10 Improvements

An end-of-the-year round up of some ideas for change in your classrooms, from ambling through your lectures to student-built YouTube playlist responses to their readings. 

The pseudonymous Miniver Cheevy over at On The Quiet Shore has recently offered her readers a summary of 10 Improvements she brought to her classrooms this past year. They are awesome.

Quite a few of her improvements involve creative assignments, which, if you were a reader of this blog before February got me down, down, down and thinking persistently about criticism, critique, and academic assholery, not to mention the question of why, why, why do we teach literature?, you’ll know that I am enthusiastic about assignments that involve creative input from students. A few of my favourites from Miniver’s innovations are, and I’m quoting her here:

2. Characters: I assigned all of my students French Revolutionary characters in my French Revolution class. Seriously good idea. Not only does it allow them to feel more personally involved with the narrative (and I will gesture to them by their ‘Revolution names’ in class as I speak), but they also write blog entries about primary sources as that person and give presentations. The students seem to really enjoy listening to the revolutionaries’ odd lives.

7. Discussion based around debates or “real life” situations. I had my History 101 students divide into groups about primary sources on the Roman Empire. Some were “pro,” some were “con” and another group was undecided. The undecided group had to ask questions and then vote about whether to join the Empire or not. I did a similar project with “king elections” in Warring States China with 3 groups representing Legalism, Daoism and Confucianism.

I like Miniver’s 10 Improvements because she emphasizes not only measurable results, as only a serious scholar would, but also the question of pleasure: both her’s and her student’s.

In the introduction to Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks explains that “[t]he first paradigm that shaped her pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place” (7). It may not sound like a radical idea, but hooks points out that “[t]he idea that learning should be exciting, sometimes even ‘fun,’ was the subject of critical discussion by educators writing about pedagogical practices in grade schools, and sometimes even high schools” (7), but not in colleges or universities. This is because college and university instructors know that LEARNING IS A SERIOUS AFFAIR–and you must not forget your bifocals, inkstains, and precarious towers of books when its time TO DO THE LEARNING.

So you should check out Miniver’s post; she actually considers the question of whether or not students might enjoy the assignments, and shares some great ideas for assessment, how to engage student discussion and participation, how to teach students close reading skills, and more.

Also, you might consider helping me compile a Dry-Erase Writings equivalent of Miniver’s 10 Improvements. I’ve only got two so far.

Improvement No. 1: Lecture Participation

This year I had the opportunity to try out a method for bridging the alienation students feel from their instructors, and vice versa, in the large lecture hall. The idea is that a participation grade of some sort is assigned to lecture. Students must complete a set number of “responses” in a semester for this grade, each of which are marked on a pass-fail basis. The responses are due before lecture, and hopefully are uploaded to a class blog or a learning platform. Response assignments may range from a page-long response about a reading; a “playlist” of youtube videos or songs the student feels speak to a reading with a short write-up explaining their choices; a simple poll for students to complete when their workload is otherwise heavy; short research assignments, like finding one peer-reviewed secondary source for a reading, and writing up an annotated Work Cited entry; and so on. The pass-fail grading scheme makes marking relatively quick; also, the prof need not assign a response to all students each week–the class could be divided into sections which are responsible for responses in rotation.

The “bridge” part of this plan is dependent on the prof: each week the prof will choose 3-5 responses to share (anonymously) with the rest of the class in lecture. This may mean starting each lecture with these chosen responses, or integrating them into the lecture itself at relevant points. They could be used as discussion starters, as “ice breakers,” or as anecdotal evidence. But in any case, students will quickly get the sense that these assignments are of value not simply because a grade is attached to them, but because they have become a meaningful component of class interaction and knowledge transmission. My hope is that this format would function much as clickers do in science classes, by motivating students to come prepared to lecture, engaging them to be active in their listening, and allowing profs a means to assess student learning on a weekly basis.

Improvement No. 2: Ambulatory Lectures

This isn’t really my innovation at all, but something I watched my supervisor do to great effect, and that I tried later myself. While he was lecturing he would amble about–something I usually do when I lecture, but not all the way up to the back of the sloped lecture hall as he did consistently, each lecture. As I sat in the “audience,” I realized this helped to keep me focused on him and what he was saying. He also used this technique when fielding responses from students during a class discussion; the only difference being that he would at this point explain that he was moving a way from a student when he/she was talking in order to encourage them to speak in such a way that the entire class could hear them. It was a simple, but great technique.

Improvements Nos. 3-10: Eh? Eh??

Wanna add to the list? Help Dry-Erase get to ten by sharing some of yours. What did you change this past year? Eh???

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3 thoughts on “10 Improvements

  1. Something that has worked well for me in general is in challenging my students to think and do more. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but from the countless hours I’ve spent either teaching or observing classrooms and lectures, I think we really need to push students harder than what is “the norm.” My thinking behind this is that college teaching has become too formulaic and predictable — for both students and instructors, at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

    There are a number of reasons for this, including institutional pressures on instructors, the de-intellectualization of the undergrad degree, etc. However, a little ingenuity and higher expectations can lead to a meaningful and rewarding experience for both parties.

    One way I’ve done this is through making students engage with the materials directly and conduct research in ways that more closely resembles what I do — so for example, in my course on “Race, Gender, Science, and American Empire,” students were asked to find a primary source and analyze it using the course’s core concepts and readings. These sources could be photographs, a set of letters, a film, etc. This forced students to produce original work and do the necessary footwork well ahead of the deadline, while giving them enough freedom to be creative and make meaningful choices in determining their “educational outcomes.”

    Another way I attempted to do this is through using social media and technology — as described on my blog (http://jasonukim.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/tweetology-101-my-reflections-on-using-twitte/).

    Last, and probably the most effective and least difficult improvement I’ve implemented, is in completely banning the use of laptops and tablets in lecture and discussion. Students, of course, balk at such draconic measures at first, but laptops in particular are very disruptive in the classroom as they both metaphorically and literally shield the student from what’s happening in the classroom. Not only that, students sitting behind people using laptops are also distracted.

    • Thanks for the fantastic ideas, Jason! I really like the idea of having students find & analyze a primary source. You’re right: in a way, raising the bar in that way sounds like a no-brainer. But it can seem so much more difficult than assigning a straight-forward essay assignment, even if it’s not, really. There’s something about creative assignments; they seem more difficult, but I think in the end, they’re less so, because the active engagement is precisely that: engaging. Do you find yourself teaching in any way to skill sets your students might need to complete this assignment? Like how to conduct primary-source research, how to “read” non-verbal texts, etc?
      And thanks for the link to your blog! I thought I had followed it ages ago, but haven’t seen any updates recently. It must not be in my feed. I will definitely check it out.

      • My blog was getting dusty and neglected due to spending almost 100% of my spare time on research, but I am starting to make a habit of updating it more regularly!

        I definitely do build the students up to the project — I assign them primary sources I’ve selected myself and ask them to write 2-3 page responses to them prior to giving them the total freedom of choosing their own source near the end of the course. This is so I can ease the students into the project and to help me steer them in the right direction, as well as give them enough time to actually think about and find a source that would be appropriate.

        So for example, for the same course mentioned above, I could assign Octavia Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood,” which I could then ask students to analyze as a primary source using the themes of queer sexuality, the politics of race and reproduction, etc.

        The beauty of this kind of assignment is that I can adjust the sources/”texts” to fit the course — I could assign archival documents, films, and novels in an interdisciplinary course, or I could assign all historical texts for a strictly history course.

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