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: dewispelare@gwu.edu.

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 mkentoff@gwu.edu.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these helpful comments on pedagogy, language, and crickets, which I plan to make use of in my own classes!