Salvaging freshman comp?
November 12, 2008 12:03 AM   Subscribe

Help me to not suck at teaching! (focus on analytic reading)

I'm halfway through my first semester teaching freshman comp. I'm great at one on one workshops, talking through essays, giving feedback. What I'm not so good at is getting them to be excited about the reading. Enthusiasm might be a bit much -- but you know, curiosity? Interest? They're bright kids, but sometimes they look at me as if I'm in the process of slowly driving a stake through the heart.

What I'm mostly concerned about:

1. Basic participation -- getting people to actually DO THE READINGS, so that they can actually talk meaningfully about the texts. Short of mandatory participation (which I think kind of defeats the point), what's the best way to get the level of participation that *is actually mandatory* for good discussion?

2. Making class discussion meaningful-- What happens when they want to talk about how this relates to the movie they saw last weekend?

3. Gauging how much I should actually care about this?

I'm really interested in hearing from other people who have concrete improvement stories -- I've got lots of examples of "great teachers I've had" that I can draw on, but that doesn't really help in figuring out how to replicate this yourself, you know?

What you might need to know:

1. The class is structured around 3 essays, in which they gradually integrate more sources into their essays, and develop their own arguments based on the texts we're reading. The texts are a mix of popular (New Yorker) style criticism and more concrete academic work - Susan Sontag, Anthony Appiah, etc. Strong emphasis on "current affairs"

2. Most of the problems (in class and in papers) have to do with analytic reading -- getting them to sit through, parse, and then use arguments from other texts. In other words, writing is not strictly the problem (though I'm mining this post and this post for advice)

3. Not surprisingly, nobody likes this class. Including the grad students who have to teach it. We try to suppress this as much as possible, but it's pretty much a given that by the second week, they've figured this out. This, I understand, is a problem.

Thanks in advance!
posted by puckish to Education (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Just to flesh out the picture a bit, what is the class size? Is the entire class reading the same set of texts and writing essays on the same topics, or do you invite individual students to choose which issues and ideas they will work on?

3. Not surprisingly, nobody likes this class.

Why is it not surprising? Do you mean that it won't be surprising to us, since you're asking the question, or that it's not surprising to you, because you see why the participants don't like the class?
posted by jon1270 at 2:41 AM on November 12, 2008

Make sure they know they're reading for something other than as a dutiful exercise in preparation for their own soul-sucking trudge through what they likely see as an exercise in Professorial Discourse Analysis. 'Cause they might be shallow, and they're (at 18ish, possibly) callow, but they've already had 12 years of schooling, so they aren't naive.

Best book I ever used for teaching writing was easily <plug alert>Bartholomae & Petrosky's Ways of Reading</plug alert> but I don't know that I'd use it for a freshman class (although the authors did, but they were better teachers on an off day that I ever was on my best day). The book was great because the readings were hard--some even a challenge for me--but the key was it made them accessible with questions and notes about the text that helped to provide an "in" to these very tough pieces.

Absent a text like that, it seems to me that the very best days of teaching for me came when:
  1. I knew my stuff: I was prepared and had a few ideas up my sleeve of how to take the discussion in interesting, unexpected directions
  2. I had prepared them to do the reading by giving very explicit instructions on the sorts of things to pay attention to, the kind of questions to ask of the text, and the sort of discussion they could expect to have
  3. I kept the expectations high. If they showed up to class having blown off the work then they deserved to be left high & dry in the discussion (and that's what they got); it seldom happened more than once.
  4. I modeled for them the sorts of engagement I wanted them to have with the work--especially the difficulties I had or the ambiguities I saw. I think that the moment my students realized that this wasn't a situation where I had the answers and was trying to gently dangle before them to grasp at, they clued in that this wasn't just an academic exercise.
  5. I could talk craft. Pay attention to how the authors do what they do, and why it works for them and why it might not work elsewhere. Ask them what it reminds them of, makes them think of. They'll try to lead you down the garden path, but you need always to bring it ineluctably back to the text.
Full disclosure: I left teaching a few years back, but I do still miss it from time to time. All this necessarily IMO,YMMV, etc. Email's in the profile if I can be of any help at all.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:45 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

English adjunct instructor here. My advice:

1. Reading quizzes. They don't have to be putative. In fact, they help students who are willing to work but who tend to make lower grades on the written assignments. I prefer five short questions. These are simple, fact-based questions--nothing tricky or requiring speculation or evaluation. The point is only to get them to read the text. The questions cover details at various points in the story/reading. That way, students who read half of the assignment might get two right, but they have to read to the end to get everything right. Generally, I make question one about something on the first page.

Quiz them at the beginning of class, before you discuss the text in question. If you quiz them on everything you assign them to read (at least for a few weeks, if not for the entire semester), they'll quickly get the idea that you're serious when you say that reading the assignments is necessary. People will either read the assignments or they'll bail your class. Either way, you'll have better discussions.

2. If they see a relationship between the reading and something else, try to tease that relationship out. Help the student get specific about it. There might be a relationship, or there might just be some surface similarity. Either way, it's a teachable moment. Then steer the discussion back to whatever you're trying to cover. Sometimes students have to get these things out of their system. Try not to be cruel if the comparison is without basis, but do point out that you "can't quite see how they're connected," while still valuing that they took at shot at critical thinking.

For that matter, use pop-culture and film references to your advantage. Students watch a lot of movies. You can explain how certain things work in texts by allusion to how they work in TV, film, and music.

3. That depends entirely on how much you see yourself as a teacher and how much you care about teaching well.

You really need to model for them how to break down a text into meaningful chunks (arguments, themes, ideas). Show them how to annotate a text, to circle words they don't know so they can look them up later, to scratch brief summaries in the margins, to write down questions they want to discuss in class. They're, generally, not used to that sort of processing. Many teachers will have let them get by with plot summaries, smiles and nods, and really facile evaluation (e.g. "I really liked this story. It was really great! The main character reminds me of my grandmother!").

Realize, too, that your students in this class have other obligations, academic and non-academic, besides your class. And, no matter how much you might care about linguistic skill, you're not going to be able to convince all of them to value it as highly. You can try to point out that the skills in your class transfer to many professions and that written expression is valuable in its own right, but there will be many who simply don't care.

None of that gets you off the hook, of course. You still have to go in prepared and do your best to impart your enthusiasm for critique as well as the specific techniques that you expect them to use. But, the fact that you're posting this at all says to me that you do care and that you do want to do a good job of it.
posted by wheat at 6:36 AM on November 12, 2008

Short of mandatory participation (which I think kind of defeats the point)

If the point is to inspire the students to learn to love reading and analyzing texts and writing as much as you do, then yes, mandatory participation does defeat the point. But if the point is simply to teach them how to do these things, then mandatory participation is your friend. It may feel artificial, forced, even a bit silly - but it gets the job done.

Here is something that has worked for me: the randomly-assigned debate. Tell the students that, next class, you will have a debate regarding the readings. Give them specific, content-oriented questions to think about - "resolved: photography is a manipulative art form" rather than "what did you think of this?" or "how well did the author prove their point?" In class, you can do one of two things:

(1) Divide them up randomly into a "pro" and "con" camp. Give them 10 minutes to devise an argument. Then have a debate: point-counterpoint-rebuttal-rebuttal. (You can have a third group that judges the others' performance).

(2) Randomly pick 2 or 3 individuals to present each point of view. Ditto for rebuttals.

Here's the key: the point of the debate is to begin a discussion, rather than settle the issue. It also forces the students to actually read the material, because they may have to present on it in front of their peers.
posted by googly at 6:53 AM on November 12, 2008

I teach high school English, and I use a quizzing technique similar to wheat's. I don't quiz every single time I assign independent reading, but every few days I give a quiz that takes no more than 5 or 10 minutes for the students to complete. The randomness drives them crazy, but keeping them on their toes is part of the point.

Sometimes for homework, I have the students pick one or two sentences that they think are the most vital to understanding the passage, or the one or two that are most difficult to understand. Then, I call on students randomly and they share whatever sentence they chose. I find this helps the quiet students; they have something at their fingertips to discuss, and often other students will join in because they picked the same sentence. I think it's necessary to encourage not just reading, but active reading.

Sometimes, I write discussion questions on index cards and have the students discuss them in small groups at the beginning of class. Then, the groups present their questions and lead discussion. Other times, the homework is to read and write a discussion question or two. Then, I draw those questions out of a hat. Again, this kind of active reading works well for my students. They are reading and looking for questions, and they know I'm not talking about "yes" or "no" questions or plot points.
posted by katie at 7:31 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Credentials: I've been teaching on and off for about twenty years. Generally, my students get enthusiastic during class, even if they come in dreading it.

The biggest problem I see inexperienced (and even experienced) teachers have is confusion about goals. You make it much easier for yourself and your students if your only goal is TO CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT WHICH GIVES STUDENTS THE TOOLS THEY NEED TO MASTER THE SUBJECT.

The goal should not be to force students to read texts, to force students to discuss, to make students excited (though that is often a bi-product), to get students to like you, to entertain students, to grade students, to control students or to pass on your knowledge to students.

Teaching may involve some of the above as tactics, but don't confuse tactics with goals, and always be ready to jettison tactics that don't work.

Most of us -- teachers and students alike -- are confused about the relationship between teachers and students. Generally, teachers are older than students. It's very easy for teachers to become surrogate parents, surrogate cops or surrogate gurus. It's easy for students to rebel against teachers, confusing them for "dad" or "The Man." It's easy for teachers to resent the fact that students don't show them "due respect." It's also easy for teachers to rebel and "just want to be everyone's buddy." This engenders an extremely sad state of affairs in which the best a student can say about his teacher is that, "He's cool. He goes out drinking with us!"

When I teach, I consider myself a public servant. Students (or their parents) pay me for a service. It's not MY classroom, it's THEIR classroom. They don't owe me anything (except money); I owe them a service. That doesn't mean I let students do anything they want. What public servant does that? If you go into the post office, the public servants there don't let you do anything you want.

But there's only one rule in my classes, and there should only be one rule in anyone's class: A STUDENT IS NOT NOT ALLOWED TO HINDER OTHER STUDENTS FROM LEARNING. That's it. That's the only rule. If a student wants to listen to his iPod instead of listening to me, that's his choice. He doesn't owe me respect (other than on a basic human level, e.g. not screaming at me or hitting me); he doesn't owe me a paper or participation. As long as he's not bothering the student next to him, he can opt in or opt out. It's HIS class. I provide tools. He can choose to use them or not.

Many people balk at my one-rule policy, but consider how hard it is to teach people by forcing them to do stuff. If a student learns this way at all, he tends to hate what he's learned. I know so many people who hate Shakespeare because it was forced on them. Frankly, I'd rather they never read Shakespeare than read it and hated it.

Now, my one-rule policy might not be practical for you. Idiot bosses may force you to complicate matters. They almost certainly force you to give grades, and they may do spot inspections of the classroom and berate you for letting students doodle or listen to iPods. Fine, then make a list of the thinks you should do (CREATE A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT) and the things you're forced to do (grade, etc.). Make sure the distinction is clear in your mind. Then...

1. Do the minimum amount of bullshit requirements that you must do in order to keep your job.

2. Be brutally honest with your students about why you're doing the bullshit.

Students resent being forced to do bullshit, and if you're the one forcing them, they assume you think the bullshit is good, and so they write you off as someone who ENJOYS giving them busy work. That hinders your relationship with them as a facilitator for learning. A student knows that he's not learning by doing bullshit. So if you're the one making him do bullshit, he assumes you don't care whether or not he learns.

I say to my students, "I don't believe in grades. My goal is to help you learn, not to rank you. But I have to grade you. For the most part, I'm going to ignore that. I'm going to focus on giving you the tools you need to learn the subject. But I just want to warn you, that if you don't turn in X and Y, I'll be forced to give you a bad grade. If you take advantage of the tools I'm going to offer, you should have no problem getting a good grade. If you learn the subject, I'll be just as happy whether you wind up with an A or an F. But I will have to give you the A or F, regardless of my feelings, and that grade might affect your life. I don't want you to worry about your letter grade, because then you'll be expending energy worrying instead of learning. So if you're worried about your grade, please talk to me. I'll be happy to help you improve your grade."

I also tell my students that they're not allowed to come to class late -- not even five minutes late -- because it's disruptive. I make sure to tell them that I won't think badly of them if they're late (I'm often late for things, myself), but if they're going to be late, I'd rather they don't come at all. (And I'm strict about this. If someone shows up five minutes late, I send them away.) If my bosses force me to grade based on attendance, I warn them of this fact.

I suggest that if they're not going to participate in discussion, they stay away, though I don't force them to participate or leave. Sometimes I move the discussion to one side of the room. I tell students, "If you want to stay and just listen, that's fine, but please sit on the other side of the room. Everyone on this side needs to be an active participant in the discussion."

I've found that when students finally realize that there are only a couple rules and that I'm totally uninterested in being a cop, their dad, or their playmate -- that I'm ONLY interested in creating a learning environment -- they know what to expect and they tend to relax and enjoy themselves. AND they tend to learn.

I am VERY aggressive about reminding students of my role. If a student says something like, "I feel guilty that I let you down by not turning in the paper," I say, "You shouldn't, because I don't care whether you turn in the paper or not. I only care that you learn. And even that is your choice." Most students are not used to being treated as grownups in this way (including some of the 50-year-old students I've taught), but when they finally get it, it's both exhilarating and -- as it should be -- a bit scary. Learning means taking responsibility!

Okay, having said all that, how can you help your students learn?

1. Don't assume they know more than they do. If you say, "Go home and read this Susan Sontag essay," I'm not surprised that many of them fail. Most of them probably don't know how to read. Sure, they understand the meanings of words and sentences, but they don't know how to read critically. They don't know how to deal with passages they don't understand.

What do you do if you're reading and, by the second paragraph, you're bored or -- worse -- confused? What tools to you have to make the text more enjoyable or clear? And how do you relate to the text? Do you just read it and let it flow through you and past you? Do you ask questions while you're reading it? Do you have a conversation with the author? What sort of conversation?

If you just leave them on their own with this stuff, you're being lazy. So try doing the "homework" in class. At least at first. Read stuff aloud; have them read stuff aloud. Interact with the text; stop and ask questions; discuss word choices; discuss rhetoric and logic; etc. Only encourage them to do homework at home when you can see they're ready to do this sort of work on their own. (You can transition them toward this by doing homework as a whole class, together; then in small groups; then individually in class; then finally at home.)

Be vulnerable. When you discuss an essay in class, tell them that the third paragraph fills you with rage because it seems like the author doesn't care about sick people. Tell them about how your mom died of cancer and how it kills you to read anything so callous! After all, this is why we care about reading and writing -- because it touches us; because it's relevant to our lives. Encourage students to interact with writing both intellectually and emotionally. Do this by modeling such behavior.

2. Teach rhetoric. It's a crime that no one teaches it anymore. It much more interesting than nouns and verbs and much more important to understanding how a writer constructs an argument. Use examples from politics or pop culture.

3. Work up to long writing assignments. You can mine an incredible amount of teaching and learning out of working on a single paragraph. Or even a single sentence. Start with a weak passage and work on it together, as a class, improving it. Work on making the sentence more sensual (ask students if they can think of ways to work all five senses into it); work on metaphor; work on rhythm; work on word choice; work on logic; work on rhetoric. You can work up from one paragraph to one page to multiple pages. Beginning writers can be so daunted by "write five pages by tomorrow" that they get stuck on the first sentence.

Note: I agree that your standards should be high, but paper-length is a retarded thing to have standards about. Have high standards about rhetoric, logic, poetry and clarity.

4. Play! I don't mean play games to blow off steam. I mean play with your subject. Encourage students to play with writing. Write a sentence on the board and then ask them to rewrite it without using the letter e (a lipogram); or to reduce it by five words but still keep the point intact; or to rewrite it using only one-syllable words. And then to rewrite it so that it makes the opposite point to what it's currently making. And then to rewrite it in the style of Dr. Seuss. PLAY!

5. Never let anything be mystical. For instance, what makes good writing good? There are only two useful answers to that question:

i. Good writing is writing that has qualities X, Y and Z.
ii. I don't know.

As I kid, I was so often suspicious of grownups who answered questions in convoluted, vague ways rather than just saying "I don't know."


In fact, one of the most useful things you can do is say "I don't know" followed by modeling what you do when you don't know something. Students need to learn that an expert isn't someone who knows everything about his field. They need to learn that an expert is someone who knows how to ask the right questions and knows where to look for the answers.

(I'm always stunned when I hear young teacher say, "My big fear is that the students will know more that I do" or "My big fear is that a student will ask a question and I won't know the answer." They shouldn't be afraid of not knowing an answer. Not knowing is a golden opportunity for discussion or for on-the-spot research. As a student, it's very freeing to see a teacher say, "Hmm. I'm not sure. Let me check Wikipedia." You suddenly realize that your teacher is a human being, equipped with the same tools that you are. When he doesn't understand something, he doesn't talk to the gods; he uses standard research tools that are available to everyone.)

For years, I didn't understand metaphor, because no one explained it to me clearly. I mean, I understood what a metaphor was, but I didn't really get why a writer would choose to use one (other than to sound "poetic"). When I asked, I was given mystical answers.

Finally, someone explained to me that metaphors can sometimes be clearer than "straight-forward" explanations, especially when dealing with abstract ideas. If you can somehow link democracy to chocolate, readers will be more likely to get what you're writing about. Sure, there's more to metaphor than that, but when I finally got it in that nuts-and-bolts way, I had a good foundation for exploring and enjoying metaphor. Why did it take years and years for someone to explain it to me in simple, practical terms?

6. Don't teach with templates. Don't use the same techniques over and over. Every student is different. You may need to suggest to one student that he do private work instead of participating in discussion. Maybe that will better suit his personality. Remember, the goal is to give students the tools they need so they can learn. A hammer may work for one student; a wrench may be a better tool for the guy sitting next to him.

I hate templates so much that I don't even re-use most visual aids. In other words, if there's a chart that's useful, I don't make a powerpoint slide and show it every time I teach. I redraw the chart on the board during class. I make a new drawing of it every time I need it. I find that when I do this, my charts evolve. They improve. They don't look as good as they would if I used the shape tools in powerpoint, but my goal isn't to make them look good. My goal is to make them as clear and useful as possible.

If I use an example or metaphor over and over, and it generally seems to work, I don't assume it's perfect. If one student doesn't get my example, I assume there's something wrong with it. I never assume that the student is just dumb (even if he's the only person who doesn't get it). I lie in bed at night, thinking about how I could rephrase it, how I could make it clearer...

7. Hold regular teacher meetings. Get all the teachers together. Allow only fifteen minutes for venting. It's important, but it's not all-important. The rest of the session should be about sharing techniques, problem-solving and brainstorming.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 7:49 AM on November 12, 2008 [10 favorites]

I've struggled with the same questions, and after six years am still in the process of figuring all this out. Different things will work with different classes, obviously. But in general, what's worked (intermittently) for me so far has been:

(under the general heading of "practical classroom stuff"):
1. Encouraging active reading (lots of annotation, underlining, curse words in the margins if necessary), and then assigning mandatory double-entry reading journals (student picks interesting quotes from the readings and writes them in one column; then writes her responses in the facing column). Those were a point of surprising success this semester with a veeery unmotivated class; they seemed to like the readings better once they actually had some inducement to pay close attention.

2. Picking a small group of students to "lead" each reading discussion by coming in prepared with a sheet of questions or an activity to help generate conversation. Having some personal investment in the success or failure of the discussion seems to help them focus a bit.

3. Having students discuss things in small groups, then write their group's conclusions/observations down and turn them in to me. Some people just don't perform well in front of large groups, and this gives the quiet-but-prepared people the chance to come out of the woodwork.

4. Giving students the chance to freewrite on the reading (with or without a specific prompt), book open, for ~5 min before the discussion begins. This may help refresh people's memories and/or give reading delinquents the chance to do a quick makeup skim; and if they're silent during the initial discussion, you can always ask people to volunteer bits of their freewritten responses.

(under the general heading of "keeping yourself sane")
1. Even if you don't like the course as it's currently envisioned by others, find your own reason for believing (really, really believing) that what you're teaching has a point. It helps if you've done some debating and/or are good at rationalizing things, but do some critical thinking about what the kids need at this stage, and what skills or knowledge you have to offer in this context. (For me, this usually means lightening up on the political/ideological and literary content of freshman-comp courses and focusing heavily on logic and argumentation, but you'll doubtless find your own way). Then reimagine the course along your own lines, and do everything you can to tweak your pre-set syllabus to conform with your own teaching ideals. Both enthusiasm and cynicism are contagious, and your students will (to a moderate degree) absorb whatever enthusiasm or indifference you yourself bring to the course.

2. In a similar vein-- don't be afraid to address the choice of readings with a critical eye, and to make changes when you can. The freshman-comp canon has always seemed kind of bizarre to me: a weird mixture of old classics, fictional/autobiographical meditations, pop journalism, and quasi-academic stuff usually chosen for its over-theorized and/or P.C. qualities rather than its argumentative credentials. All the readings may be very interesting and well-written, but are they the best adapted to teaching whatever skill it is that you're focusing on at the moment? Do they provide the students with a directed, stepwise intellectual experience, or just a journey through some random editor's list of Good Stuff I Read Last Year?

If you do find that particular readings aren't meeting your needs, then seriously consider replacing them with some of your own (or the students') choices-- essays that are more topical, more relevant to the students' own concerns, or that better model whatever argumentative property it is you're trying to teach. Even if the syllabus is pre-set, a little judicious tweaking usually goes unnoticed by the higher-ups, and your class will be all the better for it.

3. Along the lines of what Grumblebee said, with particularly tough readings, try focusing on methods rather than content. Even if the students don't care what Susan Sontag says, as writers and readers, they should be interested in how she says it-- what techniques she uses, how well or poorly those techniques work to engage and persuade her readers. Then they can try using similar techniques to build an unrelated argument on a subject they find more personally relevant.

Best of luck wrapping up the semester!
posted by Bardolph at 8:42 AM on November 12, 2008

Lots of good ideas here...which I will probably take into account for my own Comp class next semester.

I tried an experiment last semester that worked well for us. I got assigned to the Comp class late and couldn't choose the text for the class. When I saw the book, I was horrified. It was full of the same stuff most of my students have been reading since middle school. After a long discussion in class, it was clear that the text was stuff my students clearly weren't interested in and couldn't relate to.

We used the text only for the sections on grammar, style, and citation. But we looked elsewhere for substantive readings.

We spent the first two weeks of class identifying three "theme" areas where we'd be doing our reading and discussions. Then they chose three themes: family food traditions, global climate change, and the death penalty.

We discussed the types of sources that would work well for our class, and discussed criteria that separated good text choices from bad ones for our purposes. For each theme, I made each student propose a reading, and they had to propose their reading to the class and advocate for its inclusion in our agenda. In their proposal they had to discuss what type of argument it was and how the writer built their argument. They also had to discuss the who the source was and discuss why the source made it appropriate for inclusion.

The class voted on five or six readings per theme, and we used those as texts for a single essay. The three essays for the semester varied on purpose and scope.

An important part of my Comp teaching is revision, so we worked on those essays many times. We did in-class reviews of drafts two times, and each Essay was turned in twice to me for a formal grade. They got credit for both the reviews and for the formal essays.

All in all, my class wrote more in that class than in a more traditionally-structured class. I also think that allowing them to choose the readings made them more invested in the materials and in their writing.
posted by answergrape at 9:36 AM on November 12, 2008

Have your students write a paragraph or two responding to what they read. If you want, you could give them an open-ended question to answer, "What do you think of the connection the author is drawing between X and Y?" Let them write fairly informally--make it clear you're just interested in their reactions, not their composition skills. Collect them often enough that students will do them, and credit them for completion alone (maybe extra points for anything outstanding). Having already had to think about what they read a bit will also give them something to add to discussion.

I am not a professor, but I sure did have some boring classes no one wanted to participate in. Variants of this strategy worked pretty well to jumpstart participation in several reading-intensive classes I took.
posted by fidelity at 9:45 AM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: These are fantastic comments -- much more than I had expected to get! Thanks very much - I will definitely implement some of these in class.
posted by puckish at 1:28 PM on November 12, 2008

Hey puckish. I've been there. My first round (or two or three) of teaching freshman comp was a frustrating experience. By trial and error and consulting the wisdom of more seasoned GTAs, I've learned a few techniques that have made the freshman comp class a more bearable--and even, dare I say, enjoyable and occasionally educational--experience for both me and the students. I definitely don't have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Basic participation -- getting people to actually DO THE READINGS, so that they can actually talk meaningfully about the texts. Short of mandatory participation (which I think kind of defeats the point), what's the best way to get the level of participation that *is actually mandatory* for good discussion?

I am a BIG believer in giving students a reason to read, by which I mean a short-writing question or worksheet that they receive in advance, to work on along with the reading assignment. In my writing courses, I almost never give students something to read without asking for something back from them, whether it's filling in a worksheet or writing a one-paragraph response.

Reading quizzes work OK for some instructors and I'm not opposed to them, but I like to give students questions that model how a good reader (or scholar) engages with what they're reading. Things that you and I do automatically--checking to make sure we really understand what we're reading; following the author's argument; considering whether we agree with that argument or not; comparing what we're reading to other things we've read; etc.--are not at all automatic for the majority of undergraduate students. So, give them explicit prompts to get them to do these things. The more difficult a text is for them, the more basic the questions have to be. Here's an example of a worksheet that I used with a chapter from a book that would have been difficult for most undergrads to digest on their own:
1. Describe the discourse community for which [Author] wrote this book ([Title]). (This is not a research question—make a guess based on cues from the text.)

2. As you read, mark on the text wherever you find a passage that you do not understand, or where you feel like you need more information.

Write down here the one point you think most needs clarification:

3. As you read, think about whether you agree with each point that [Author] makes.

Write down here at least one point from [Author] which you DO NOT find persuasive:

Write down here at least one point from [Author] that you DO agree with:

4. [Here I posed a question asking students to apply terms from the reading to examples from a previous class discussion.]

5a. Whenever you’re uncertain about the meaning of a word, write it down here.
5b. Look these words up in a dictionary.
5c. (Optional) Write down the definition (shortened or put into your own words, if you like).
On the original worksheet, there was more white space between questions for them to write in responses, and there were lots of lined blanks after #5 to encourage them to write down unfamiliar vocabulary.

You can see how this worksheet translates directly into productive, if not exactly spontaneous, discussion: you can find out right away what parts of the reading they had trouble with and clarify those; you can poll the class to find out what they agreed with or disagreed with in the argument, and possibly goad the students into debating with each other.

If you assign a worksheet like this (or a more open-ended reading response question), you can also enforce participation without making it into a big dreadful deal: asking a quiet student "What did you write down for question #1?" is really different from "putting someone on the spot." A lot of students say that they don't participate in discussion because they don't feel that they have anything to contribute. By assigning them to write something down ahead of time, you've made sure that they will have something to contribute, and you might find people volunteering more.

2. Making class discussion meaningful-- What happens when they want to talk about how this relates to the movie they saw last weekend?

When something like this happens in my classroom, usually I haven't seen the movie in question, so I ask them to tell me more, and to explain to me how it relates to our class readings. Sometimes this helps them articulate what they got out of the readings. Sometimes I learn something!

But to give a possibly more helpful response: Try to come to each discussion with goals--what main ideas do you want students to take away from the discussion? Or what "moves" do you want them to practice? (One of my biggest mistakes, in the first couple years of teaching, was to think that discussions just HAPPENED, spontaneously. As an undergraduate, I had never realized how much structure and direction my professors had subtly but deliberately built into the in-class discussions.) When students start talking about the movie they saw last weekend, you can either figure out how to make that discussion work towards one of your goals, or cut it off and redirect towards one of your goals ("OK, that movie sounds fascinating. I'll have to see it. But let's get back on track. Student X says she found the main claim of this article in the second paragraph--did anyone find another place where the article seems to be stating a big claim?")

3. Gauging how much I should actually care about this?

Not a direct answer, but one thing I'll say is that it may help if you can look upon this semester--please forgive the cliché--as a learning experience. After all, you are learning to teach, and you can't be expected to perform brilliantly from the start. When I get down about my teaching skills, I sometimes feel guilty about not having given my students a top-notch educational experience. I have to remind myself that one of the trade-offs for my students is that by attending a university that uses a lot of GTAs, they're getting a cheaper education than if they had gone to a private college with all teaching done by the faculty, but they're accepting that sometimes they're going to be taught by novices like me.

Something else to keep in mind: In my experience, mid-semester changes of approach are usually met with resistance. That's not to say you shouldn't start trying to apply any ideas that you may glean from this thread or other sources, but if the students don't react well (for example, if they whine about having to do "extra work" when you assign a worksheet or reading response question), please don't conclude that "nothing works." You'll have a clean slate at the start of next semester (or whenever you teach class next) and if you apply a new approach consistently from day one, the students will accept it as "the way things are," and they'll be more receptive to the pedagogical benefits.
posted by Orinda at 1:30 PM on November 12, 2008

3. Not surprisingly, nobody likes this class. Including the grad students who have to teach it. We try to suppress this as much as possible, but it's pretty much a given that by the second week, they've figured this out. This, I understand, is a problem.

It's not just a problem, it's THE problem. If you hate going to that class, you have no reason to think that your students will feel any differently. As a grad student, you may not be much older than your students, but you are still the authority figure, so it is entirely up to you to set the tone, and they know that. All but the most stubborn students will follow the example that you set. If you treat them as though you expect them to be bored, they will be bored. If you act as though you are just running out the clock, they will act that way too. But, if you can figure out how to enjoy being in the classroom, then your students will enjoy it, too. Structure the class so that it is engaging to you personally and probably 2/3rds to 4/5ths of your problems in this regard will be solved.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:20 PM on November 12, 2008

It's late, and my brain isn't working as well as it should be, but first, let me say that there are a LOT of really helpful responses in here. I'm now in my third semester teaching, and I have an amazing degree of autonomy with my Comp. classes.

You say they don't like the class, and while I understand the balking at having to take a class simply because it's a requirement, there are ways to underscore how you are going to be able to help them through the rest of their university career with the skill you are going to try to impart to them. Writing for different audiences and in different modes is one thing, but if you can show them how this will be useful in uni as well as for the rest of their lives, well, then they might begin to show a little more engagement.

I note for context that I am a TA at a state school in NY. (Hottest Small-State School, HOLLA)

My classes are similar; in Comp. I, we have four papers, running from exploratory, to informative, to analytical, to persuasive. Comp. II is more research-heavy, culminating in a longer paper.

I have found that First-years tend to react well to a few things, and if you begin the semester with these, you can expand upon these ideas:

They tend to react well to visual and filmic texts; I don't know how you are set-up for technology in the classroom, but I am fortunate to have a "smart" classroom--we are wired for internet with a projector and a whiteboard. I use short YouTube clips to illustrate issues, and YouTube, as we all know, is jampacked with funny and interesting stuff.

I like to use a modified version of Bruce McComiskey's version of Critical Discourse Analysis, first on visual images, then show how it can be applied to other texts. I use Killed Cartoons to begin with, they're easy to discuss, and there's a lot to unpack. They are political cartoons that were cut before publication by editors, for various reasons. Fun.

My stripped-down 1st year version of Critical Discourse Analysis encompasses a few different ideas: we look at the textual, rhetorical, and discursive aspects of a text, then formulate ideas about that text with respect to our own subject positions and other potential subject positions.

The textual: that which is on the page (or frames of a film). The typography, images, composition, etc.

The rhetorical: audience (demographic), tone, diction, persuasive modes of appeal--ethos, pathos, logos, etc.

The discursive: those forces (cultural, social, economic) that shape our understanding of a text through their influence on us; that is, institutions like religion and schooling, ethnic background, economic stratification, etc.

the subject position is how we perceive ourselves within the context of society-- I am a White, lower-middle-class male, and I might see a text through that lens, which is likely different than the perception an African American, middle-upper class female might see it. (add to this sexual orientation, schooling, all the other stuff that helps to determine who we are)

So, we then use this as a frame through which we make meaning. Analysis: finding patterns, noting themes, etc. Interpretation: making aesthetic or value judgments about how those patterns mean.

I use print advertisements from magazines, and we unpack them using this method. The students LOVE it, and they develop a new way of seeing.

It is a very short jump from these sorts of texts to essays, op-eds, and then other types and genres of literature.

While this seems overly long, and I don't presume to tell you how to run your course, this has been one of many continually successful projects in my classes. You can take this and run with it, see where it leads.

The one other thing that I do, and I think this makes a difference, is I am keenly aware that though I LOVE ENGLISH, I'm lucky if I have two students in my class that are going on to be English majors. Many are marketing, anthropology, business, psych, fine art, etc. I try my hardest to give them very wide-open prompts, and let them follow their own interests, and I believe that they respect that--writing well is writing well, whether it's a letter to a congresscritter, or an op-ed to a newspaper, to a letter to a company asking for free stuff, or writing a C.V. or resume, or a grant proposal. whatever. My job is to be a writing coach, and whatever they want to write about is pretty much fine with me.

I try to pick readings that are funny, polarizing, current, or are canon but still relevant.

My most recent prompt involved allowing them to analyze a poem (including song lyrics), a short piece of fiction, or a current essay in a newspaper. The responses were surprisingly well-written (or at least conceived--the writing will get better through the next drafts, I trust).

You will learn what works and what does not over time-- it is, by necessity, a trial-and-error process.

Good Luck!
posted by exlotuseater at 12:21 AM on November 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Puckish, to preface my advice, you gotta know this: ultimately, success at composition comes after a lot of time spent doing it. Sometimes you’ll get advice, even advice given by your senior compositionist in practicum, that won’t work for you. Be open to this possibility. That said, here’s my advice to your enumerated concerns:

1. How do you get people to do the readings? First, ignore all the advice you hear about quizzes and other metrics to see if they read etc. You need to use a carrot, not a god damn stick. Teachers who punish students are bad teachers. Students are adults—they need to learn either how to either do the work or fake it.
I taught a comp. class where we used a reader similar to yours – dense, complex texts (three a semester) that require multiple close readings. What helped me ultimately were these three things:
1. Give them printed discussion questions in class. Here’s one of those bits of advice that may or may not help. If I assigned my students a dense text over the weekend, I’m going to assume they read it and understood maybe 20% of it. Have students take these questions one by one in small groups and ask them to find answers. Questions might be something like “summarize this paragraph,” or “what does the author mean when she writes ____”? I.e. these are discussion questions in print form. Do what you see fit with them.
2. Experience. Once you’ve taught a text for a semester or two and you know it inside and out, you’ll be able to make more productive comments during class discussions. And you’ll be able to steer conversations in the right direction.
3. Interesting secondary texts. Students can’t understand Baudrillard’s simulacra and hyperreality? Use Borat to illustrate these ideas. Movies, poems, cartoons, short readings, etc. are wonderful. Figure out how to work them into your schedule. Use as many as you see fit. Don’t worry about your FYWP director looking over your shoulder, cause he or she doesn’t. You’re one of almost 100 writing instructors. You can teach however you want, and you’re already better at it than you think you are.

2. Making class discussion meaningful-- What happens when they want to talk about how this relates to the movie they saw last weekend? What happens is you roll with it! Do the following:
1. Make them use the vocabulary of the dense text. Any way I can get my students to absorb some of the dense text works for me. This means you’ll need to be familiar enough with the text to think “hmm.. they’re talking about this, which relates to what Sontag says about ____,” i.e. here’s a case where you just need to really know the primary text. Then ask them something like, “well, how is that scene in the movie like this part of the Sontag essay?” etc.
2. Don’t always feel like you have to be on topic 100% of the time. Just like life outside of class, you can’t always force 100% of your attention on your work. If it helps, try to set some realistic goals for the day, like “I want to get through these first three ideas in the Sontag text.”
3. Remind yourself and them of further contexts. What I mean is, that movie they saw last weekend wasn’t made in a vacuum. What kind of contexts might be applicable to both the film and the movie? What sort of theoretical horizon is Sontag getting at any way? If you’re on the second or third unit of the semester, how does this movie or this primary text relate to last unit’s texts?
3. Gauging how much I should actually care about this? A lot of the attention you put into teaching is going to somehow translate into your own writing and critical thinking skills, even in ways you might not recognize at first. Sometimes your students will impress you with new ways of looking at texts; sometimes you will want to quit teaching forever. Ultimately, your experience is contributing to your own identity, so if you want to stay awesome, try to innovate with your teaching. At the very least, you’ll be able to talk some smart talk when you watch movies with friends. Personally, that’s a good signpost for me and I often think I’m just a hollow shell of a person.

More on what Exlotuseater wrote:

I, too, like McComiskey's work. You might want to at least glance at his, and/or some other compositionists' works to get a feel for what they're writing about. Bruce McComiskey is particularly lucid. In his book, Teaching Composition as a Social Process, he discusses a few different levels on which one can take a piece of writing and analyze its audience:

Textual Level (concerning form and genre):

• Format: How does the format of the text call the audience into a specific role?
• Style: How does the style of the text call the audience into a specific role?
• Genre: How does the genre of the text call the audience into a specific role?
What specific role are all of these things asking the audience to play?

Rhetorical Level (concerning the author):

• Writer's Role: How does the writer define his or her role in relation to the audience?
• Audience's Attitudes: Does the writer view the audience as receptive, oppositional, or neutral?
• Desired Action: What specific action(s) would the writer like the audience to take after reading the text?

Discursive Level (concerning the relation between author and audience):

• Institutions: What institutions are involved in sanctioning the communication? How do these institutions influence the communication at hand?
• Subjectivities: What aspects of subjectivity (class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, etc…) does the writer invoke in reference to the audience? Does the writer invoke these aspects of subjectivity in positive, negative, or neutral ways?
• Cultural Values: Who are the ideal citizens of the community to which the writer belongs? What values do these citizens have in common?
• Social Values: Who are the ideal citizens of the world outside of the writer's community? What values does the writer impose on these citizens? How might these values differ from the real values held by the citizens outside of the writer's own community?

This might help you someday, even for your own research.
posted by hpliferaft at 3:14 PM on December 3, 2008

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