Thursday, April 7, 2011

In which I attempt to catch up, at least on blogging about teaching

I'm finally coming out of the most ghastly bronchitis bug that I've tangled with since my sophomore year of college. 16 days, and I'm still dealing with a lingering cough, altered voice, and an inability to function in polite company without Kleenex handy.

I've never been so ill at the start of a quarter, and so it's both a blessing and a curse that I've ended up teaching a writing course linked with a political theory course, and which has only 5 students in it. (The writing links were underenrolled, and my section was the earlier of the two offered, and the professor teaching the poli sci course emphasized how hard the writing load would be. I can't say I'm surprised that some students shied away from both his class and mine, since we both have separate essay assignments (even if they are oriented towards the same readings).

I planned a number of things for this quarter: perhaps most importantly, a course website, and the intention of having the students blog throughout the quarter. In the past, I've had them use Catalyst GoPost, and I'll say up front that I haven't been all that smart about how I used it -- both in terms of thinking about making it a mini-knowledge site; and in terms of creating useful and specific assignments for the students. Instead, I wanted them to respond to each lecture, and A) that's too much, and B) it's not effectively goal-oriented -- so it didn't succeed in creating a genuine conversation between my classroom and the lecture classroom.

This time, I used and added to several of the blog assignments linked to in this Profhacker post; and used a rubric. I've encouraged the students to use the blog in the way that helps them -- i.e., as a space to talk about the more formal writing assignments, and as a space to apply the political theory texts that they're reading to current events, or other situations as they see fit. The rubric still dictates that they have to display a high level of engagement with the text, but I'm hoping that the blog will give them the space to engage with Aristotle, Locke, etc., in multiple ways (which they are explicitly not encouraged to do in the formal essays for either the lecture course, or mine.

In my case (and I suspect in the POLS professor's, too, but I can't speak for him), it's not that those alternative methods of engaging with a text aren't valid, but just that the focus of the course is to have them practice a very specific style of essay writing that is widely demanded in academia, and in poli sci specifically. I explained that. Rather than have them write texts that were supposed to be about practicing academic writing, and which I would have to constantly nudge them back towards more focus and seriousness, I'd much rather say that the blog is a space where they have more freedom, and that their goal is to demonstrate a range of engagements with the course subject matter.

I'm doing everything I can to make the course website a good knowledge site as well -- posting answers to questions that I get asked each quarter; posting links to sites like Memidex and Natural Readers under a writing hacks tag. I only have two so far; I need more, but I think if I keep posting steadily, that part of the site will get better and better.

I've asked the students to tag their posts (in fact, I've made it a requirement for them to get credit). None of them had blogged before, so I wanted to avoid overloading them with new tech, but I did want the site to be a useful tool, in some way other than merely making it searchable. So far, it's working. The first week, only 3/5 students posted in time to get points, and I had to remind them all to tag their posts. This week, they all posted on time, and I didn't have to do any reminding about tagging.

But I don't like asking students to do random stuff, so I'm trying to make tagging and classification a major subtext of the class. That's where my personal property classification assignment comes in. To give credit where credit is due, it was inspired by a comment by Johanna Drucker, who said that she asks students to develop such a system in her classes -- but that was all she said, and I didn't get a chance to ask her more.

I wanted to develop it for use with political theory partly as an interesting personal essay (more interesting than the literary autobiography that I've used in the past with comp classes), and as an introduction to the idea that classification is an inherently political act (whether arbitrary, material, or any one of numerous binary organizations), and suggest that thinking about texts in terms of the authors' classification schemes is a useful way of making heavy content more clear, and breaking it into manageable chunks.

I also really wanted to have the students develop something that was their own thinking, but was not a traditional argument.

The essays have been turned in, and I'll look at them tomorrow, and report back in terms of what I've got. I think that classification is helpful in terms of reading texts, but it's a little hard to say. The Nicomachean Ethics are hard no matter what you do with them; and I think that it'll take a little while for classification as reading to catch on (and no doubt, I can learn to teach it more effectively) -- but I'm excited to keep working on that.

And today, Susan Brown, of the Orlando Project, visited and gave a wonderful, 2-hour demo of the textbase, and then, after less than an hour's break, another talk(!), and I probably don't need to tell you, but I will anyways, how exciting it was to read the scholarly introduction, and see the following statement, and feel like I'd made exactly the write choice in deciding to work on foregrounding classification in this course, and in future courses:

We observe simply that while the work of recovery made a broader literary history both newly possible and newly necessary, the unanswered criticisms of the genre contributed to the continued absence of integrating histories of women's writing, or of revised general histories that take women's writing into account.

But the Orlando Project, and why it's important to me, deserve a whole separate post, and I think I need to save it for later this weekend.

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