Wednesday, September 5, 2018
September 5, 2018: Fall 2018 Previews: American Lit II Online
[This week I start my 14th year at Fitchburg State. For that momentous occasion, I decided to focus in this fall preview on one thing that has evolved for each class I’m teaching, and one that’s a bit more longstanding. Leading up to a special weekend update on my next book project!]
On what I can’t change about teaching a survey online, and what I hope to.
This past Spring semester I taught my second entirely online course, this one a section of American Literature II (my first such course was The Short Story). As I discussed in my preview post for that Spring 2018 class, one of my earliest and most consequential decisions as I revised my existing American Lit II syllabus for the online version was to swap out the novels that typically form the core of the class’s units (six books in total, grouped into three pairings) for multiple short stories, excerpts of longer works, and poems (including at least one text by each of those novel’s authors). I didn’t feel then, and continue not to feel, that there is any substantive value in (or even much practical possibility of) asking students in an online class to read longer works across multiple weeks. In my experience, even doing so in an in-person class requires (as I discussed in this long-ago class preview post) various strategies to encourage students to stick with and get through the longer works, and those strategies don’t seem possible in an entirely online setting. Perhaps I’ll change my mind with more experiences, but for now, shorter works and only shorter works it is in my online classes.
So my syllabus and reading list for this second online American Lit II section look pretty much identitical to the first ones from last semester, and I’m okay with that. What I wouldn’t be okay with, however, would be using the same unit/time period introductory materials that I sent to the students in that prior section (or, more exactly, using them in the same way I did then). As I mentioned way back in my first blog thoughts on this online survey class, I knew that my desire to provide even brief historical, cultural, and literary contexts for each main unit/time period was going to present new challenges in an online setting, and I was unfortunately quite right about that. I created documents with some basic info about my chosen such contexts, and sent them to the students at the start of each unit; I also asked them to incorporate at least a bit of that information into their first weekly Blackboard post for that unit. A few did so and did so thoughtfully, but for the most part it seemed clear to me (and understandable, given the need in any class and especially an online class to budget time and effort as productively as possible) that the students didn’t much look at these unit context sheets, and certainly didn’t take a lot of meaningful information out of them.
That may have something to do with how I presented the contexts on the sheets, and I do plan to revise to make them more concise and bullet-pointed and hopefully communicative. But in truth, I don’t think any version of the sheets would suffice if I can’t find ways to make them more central to the students’ work in the course. The most straightforward way to do so would be to create brief quizzes for each sheet, ones that quite simply ask students to provide basic info in order to verify that they have opened and looked at the sheet; I have literally never used a quiz in any class I’ve taught and thus hesitate to do so now, but doing so might make the most sense for this particular purpose. The alternative, it seems to me, would be to find a more significant way to ask the students to use info from the sheets as part of their weekly Blackboard posts, and/or their papers. While that too goes against a key part of my overall teaching philosophy (allowing students the freedom to write about whatever they choose in their individual work), it would at the same time represent an extension of the idea for which I argued in this article: that a democratic pedagogy needs a baseline level of informed understanding in a lit survey class. So one way or another (and I’d love to hear your thoughts or other suggestions, of course!), I’m likely to revise my pedagogy for this class this semester, perhaps an inevitability as I keep figuring out this teaching online thing.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you all have going on this Fall?