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This Week In My Classes: Coercive Pedagogy

By (April 13, 2013) No Comment

keep-calm-and-pass-your-english-examMonday was my last day of class meetings, and now I’ve moved into the exams-and-essays phase of the term. I have mixed feelings about both final exams and final essays, but for different reasons. Final essays can be triumphant culminations of a term’s work, the products of significant reflection and practice.  But they can also be perfunctory hoop-jumping or last-minute rush jobs, and because they are final, there’s no hope that you can turn them into learning opportunities. I still comment pretty thoroughly on them, but I bet we all have that disheartening file of uncollected papers stashed away in our offices: for some students, the recorded grade (which we often see as the least important part of our evaluations) is all that matters. (One of my favorite things about electronic submissions is that I can email them the marked papers, which at least puts the ball back in their courts — and doesn’t increase my clutter.) I often rethink how I approach or build up to a final essay assignment, but I never rethink including a final essay, or essay option, in my courses: organizing ideas about literature into well-supported analysis is just too fundamental to my goals for the courses, and indeed to my ideas about the discipline of literary studies.

I do often rethink holding final exams, however. Again the results for individual students can be triumphant or passable or disastrous, but though they can produce flashes (occasionally even pages!) of brilliance, and though I try to make them meaningful reflections of the course objectives, I don’t really believe in the exam as a form that’s intrinsically worthwhile. Yet especially in recent years I hold exams in every class except 4th-year seminars. Why? Because knowing that there will be a final exam turns out to be highly motivating for a lot of students in ways that benefit them, and the course, over the rest of the term. It encourages attendance, note-taking, and (most important) doing the readings, which means it reinforces the things students need to do to be actively rather than passively present (and by actively present I don’t necessarily mean participating vocally in discussion, but just being ready and able to follow and mentally engage with what’s going on). Even for students who are highly motivated intrinsically, there are a lot of competing demands on their time and effort, and it’s rational (if sometimes regrettable) that they make choices about how to invest them based on the immediate consequences of not doing so. If mine is the only class in which the consequences are not conspicuous and quantifiable, then it may lose out in the inevitable triage. Exams, then, are one of my strategies for literalizing and enforcing my expectation that they do the work for my class too. And it does help: one sure way to focus the attention in the room is to point out that whatever we are doing — whether it’s sorting out some details of literary history or analyzing a passage from a novel — is the kind of thing that they will also be expected to do on the exam.

But final exams seem pretty far away for most of the term, and students can count on having time to catch up on notes or readings after classes end. So like most teachers, I require students to do a lot of other things that have both pedagogical and coercive aspects — depending on the class, these might include reading quizzes, in-class writing starts, online discussion threads, question sets, or reading responses, for example. The primary purpose of these smaller assignments (as opposed to the weightier ones like essays or seminar presentations, which have loftier aims) is simply to encourage students to keep up with the reading — so, they are pedagogical tools because in an English class, the readings are the main focus of all of our class time, but they are coercive because, oddly enough, students often don’t seem motivated to do the reading if there aren’t marks immediately tied to it.

I kind of hate the whole circular logic of that, though. If I tie marks to doing the reading, I am tacitly agreeing that you should be rewarded for doing what I actually believe you should just do because after all, if you don’t, what’s the point? Aren’t you in class in the first place because you want to learn about the books on the reading list — not just to read them but to grapple with them, question them, argue about them, make sense of them, see how they work? If you decide you’re fine with just showing up and letting everyone else have the fun of actually knowing what we’re talking about, isn’t that your problem, anyway, not mine? But then I go around the question again and think how often we all need to be prodded into doing things that, afterwards, we realize the benefit of. And I think how much better the class meeting is when a critical mass of students can contribute in an informed way. And I remember the arms race we’re all in: if their chem prof, or their stats prof, or their Spanish prof outbids me in the quest for their time and attention, then nobody wins! We’ve all seen attendance drop off in our intro classes around midterm time, right? And how many of us have had students tell us blithely that they missed class for a chem lab or a math midterm, or something else they felt they couldn’t fudge? I want to at least be in the game.

ReadingJournalIn my 19th-century novels class this term I tried what I hoped would be a more flexible and intrinsically valuable approach than the reading quiz: I required students to keep an online reading journal, using the journals tool in Blackboard. (I don’t like Blackboard in general, but this particular feature seemed unusually streamlined and user-friendly, so I took a chance on it.) The requirements were simple: three posts per novel minimum (no more than one per day for credit), at least 150 words and in full sentences. This way I figured they could keep track of their reading at their own pace, get regular small-scale practice writing (with the chance of regular quick feedback from me), and end up with a useful record of ideas and observations. After the first round, though, I realized that I had not been coercive enough: easily 75% of students did all three of their journals on the last three possible days, and often their posts suggested that they were way behind on the reading. What I hadn’t done, you see, is explicitly tie credit for the journals to the portions of the novels assigned for each class meeting, or insist that they stagger their work so that they were writing and thinking throughout our time on each novel. Silly  me: I thought they would just be doing that anyway, and that self-interest and forethought would motivate them to do a journal here, a journal there — rather than piling them all on at the end. But apparently all that many of them wanted (and therefore got) out of the exercise was the credit for having done it. There were certainly some students who approached the whole exercise in exactly the spirit I hoped for, and kudos to them. My strong suspicion (and in some cases, my past experience) is that these are the students who don’t need coercion anyway: they’re just into it, and more power to them. But they are a minority. So my question heading into the next iteration of this course is just how much more coercive I should be: is it really up to me to micromanage when students write and what they write on in order to make them get the wider benefits from the exercise if I possibly can? It’s exhausting, after a while, providing all the incentives and policing all the rules. But it is also exhausting asking provocative questions about Tess of the d’Urbervilles and getting mostly blank stares in response (and shocked gasps when I “reveal” how the novel ends!). Must I make it worth their while in some tangible way to show up ready for that conversation? I’d really rather just expect them to and not be disappointed. I’m thinking, though, that next time I try this I won’t make it three posts per novel but one, or maybe two, posts per week, and I’ll tighten the requirements for getting full credit so that their posts must reflect specific knowledge of the reading installments assigned for that week. At the very least that will distribute their work (and thus mine) better across the term.

Do you fret about how to get your students to do the reading for your classes? A colleague of mine recently expressed concern and frustration that often her students are showing up without even bringing their course packs to class — not having the text in hand even if you’ve read it (and I think she believes they are also not doing the readings) is also a real problem for class discussion. But are we just perpetuating the wrong idea about why to do things (to get a gold star!) if we give marks for something as fundamental as that? Or (to go around the circle once more) are we pragmatically using whatever tools work to make sure everyone gets the most value out of the course experience? And is it their problem if they aren’t doing the reading, or ours — or both?