MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

September 2, 2015: Fall 2015 Previews: First-Year Writing I



[As another Fall semester kicks off, a series of preview posts—this time focusing on new things I’ll be trying this semester. Leading up to a special pedagogy post this weekend!]
On two ways to bring the digital to a traditional writing classroom.
For the Spring 2014 semester, I created an entirely new syllabus for my First-Year Writing II course, one focused on Analyzing 21st Century America. As you would expect, that course focused significantly on digital topics and elements: from units on social media and analyzing movies and TV shows watched online to near-constant conversations about online identities, communities, communication, and more. Yet at the same time, partly by design but mostly because there’s only so much overhauling one can do of one’s pedagogy in any given moment, I kept my assignment types and their semester-long scaffolding much closer to what I had employed in my prior Writing II courses, and much more traditional (in the sense of the pre-digital composition classroom, that is) than were the syllabus and its units, readings, and conversations.
This fall, for my next section of First-Year Writing I, I’m trying a complicated experiment—not overhauling the syllabus I’ve used successfully for many years and sections, yet still both bringing one of my favorite aspects of that digital Writing II into this one and (I hope) improving on that course’s one less innovative element. For the former, I’m going to try to use digital resources to provide students with many more options for our units and readings than has been the case in prior sections. For example, we start with a unit on personal essays (reading and then writing/analyzing them), and I’ve always used a handful of examples from the Seagull Reader: Essays anthology. I’ve still ordered that book and will have us read and discuss some of those example essays, to give us a shared group of core texts; but I will also highlight pieces of personal writing on blogs and tumblrs and other websites, as well as examples in other media (such as YouTube channels and Ted talks). Each of those forms and genres comes with its own specific elements and choices, of course—but there’s no reason why we can’t discuss and analyze each of them, and why I can’t give students the choice of with which ones they most want to work.
That final point comprises the way I’m hoping to improve on my digital-centric Writing II course: by offering students creative assignment options that similarly utilize the digital. That is, if a student wants to create his or her Assignment 1 personal essay as a tumblr post, or a YouTube video, or in some other digital or multimedia form, it seems to me that I should be encouraging rather than limiting such a range of choices; and that the students can then apply their analytical skills and writing to that work with equal rigor and depth in any case. I don’t think a First-Year Writing course can or should forego analytical, academic writing in its more traditional forms, but as with the creative survey assignments about which I wrote in Monday’s post, I don’t think it’s either-or: that, indeed, allowing for a greater range of creative assignment options and responses can help students develop their analytical skills alongside and in conjunction with their unique voices and skills. I have no idea what the results of this hypothesis will be in the Writing I experiment on which I’m about to embark—but I’m excited to find out, and, as always, will keep you posted!
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben                                      
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September 1, 2015: Fall 2015 Previews: Honors Lit



[As another Fall semester kicks off, a series of preview posts—this time focusing on new things I’ll be trying this semester. Leading up to a special pedagogy post this weekend!]
On the challenge and excitement of bringing an old favorite to a new audience.
As I mentioned in my fall preview post back in May, this semester I get to teach a couple new courses: the Interdisciplinary Studies Capstone (on which more in Thursday’s post); and the Honors Literature Seminar. I’ve had the chance over the years to teach and advise a number of wonderful students from our FSU Honors Program (formerly known as the Leadership Academy), and because I sat for a year on the Honors Curriculum Committee and my colleague and friend Joe Moser is the program’s new director, I’ve certainly also heard and thought a lot about its curriculum, goals, and identity. But this will be my first chance to teach our department’s contribution to the Honors Curriculum, the required Literature Seminar that Honors students take as part of their general education courses; and I’ve decided for this first Honors Seminar to go with one of my oldest academic friends and the subject of my dissertation and first book: America in the Gilded Age.
Make no mistake, I’m well aware that this topic and time period won’t be easy to sell and connect to a community of students born in the mid to late 1990s (a century after the Gilded Age’s conclusion, that is). Moreover, because this is a literature seminar and one geared for Honors students to boot, I’ve gone ahead and chosen five demanding and challenging texts as our main reads: Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Story of Avis, Stephen Crane’s Maggie, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, and Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance. I love all five of these books and believe they are well worth our time and energy; but none of them are particularly accessible for modern audiences, and four of the five (all but Crane’s novella) are in the 400+ page range. For a community of students that quite frankly doesn’t always have the time to do the reading (and those issues of jobs, families, obligations, busy lives won’t go away with Honors students), I know that this group of texts is going to present a semester-long challenge.
While such challenges can be their own reward, that’s not why I’ve made these text and course decisions. One reason, ironically but definitely, is timeliness: the issues covered by these texts and the units they’ll help introduce (Mexican and Native American histories, women’s rights and experiences, poverty and work, race and oppression, and immigration, respectively) remain just as central to our own era as they were in the Gilded Age; whether you believe we’re in a new Gilded Age or not, there’s no doubt that the earlier period and ours have a great deal in common. At the same time, reading such texts and analyzing the Gilded Age isn’t just about referencing our contemporary moment—it’s also, and most importantly, about understanding this complex, crucial historical and cultural and literary moment on its own terms. Indeed, we can’t possibly consider what the Gilded Age has to offer for 21st century America unless and until we do the work to analyze that era—and I’m very excited to spend a semester doing that work with some of FSU’s best students!
Next preview tomorrow,                                                    
Ben
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?

Monday, August 31, 2015

August 31, 2015: Fall 2015 Previews: American Lit I



[As another Fall semester kicks off, a series of preview posts—this time focusing on new things I’ll be trying this semester. Leading up to a special pedagogy post this weekend!]
On how getting creative can help both students and professor keep things fresh.
The first-half American literature survey was one of the classes I taught in my first semester at Fitchburg State University, and while I’ve significantly revised my syllabi for the other ones—First-Year Writing I (on which more in Wednesday’s post) and Ethnic American Literature (about which I’ve written many times)—in the decade since, I’ve kept the American Lit I syllabus almost identical since that initial Fall 2005 iteration. I promise that that’s due not to laziness but rather to success: I have found that American Lit I is consistently one of the courses in which I feel that my students do the best work, develop their voices and ideas most successfully, respond most positively to the readings and conversations, and so I’ve never wanted to reinvent a wheel that seems to be rolling very smoothly just for the sake of reinvention.
At the same time, there’s a danger in keeping any syllabus too static, especially one with which I’ve taught for ten years (and at least 15 sections). And while that danger is partly for the students—who, I firmly believe, can sense when a professor is not engaging with the material as much in the present moment as we ask them to do, and who understandably might respond by giving less of themselves to that course as well—it’s even more there, I would argue, for the professor. We’ve likely all had that teacher who seemed to be lecturing from the same yellowed notes he or she had used many times before, for whom this particular section and semester was literally no different from many others that had come before. Since my classes are capped at 30 students and thus operate almost entirely as discussions (rather than lectures), and since I do all my own reading and grading of student work, it’d be impossible for me not to engage with this new group of students—but nonetheless, it’s just as important for me to engage anew with the material in front of us, rather than relying on my prior experiences or perspectives.
More and more, I’ve come to believe that offering creative options for student assignments and writing represents one vital way to keep things fresh. Again, that’s partly for my own sake: reading 30 compare and contrast essays is far more compelling when even a portion of those essays take the creative option and create (and then analyze) a dialogue between their two authors (to name one example of a creative option I’m considering for this semester’s Am Lit I). But it’s most definitely for the students’ sakes as well: my most successful Am Lit paper has always been the first, in which I ask the students first to imitate a chosen passage and then to use that imitation to develop their close reading of that passage; and I’ve come to realize that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t offer similarly creative options for the course’s later two assignments, and lots of reasons why I should. I don’t think I’ll require the creative work in papers 2 and 3—not everyone benefits from or prefers that option—but I plan to offer it as an option in each case, and hope and believe a number of students will take me up on that offer. I’ll keep you posted on the results!
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Things you’re hoping to try or do this fall?