Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (or the opposite, perhaps)

I constantly tinker with my classes.  No matter how they seem to be going, I’m always trying to make them better, or at least different.  I’m not that professor who hands out a syllabus from three or four years ago, and there’s nothing different on it.  Even if I haven’t changed the actual content of the class, I’ve changed one or more of the assignments.  In each semester, I’m always thinking about what I’m teaching six months down the road or what I’ll do differently the next time I teach whatever it is I’m teaching.

Now, I know full well that I’ll never create a perfect class, as that simply doesn’t exist.  However, I keep believing I can make a class better or at least, in some cases, less bad.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s good just to change a class for the sake of changing it.  It’s easy to get in a routine of teaching the same material in the same way, and I cease to be open to new ideas that could come from the material or from the students’ interaction with it.

Freshman composition is probably the class that gets the most attention, as it’s a blank slate.  Beyond a few guidelines over how much the students write and two general requirements on the types of papers they write, we have free rein to do what we want.  I’ve tried so many different approaches to this class in my thirteen years here that I can’t even remember them all.

Currently, I’m trying to do a literature-based approach.  That went really well last semester when I had one of the strongest classes I’ve ever had.  The first time I taught it, last spring, though, it didn’t go as well, and this semester has been close to a train wreck.  I wrote an essay for InsideHigherEd.com about how badly this semester has gone, but the content of the class hasn’t helped.  I just haven’t been able to generate any productive discussion, and the papers haven’t been very good.  Literature-based classes also make it easier for students to plagiarize.

Before that, I tried having students read about people who performed experiments on themselves (think A.J. Jacobs, who has made a bit of a career doing so; if you don’t know him, think of Morgan Spurlock’s SuperSize Me, though we didn’t watch that).  Students would read excerpts from several books and write on those (one semester I had them keep a blog, which didn’t go well; the technological generation is only technological when it comes to phones, it seems).  Then, they would spend four weeks taking something on or giving something up as their project, then write about it (a mixture of research and personal writing).  This worked really well at the beginning, and some of the projects really affected the students’ lives, which is always one of my goals.  However, as the semesters passed, the papers got worse, partly because the students just couldn’t balance the mixture of personal and research writing.  Also, students didn’t want to imitate previous classes’ topics, so they came up with topics that either were riskier (and I was worried about someone getting hurt) or absurd.

Even in classes that are more traditional, such as literature surveys, I’m always looking for ways to change the structure of the class.  While teaching classes chronologically works on one level, it often doesn’t work in other ways.  Students lose connections between works when they’re taught three months apart, even if we try to remind them of what we talked about in January or August.  I’ve tried theme-based survey classes (I still teaching the first semester of U.S. Literature this way, though, not surprisingly, I’m thinking of changing it the next time I teach it).

In my Contemporary Literature class, which I love to teach, I started out by tweaking it after the first two or three times through it.  I would change one or two of the readings, and I kept adding a few new ones.  Given that there’s nothing approaching a fixed canon in contemporary writing and that people keep generating new material, such tweaking made perfect sense.  I found a set of readings that have worked well for the past two or three years now, as I really like the arc of the class.

That means, of course, that I’m completely starting from scratch when I teach it this summer.  I want to see if there are other works out there that might work better (in some way, and I don’t even know what that way is).  I’m trying all new novels and a number of new short stories and creative nonfiction pieces.  I have no idea how it will work, but I feel the need to try, then reasses to see what I want to do for the fall.

I feel like I’m one of those people who lives in the same house for decades, but who constantly rearranges the furniture or has painted a room since people visited three weeks ago.  This all might be because I used to move around quite frequently.  From the time I finished my Master’s degree to the year when I came back to where I am now (a total of 10 years), I lived in 7 different states, had gotten two more degrees, and had held 5 different jobs at 4 different schools.  Part of me still misses that, and changing courses seems to be my way of dealing with that.

Also, though, I think it’s healthy.  It’s too easy to go into a class and say what I’ve always said (or what my professors once said when I was a student).  In fact, I’ve thought about going into a class where I’ve assigned stories or novels I’ve never read, just heard about, and let us all discuss them together for the first time to see what happens.  I love the idea that I and a class can come up with new ideas together.  Maybe I’ll try that the next time around.  Odds are, I’ll be trying something.

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