Re-thinking my Brit Lit I course

Something I just realized/discovered this week, from doing the readings for Component C and the exam printout we brought in to class.

I have been testing a lot in my Brit Lit course on low-level knowledge questions. Do students recognize where quotes are from? Do they know basic symbolism in various works?

After looking over my learning objectives and outcomes in that course, I can see that what I wanted to make sure they did (the readings and notes) do not line up with what the department says they should be doing (a lot more evaluation and analysis).

So what I am doing about it?

I am going through my two exams for that course and the syllabus itself pulling out the less important works and the lower level test questions and trying to do more evaluation, analysis, valuing questions.

I still want to know that my students understand the basic plot lines in stories and such, but perhaps I can reorient my quizzes to show that? Or grade their notes?

I don’t know. I could use some good ideas for how to do that. Informal assessments without grades? (Since really any literature student ought to understand those things?)

I believe, with John Dewey, that “Education is not a preparation for life…education is life itself.” Partially because of that, I want the readings and the course to enhance the students’ lives after they leave. (The other reason I want the students to read, understand, and enjoy these works is that they have brought so much joy to my life.

My changes to my Brit Lit course:

I had already been working on adding more “relevance” to the course. My project for this course is, at least right now, focused on making the play Everyman more accessible to my students by introducing the concept through modern film (thanks, Joe) with a clip from Forrest Gump and modern music, including “For Everyman” by Jackson Browne and “Every Man” by Casting Crowns.

I also want to place more of an emphasis on the theme of the work, having to meet Death unexpectedly.

In order to do all this in the course, though, I am going to have to leave some things out.

That’s going to be hard. I’ve already pared the course down as far as I can stand (“and I can’t stands no more”- Popeye), but to integrate the old literature with modern life, I am going to have to either drop out some of the old or give more at-home readings. And I have found those to be very difficult to get students to actually do… Also, as a historicist, I think that the works are “better” and more easily understood, if background information is provided before and during the reading. That doesn’t happen at home for the students.

(I wonder if this is a possibility of something to do. Create an interactive text where the asides that I would say in class are available in the text… Maybe. I’ve done my own translation of Beowulf from the Old English, though it is nowhere near as good as Seamus Heaney’s amazingly alliterative alternative, and I could use it without obtaining rights from anyone…. Something to think about.)

Objectives and outcomes for Brit Lit:

1 To read, discuss, enjoy, and write about early English-language literature as a means of introduction to their legacy of works, both prose and poetry.
2 To write about the literature, in essays, essay exams, and literary analysis and thus enhance the students’ repertoire of writing skills.
3 To sharpen students’ writing, thinking, listening, note-taking and research skills.
4 To continue improving students’ skills through Lab work. The lab is in SFA 215.
5 To enhance student vocabularies. The use of a dictionary may be necessary.

Learning Outcomes:
• Trace, interpret, and evaluate the cultural and literary development of English literature, both in form and content, from the Old English or Anglo-Saxon period through the Neo-Classical period.
• Interpret and evaluate a literary work through understanding of the theme, situation, tone, structure and style.
• Recognize the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual values of literature.
• Recognize some of the major themes of literature.
• Understand the distinguishing characteristics of various genres such as epic poems, sonnets, plays, odes, elegies, short stories, novels, and allegories.
• Write logical, well-organized, well-supported critical responses to a literary work.
• Appropriately document material used as the result of research.

How do you get students to enjoy and appreciate the literature? And how would you assess whether that has happened?

Example exam questions:

• How does Beowulf conform to the epic? (Use at least five of the thirteen parts of the definition of epic as covered in class.)
This is a good question because it matches up with one of the learning outcomes.
• Discuss the background of Judith. Where did the poem come from, what influences are seen in it, and in what ways are the influences seen?
This question does ask them to trace development, but basically they would have to have taken good notes on the lecture for this and write it well. I have given them a fairly specific introduction to the three influences on the poem.

“If only one work were studied for each period, which would you recommend and why?” There are four periods that we study in this course (though there is some argument as to when the periods ought to begin and end and we talk about that, so someone who liked Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels could use other dates and get both those works included).

Is this question a good one for my learning outcomes? I added it to the test after the final. (I review my syllabi and exams during the semester I am using them and take notes to improve them.) What would be better questions?

I do want the students to be able to tell me what I told them. I want them to know it. (And that is in the learning outcomes.) I think it is interesting and important to understand that multiple influences impact a text. What would be another question I could ask? Perhaps I could choose another work which we have studied which has influences I did not talk about in relation to it and ask them to identify possible influences and argue for their choices? That’s hard to do.

And this is a sophomore level course, not a majors course. While most of my students are dedicated to getting a college education at this point, especially since I teach in miniterm, I don’t want to make the questions too hard.

“One must learn by doing the thing. For though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” Sophocles

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