[This has been without a doubt the most challenging and exhausting semester in my 16 years at FSU and 20 years of college teaching. But I’ve also learned a ton, and for this end of semester series I wanted to reflect on a handful of those lessons. Please share some of yours—and any other Fall 2020 reflections and thoughts—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity and support!]
On two tough but unavoidable lessons about my class content, this fall and moving forward.
Almost three years ago, I wrote in one of my Spring 2018 semester preview posts about my decision to replace longer readings with shorter ones in my first online literature survey course (American Literature II, which I’ve taught online a few more times since, alternating with my online Short Story class). I didn’t come to that decision lightly, for lots of reasons including the fact that many of the longer readings on my American Lit II syllabus—especially Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, Silko’s Ceremony, and Lahiri’s The Namesake—are among my favorite American novels and ones that I’m always excited to have the chance to teach. But I believed then and have continued to believe ever since that asking students in an online class to read and respond to novels and other long works is not only impractical, but also and most importantly doesn’t help with their work with either content (students having a chance to connect to and learn from our works) or skills (students practicing the skills of close reading and analysis that are at the heart of every class I teach).
I’ve long since made my peace with that reality of online teaching, but this semester I’ve had to begin doing the same—and then take one additional, significant mental step further to boot—in reflecting on my hybrid classes. Only one of those classes, my Honors Lit Seminar on America in the Gilded Age, had longer readings, the four main texts that were the focal points of our four thematic units (such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona for our first unit on the West, for example), and quite simply the Honors students (always among the most dedicated I have the chance to teach) did not have the time or energy to consistently read those longer works. Moreover, I also found a second, related thing to be just as much as the case: in that class, and in every other one this semester as usual with me, we read a few texts per week and students were able to choose on which ones to focus their weekly reading responses; and this semester, pretty much across the board, students likewise only had the bandwidth to focus their attention on those particular works, and seemed generally not able to read (even at a more superficial level) into most of the other texts. Providing a series of shorter readings, then, didn’t just mean setting aside longer texts—it meant offering options from which students would tend to choose and work with particular ones.
Does that mean that I’m going to have to continue emphasizing both quantity and brevity over quality (ie, longer favorite works that I think deserve to be read in full) in future semesters? Or, to put the same question a bit more hopefully, sharing a series of quality shorter texts as options for students to explore, rather than featuring individual quality longer ones? I think it might, and this coming Spring semester will give me a chance to see how I feel about those shifts: not just in a hybrid section of American Literature II (where I’ll be using the all-shorter-text syllabus from those prior online sections), but also and even more significantly in Major American Authors of the 20th Century (an upper-level lit seminar that has in my prior sections always been organized around central longer readings, from Sister Carrie and Native Son to Love Medicine, American Pastoral, and a rotating 21st century novel). Teaching that latter class without those longer readings (after having done so with them across at least five sections over 15 years) is going to be a serious adjustment—but if Fall 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that serious adjustments, in our content and readings as in everything else in our pedagogy, are both necessary and valuable.
Next lesson tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall 2020 lessons, challenges, reflections you’d share for the weekend post?