New Class, Again
Having moved to my university just last year, and having had to adjust to teaching totally different sources and works, I was not pleased to hear that the class was changing (again!—for me, but for the first time for everyone else). I was going to have to follow a common syllabus. I could not teach any introduction to literary analysis. The work on RAs (rhetorical analyses) that I spent so much time on last year was basically worthless.
I was not happy.
After a semester of working with the common syllabus, despite the fact that I am still upset about a common syllabus and am not allowed to add or change any major papers, I am less frustrated. The new coursework has definite advantages.
The Major Papers
First, there is a research retrospective, a reflective essay, for the students. It requires them to think about and articulate what they have learned about research in previous classes. This is useful because it ties work they have already done in college (and perhaps in high school) into the work we are doing in this particular English course.
This is the only optional paper in the series and I talked to my students about what I had intended to do and how I had considered handling the paper. Then I allowed the class to vote on whether we would write the paper or not. (Research suggests/shows that giving students control over their coursework can improve outcomes.)
Both of my classes decided that they would take the research retrospective and make it an extra credit option. I like this idea because it still gets a lot of people to think and it gives me a low stakes introduction to the students’ abilities to write. I gave it four homework grades (content, development, organization, and grammar/mechanics) and students got ahead on their averages long before most homework assignments were even listed.
What I liked about the research retrospective was that it gave me an introduction to the better writers in my classes—since those are the ones who typically do the early extra credit assignments—and I could find out what experience those students had with research. I also liked the fact that the extra credit boosted their grades. (I assign a LOT of homework grades and make it a significant portion of the coursework. I think a writing class should be about writing and this allows me to keep them writing at a fairly steady rate.)
Two texts analysis:
The next paper was a two texts analysis. Thankfully I have an amazingly gifted colleague, Dr. Mikee Delony, who shared her assignment for this paper. She came up with the idea of comparing the lyrics of a song with an official music video for the work.
I introduced the idea using Tata Young’s “Cinderella” and Randy Travis’ “I’m Going to Love You Forever.” An interesting aspect of these two sets of lyrics, which was serendipitous, was that they both have a “they say/I say” aspect—which is the name of our new text for the course and a focus for the class. “Cinderella” says “My momma used to read me stories…. I’m going to rescue myself.” Excellent way to begin this discussion! Then Travis’ song says “They say that I’m … I’m no longer one of those guys.” That allows us to talk about reputation and change, something that students in a residential college setting may well have to deal with.
The assignment was very successful. The students enjoyed it because they were allowed to pick any music and the videos, it turns out, were sometimes quite bizarre. I think some of the students went looking for really odd videos to start with!
The second major assignment was a casebook essay. The department suggested doing these as a class, using topics in the They Say/I Say text and developing them from there. Since I wasn’t too excited about doing sports, I went looking for some good videos to suggest other topics. We watched a TED Talk “Your Brain on Video Games” and a medical video on zombie brains, among others.
I allowed students, again, to vote on the topics for the classes. One class decided to do the American Dream and sports, both of which are in our text, and neuroscience. The other class chose monsters and video games. This meant that even though multiple students were working on the same topic, I was not terribly bored by the 700th rendition of whatever.
For the casebook essay, I provided at least two sources (obviously the ones from the book were easy) and then each student had to provide one scholarly source and one video source. The class got links for all of these, as well as the citations for them. Students had to create an RA for these two and these were also shared with the class. That meant that the class had multiple sources for each topic and different ways of approaching the subject. All told, the students had to have two scholarly sources, two video sources, and one popular source for the casebook essay.
One thing I did which I thought would be very helpful was to have students do annotated bibliographies for these five sources. (The assignment after this one requires them.) I thought they would help the students get focused, because the reading would have to be done ahead of time and students would have to at least project an avenue of thought for their paper.
I still like this idea but I would change two things. First, I would make sure the unofficial annotated bibliographies matched exactly the format for the official ones. That way the students would simply be able to use them for the annotated bib OR would be drilled in how to do them correctly, even if we switched topics. Second, I would clarify very specifically that the paper was not supposed to be simply a summary of the sources. I received many (ten perhaps out of forty) papers that introduced the topic and then summarized each source in order. I do not want that to happen again.
After the casebook essay, which really went in different directions, we worked on the annotated bibliography. Students did peer reviews on their classmates’ casebook essays, so they had seen all their sources and how the students used them. This gave everyone an opportunity to see other sources that they might have missed.
For the annotated bibliography I only required eight sources. Three had to be scholarly articles. Two had to be videos. The rest could be either of those or popular sources.
This was a problem because the students had already written their casebook essay on the topic (which is not the normal procedure for the course) and then they went and found additional sources. However, they did not find sources which added significantly to their knowledge base. What that meant was that when they went to write the researched long essay, the next paper, they really did not have sufficient sources to “lengthen” their casebook essay.
After having “completed” their research and annotated bibliography, students ended up having to go find other sources after this and do annotated bibs on the new sources, since a complete annotated bib for each source was required for the research paper.
I liked using the same topic for the casebook essay, the annotated bibliography, and the researched essay. It allowed students to learn a lot about a single area and really develop their thoughts.
In addition, students have a university-required course which created an annotated bibliography the previous semester and, if they desired, the students could write their researched essay on the topic of that annotated bibliography rather than over the topic of their casebook essay. Only one student took advantage of that option and the paper was not particularly well done. I am not sure if that was an artifact of the quality of the annotated bib required in Core or the student’s own abilities/work.
(It turns out that even though all Core students are required to do a twelve text annotated bibliography, the level of quality varied based on teachers of the course AND at least two professors did not require it—even though it is the major assignment for that class.)
The students were frustrated after they wrote their casebook essay and annotated bibliography to discover that they had already used all the information in their sources and needed to find other sources on tangential or related topics in order to expand their essays to the length required for the researched essay. This is definitely something that I will discuss/present next time I teach the course. While I know that, I am not sure how I will present it to ensure that students understand the importance and are able to adjust their research search appropriately.
The annotated bibs and research essays were due a week before the other professors’ deadlines. This was not a popular decision with the director of composition, but it gave me time to grade them before finals—which means unless I am ordered not to do that, I will have a similar deadline next year.
One thing that I think will be important, which I did not expect would be necessary, is having student conferences over their research papers. The quality of the research papers was significantly reduced from the casebook essays this semester. I want to avoid that next year.
With so much work already done for the researched essay ahead of time, the level of incompleteness in the researched essays came as a surprise. I did not—and will not—assign/allow time for revision of this essay, especially when it is the third in the sequence building on the same topic. However, I think I will have to introduce/include student conferences for this paper next semester.
I also had one week where we wrote practice finals on an old topic the week before the research papers were due. The director of composition was particularly critical of this and, while I don’t see why it should be a problem, I am willing to agree that it was a problem. Therefore, next year, I will not do that but will instead use that week for conferences.
Since I required a digital presentation over the research topic (and these were generally very good in content), I may also require that they bring their videos to the conference for critique. Many of the students lost points for not including the URL list for the photography and music as well as for not having a title frame on the video. These are very basic aspects of the digital presentation which should not have been missed by students.
Last year something I did in fyc was to have students bring their videos and have a peer review of the digital presentations. This worked very well. I may want to incorporate that into this course as well. It will add a bit of difficulty to the schedule, but maybe I can figure it out….
Those last two will definitely change the time available in the course. (Especially at the end.) That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The best things about the course as structured were:
the two-texts analysis using the video and song lyrics
having multiple topics for the casebook essay, ann bib, researched essay
assigning and spending the last week before the final preparation watching digital presentations, with goodies brought in.