Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rails Girls: Closing the Coding Gender Gap in Digital Humanities

By Tawnya Ravy

Hello GW English Grads! You may remember a few months ago a small contingent of GW Eng-Grads attending a weekend conference called ThatCamp (you can read about our adventures here) following our department’s first Digital Humanities graduate class (taught by Dr. Alex Huang). Well our Digital Humanities education continues with Rails Girls, a group that aims to give tools and a community to women who are interested in technology. We actually learned about the noble goals of Rails Girls (closing the coding gender gap) at ThatCamp in June. One of our questions at ThatCamp was “how can we learn how to code?” In addition to other resources (like Code Academy), Rails Girls was championed as an excellent opportunity to stretch our newbie skills with digital tools. We all applied for the Rails Girls event hosted at George Mason University on September 6-7. A few weeks after submitting our applications (basically consisting of information on our level of knowledge of coding), we received notice of acceptance to the event with instructions for setting up our computers in preparation for the event. The first night was simply a set-up party designed to help folks who wanted help setting up their laptops with the software, and to meet the organizers and other participants. The following day we began to code. Upon arriving in the research hall we were sorted to different tables named for different characters in Alice in Wonderland (in honor of the DH theme) where we met the others in our group and our table coaches. Right away we got a short tutorial on various simple commands and their meaning – we even learned our first coding joke: rm-fr (a command which strikes fear into the hearts of programmers). Then we were instructed to follow a set of exercises designed to teach us some basics called 100 Minutes of Ruby. For the next hour we had our coach chair-hopping to help us, soothe our initial frustration, and fill in the instructional gaps. Let me stress that many of us were complete newbies at all of this – I didn’t even know how to open a command line to start. By the end of the hour I understood some of the basic rules of this little universe, and only felt slightly overwhelmed. Then we switched to the Ruby guide for creating an app. This guide gave us line-by-line instructions on how to build an app that allowed us to open a twitter line, plot an address on a map, and much more (much of which I did not even get to by the end of the day). This is the part for me with the steepest learning curve. It was, however, very satisfying when it all worked the way it was supposed to. I was even able to fix a problem by myself after an hour of calling over my coach every few minutes. Finally we took a break for lunch which consisted of two amazing tacos from a food truck that was pulled up right to our building just for us. We all sat on the building steps, ate tacos, and talked about our Digital Humanities projects. After lunch we had a quick presentation on how web apps fit together in a Bentobox like model. The rest of the afternoon we had an option of either continuing with our apps and exploring the extra features or joining groups to discuss different digital tools for DH projects. For example, I joined the mapping tool table, but there were also tables for data-mining and collections. We discussed already established mapping tools like GoogleMaps, DIS, and Neatline, and then we engaged in a thought-exercise in how we would go about designing and building a map app of our own (for finding tacos appropriately enough). Soon enough it was time for the Rails Girls Reception at the campus inn bar. We all had “drink me” tickets for a free glass of wine or beer, and many of us stuck around to discuss our DH projects and coding ambitions. I met so many amazing women, had a wonderful learning experience, and came away with a great appreciation for programming. I fully intend on participating in another Rails Girls event and checking out Code Academy when I get a chance. Rails Girls also organizes Meet Up events and online forums to turn to for support and advice. Even if I never build an app from scratch, I can see how useful this instruction can be for me in developing and expanding my DH project. Do you have a favorite DH tool you wish you could manipulate? Wordpress? Omeka? Find out the kind of code they use and take advantage of these incredible opportunities to learn code and become a member of this vibrant community of techies.

Interested in exploring the digital humanities in your own scholarly work? Join us next at our inaugural GW Eng-Grad Digital Humanities Working Group on Wednesday September 18th 11:00am at The Corner Bakery. Hope to see you then!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

2014 English Graduate Student Symposium


The George Washington UniversityFebruary 7, 2014

CFP deadline: September 01, 2013

Keynote speaker: Roderick A. Ferguson, Professor of Race and Critical Theory at the University of Minnesota and author of Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004) and, most recently, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012)

Recent scholarship has proposed that we are living in an era of posts: post-raciality, post-humanism, post-feminism, to name a few. However, as Neil Badmington reminds us, the post is always already intrinsically tied and haunted by that which it is post-in. To “post” is to reference and simultaneously repel the past which it is trying to think and exist beyond. Embracing this (im)possibility as a generative space of productivity, we hope to explore the potentialities that lie within those literary, historical, artistic and cultural productions that depict the desire of “post-ness.”

In this symposium on the “post,” and the future it suggests after the hyphen, we hope to explore the current focus in the academy on the desire to live and think beyond: beyond the body, beyond definitions of the canon and literary productions; and in a post- world: post-race, post-human. Therefore, the GWU EGSA board is proud to announce its Fourth Annual Graduate Student Symposium entitled Post-ing: A Symposium on What Comes After, taking place on February 7, 2014. We invite panels and papers that explore subject matters on race, space, nationality, humanism, queerness, disability/the body, and all things/subjects that explore the desire to exist beyond. Moreover, what are we trying so desperately to escape in our attempt to “post”? What type of painful processes must take place in order to exist beyond that which we are “post-ing”? What, indeed, comes after, if anything at all? In this symposium, we hope to further the conversation between presenters and participants across concentrations and disciplines through the intersections of current graduate student work that explores the notion of “post-ing.”

To encourage innovative dialogues, we welcome papers from diverse disciplines, including, but not limited to the following topics:

Animal Studies

Canon, disciplines, and interdisciplinary practices
Critical Race Studies and post-raciality
Cultural Studies
Cyborg Studies, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality
Digital Humanities
Disability Studies
Embodiments and identity
Gender Studies
Humanism, post-humanism, transhumanism and antihumanism
Queer Theory
Utopia and dystopia

Panel Submission Guidelines

The GWU EGSA board will be accepting panel submissions for our symposium first, then individual panel organizers will be accepting paper abstracts.
Please send your 300 word panel submissions, along with your contact information, to Maia Gil'Adi at by September 01, 2013. Please include the words “EGSA Panel Submissions” in the subject line of your e-mail.
Information on how to submit abstracts will be soon to follow.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Inaugural Salon Success

By Lori Brister

We're not putting ourselves at the level of Auden or Williams, but...
okay, maybe we are saying that (at least in our capacity for salons).

You may have heard that the Summer Salon Series had its inaugural event just a couple of weeks ago, bringing together members of the EGSA community, both past and present, for stimulating conversation, a classy snack buffet, and ballroom dancing. Yes, I said ballroom dancing, which was probably the first time in Rome 771.
The Summer Salon Series was initiated out of a desire for a forum where people could discuss art, politics, current events, music, and whatever else inspires their passions. With a ready-made community of intellectuals, why couldn't we do something like a salon here? 

Our work, especially during the summer "holidays" can seem isolating. We still crave company and conversation, but our reading time is limited, and  we're often, especially if we're writing dissertations, just tired of talking about our own work. So why not change the conversation? Why not get together to share the things we love--from hidden talents to pop culture--and why we love them. With visions of Voltaire lecturing from coffee tables, Alice and Gertrude showing off their newest Picasso, or James Joyce reading early drafts at Sylvia Beach's bookshop, I sent out a email to gauge interest and solicit ideas. And, you, members of the EGSA community, did not disappoint. 

Our first Summer Salon Series event had a great turnout, and our first two, exceptionally brave presenters kept us entertained. First, Leigha McReynold's discussed her experiences as a ballroom dancer, explained competitive rankings, and the various types of dances required in different circuits. And since the Salon is all about putting theory into practice, Leigha followed up with a simple dance lesson to get us waltzing. So the next time you're up late watching Strictly Ballroom or Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights--hey, I'm not judging--you'll have a better idea of what's going on, with the dancing at least. For the second presentation of the night, Maureen Kentoff, or 'Mo' as she's known to friends, led a group discussion about what we're talking about when we talk about post-feminism. How and why is the term being used in the media? How is it understood by undergraduates in our classes? How can we be said to live in a post-feminist society at this present juncture in American politics when women's access to healthcare and employment equality is forcibly challenged?  If you were there, you'll never watch commercials the same way again.

The next Salon will be this Thursday, June 27th at the Alexandria home of Mike Smith. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to email me at You can join the Summer Salon group page on Facebook, and be sure to RSVP to next Thursday's event! See you there! 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Code is Not a Four Letter Word: Lessons Learned by THATCamp Newbies

By Tawnya Ravy

A few weeks ago, Leigha, Molly, and I decided to attend ThatCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) which is an open, free meeting of humanists and technologists. Coming out of Alex Huang’s Digital Humanities class this past semester, a few of us decided that we are what we now know to be “code curious” in that we wanted to learn how to do some computer coding for our own DH projects. Luckily we heard that a ThatCamp would be held at a local university in June. Having been plugged in the DH world for a few months via Twitter, we were all familiar with the concept of ThatCamp which is where DH enthusiasts can freely let their freak flags fly. More importantly, we heard that we might be able to get some free lessons in coding for DH projects. ThatCamp describes itself as an “unconference,” and we were immediately struck by how different this was from a typical conference experience. You have to apply to attend, but there is no conference fee (the event is sponsored by several companies and by the generosity of attendees at the end of each day). Each participant is expected to propose a topic, session, or workshop on the conference blog ahead of time with the understanding that we would all vote on the first day for our favorite topics/sessions/workshops. We arrive with no determined schedule in place, but by 10:30am we have a full schedule posted on the blog with copies in hand by lunch. Topics and sessions ranged from pedagogy-related conversations and theoretical applications to hands-on workshops and Wikipedia-editathons. Before beginning the sessions, 15 participants are allowed 2 minutes or less to perform what they affectionately call “Dork Shorts” – I did one of these myself. Basically you take 2 minutes and talk about your current DH project to the whole group while votes are tallied for the sessions. This was one of the best decisions I made all weekend because immediately anyone in the room who had tools to help me knew who I was and how to find me later for a chat. As a result, I met several great people who gave me advice and tools for my DH project.

This? Overwhelming. But tools like Code Academy help to let us know code and other DH tools are not that scary.

One of the coolest things we learned about was a tool specifically designed for ThatCamp conferences – the Participad which is now available for other applications. For each session one member of the group could create a notepad for that session (via the wordpress blog) on which every other member with a computer could take notes. Each participant’s notes shows up in a different color. You can also create personal notepads as well. This was immensely useful especially because we could not attend every concurrent session – and some folks take way better notes than I do.
Much of the sessions which we attended were focused on how to build digital collections and access materials for your DH projects. As a result, we came up with an impressive list of open-access resources that you might want to consider for your own DH work including (a Digital Library), (historical collections in digital format), Gutenberg Project (Digitized Books), Library of Congress (an incredible resource), and Digital Public Library of America (brings together American heritage archives, art, and books). A piece of advice that we hear everywhere is to take some time and see what your own institutional library offers in the way of collections and resources. For example, I found out that our own Gelman Library offers the chance to archive individual twitter feeds (and provide valuable data about them) for students and researchers who want to study individual twitter feeds – start now and they will keep grabbing batches of tweets from your favorite politician, celebrity, author, etc.

So now you have materials for your collection, but now what do you do with them? For a few years now I have been using Wordpress which, for me, is a shortcut way to a useful website/blog platform (as in, I don’t have to know code to use it). While Wordpress has some great features and is a leading blog platform, there are a few other platforms that you might find useful if you are contemplating a DH project. For example, we spent one whole session learning about how to use Omeka. Now I had heard of this platform in my DH class, but I could not see then what it offered me that Wordpress didn’t, but now I do. If you are interested in building a collection of any kind, Omeka is an excellent tool (and bonus, you don’t need to know code for this either). Whereas Wordpress only allows me to link to things (and thus risk losing the data if the link breaks), Omeka allows me to upload any kind of file I want in a collection or series of collections. Here is an example Omeka website: Another platform that we heard about, but with which I am not as familiar is Viewshare. This site has a very helpful two minute video explaining what it can do, so watch it! Finally we learned about Drupal as another option for content management. The designers of these platforms all swear up and down that they are different as night and day, but from my luddite chair I can tell you that while they offer different kinds of services for your DH projects, they are not so dissimilar that you will struggle if you are used to working with only one of them. Take a look around, google some how-to videos, and find the right platform for your project.

But wait, didn’t we go to ThatCamp to learn code? It is true that we were all hoping for some beginners coding lessons, but no session offered hands-on coding this time around. In the ThatCamp newbie session we learned that there are many, many different types of coding, and selecting which type to learn depends entirely on what you want to do with your project. This left us feeling a little overwhelmed, but we also learned about two resources to begin our code education: Code Academy and Rails Girls. A few of us are planning on participating in the next Rails Girls event, so let us know if you want to join. The truth is that I am not expecting to be able to build my own site from the ground up, but my limited experience with Wordpress and Omeka has let me know that learning some code would help me more easily manipulate those sites to do what I want for my project. The bottom line, however, is this: do not let your ignorance of coding stop you from starting your DH project. There are plenty of tools available to you that do not require you to know code. Don’t know even where to start? Check out this helpful website dedicated to listing out popular DH tools and their uses: Bamboo Dirt.
My final word on how to start being a fellow DHer? Join Twitter! I am not exaggerating when I say that the bulk of what I know about DH comes from the amazing, collaborative community of DHers on Twitter. Not sure how to sign up and/or use Twitter? No problem, check out this Twitter 101guide

Also, get organized – there are plenty of digital tools to help you map out what steps to take to getting your DH project off the ground. We learned about Trello, for example, at ThatCamp which allows you to see the whole picture at once (also great for keeping to-do lists). What tools do you use for your DH projects? Please feel free to share!

If you have any questions about these resources, do not hesitate to contact me: Tawnya Ravy

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Publishing: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Article"

On Friday, April 19, 2013 EGSA hosted an event focused on publishing, in which Dr.Laurence Roth, Editor of the journal ModernLanguage Studies, joined us via Skype for a talk titled, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Article,” in which Roth gave us advice, as junior scholars, on how to approach the daunting world of publishing in peer reviewed journals. Besides being the editor of MLS, Roth is Professor of English and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Susquehanna University, where he founded the Publishing & Editing minor. He is currently co-editing a The Routledge Handbook to Contemporary Jewish Cultures with Nadia Valman, and working on a book project, Unpacking My Father's Bookstore: Collection, Commerce, Literature, for which he received a fellowship at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan for Spring 2013. 

In case you missed this wonderful event, here are the highlights of Roth's immensely helpful advice:

Before delving into the thirteen ways of looking at an article, Roth spoke briefly about the fact that as writers it is almost impossible for the pieces we set out to write to match the intentions of our writing: “Does anything ever hit the mark of what we intended to write?” he asked. This paradox is part of our profession, Roth asserted. We will always have to grapple with the mediation of our ideas and the practice of these ideas.

The following steps seem to be a methodology for making this mediation slightly simpler:

  1. An article is an idea story with a beginning, middle and end: Like a piece of fiction, an article should also have a discernible narrative arch that grips readers and clearly presents why an idea is important. It must convince readers to turn the pages.
  2. An article talks back to the literature: Although one cannot grapple with everything that has been written about our topic in one article—i.e.: Shakespeare's Othello—Roth recommends demonstrating specific engagement with a particular current within the conversation—one that is pertinent to our argument and demonstrates our deep engagement within the field.
  3. An article is about the “new” because it is your way of looking at the topic: Roth mentioned that while our articles may not be speaking about completely “new” ideas, our particular perspective and our explanation about why our ideas are important makes it new. This should come across clearly in our opening and through the article.
  4. An article knows exactly what it’s about: When writing an article, it should be clear from the outset what it is trying to argue and the methodology it will use in order to present this argument and its proof.
  5. An article wants to show, not tell: Much like a piece of fiction, our “idea story” wants to show its argument. Roth suggests getting to our evidence quickly, making sure it is well examined. The evidence is the most important part of the article, Roth stated, and suggested we avoid using other scholar's ideas when analyzing our evidence.
  6. An article reflects and does not reduce: Our arguments should anticipate the objections and responses of critics and readers (reflecting), stating clearly what the take-away of our argument is—why our idea is important.
  7. An article is not a book: Articles are narrower and more discrete—they cannot contend with all that has been said, or can be said about a subject or text. Many times, Roth advised, articles can be taken from pieces that do not fit within a larger book project; therefore we should make sure that our articles are focused and specific.
  8. An article speaks to an audience: Roth advised us to read, read, read journals in our specific field in order to know what editors and readers are looking for. Roth differentiated between journals such as American Quarterly—published with other scholars in mind, and therefore its language and focus is more “jargon” and academic—and the Yale Review—published with a wide-ranging audience in mind and therefore less "academic" in its language and direction. Our articles should fit within the guidelines and aims of the journals to which we submit. 
  9. An article speaks in a recognizable voice: Editors and readers can differentiate between authentic and inauthentic voices, and our articles are most effective and powerful when our personal voice comes through. Roth stated that even the smallest of details affects our voice. For example, for many years Roth fought against using contractions in his articles, yet finally deciding to incorporate them into his writing because it felt more authentically like himself.
  10. An article wants to be understood: Roth recommended avoiding unnecessary jargon, taking the opportunity to translate theory taken from others—how you interpret this theory and are going to use it in the article—and when accepted into a journal, working alongside an editor and being open to editing suggestions.
  11. An article takes time: To write a successful article that will be accepted to a prestigious peer-reviewed journal takes time (Roth gave a 1½ year - 5 year timeline). This is a process that cannot be rushed, and seeing as one can write a book in about the same amount of time (toward the longer end of Roth's timeline), one has to decide where one wants to invest one's time—i.e.: Do you want to write a book instead?
  12. An article is not timeless: An article is not going to be perfect and must be sent out for peer-review at some point. Let it go!
  13. An article is not the final word: An article is part of a transient and fast moving conversation (vs. a book), and while it should be treated with seriousness and respect, do not get overwhelmed with making an article a perfect, timeless piece.

Finally, during the Q&A, Roth also suggested that if an article is rejected do not be afraid to revise and resubmit. However, make sure that the revision is drastic and demonstrates to editors of the journal that you are able to re-write and take suggestions seriously. Do not be afraid to write editors for advice on how to revise your article, asking specific questions about what it is they exactly want in a revision. Another good piece of advice was to research who the editors and board members of journals are, seeking them out at conferences. Network with editors and board members, mentioning what you are working on, can be an effective tool for getting published. Roth also mentioned the emerging market of online publications, such as ImageText, but did question their efficacy and whether these were good venues for junior scholars.

As a junior scholar, I found this event to be extremely helpful, putting the world of publishing in perspective. The break-down of how to go about writing and revising an article—thirteen things to keep in mind when writing and sending out an article—has helped me put my writing in perspective, and hope this summary is helpful for you. Now, go write! 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Curating Your Online Presence

Post by Maia Gil'Adi

On March 4, 2013 Alex Huang, Associate Professor of English, Director of the Dean's Scholars in Shakespeare Program, and incoming director of graduate studies, gave a guest lecture titled, “Curating Your Online Presence” (you can see the full presentation here) and answered questions about how junior scholars can better shape and polish their image online, not only as students in a PhD program, but moving forward into the job market and in their future careers. In case you missed this wonderful event, here is a summary of the information and tips Alex provided:

Before you can begin curating your online presence:
  1. Search for yourself online and gauge your online impact: Before one can start honing and molding an online presence, we must assess our presence online. Google yourself and see the places you are mentioned—see the impact of your online presence (digital footprint).
  2. Keep everything up to date: Make sure that all online profiles (these include, but are not limited to:, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MLA Commons) are updated regularly. Decide your desired time commitment in maintaining your various profiles and monitor them regularly. Alex made very clear that less is more—having fewer pages in which one actively participates is better than having a vast array that are neglected or not update regularly.
  3. Self-archive and share what you can: Make sure that your academic output is available for view.
  4. Connect and interact online: Comment on blogs, tweet, Facebook with other academics, making your presence and opinion heard and available to other academics.

When creating and maintaining your digital presence, Alex recommends creating a consistent, clear and concise message as a scholar. By honing and maintaining your digital footprint (an active contribution to your profiles and interactions with others online), hopefully your digital shadow will grow and echo—those things that others post about you and your work will increase in visibility. Interestingly, Alex indicated the importance of creating a brief but comprehensive view of yourself as a scholar, specifying the importance of using different jargon for the multiple sites one is on (i.e.: LinkedIn is useful, Alex mentioned, but better for the private sector and academic jargon should probably not be used on it).

A key way to ensure that one has a wide-range of online impact is by identifying key platforms in which to share scholarly output (i.e.: articles, teaching resources, etc.), and redundantly share the same work in a variety of formats (i.e. MLA Commons, personal websites,, etc.). For me, one particularly revelatory and useful fact that Alex shared during this conversation was the advantage of posting accepted conference abstracts, conference papers, and seminar papers which you consider to be excellent on sites such as

In the case of full-length articles (as opposed to abstracts), he did mention that once an article is being peer reviewed and considered for publication, you should take down the article from these websites. The abstract itself can stay up.

Other key bits of information:
  • Twitter is a useful but an ephemeral medium because of its brevity—Alex did not find this online activity to be the best for scholarship dissemination, but did mention its use for finding CFP’s, new texts, and connecting with other scholars/writers. 
  • It has become the responsibility of the experts to disseminate their own information.
  • GWU provides students and faculty with the space through which to create a personal website ( and can be set up by visiting:
    • Alex did mention, however, that this is not the most advanced place for a personal website, but is useful (and free!) for junior scholars before they go on the market
  • Facebook is a great place through which to connect with other scholars and place people into groups—Make sure that (acceptable) information is open to the public, but use the security/privacy settings on the site to ensure that certain information (i.e.: pictures, posts) that should remain private (for personal friends eyes only) remain private.

Alex Huang’s comprehensive presentation was a great how-to for junior scholars in creating, maintaining, and expanding their online presence in productive ways in order to make their work more visible. Make sure to read through Alex’s presentation, and feel free to contact me with any questions:

Maia Gil'Adi is a second year PhD student of American Literature and Culture in the English Department of the George Washington University.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching Series: Professional Development

Part IV: Professional Development

Professional Development in Teaching for Graduate Students
Tawnya Ravy

How can we learn to be better teachers? No matter how long you have been teaching, there is always something new to learn. Taking time to explore your teaching methods and develop your techniques is challenging and time-consuming, but also a great idea. I have not been teaching long. I started out in the fall of 2009, but ever since then I have challenged myself to engage with a variety of learning and professional development communities. Teaching is my passion, but it is not enough for me to just love it. I want to cultivate it. In this post I am going to explore some of the ways that I have workshopped my teaching methods and course materials, and hopefully provide you with a useful roadmap to similar opportunities.
 Since I teach mainly literature classes, I set out to tackle a common problem that many literature faculty have: how to balance the teaching of literature with the teaching of writing in the classroom. Luckily, GWU has a WID (Writing in the Discipline) program which shapes the instruction of writing throughout the school.

On the WID webpage you can see an example UW (the required University Writing class for all undergraduates) syllabus and helpful guides for students and faculty. Also of use for faculty, whether you are teaching a designated WID class or not, is the WID Board which is a valuable collection of writing-instruction materials. You can find materials on everything from peer review to assignment design, research and citation to writing pedagogy. WID also offers a number of useful workshops for the various faculty teaching WID classes. Starting this year WID has offered a year-long workshop for non-WID-funded student teachers which explores pedagogy, syllabus and course design, and includes a workshop component. I am currently enrolled in this workshop, and it has been a great experience. While some participants are still unsure about how exactly to achieve that writing/content balance, I find that I can now appreciate the immense importance of WID in the larger learning objectives. If you are interested in applying for this workshop, look out for information emails in August.

In recent years EGSA has tried to become a valuable teaching resource and professional development tool for our graduate student teachers. As a member of the EGSA board, I wanted to create a forum and resource list for student teachers because such a platform of information would have been very helpful when I started teaching my own classes. Last year, EGSA organized a Teaching Seminar consisting of three major areas: composition, pedagogy, and technology. Take a moment to see the generative advice, ideas, and resources that we collected from that event: EGSA Teaching Seminar Part 1 – Teaching Composition, Part 2.1 – Issues in Pedagogy, 2.2, 2.3, Part 3 - Technology. Also, check out last year’s EGSATeaching Resource List not only for the pedagogy-related links, but also course content resources like MERLOTand The Chronicle of Higher Education. I would like this list to also include: Hybrid Pedagogy – A digital journal of Teaching and Technology. I am always looking to add to this list, so please contribute! What are your teaching resources? Please feel free to share your favorite websites and archives in our comment section or shoot an email to

Last summer, I also became aware of a valuable teaching resource and professional development organization right here at GWU. The Teaching and Learning Collaborative is a faculty-driven center for teaching excellence where you can find a wide variety of teaching resources, sign up for workshops and seminars on pedagogy, and even request a consultation with a TLC instructional designer who can help you with your course materials. Their resources tab covers classroom assessment, preparing students for class, and a teaching assessment tool. This past Fall they organized a day-long conference focusing on Pedagogy which was open to the community. They are also responsible for organizing two wonderful professional development communities: the Future Faculty Program and the FLC for Junior Faculty. Both of these groups require you to apply for the sessions each semester, and the FFP is limited to GW PhD Students who are teaching. In these groups you will cover professional development techniques like presentation skills, how to teach hybrid/online courses, and course design. Last semester, I participated in the FFP which was intensive with once-a-week sessions, reading assignments, and a lot of group work. I found the experience immensely helpful in shedding light on my teaching practices including everything from the verbs I used in learning objectives to my lecture style and my course design. A bonus activity was learning how to write an effective teaching statement. This program is experimental, but if they offer it again, I highly recommend it. Both the FFP and the FLC for Junior Faculty are great opportunities to workshop your teaching methods, and gain some expertise. Good for you, your students, and your resume!

Currently I teach in two different higher education institutions, so I am offered a wide variety of professional development workshops. Outside of GWU, I have taken Blackboard courses on Blackboard competency, hybrid classroom instruction, and I am currently taking two small courses on collaboration in an online class and creating community for online courses. My recommendation is to make sure you are taking advantage of the technology workshops offered by your institution. Even if you will never teach an online class or only use Blackboard sparingly, it is a smart move to have training in these areas – not only for the benefit of your teaching, but also for your resume. Has a new version of Blackboard come out over the summer? Are you dying to use new software or technology in your class, but don’t know how? The Instructional Technology Lab at GWU is a great place to start. The ITL is there to assist you in learning to incorporate new technology into your teaching. They offer workshops on Blackboard, PowerPoint, and Elluminate Live, but more importantly, they are there to help you figure out the tech side of your teaching goals.

Finally, I am going to close by saying that the most important factor in professional development in teaching is your own initiative. This semester I set out to improve my instruction in specific time periods for a survey course that I teach regularly, and some of my colleagues have kindly agreed to let me observe a couple classes so that I can see their approaches to the same material. My previous experience with class observations was great and extremely useful, so I am confident that I will come away from this semester inspired with new ideas. I realize that with everything else tugging at our time (course work, dissertation, publications, conferences – not to mention a personal life?) that spending a significant amount of time on professional development opportunities like this can seem daunting, especially if your teaching days are a few years off. But let me say that I have found the time spent on these activities rewarding and motivating; not to mention incredibly beneficial for my future job prospects. Consider taking some time, even a small amount, to cultivate that passion you have for teaching. And please share your experiences with our community – some of the best ideas I’ve ever used in my own classes came from informal conversations with colleagues.

Tawnya Ravy is currently a PhD student at GWU in the English Department. She is the current EGSA President. Feel free to contact her for advice, comments, or to share resources at

Teaching Series: Leading Classroom Discussion

Part III: Leading Classroom Discussion

Encouraging Student Engagement & Participation in the Classroom
Leigha McReynolds

This post focuses on encouraging student participation by leading an effective discussion and using group work effectively in the classroom. However, as many of you reading have experience in or hope to teach a literature class, keep in mind that these techniques and tips have come from a slightly different teaching experience. For the past four years I’ve TA’d for a business writing class. Once a week the students go to lecture where the professor introduces the business issues. I see two classes of 15 students each for an hour and fifteen minutes once a week. I focus on critical thinking, writing, and combining the two in the assignments for the class. All of the following views are my own and might not be supported by any empirical evidence.

A good discussion, and effective group work, is easiest if a good number of students are committed to participating. Make sure they know how important participation is to you. Have it on your syllabus and take time to discuss it on the first day of class. Let them see you note who is participating; they’ll want to be counted.

For me, one of the most important aspects of encouraging good class participation is making sure your students come to class prepared. Usually, my students have some reading to do for class. (If not, then they are likely bringing in a finished assignment to do an in-class writing workshop.) I often ask students to post discussion questions before class. This encourages them to read and think about the material, helps me plan class, and hopefully makes them more invested in the conversation. Recently I’ve tried, and been pleased with, a number of critical reading assignments. (Erin turned me on to this.) Students are asked to take specific notes on the reading, so that they record not only important points, like the main argument, but also begin to engage in analysis by, for example, evaluating the argument. When I subbed for Tawnya’s Brit Lit. class last semester, she had the students identify and bring in selections from the reading that spoke to themes she had previously identified as important, and I found that very helpful and effective in leading the class discussion. Finally, it can be worth taking time to read something short together in class so that everyone is starting from the same place.

The following is really my laundry list of things to keep in mind when running a discussion. Make sure it’s clear how the discussion you’re devoting significant class time to is related to class goals at large. It may be as specific as preparing them for an assignment or exam question, or you may just be exploring a very broad goal of the class. Begin with questions that ask students to demonstrate comprehension before you move to a more in depth conversation. They may have missed what you need them to know. Try not to ask questions that make students guess your thoughts. Wait through silence for someone to answer, but be prepared to provide the answer if no one does. If the discussion gets off track, take control of the conversation. I know, as humanities scholars invested in dialogue, we’re reluctant to do that, but getting off course decreases the engagement of the rest of the class. Be ready to reframe, rephrase, repeat, or ask for clarification. Take what is most useful from a comment or a thread, and use it to put a new question to the class. Have far more questions/topics available than you could cover and prioritize them; then there’s less anxiety about an unpopular topic leaving you without anything to talk about. At the same time, if students are particularly enthusiastic about a topic, give it more time. But do eventually curtail it and move on, or you’ll lose the students who do not find it engaging.

There are some ways to have students participate that either replace, supplement, or encourage participation in a discussion. In class writings can be appropriate and helpful. Low-stakes presentations with discussion questions are easy to grade and give students an investment in the dialogue. You can use blackboard or the online forum of your choice to offer alternative opportunities for dialogue. If you have a technically enabled classroom and you allow electronic devices in class, there are some interesting pedagogy posts in places like ProfHacker that suggest ways of integrating Twitter into the discussion/participation process.

The last thing about leading discussion: keep in mind this is public speaking. It takes practice, and it takes confidence, which paradoxically only comes through practice. Find a way to be comfortable and be confident. Sit on the desk. Wear your jeans or your heels. Be enthusiastic about your material.

Lastly, group work is a great way to get students involved in the learning progress. Teachers love group work, but students are more ambivalent. There are some things that I think can make it a less painful, and therefore more useful, process. Make group work regular, but don’t make it repetitive, and try not to make it seem like a punishment for not reading or participating, even if it is. Put the students in groups yourself and give them a specific goal which clearly relates to a goal of the class. Make sure you have the right size groups for the particular group assignment and make sure you block out the right amount of time. This may take a little guesswork, but gauging the room works pretty well. I often require that my groups produce something tangible, either an answer to a question, or a list or brainstorm, even a piece of group writing. This gives them direction and holds them accountable.

Noticing, Writing Prompts, and Presentations: Tips for Improving Class Discussions
Erin Vander Wall

​Leading an effective discussion is something we all worry about. Its something I agonize over as I go through prep, while teaching, and in the weird post-teaching hangover where I obsessively review the class I’ve just left. I very rarely feel that I’ve managed to lead a discussion that was as generative as I’d like, but I also don’t think that people who are passionate about teaching are ever really satisfied with their teaching practices. That, of course, is the purpose of this blog series - to tap each other’s brains for strategies and tricks that we can add to our own developing arsenal. Here, I want to address 3 strategies I’ve used to get the conversation going.

Noticing: When I taught at Eastern Michigan University, we used a technique that we called “noticing”. Using whatever assigned text you may be working with, ask students to list what they notice about that text. I usually provide a few examples in order to give them an idea of the scope of what I’m talking about - the word “sun” is used three times, there are 8 dashes, there are no capital letters, etc. We then go around the room 2-3 times with every student adding one thing they notice which I usually write on the board. Once we’ve gone through the class a few times we then work on making connections. In literature classes, I’ve used this as a starting point for teaching close reading -- what do you see? Where do you see connections? How do these connections relate to the larger work?

I have also used the “noticing” strategy in writing classes to discuss the conventions of genre, teaching business students to format memos, for example. This technique could also be used to teach students how to review and contextualize articles as the first steps in acquiring critical reading practices. While everyone does not always participate throughout the discussion, going around the room a few times and having everyone add to the list on the board does get everyone involved at some point and tends to prolong engagement into the conversation.

Writing prompts: I use writing prompts more when teaching literature classes than when I’m teaching writing classes, but I think that starting class off with a writing prompt is a good way to get everyone moving in (hopefully) the same direction mentally. The writing prompt can then be used to get that initial conversation underway. The prompt can also be used to tease out points you want to discuss that otherwise get cut due to time constraints, or to tie in work from your supplemental class blog or other digital projects. (See Lori Brister’s very smart “Digital Humanities in the Classroom: Teaching Text with Technology”)

Presentations: This semester the majority of the business writing GTAs decided to incorporate short current-event presentations into the discussion portion of class. These presentations direct the students to engage with concepts addressed in the course and consider their practical application in the business world. Each presenter is required to ask at least two discussion questions; this has been successful in getting the room talking about the course material and the current readings. This is a great addition to the course because it allows students to start talking at the beginning of the class, and details from that conversation can be incorporated into later discussions.

On a parting note, despite your teaching style and your dream discussion, leading a classroom effectively is ultimately a matter of reading your room and knowing what that particular combination of students need and will respond to. Last semester I taught a class in which 12 of the 15 students spoke English as a second language and did not feel comfortable speaking in class. This made discussion difficult for them, for me, and for the three students who were carrying the discussion. The entire dynamic was off, and it took a while for me to figure out exactly what was going to work and what wasn’t so my students would still take away what they needed. Rather than keeping the focus on large group discussion I had my students work on individual in-class writing assignments or small group work that could then be presented to the entire class. This building block approach didn’t necessarily transform things overnight but it did help students become more comfortable with each other and the material. My point in this example is that this class did not fit into an effective discussion model that I, and I suspect others, strive for. Instead, it forced me to rethink my approach to the course materials, my students, and constructing an effective learning environment.

On Deep Thoughts, Savory Stews, Crickets, and Nudes: Practical Matters in Course Design
Mo Kentoff

For many of us, the pleasures of course design are found in the initial brainstorming of its major themes, crafting the chef d’oeuvre that is your course description, and receiving daily fixes of our gateway drug: the desk copy. But as I suggested yesterday, the devil, and the delight, is in the details. This includes developing various assignments to augment learning, and strategizing classroom dynamics for maximum student involvement. Although the major assignments and activities developed for a given course often involve short or long essays, student presentations, and exams, this post focuses on ways in which students can sustain their engagement with the texts on a daily basis.

Deep Thoughts: For all of my English courses (WID or not), I require students to post on Blackboard by noon the day of each class (which begins at 2:20pm). At the beginning of the semester, I set up all of the class discussion threads, with sub-entries for each text, and give the students specific guidelines for this process. They are expected to post their thoughts on how a quote or key terms (of their choosing) from the primary text addresses one of the major course themes. The catch is that their entry can be only 3-4 sentences long, quotes included. I don’t want the assignment to turn into a word-length contest; and, more importantly, the objective is to hone their ability to write clear and concise “deep thoughts.” These posts are stepping stones toward the effective writing of critical scholarship—skills which they can then apply to their paper assignments. In the interest of time (and my sanity), I do not respond to their posts on-line. Rather, I print them out before class and review them for the major ideas and common themes that develop. I then quickly restructure my objectives for that day from this organic process of gathering their input. I require the students to bring their posts to class so they can share and expand on their ideas. These assignments constitute 10% of their final grade—and at the mid-point of the semester they receive an e-mail with feedback from me on their Blackboard comments, as well as class participation (another 10%). I also give tips in class based on their progress as a group throughout the semester. It is one of my greatest joys to see the quality of their writing and critical thinking evolve, and I share my enthusiasm with them daily.

Savory Stews: As the course themes unfold in each class, students come to realize that it is virtually impossible to tease out these concepts as discrete entities or analytical “bites.” Rather, the overarching ideas or theories are all inextricably linked, with different topics emerging or receding depending on the particular contexts and contingencies of the work. As our discussions proceed, we move inductively from the close readings posted on Blackboard toward the broader themes of the course, while never losing sight of the interdimensional differences that each author or character brings to the table. Hence, I liken this process to that of our discussion (or our discipline, or our society) emerging as a “savory stew” of ideas and subjectivities. I argue that this serves as an alternative to the classic metaphor of the melting pot, or the more recent model of a tossed salad—for each component of the savory stew remains intact, while the broth and seasonings produce a confluence of various flavors, resulting in a new, yet familiar course that never forsakes the wholeness or fullness of the individual components. Of course the reward for all of this work is that my students and I are always ready to dig into whatever stew we’ve cooked up for that day.

Crickets: In the ideal world, many of us might imagine a class of around 15 students seated comfortably in a circle with all of our technological and audio-visual needs met in a well-lit classroom far, far away from any construction sites. But what if it gets a little too quiet? What if your class happens to be populated by introverts, quiet geniuses, or victims of the latest flu (or beer) outbreak? One solution is to assign 10% of their final grade to class participation. Yes, it works. My students know that they cannot get an A in the class if they don’t offer at least 1-2 comments per class. Of course I’m flexible with those who are generally reserved, but I still challenge them to participate, and I don’t hesitate to call on students (always in a positive, non-threatening way). I review these expectations on the first day, state them clearly in my course guidelines, and invoke them throughout the semester. Of course there are more subtle ways of encouraging dialogue. If it gets too quiet, I can always reference the emergent Blackboard post themes by asking students to read their comments and expand on them. In my discussion summaries and transitions, I also refer to earlier remarks made by students and ask them (or the class) to consider how their ideas might apply to other themes or texts. When all else fails, and the crickets are deafening, I’m never too shy to allow the pregnant pause to hang there until the cringe-factor becomes so painful that someone (not you) inevitably breaks the silence—wait for it, it will happen. In fact, if you hush those crickets too early, your students have trained the instructor well to do the chirping.

Nudes: Remember my earlier comment about the ideal setting of a well-lit classroom? Well, sometimes we are faced with classrooms that are a little too bright. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience when it’s a gorgeous day outside, the blinds are drawn back on your big picture windows that overlook one of our verdant campus quads, or perhaps your view is of other classrooms across the narrow walkways between our stately buildings. So far your class is going well that day. But soon you notice that you’re losing the attention of some of your students as they gaze out the window. Oh, they’re probably just daydreaming a bit, envisioning the exciting adventures they’ll have over Spring Break. Or perhaps they’re pondering the weighty question of whether to visit the Cheesequake or Yumpling truck for lunch. But, as I’m sure we all know, it’s more likely that they’ve simply become distracted by the art class just across the way where students are quite obviously doing a study of a live male model. That’s right. The one who is facing the big picture windows, on a pedestal, standing nice and tall, utterly and completely in the nude. (Yup, this happened to me.) Did I mention that classroom was well lit?

Questions? Comments? Lunch? Feel free to contact me any time at

Leigha McReynolds is an ABD PhD candidate in the GW English department and teaches business writing for the Writing in the Disciplines program.

Erin Vander Wall is an ABD PhD candidate in the English Department of the George Washington University.

Maureen Kentoff is a 5th-year doctoral candidate in English and lecturer in American literature at GW. Her work focuses on 20th-century women's personal/political narratives and feminist theory.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Teaching Series. Course Design

Part II: Course Design

Course Design: An Experiment in Literary Futurity
Daniel DeWispelare

Systematized study of vernacular literary texts (in English rather than Greek or Latin) is not very old.  In fact, one could argue that what we do (or try to do) in contemporary literature departments has its taproot in the mid-eighteenth century, when a host of mostly Scottish Enlightenment intellectuals began writing anglophone texts on “rhetoric” and “belles lettres” as a way to figure out what counted as education in the brave new political entity stemming from British colonial expansion. For them, and for those who adapted their models into the American educational system, literature was teachable only insofar as it inculcated the proper responsibilities of that new species of moral citizenship that attended imperial nation statehood. 

Take a look, for example, at Welshman Sir William Jones’s “andrometer" (below), a document of this period that has obsessed me for years, not least with the curious way it measures out educational achievement against dwindling days.  The step-by-step advancement in knowledge—from “Speaking and Pronunciation” (age 2) to “Grammar of his own Language” (age 6) to “Compositions in Verse and Prose” (age 16) leads inexorably toward “Virtue as a Citizen” (age 50) and “Perfection of Earthly Happiness” (ages 65-70).  If only!  But I think the residue of this way of thinking endures in many of our own versions of what literary study is, specifically because models like Jones’s are an initial stage in a dialectic of enlightenment—to be construed less negatively than Adorno’s—that continues unfurling today.  It is no accident, for instance, that the first and most interesting antitheses to models like Jones’s came from late-eighteenth-century feminists and educationalists like Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, and Hannah More, women who saw no space for themselves in Jones claustrohobic man-system and therefore set out to make space, which for some meant invoking a Rousseauvian model of childhood wherein the “mother tongue” serves as the medium within which our first experiences of morality and citizenship unfold.  From there it is but a small hop to vernacular literature as a nation’s linguistico-moral fundament, then another jump to the specifically internationalist interest in socialist realism, and so on. 

I begin with this loose version of my sense of literary and cultural history because I find it tremendously useful to keep in mind this presumed dialectic—real or not—when planning a class, which is a task I think we might all agree is challenging, revealing, and always—inevitably—an experimental stab at divining some as-of-yet concealed literary futurity.  What I mean is that designing a semester-long course implicates past and future configurations of the very course you are designing!  Thus, your own course should contain your own theoretical claims about both past and future, at least to the degree that they exist here in the present.

For example, I have now twice at GWU designed and taught a course called I call “Anglophone Romanticisms.” My own intervention into this topic begins with my understanding of the title, for in the official catalogue this course is actually called “The British Romantic Movement,” a title that was for several decades understood to signify richly textured but hermetic formalist readings of only six male poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats.  So, my title “Anglophone Romanticisms” is an attempt to update “The British Romantic Movement” by focusing on Romantic-era writing in all its messy abundance, from broadsheets to gothic novels to religious and political tracts, a much broader textual swath, yet still one under which I can anticipate and account for lyric-poetry-heavy expectations students often have when they enroll in this course.  Even while the entire course is aimed at rescripting these expectations, I know that knowing the topic still means knowing of the topic’s traditional moorings.  This is itself a lesson in the knowledge’s contingency, and can be a good conversation to have with students, when the time comes.

To recap, for me the opportune difficulty in course design echoes a line I write regularly on student papers: every sentence should look both forward and backward.  In a course, I try to have every element recapitulate past understandings of the topic while also setting forth new ones.  Since this is the overall goal, each week’s subroutine is related: every new week of class should both recapitulate and extend.  This is vague, and perhaps overly meta-literary historical, so what follows are a few concrete procedures I follow in my planning process.  While in marketing the phrase “the more you spend the more you save” is little more than a tricky wheedle, in course planning it is seems absolutely true, so true as to be trite: time spent planning saves you time in the long run.

1. A great course-planning brainstorm can begin with a word cloud. I like to start with a blank paper and try to organize my own knowledge about the matter into thematic constellations.  If I am teaching Romanticism, for instance, I start with words that are key to my own research as this is where I am most at home: “sensibility,” “abolition/slavery,” “empire,” “performance,” “class,” “nationalism,” “translation,” “standard language,” and “dialect writing.” These are my core terms, transcendental signifiers, or points de capiton, as Žižek has it.

2. I add to my core terms by meditating on the meta-literary historical terms I know have always been affixed to the subject “Romanticism,” but yet which might not be totally central to my own work or investments, words like “genius,” “authorship,” “individualism,” “nature,” “loco-description,” “ruins,” “the gothic,” “Hellenism,” and “Byronism.”

3. Finally, I try to call up that set of terms emanating from cutting-edge topics I have read about recently in the field but which I am also equipped to talk about to undergrads.  The cutting-edge is no use if I summarize it badly or if the students have no way in. Here I am particularly trying to think about possible developments in the field, and recently, I have had core terms like “human/animal relations,” “thing theory,” “transatlantic,” “diplomacy,” “the Georgic,” and “Methodism.”

4. With core terms from these three categories—the present of my own research, the past of my training, and the future of the field—I plot the core terms out on apiece of paper, draw a circle around each one, and then begin adding lines radiating out from each and ending in some note.  For notes, I try to think of texts that exemplify my understanding of the term, primary and secondary, all sorts of texts really.  I write those in.  I then go about thinking of texts that link different key words together, and moreover, different key words from each category.  Can I find a text that will pull together “empire,” “genius,” and “the Georgic,” for instance? By all means I can, and that text is James Grainger’s The Sugar Cane (1764).

5. So, I have a big messy paper and I have a lot of potential texts, hopefully all of which can crisscross across my core terms in interesting ways.  This is just the beginning though, because now I have to submit the excess of my thoughts to those constraints built into any semester.  To me, these constraints seem built around several problems that any teacher must creatively solve, and a step toward solutions means dealing with these problems as questions:
a. Time—There is always far less time than you think. Always. And so the best thing to do is to think of your brainstorm as being for you while your heavy and repeated distillation of your brainstorm is for your students.  Pick only a few texts and make sure they are mixed media.  Try to make sure these texts meet a certain standard of efficiency.  That is, a novel that takes a week and a half to read should allow you to cover at least three or more of your core terms; by contrast, a poem read in small groups in one class might fill only one coverage need.
b. Progression—Do you want the course to proceed chronologically? Thematically?  Alphabetically (not a great idea)? Otherwise? Do you want to take a mixed route, one example of which is when you present several independent thematic topics which in themselves unfold chronologically. A short sequence on “sensibility from 1780-1800” followed by a short sequence on “abolition from 1780-1800,”etc.
c. Pace—As you all probably know, a good course designer is totally in tune with the university schedule, an average student’s time commitments, and your own capacities.  A good course designer knows when students are—simply because of time pressure—going to fail at tasks that it's your job to help them succeed at. It’s bad if students don’t do the reading, but it is also bad if they are forced into pretending they did, because that merely layers pretense and indignity (for everyone) over failure. Setting students up for failure strikes me as a grave pedagogical error.  I’ve made this error several times, partially because there is a fine line between challenging and demoralizing readers, but partially also because I haven’t been mindful of the fact that one gets very, very good at processing written material in the years one spends toiling as a graduate student and beyond.
d. Assignments—I like assignments to be mixed and many, specifically because I like to offer students a variety of ways to demonstrate that they are partaking of the material we are working up together as a class.  I am among those who have students do regular discussion question postings.  I believe writing is an indispensable skill—elemental rather than secondary to learning.  Therefore, I have undergrads write shortish papers and do peer review.  I mix papers with very specific questions with papers that are totally open-ended.  I ask students to meet with me talk about their writing at least once a semester, but hopefully more frequently.  Lately I have been interested in seeing how well students are at the oral genres that humanities can teach, and so I am having students do more and more presentations of their own work, in conference simulations and more informal settings.
e. EvaluationEvaluation in the humanities poses a series of philosophical conundrums.  I won’t get into these, but I will say that I have been in the unfortunate situation of being at the end of a semester and realizing my evaluation mechanisms did not adequately account for the intellectual energy students expended.  Elsewhere, I have had to give As to students who didn’t deserve them but who met the letter of the law, even while students who obviously expended much more effort got lower grades.  My evaluation strategies now attempt to correct for this but asking that students “show their work” as it were.  I like revision in writing assignments (over multiple iterations) particularly because I like to evaluate how well they are recalibrating their work based on reader responses.

6. Having set the mind to work on these problems, I think one is bound to have a decent course design, or at least the beginnings of one.

I’ll end this rumination on course design by again stressing its experimental dimension.  Teaching is an education, and experimenting in teaching is something that creates risk while enabling reward.  I am not one to casually let i-banking metaphors sneak into my prose, but here I will just say that leveraging experimental risk with works, topics, and units one can teach incredibly well is a good and safe idea.  Some things will inevitably misfire.  After all, etymology teaches us that the word “syllabus” is likely a mistranscription of an accusative form of the Greek word “sittybas,” meaning parchment or title-slip.  But a lot of experiments will succeed, thereby moving from experiment to repertoire.  Without question, there is much more to say, and I’d love to continue this conversation in other forums. Feel free to email me with any thoughts or suggestions:

The Devil & The Delight is in the Details: Practical Matters in Course Design
Maureen Kentoff

When approaching course design, once the overall theme and scope of your course has been determined, and the various subtopics teased out, the remaining and very detail-oriented steps include selecting the texts, developing assignments, and strategizing class structure and participation. Today’s post will focus on selecting and scheduling the texts. The following suggestions are based on courses grounded in literature and/or cultural studies that focus on primary sources, which are supported by secondary source readings. I am always happy to share my syllabi and other “lessons learned,” so feel free to contact me any time at

Selecting & Scheduling the Texts:
Designing a course focused on literature, culture, and/or theory can be both fun and challenging. As for finding the ideal texts, in addition to having a few “must haves” or personal favorites in mind, I generally begin by reviewing the major literary or critical anthologies (e.g., W. W. Norton & Co.), starting with their Table of Contents. Then I skim the possible selections, and finally I read the complete text before committing it to the syllabus. I have also referred to the Teaching Guides that often accompany various publishers’ anthologies, and found them to be incredibly helpful (e.g., Norton provides them free with adopted texts, and they also have a great website with additional materials). However, it is imperative that my research stretch beyond the standard collections to include more specialized, not necessarily “canonical” sources—those that focus on underrepresented or lesser known authors, genres, and topics. Examples would be primary texts or critical essay collections that address gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, corporeality, etc. Another strategy I use is to find the landmark essays for a particular topic and then check the bibliography for other resources. And if you are teaching a survey course that is based on a particular anthology, do not feel limited by the selection or the order of the content. In my recent Intro to American Literature courses, I have used the Norton Anthology, but supplemented the syllabus with plenty of non-canonical texts. I also deliberately avoid proceeding in a purely chronological order (which is often the order of traditional anthologies). Rather, I design the syllabus around major themes—and my schedule handout is oriented toward a more visual representation of these groupings. This encourages students to place the readings in context and to consider works intertextually, while also providing analytical coherence for paper topics.

Pressed for time and looking for a few short-cuts? You can always review other professors’ syllabi thanks to the GW English Department archive and the internet! But when you are developing a new course (and/or one for which related anthologies or syllabi are not readily available), association websites and listservs can be incredibly helpful. For my current course on Gender, Place, & Time, I utilized the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) listserv, on which I posted a request for primary text suggestions and received many recommendations for authors or books that I had never read. Subsequently I have assigned three novels that were new to me. As for the students’ feedback on the readings? So far so great!

Finding pertinent primary and secondary sources can be a rewarding and insightful journey, with many diversions down memory lane. The flip side is that having to edit down your selection can feel like cutting off a limb. But edit we must. For an undergrad class, I generally assign a longer primary source (such as a novel, play, or other full-length film or text) over the course of one week, or two 75-minute classes. Depending on the week, I might also choose one or two brief secondary resources—or, even better, key excerpts—to focus the discussion. For those days when shorter pieces are assigned (e.g., poems, short stories, essays, critical selections, or film segments), experience has taught me that attempting to discuss more than 2-4 items total (and 4 is a stretch) in one class can be overwhelming—students will feel rushed and you will likely end up short-changing your lesson plan.

To help students budget their time, I kick off each semester with tips on how to read a secondary source. A popular strategy is to begin with the intro and conclusion; next, look for the overall structure of the argument and focus in on key paragraphs; then finish by closely reading or skimming the pertinent details, as needed. I also advise students to anticipate that it may take them twice as long to read a critical or theoretical essay than it will to read, say, a fictional piece of similar length. And, at the risk of being ridiculously pedantic, I suggest they plan ahead by noting the number of pages assigned for each class, then divide by the hourly rate at which they generally read that particular genre. I have also learned (the hard way) to assign shorter texts for the first class after Spring Break or Thanksgiving. But I do take the liberty of assigning slightly longer texts after a three-day weekend. And I leave open the final class or two of the semester (which helps if we’re running behind!) for writing workshops or individual meetings to discuss their final paper assignments.

As for my current course on Gender, Place, & Time, at first I assumed that, in addition to days focused on primary texts,  there would be a few classes dedicated to theory lectures and discussions. But I had difficulty choosing the “perfect” secondary sources to assign—there were so many! So, by default, I developed a simple schedule of only primary texts, with the intention of layering in secondary sources on feminism, place, and time as the content of each class dictated. But to my delight, these theories have evolved organically from the students themselves via class discussions, Blackboard assignments, and individual class presentations in which the student reports on a secondary reading that they have researched. Then, before each paper assignment, I help them organize these ideas and fill in the blanks with additional key thinkers and theories, as needed. In sum, although this has been an extremely challenging course to design, it has certainly been the most rewarding, and continues to be a collective work in progress.

Daniel DeWispelare is Assistant Professor of English at the George Washington University. His research is in eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature, especially Anglophone Romanticism(s) in a Global Context, the History of English Languages, Sociolingustics, Dialect Writing, History of Literacy, Historiography,Translation Studies, and Literary and Critical Theory.

Maureen Kentoff is a 5th-year doctoral candidate in English and lecturer in American literature at GW. Her work focuses on 20th-century women's personal/political narratives and feminist theory.