This Week in Teaching: Pleasant Surprises

This article is part of a series I’m writing in july/august that I’m calling ‘This Week in Teaching’, where I talk about teaching comp 102 in a 5 week summer session.


The interesting thing I’ve discovered about summer classes is this paradoxical style of motivation that exists both in me and my students. There’s a sense of urgency, to cram as much into our brains as possible, to finish things with an impossibly quick turnaround, and also this overwhelming exhaustion that I see reflected in the faces of my students as we all sit in the classroom at 8 in the morning, wishing we were still in bed enjoying a nice relaxing sleep.

I guess that’s my biggest takeaway from This Week In Teaching: Summer classes are a paradoxical mix of urgency and apathy, where both teacher and students are so overworked they’ve boomeranged from stress and panic back into giving no fucks.

That’s not to say things aren’t working out. Better than I expected, to be perfectly honest. I’ve only had two students drop the class in the wake of the first assignment, and of the students who did the first assignment, grading was pleasant across the board. Lots of high scores. Pressure or no, these students can write.

Or they can write a rhetorical analysis at least. I like to start off the semester, summer or otherwise, with some kind of litmus test for writing ability. In the Monsters class, I like to give my students two theoretical pieces and then apply the arguments in those works to a film we watch as a group. For the Millennials class, I had students write a rhetorical analysis of either this article from Salon or this from the Atlantic. Even the students unfamiliar with aristotle’s rhetorical triangle did solid work, and the ones who didn’t will do better upon revision.

So, I wouldn’t go so far as saying I’m impressed with the quality of their written work, but that’s because I refuse to judge based on a single assignment.

What I AM impressed with, however, is their response to two things: difficult reading assignments and peer review.

The first one was the big surprise for me. Over the long weekend I decided to give my students a more difficult assignment than I’d normally throw at a summer class: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The relevance and implication of Bartleby in a Millennial context came to me after watching an episode of Archer where the titular character makes a reference to the Melville story. Which mostly made me laugh, but then it got me thinking.

Most pop culture does this to me. My roommates are sick of me discussing the ‘deeper implications’ of the movies we watch when we’re just trying to enjoy a night in. I can’t help it: the power of English degrees compel me.

It really did make me think though, especially once I dug out one of my countless short story anthologies and re-read the story for the first time since my junior year of college. There’s something about the passive paradox of Bartleby’s response that made me think about the way people communicate, how we express our discomfort, and how uncomfortable we are with honesty.

So I assigned it, along with a link to the Librivox recording, and didn’t expect anything too major. I figured at least a few of my students would give the reading a shot, give up halfway through, and sit staring at the wall during discussion.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by my students when I came into class on Monday.  They had opinions about Bartleby which they expressed with little need to coax them to speak up. Normally encouraging class discussion can be a bit of an exercise in pulling teeth, but there were no teeth that needed pulling. Students had opinions about the narrator, about Bartleby as a character, had stories of their own they could relate about people who have ‘preferred not to’ in certain situations. The conversation was not only fruitful, but extensive. And it really was a conversation. Students analyzed each other’s responses, replied critically (but politely), and found resonance with a story written in the mid-1800s.

I think sometimes as teachers, especially in freshman composition, we hesitate when it comes to introducing older, more complex texts. We don’t want to overwhelm our students, but we also don’t want to get our own hopes up, don’t want to imagine that maybe our students will actually respond to difficult or lengthy material. Our past experience tends to leave us jaded, our hope clouded by memories of students only reading when they know there’s going to be a quiz or when they have to write some kind of response. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, we just have to give the students the benefit of the doubt.

I say sometimes because the very next day none of the students had done the reading from the textbook, but that could certainly have been a response to the unappealing content. Maybe they could relate Bartleby to their lives more coherently than the readings on text messaging and digital communications. It might have been the four day weekend. Hell, it may have even been that I provided them with a link to a recording they could access so they could listen instead of read. It’s hard to say.

But this leads to my second note for the week, which is that of Peer Review. Speaking of pulling teeth.

Most students have a unilateral dislike for reading and commenting on each other’s work. It requires active engagement, critical thought, and doing something other than surfing the internet. I’ve used a number of peer review methods in the classes I’ve taught, everything from the standard ‘swap papers and give comments’ to the ‘speed date review’ to a gamified method of competitive peer review, but none have truly given the results I’ve wanted to see, which is students being helpful and enthusiastic about their work and the work of their classmates.

It could just be that I got lucky, but my summer class THRIVES on peer review. Wednesday and Thursday I had them pair up to look over each other annotated bibliographies and research proposals, and the amount of productivity I saw was frankly astounding. Students paired up and discussed and explained their impending research. They gave each other feedback, comments, and advice. The first day, this went on for a full forty-five minutes, and they probably could have kept going if I’d let them do so.

What struck me the most was how motivated the students were by their chosen research topics. Giving them a casual forum to discuss their work really seemed to help them not only feel but maintain feelings of enthusiasm, of passion. They’re writing about things they find interesting, and it shows.

I won’t take entire credit for that: yes, I gave them a broad topic, but they made the connections themselves. I have yet to tell any of my students that they can’t research what they have suggested. I haven’t read the proposals yet (they’re due this coming monday) but so far everyone has something both solid and executable within the remaining three weeks of the class.

No class is perfect. Not even the students who helped me with my thesis project. But so far, the positives outweigh the negatives, and it’s refreshing to see students responding to writing with a degree of enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for giving students a chance to try something more complex and to give them the freedom to research something they get passionate about.

The coming week brings one of my favourite assignments: the literature review. It’s also the most difficult for most students to grasp. Add to that a diverse collection of reading assignments and it’s going to be another intense week. I think they’ll do a good job though. They’ve surprised me so far after all.


Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me athex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

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