My survey breaks down like this in terms of work submitted:

- 2 3-5 page essays, a list of topics from which to choose, with the first being worth less than the second.

- two tests (one at about week 4, the other at about week 8)

- final exam (cumulative)

- participation

And that's it. In terms of reading, I tend to take an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to the survey, so we do just one novel, and lots of shorter things, and we end with a film.

How far do you get in the survey? I go from ~1800 to the 1990s. Are you stopping with modernism? I guess I just can't imagine getting three novels in over the course of the semester, particularly with my student population, esp. if one is trying to make it all the way to the end of the 20th century (which gives only roughly 3 and a half weeks per period, give or take).

Fretful Porpentine said...

Hey, we can both throw away Jekyll and Hyde! We can be rebels together!

I suspect that my "big novel" post might have been misleading, since we do read three plays (The Importance of Being Earnest, Arcadia, and Translations) and also A Room Of One's Own, which is pretty darn long. So they're getting a pretty hefty dose of prose, really, it's just that most of it isn't in novel format.

And I SO hear you on the difficulties of trying to keep fact-dumping out of the papers (although I think the real, underlying problem is that most students have never been asked to think about material on anything other than a factual level. I blame No Child Left Behind.)

Sisyphus said...

I can't help you since I am so trained in the quarter system, and it's impossible to do a bunch of assignments across 10 weeks.

But it sounds like you have 6 "things" whereas Crazy has 5, so you're doing roughly the same with a little more weight on your assignments. Thing is, I can't imagine saying *anything* about a big honkin victorian novel in 4 pages.

So, in sum: I dunno, and can't help you. But it is nice to hear from you again! :)

undine said...

A big THANK YOU for saying that about response papers! I don't usually assign them because how can you grade them if they're expressing their "feelings"? "Position papers" - much better.

teridr said...

I'm doing the Brit Lit II survey this semester, and I do four novels: Persuasion, Villette, Remains of the Day, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (don't laugh -- it picks up the class issues of Persuasion, the boarding school setting of Villette, the bildungsroman-y thematics of RotD, and the students are actually willing to read it at the end of the term). I do largish selections of Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist poetry in the interstices. It goes fairly well, even at my small 4/4 state school for the perpetually underprepared.

I have a midterm and a final, both take home, both comprising 4 short papers of 2-3 pages each on topics that I assign. This is my way of avoiding the "response paper" conundrum that you mention, where everyone talks about their romance-gone-bad or their brother's heroine problem, sans actual analytical work with the literature. Doing these in clumps of four instead of spreading them across the semester cuts my workload significantly, and seems to improve student performance, since they start making connections as they work on several assigned topics at once.

Oh, and I do easy-to-grade-but-hard-to-fake reading quizzes, especially on the essays and the novels -- rewards those who do the reading, and serves as a springboard to conversation as we review the answers in class after the quiz.

Dr. Crazy said...

It's so interesting reading what people do in this class! I think I've discovered where I'm differing from many who do multiple longer works. I think it's my emphasis on non-fiction that ultimately makes it impossible for me to assign multiple novels. Because having students read Wordsworth's Preface to the LB and some Edmund Burke, Engels, Carlyle, and Arnold, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and a long excerpt of A Room of One's Own, as well as a couple of things near the end about the politics of writing literature in English... Yeah, I don't have time for more novels or plays if I'm going to do all of that, plus poetry and short stories and a film, too.:)

heu mihi said...

Fascinating responses! I said To Hell With It and photocopied my syllabus today (complete with two weeks of misaligned dates), but I'm really interested in everyone else's approaches. Oh, and I went with 4 pages for the Victorian paper, with the caveat that OF COURSE they can write more than that (and I'll bet that the good students will; this is largely to stave off complaints).

I supposedly go up through the present in the survey, but in reality we read about 3 really short stories after Woolf, along with a few poems by Thomas (which taught unexpectedly well last year), and call it a year. So my "coverage" of the last 80 years is very weak. But honestly, it's hard to get it all in. What's funny is that the 200-year Brit Lit II is just as difficult to plan as the 1000-year Brit Lit I. I almost think that I could be given a twenty-year span and find it equally challenging to do everything that I want.

I also intersperse the novels with lots of poetry, and I make sure that, for at least the week before we start a novel (if not the two weeks), we have very low page-count readings. Of course, nothing in the world will ENSURE that my students start the readings early, but at least they can't say that I'm not giving them a chance. I've also managed things this semester so that there's no reading due on any of the dates that papers are due.

Anyway, I was a little panicky after reading the first couple of comments, but it actually sounds like we all assign similar workloads--we just distribute them quite differently. I like the idea of the multiple short papers for the midterm and exam, teridr! And, to explain myself further, most of my assignments will be REALLY short--4 of the 7 are two pages or less. But I want them--especially the majors and minors--to actually practice reading carefully and discussing language, and I think/hope that this will help.

P said...

This is just to say that I SO wish I could teach semesters, not quarters. Sounds like a wonderful survey -- your students are lucky!

Maude said...

Wow, great stuff! I'm glad you posted this Heu and had some thoughtful commenters! This has really helped me in terms of starting to put together my own syllabi for the spring. Thanks!

Good Enough Woman said...

I recently posted on a very similar topic, and seeing as I was thinking of picking *up* Jekyll and Hyde, I'm going to have to go check things out over at Fretful Porcupine. My assessments are a lot like teridr's: Take home essay exams (plus an in-class final) and fairly intense reading quizzes. I've been pleased with these. I also assign one final paper.