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.

Teaching Series: Using Technology in the Classroom

Part I: Using Technology in the Classroom

Welcome to EGSA's 2013 Blog Teaching Series! This year, EGSA asked some the department's resident experts to provide us with some advice in one of their areas of expertise.

First in this series are Lori Brister and Elizabeth Pittman speaking about how they use technology in their classrooms, the benefits and frustrations of using this technology, and asking themselves how to teach the "text" in the 21st century.

Digital Humanities in the Classroom: Teaching Text with Technology
Lori Brister

In many classrooms, including my own, there is a no-technology policy. Students must buy physical copies of books that they must learn to fill with their own annotations—no phones, no laptops, no tablets. As teachers and professors, it’s our job to extend the attention span of students who are programmed to express themselves in 140characters and/or gifs. On the other hand, I love technology as much as they do, and I believe technology has a lot to offer, from YouTube videos to music libraries, that can make the literature we teach more relative to the world in which our students live. In the GW English Department, we’re on the forefront of the digital humanities revolution, utilizing programs and platforms to make our research more interactive, yet there has not been a sustained discussion about how technology can reinvigorate the classroom. So the question then becomes, how do we teach in the 21st century? That is, how do we bridge the gap between technology and teaching the text?  

This post is by no means a comprehensive survey of technologies that can be used in the classroom. Instead, I offer only a subjective description of the technologies that I currently use to teach inside and outside of the classroom, how I use technology, and, perhaps most importantly, why I use technology in my classroom.

In the 1411 survey course, I teach English literature from the Romantics to the present, always with a strong emphasis on visual culture. It would be impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, to explain the relationship between the picturesque and Romantic poetry, or between nineteenth-century realism and the development of photography, without visual aids. I started using Microsoft PowerPoint in the classroom because it allowed me to teach texts and contexts the way I wanted to teach them. PowerPoint is easy to use, and it takes minimal time to prepare slide shows for class. Students, I soon found, appreciate the occasional break from droll lectures and the pressure of class discussion.

One alternative to PowerPoint is, an online platform that allows users to choose between dozens of templates, build content from a wide range of media, and organize presentations in unusual ways. If you want your class to see one slide, process the information, then see another slide, PowerPoint is great, but if you want your students to see the relationship between slides or groups of slides, Prezi is the (nearly) perfect solution. Prezi gives your presentation a clear narrative and it does so in visually dynamic ways. Prezi can be a challenge (read: so frustrating you might throw your computer), but after a few failed attempts, the strengths and advantages become clear. Not only do students really enjoy Prezis, but colleagues are also impressed when you use them at conferences.

Prezisare built online and are easily accessible anywhere. You can set your privacy to restrict viewing to one user or members of a group, or you can leave it public, open and available for anyone teaching the same topics. That means you can browse Prezis for ideas you can use and learn from. Prezis range from very complex designs to explain very complex ideas, like in The Theory of Relativity; or, ifyou’re more of a novice, like me, you can use simple designs to explain moderately complex ideas, like in my The Co-Evolution of Literature and VisualCulturePrezi.

While PowerPoint and Prezi can enliven your classroom, many of us are looking for ways to engage students outside of the classroom using social media like Facebook groups, Twitter, Tumblr, or YouTube. Today’s students are much more comfortable expressing themselves online. They’re familiar with the platforms and formats, and online interaction is first nature for most students. For my own needs, I’ve found blogging to best the way to get students involved outside of the classroom, especially students who may not participate much in classroom discussions.

For my current class, I curate The blog format allows me to post relevant YouTube clips, photos, and the links to the Prezis I use in lectures, as well as further explanations of topics or fun trivia we didn’t have time to cover in class. Students are required to comment on at least five blog posts throughout the semester, and they must also submit one post on a topic of their choosing that relates to the texts and topics we’ve discussed in class. There are a lot of different blogging platforms out there, including anew function supported by Blackboard, so choose whatever works best for you.

For anyone who is still not convinced that integrating technology into your classroom is worth the effort, I’ll leave you with this personal anecdote. When started college, oh so many years ago, my French professor asked the class to meet in the computer lab across campus, or I should say, “the computer lab, which was across campus” to clarify that there was only one computer lab, it was across campus, and it contained fourteen Compaq desktops and a dot-matrix. We sat there, listening to our professor’s instruction to type “h-t-t-p-colon-backslash-backslash…” and suddenly, through the magic of Yahoo!, America Online, and Geocities, we were “surfing the ‘Net” for French newspapers, music, and dancing hamsters. This is not the world we live in now. This isn’t the world most of our students were even born into. But, somehow, it’s still the world in which we teach.

How I Use Technology in the Classroom:The Successes and Many, Many Failures of a Practicing Professor

Elizabeth Pittman

In my daily life, I use technology sparingly—if you can call being wed primarily to my laptop, iPhone, and sometimes an iPad, spare—and in the classroom, I might be even more tech adverse. My allegiances and responsibilities are to the text; not to the student’s pleasure or making the text connect in any obvious way to a student’s life. And there is always just so much to cover. However, I will resist these (outmoded?) tendencies and use what I find to be the most amazing resource and archive for any teacher, YouTube. I have also used Storify, tumblr, Twitter, and Blogspot in order to foster students’ relationships to the text and to a larger intellectual community in literary studies. I, of course,always use Blackboard as a shadow classroom, but does that really count as technology anymore?

Last semester I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a service-learning course the department was offering for the first (but not the last!) time. I thought this course would be a great vehicle for trying out the conjunction of teaching and learning with Twitter. By its very nature, the course was asking students to think of their work as English majors in the larger context of GW’s relationship to Washington, D.C. and to a prestigious literary organization, as well as to the individual students’ relationship to their city, the“real-world” possibilities for their major and of themselves as professionals representing GWU. I made Twitter use a requirement—so said the syllabus at least. Unfortunately, my students by and large resisted this requirement. These few used Twitter as a space for generative conversation with either the new ideas they were encountering or to direct each other to reading material that contributed to class discussions. I found the resistance to Twitter shocking,as it is to me a very valuable space to connect with academics in my field, writers, “breaking news,” and even famous people! I find requiring the use of social media platforms outside of the classroom will be successful as many other components of a course are, depending upon the number of self-directed and highly motivated students you have in the class. I continue to hope for the day when students use social media to contend with the course content beyond what the syllabus stipulates.

In each of my courses, I require a reading response, and have always done so on Blackboard. Students would have to post a comment as well as a discussion question or two to Blackboard discussion groups once a week. This semester I have moved the shadow class space largely away from Blackboard and to the class blog, Students are required to post lengthier responses to the blog at least four times a semester, and I have due dates in the reading schedule on the syllabus. They are also required to comment on at least two posts. So far students have by and large met the requirement, though there has been some flagging of participation in the second round. I have been very impressed by the quality of the work done by the students in this medium. The blog is a highly malleable space and I am interested in students’ ownership of their work in the space. I do comment on posts as I would on any written work handed in to me, but I am worried that this even might be too much feedback or intervention from me. I don’t want my comments to be read as corrective or authoritative, unless necessary. Each student is a blog “author” meaning that she has freedom over the content she posts, and it is not screened by or filtered through me. I am not sure yet if this is the best process or practice. However, I hope to promote self-guided learning, particularly in an upper-level seminar. (I invite you to take a look at the blog. It is very basic. I would love feedback for my own improvement.)

What I do unflaggingly find useful in the classroom are the Internet’s many, many resources for Black Studies. In the course I am currently teaching, Malcolm X is continuing to be a figure of discussion and importance in the course. I directed students who wanted to continue these conversations about X to The Malcolm X Project hosted by Columbia University, and containing many materials inspired by and used in Manning Marable’s research for his biography of the intellectual. I point students to web resources, whether they are archives or sites where discussions and knowledge proliferate. I will bring an article into the classroom that clarifies an issue we are exploring. Of course, this practice can and has taken place using strictly print media. What I find useful is the shared experience of attention on an image. Students can be much more confident “reading” text even if it is simply projected onto a screen.

Lori Brister is an advanced doctoral student and instructor in the English Department at the George Washington University where she is currently completing her dissertation.

Elizabeth Pittman is an advanced doctoral student and instructor in the English Department at the George Washington University where she is currently completing her dissertation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

EGSA Symposium Invitation and Schedule

Please join us on February 15 for the annual EGSA Symposium! This is one of our most important annual events, and your participation is key to its success. Please consider scheduling time to attend the panels, enjoy the department community, and support your fellow graduate students! We have a lot of exciting panels and paper topics, not to mention three wonderful keynote speakers: Dr. Gil Harris, Dr. Tony Lopez, and Dr. Daniel DeWispelare. Take a moment to RSVP so we can be sure to order enough refreshments (email Molly Lewis or rsvp on Facebook).

Temporal Slippages and Spatial Slidings: A Symposium on Failed Fixities

February 15, 2013
Rome Hall 771
9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

RSVP NOW!  to:

9:10 – 10:10 am: Attitudes, Affects, & Alliences in Scholarship: A Round-Table
M. Bychowski, Patrick Henry, Sukshma Vadere, Tawnya Ravy, Leigha McReynolds

10:20 – 11:20 am: Dissecting the Gaze: Corporeality, Spectacle, and Performance in the Theater
M Bychowski, “Dark Bodies & Absent Parts”
Lubaaba Al-Azami, “‘What a goodly outside falsehood hath’: Identity and the Interfaith Encounter in The Merchant of Venice
Sukshma Vedere, “‘Othering’ in the Mughal Court: The ‘Firang’ Physician and the White Mughal Emperor”

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Spectral Encounters
William Quiterio: "The Uberpsycho as Alternative Historical Memory: A Consideration of the film My Bloody Valentine"
Erin Sheley:  "Faerie Hauntings in 'Christabel' and 'The Eve of St. Agnes'"
Haylie and Emily: "Herla's Haunting Hound: Spectral Intimacies in Walter Map's Tale of King Herla"

1:40 pm – 2:40 pm: “Exploration and Enlargement Make the World Smaller: On the Prospects of Transnational Encounter”
Lori Brister, “‘A little orange flag of ostentation’: Posters, Luggage Labels, and Tourism in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
James Francis, “Fraud, Pleasure and Travail: Theatrical Economies of The Travels of the Three English Brothers
Sreyoshi Sarkar, "Of Films and Therapy: The Lebanon War, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War in Waltz with Basheer"

2:50 – 3:50 pm: Nationalism, or Specters of Identity
Molly Lewis, “Racialized Time: Formulating the Medieval Jew through English Chrononormativity
Patrick Henry, “Edgar Allan Poe, Curator of the American Identity:  Anxieties of Nationalism in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
Nora Alfaiz, “The Patients ‘Etherized Upon a Table’: Societal Alienation of T.S. Eliot and Prufrock”
Maia Gil’Adi, “‘Erase the stains’: Racial Hauntings and the Browning of America in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

4:00 – 5:30 pm: Key Note Panel
Jonathan Gil Harris, “Hi Mho Jhi Kudd: Thomas Stevens'/Tomás Estêvão's/Pâtri Guru's Translated Body in Goa, 1616.”

Antonio Lopez, “On a Bus, in a Trunk: States of Transit and U.S. Latino Poetry.”

Daniel DeWispelare, “Of Sovereignty and Bondage, or, this translation which is not one.”

5:30-6:30 Wine and Cheese Party