Endings and Beginnings

At the end of every semester/year, I think through what worked well in the past year and what will need changing.  Given that I taught a class we made significant changes to just this past semester and that my first-year composition class clearly hasn’t worked the way I would like it to, I know I’ll need to change a few things about next year’s classes.

The Western Literature class is making a transition to a World Literature class.  This semester, I added a number of writers from around the world, many of whom I was not familiar with.  I’m happy with the change, and I like a lot of the literature I’ve been able to add.  I’ll get more familiar with those works in the coming semesters.  However, I had a clear arc for the class the way it was, and I’ve lost that overarching narrative to hold it together, so I’ve been looking for a way to hold it all together.  I think I’m going to use the traditional question of the Humanities: What does it mean to be human?  I’m teaching the class this summer, and, so far, that seems to be working reasonably well.  It at least provides a common question the literature is responding to, as all literature is addressing that question at some level.

Also, I used to begin that class with a quiz and the biography of the author (or authors) we were talking about that day.  However, the biography added another 5-10 minutes, which I could use to talk about the work of literature itself.  I’ve changed the syllabus, so the students are now reading that bio on their own.  I did that in Contemporary Literature, as well.  So far, though, I get the impression that students aren’t reading them, so I’ll have to do something about that for the fall.

For the composition course, I changed it a few semesters ago, centering it around short stories, with a couple of novels.  When I had a strong class, this approach worked quite well.  However, when I had weaker classes (which happened two of the three semesters), they really struggled with the material.  Given that the goal of the class is to teach them how to write, having them struggle with the reading doesn’t help matters.  If this were a literature class, then I would approach things differently, but, since it’s writing, I need to make a change.

Luckily, a colleague of mine was donating some books to a book drive we had, and I saw a small anthology of readings on identity.  Students who take my classes routinely joke that all of my classes come back to identity (which is largely true).  Thus, I’m just going to embrace that idea and explore it more fully throughout the semester.  This theme should work well for incoming students, as they should start thinking about who they want to be as they enter college.  I’m looking forward to that change.

One last change is more basic.  I’ve been trying to cut down the amount of paper I use in classes, and I want students to focus on what’s truly important in a class; thus, I’m getting rid of my long syllabus.  Well, I’m at least getting rid of handing it out and going over it.  Instead, I’m putting it online for the students to look at, if they want, but I’m only handing out a one-page top 10 list of things they need to know about the course.  I’m hoping that will make the first day more streamlined (and we can get to more important matters then), save paper, and show the students what’s really important.

I’m sure some of these ideas will fail miserably, but that’s the nature of teaching.  We keep trying new ideas, some of which work and some of which don’t.  I know I’ll never find the perfect idea for any class, but I can at least continue to make the classes better.


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