Last day of classes! Time to reflect on what went well, what didn't, and why.
Rarely do I teach a class without wishing I had done something differently, but I have no regrets whatsoever about this semester's Honors Literature class. I could have added one more reading assignment in the final week just to keep students on their toes, but at that point my students were so involved in final projects for all their classes that they couldn't complain about the lack of additional reading in mine. Terrific students, interesting material, engaging assignments--it's all good.
The Representative American Writers class was another story, but the problems with that class were mostly of my own making. I need to think about whether to institute an attendance policy in upper-level literature classes, and I probably should have required an annotated bibliography to get students engaged in their final research projects at an earlier point in the semester. The biggest problem, though, arose when my attempt to solve one problem created several others.
In an upper-level literature course, I expect students to become acquainted with the scholarly conversation on the literature under discussion, which requires reading theoretical and analytical articles from books and academic journals. In the past, I would assign certain articles to the entire class so we could discuss them together. This, however, offered students a very limited window into the scholarly conversation, so I began selecting a wider variety of articles and assigning them to individual students, who had to summarize the articles for the rest of the class.
At first students presented their summaries to the class orally, which failed to inspire in-depth discussion, perhaps because of performance anxiety or perhaps because the students did not have time to cogitate over the ideas they were being asked to discuss. So a few years ago I moved the discussion online, which worked better: about once a week, two or three students would post 500-word summaries of scholarly articles, and the rest of the class would post responses. This method produced much more depth of discussion and made it easier to incorporate the ideas into in-class discussions and writing assignments.
But there was one problem: students summarized articles I had located and selected, so they missed out on a valuable opportunity to use research databases to locate appropriate articles on their own. This semester I tried to remedy that by requiring students to find their own articles to summarize and discuss. I provided a few guidelines and limitations on databases and types of material, and then I set them loose to explore the scholarly conversation about Stephen Crane and Kate Chopin.
You've probably already figured out the problems I did not anticipate: First, the temptation to select the shortest and most superficial article available was almost overwhelming, and second, I had set up no system to prevent multiple students from summarizing the same article. Frankly, no one needs to read three different summaries of the same lame article.
Results were disappointing. Even when the summaries presented interesting ideas and sparked lively online discussion, the ideas in the articles rarely migrated into class or into the students' writing assignments. By the time I realized that the system was flawed, we were too far into the semester to make changes.
What have I learned from my mistakes? If I use this assignment again, I'll require students to first submit to me a list of articles for my approval, and I'll let them know which ones to summarize. This ought to prevent duplication and allow me to guide students toward more compelling material.
I'm not teaching an upper-level literature class next semester so I've got plenty of time to rethink this assignment--too late for this semester's class, unfortunately, but it's not too late for me to learn from my mistakes.