One of my goals for this term was to increase the amount of direct contact between me and my students. One step towards that goal was my (re)introduction of seminar groups into my 3rd-year “lecture” class on the Victorian novel. It’s not a straight lecture class: hostile media reports to the contrary, I know no professors who literally only lecture, and in English, some degree of back-and-forth with the class is, I’m confident, 100% the norm in every class. English is not a fact-finding discipline at heart, after all: though we need to teach vocabulary, provide contexts, and model interpretation, the overall goal is students who can think and write their own way through the course material. My Victorian novels classes are probably pretty typical, in that sometimes I do hold forth for most of the 50 minute session, especially when introducing new material, but most often I gather ideas from the class and return them reorganized, or challenge them, or complicate them, or offer illustrative examples for them. The classes are capped at 40 and are usually full (this term, Barchester Towers seems to have scared a few away during the last bit of the add-drop period, and we are down to 34, which is an atypically small group). In a class that size you can get quite a bit of student involvement, but it’s still not possible to hear from everyone or to give everyone’s ideas a lot of sustained attention. And the more I talk specifically to a student, the more I find that student engages and learns. So I’ve broken them up into two groups, one meeting basically every Friday while the other had a dedicated reading hour (Friday afternoons–yes, I’m positive they will all use that hour to go to the library, definitely!).
We had our first small group session last Friday, and I was extremely encouraged about the plan: it went great! Although it was clear that many of them were not falling in love with Barchester Towers (the word ‘dry’ was used!!), the discussion was very lively and did not require a lot of intervention from me to keep it going. It was great to hear what they were thinking about and responding to, and to have a chance to steer them from observation to analysis in a more immediate way. Some students were particularly keen on the Stanhopes–one said that they had “saved” the novel for her by livening it up just as she was worrying that it would be all dull clergymen all the time (I’m paraphrasing loosely, but that seemed to be the gist of it). I am so fond of Mr Harding and the Archdeacon that I admit I hadn’t been focusing that intently on the Stanhopes (except the Signora, of course) but it’s quite right that they bring a degree of informality into the book, as well as a careless cosmopolitanism that does break up the intense provincialism of the other characters. That very looseness of theirs enables some key developments in the plot (for instance, it’s the Signora’s interference, improper as it is from some perspectives, that finally gets Eleanor and Arabin together), so that was a great place to take the discussion. The general topic I had settled on as the focus of the session was the women of Barchester Towers, as in the first lecture meetings our focus was primarily on the men and their ‘parties.’ Eleanor was not a great favorite! I guess she is rather dull at first. I hope by the time she boxes Mr Slope’s ears, they were giving her more credit.
So that’s one way I am changing things up. I’m doing something quite different in my Close Reading class that turns out to be another way of increasing direct contact, although that isn’t exactly how I’d thought of it–and that’s regular homework. We have tutorial groups already in Close Reading, as it is a skills-oriented course and supposed to include plenty of hands-on, collaborative, and consultative time. Because of that hands-on emphasis and my previous experience when reading assignments are light that students rather blow off class preparation (sure, you can breeze through a sonnet while waiting for the classroom to open and be ready to go, right? wrong! especially, though not exclusively, when it’s a Donne sonnet!)–because of those features of the class, and because for the first time I’m using an actual textbook that includes question sets and practice exercises, I thought it made sense to assign specific things to get done before each class, usually fairly simple questions that apply the current topic (say, meter and scansion, or figurative language, or poetic structure) to select texts. I actually called it ‘homework’ in the syllabus and have been feeling kind of self-conscious about that; I even acknowledged to the class that I know that terminology sounds a bit high schoolish. But I also stressed that all the homework does is make tangible what would be my expectation anyway, namely that they would actually work on the material before class, and practice applying what they have learned.
The thing is, I have graded four sets now, and to my surprise (I expected to find it tedious) I quite like the experience of it, precisely because it does put me in contact with the students so often and in such a non-threatening way (well, non-threatening to me, at least). The homework sets are not “worth” a lot each (2%), and as long as they are responsibly completed, I’m giving them full marks: it’s not about deducting points for scanning it wrong or calling something “anaphora” when it’s not. The point is I can see their work, see how they are doing, what they get and what they don’t, and give them prompt feedback. I can also see who’s doing the work and who’s not, and as the evidence about this accumulates, I’ll use it to nudge the slackers, because I bet there will be a strong correlation between doing the weekly work for the class and doing well in the class! It’s not like I haven’t given regular small assignments of one kind or another in a lot of classes. Often they are in the form of discussion questions and reading responses, or in-class writing starts, or reading journals (which is what these homework assignments will become when we have finished our time with the textbook). It’s just that these exercises feel very straightforward, both in their relationship to the course objectives and in terms of my interaction with them: they are about practising, for them, and about coaching, for me. I hope that getting that kind of personal feedback, even on such a small scale, will help them feel connected to me and to the work we are doing: as they see that I do go over their homework and use it to prompt them towards better work, I hope they won’t see it as “busywork” but as a meaningful, if minute, interaction between us.