Involving Students in Syllabus, Reading, Assignment, and Lesson Plan Creation

By Shiladitya Sen

Over the last few years, I have been experimenting with involving students in the decisions that I make about various elements of my courses. It was, for me, a natural progression from the fact that my class discussions are always heavily mediated by the ideas and interests that students bring to the table. Thus far, my experiences indicate that involving students significantly increases their engagement in the course, conveys the fact that the classroom is a shared space where they have a responsibility to contribute, and makes students much more understanding—and appreciative—of the ways in which the course is designed to cater to their needs while holding them to the required academic standards. Here are a few ways that I have done so, across multiple courses.

My most substantial use of student input in syllabus/reading decisions was in the two World Literature courses that I taught in the English department in the Spring and Fall of 2015. I was certain that I was not going to teach any texts written in the USA or the UK, and that all our readings would be non-English texts, but beyond that I had a gigantic list of possibilities. So, I decided to get the students involved in the decision. After initial introductions and having explained the parameters for the course, I gave students a list of texts broken into six groups (e.g. The Ancient/Classical World; Medieval Europe; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century). I then had them each pick one text from each group, write the list on a sheet of paper, and give it to me. To facilitate the decisions, I shared a little about the texts and had them look up information online before choosing. Once I had their choices, I simply chose the six texts that got the most votes, added a seventh to round out the list, and we had our readings for the semester.

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Teaching Revision with Manuscripts

By Jennifer Daly

Synthesis of an Idea:

During this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities two-week seminar “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” we would get together for discussion forums on everything from our own writing to pedagogical practices to activism inside and outside the classroom. One evening, a professor had mentioned the Digital Thoreau Project as a way to show the students the synthesis of Walden and to track the very deliberate changes Henry David Thoreau made in each of the manuscripts.  After much thinking, I had the thought that this could be done with almost any writer—as long as there was a manuscript. I decided that I would utilize manuscripts to open a conversation about process and revision with First Year Writing students this year and see if it was accessible to them.  There was a chance that they a) wouldn’t care, or b) it would fly over their head never to be seen or heard again.  I was hoping for many things—none of which involved calling the lesson plans a total loss.

A huge part of the revision process is being able to disagree with yourself, and I think this is something the students grapple with the most. I know I did when I was a student, and I still do today. Just recently I was reviewing an essay I had written a few years back to prepare applications for PhD programs, and as I reread the essay and worked on some revisions, I realized that I did not agree with myself at all. Cue existential crisis—do I even know myself?! This is a story I have told all of my classes this semester. It is important for them to know that it is ok if they reflect on their work and find that they don’t agree with it.  That means they are growing and learning: the two most important results of their educational career.  I had difficulty with this, and I tell them about how I reached out to my own mentors in a state of panic (thank you, Caroline Dadas and Tatum Petrich!). I like to think they find it amusing while also absorbing the notion that it’s ok if they don’t agree with their former selves.

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Using “they” as a singular pronoun

Earlier this year, the AP Stylebook announced (see the article below) that they (see what I did there?) were allowing the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

What little discussion of the subject I have encountered among friends and other academics, in person and on social media, indicates that Colleen Newvine, product manager for the Stylebook, was accurate in stating that “Some people will be furious; others won’t think we’ve gone far enough.”

Personally, in my classes, I allow students to use “they” as a singular pronoun, for the same reasons as the AP Stylebook (“recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular and we also recognize the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she”). I have long thought that the absence of a non-gendered singular pronoun in English besides “it” is a significant weakness in the language, and “they” is enough of a workaround for me—and, experience indicates, for my students.

I have a few requirements for students who use “they” in this manner. Clarity (something that AP too emphasizes in their explanation of how “they” can/should be used) is of high importance to me, as is consistency, so I require students to provide both when using “they” as singular. As part of the above, students are expected to make it clear via the context that “they” refers to an individual. Of course, I ask students to seek for clarity and consistency whenever they use language, so I have to do nothing new in this regard.

I have many reasons for being comfortable with this shift. Since I engage regularly (and ask students to do so) with the issue of how language asserts and creates/supports power, often serving to disenfranchise those who fall outside the supposed bounds of social acceptability, I want the English language to be more inclusive and egalitarian. As a multilingual speaker of languages (Bengali and Hindi) which actually include non-gendered singular pronouns, I’ve long considered, as I noted previously, its absence in English a flaw. And as someone who studies (and enjoys) the way language changes and morphs over time, accepting such change is hardly a difficulty. When I teach Shakespeare, I explain to students that, contrary to their expectations, “you” is the formal term and “thou” the informal term in the plays, since that was the customary usage of the time. As my students and I discussed this week in class, any language is an almost completely arbitrary sign system. If one is consistent enough with it to be clear, that’s good enough for me. Experience too shows that allowing the use of “they” as singular does not hurt clarity of communication in my classrooms at all.

What about you?

The Political Classroom

As a follow-up to our roundtable from March on dealing with politics in the classroom, here’s some additional material, provided by Mike Laser.

Mike suggested the book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (by Diana E. Hess & Paua McAvoy; Routledge, 2014) as a good source for those interested in this subject. He also kindly collected these notes on the book and what it says:

[An observation: the book refers to classes in which discussion of political issues is a central part of teaching. These are mainly high school history/government classes. Freshman comp classes can adapt these ideas—but, for the teachers portrayed in the book, training students to deliberate together on these issues is the primary goal.] Continue reading

No, that isn’t “Bad English.” (article)

Mike Laser shared this article, which discusses dialect and ideas of correctness in speech and writing.

No, that isn’t “Bad English.”

The article is subtitled, “The obligatory lecture that needs to start every English class.” While I wouldn’t quite go that far, I do tend to spend a class on things like accent, dialect, and the arbitrariness of language at the start of the semester, especially in 105.

To be precise, I actually don’t use the term dialect much and prefer to use the term “code,” which I think is easier for students to grasp (and leads neatly into the issue of code-switching). A second, larger reason for using “code” is that I also want students to think of non-verbal codes. I usually lead into the discussion by drawing things on the board, such as a house or the sun, and asking how they know what these are. I also will often draw a disassembled stick figure, which they immediately recognize when put together, and which they will tend to gender as male or female with slight additions. These activities and such discussion lay the groundwork for getting students to think about the shared codes they possess; how they access (or lack access to) such codes; how these codes affect their thinking and reading and writing; what sort of codes are being emphasized (or deemphasized) in the writing and reading they do in my class and in their other work in the university; cultural codes they work with and how these affect them; and so on.

In my experience, such explicit discussion of codes (or, in the article, dialects) has been extremely productive for my classes.

What about you? How do you touch upon dialects, correctness, codes, and related matters? And, of course, what did you think of the article?

Politics in the Classroom

The above link is to a 2015 interview of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy (authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education), discussing the issue of politics in the classroom and how teachers can/should introduce and discuss the subject.

Personally, I regularly connect the work we do in class to the wider world beyond it, since I find that to be a key element in teaching critical thinking. Additionally, considering events over the last few months and especially the last fortnight, I think I would be remiss in not touching upon politics, since it directly pertains to the lives of my students and the world they (will) inhabit. Simultaneously, I am aware of the potential pitfalls of explicitly introducing politics into the discussions (I would argue that any classroom, by definition, implicitly engages with politics) and want the subject to add to and enhance the functioning of the classroom. To that end, the following are some of the strategies I utilize: Continue reading

Self-Care Mid Term

Melissa Adamo

Catching up with a friend last night whilst enjoying some delicious fare from Taco Truck, I complained about burn out. It’s that point in the semester when we all feel drained: papers keep coming in and lesson plans still need to be made; we grade paper two with one hand and plan module three with another. Ah the joys of mid-term! Most of us probably haven’t had a real day off since September.

An article popped up in my Facebook newsfeed last night (shout out to Nikki Bosca) reminding me of the reason for such fatigue—as if I need reminding: “A study…from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that…across all education staff, including teachers, teaching assistants, playground staff, cleaners and caretakers, 37.6 per cent worked unpaid overtime – a figure higher than that for any other sector” (Wiggins). Although this study isn’t directly related to higher ed, the overtime required of teaching isn’t news to any of us. Continue reading