Reflecting & Tweaking (Or, What We Should Be Doing All the Freakin’ Time): Get Out Syllabus Edition

I don’t want to quantify it because I haven’t conducted a formal study or anything, but an immense amount of teaching is about reflection.

Oh, students didn’t get something?

It’s not them. It’s you, boo.

A reading didn’t go over very well, or almost everyone struggled with it?

Well, maybe you need to chuck it. Or create a reading guide, with questions to engage and prepare them before they dive in. Mark particular points in the text that you want them to focus on, paragraphs that are crucial to unlocking the text–and ask them, in advance, to mull over these passages in depth. Or tell them to embrace the messiness, and come in with burning questions (and, y’all: have a discussion and activity around what *makes* a good discussion question). Or do more work with active reading, or create group work activities where they break it down and tackle it, question-by-question, and share out with the class to reach a class-wide understanding of a text (insert obligatory reference to Bean’s Engaging Ideas here, where you can get oodles of ideas for low-stakes assignments and activities). Maybe you need to not pack so much into that goddamn syllabus, in your overly-anxious need to prove yourself as an academic, and deal with the imposter syndrome that is somehow forcibly inserted into your DNA as a graduate student, and take a moment to linger with texts or ideas. Let things percolate. Let them sit a bit.

Or were there bigger issues? Did you scaffold? If you wanted students to deploy a particular skill or technique, did you model and teach it first? Do all your lessons build towards others skills, and tie into the overall course objectives? Were you a good little backwards planner?

Because, I guarantee you: 99.9% of the time things fall flat in class? It’s you. 1

Look: we all fuck up, as teachers. But unless you’re willing to confront when things go horribly wrong (see my earlier post on this, which also has a lengthy aside on how adjunct labor isn’t compensated or given time or space or support to DO this kind of reflecting), and to reflect and address how to improve them, you’re going to do the deeply ungenerous thing of blaming students. Like that horrible, horrible article claiming Millennials just can’t be taught in Times Higher Education (I refuse to link to it, #sorrynotsorry). Don’t do that. Will you always get everyone on board, all the time? No. We are dealing with humans here. Things are going on in their lives, and students might not be able to give you 100%, every day. But when you whine about students being unwilling en masse, or everyone’s on their cell phones all the time, or, or, or: it’s not them. It’s you.

And sometimes, there are inexplicable conditions. Something you’ll do in one section of one class goes remarkably well, and it is a complete and utter failure in the section later that day. And it’s because there are different people in the room. It’s a cliché, but teaching is never, ever, one size fits all. It just isn’t. So you need to be willing to roll with that too, and to be flexible.

And I want to make an important clarification here: “knowing your audience” is not the same as catering to a consumer model of college. We need to eventually admit, hard as it may be, that the “pedagogy” (and I use that in scare quotes very purposefully) of  those “masters” of knowledge who drone on for hours at a time is not only boring AF, it’s elitist, and it’s bad teaching. It suggests that students are empty receptacles, who only learn one way. It denies them agency and autonomy in the classroom: of their lives and experiences, and of their own knowledge. If anything, the neoliberal corporatization of college actually supports these antiquated ideas of higher education: by paying tuition, students, too, can have access to the hallowed halls the masters lecture and belittle students in.

But that’s not what college pedagogy should be about. There are objectives to the class. We need to help our students achieve them. Our job is to facilitate that achievement. We cannot deny or refuse to acknowledge what our actual job is, to bury it in our own academic narcissism or arrogance, and then to claim that our students are somehow lacking. No: it’s us, and the toxic culture of meritocracy that permeates academia, that supports these deeply undemocratic and ungenerous notions of how college teaching works.

That’s not to say we aren’t experts, when we’ve gotten PhDs, or are in the process of getting them. I don’t want to deny that achievement. That shit was hard. We all sacrifice a lot, and probably are deeply in debt because of it. BUT when we don’t consider the methodology, the how of making that exchange and sharing of knowledge possible? We end up just summarily dispensing of it in lectures, and thinking that is somehow effective. You can still be an expert, and own that, and be a good teacher. And admit when you are wrong, or don’t know something; that, also, is being human.

So: with that rant aside, I reflected a shit-ton on my Get Out composition syllabus, and I’ve made a few changes. You can see the earlier syllabus here, but we will follow the same basic format this fall:

  • reading and responding to texts and other materials to build close reading, summary, citation, quotation, and analysis skills;
  • applying these strategies to craft a thesis about Get Out, drawing on our readings;
  • exchanging papers with class colleagues and analyzing/responding to these papers, explaining how the analysis connected to their own and enhanced their understanding of the movie (that’s the midterm: instructors, just shoot me a message if you’d like the prompt);
  • draw on this model to choose a popular culture item of any genre, medium, language, or time period, and argue for its social/political/cultural relevance;
  • choose (based solely on interest), read, and respond to peers’ popular culture projects (this is the final: again, instructors, just give me a shout).

Overall, the sections of comp went great. Students loved the movie (who wouldn’t?), and were able to engage in really provocative discussions around it. However, two things became clear: more historical background on race in the United States was necessary, and the paper prompt on Get Out needed to have more focus. There is just simply so much to write about; unless students already had a preconceived notion of how they would approach it, they wanted to do too much in one relatively contained paper.

So, to address these deficits, I tweaked a couple things. First, I eliminated some readings (with a heavy heart), to give us more time to sit with others. I also incorporated two documentaries and an additional reading to provide students with more historical grounding. Now, we’ll also be watching the documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. We’re also going to read a chapter from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th. The Alexander and DuVernay will give students a better entry point for discussing the alternate ending, should that be their focus. Both the documentaries work to reinforce some of the major arguments put forth in the texts we are reading and offer that aforementioned context, and also give students yet another way into the material.

And this brings me to the other significant change in the paper prompt on the movie. I thought back to when I taught Macbeth and various adaptations in Comp 2/Writing Through Literature. I had students compare a scene from the Scottish play in two separate film productions of the movie (still in verse, using the original text) and explain how the choices made by the directors, performers, and designers in that particular scene revealed the larger interpretive choices at play. It was a really effective assignment, overall; I simply co-opted that same approach here (minus the comparative element), and decided to re-work the prompt for Get Out by asking students to ground their analysis in one scene or symbolic element. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they can’t reference other moments in the film (they should!), but they need to make an argument about that’s scene or symbol’s importance to the movie’s themes and topics overall, and connect it to two of our class readings/viewings.

Oh, oh: and we’re screening and discussing Childish Gambino’s “This is America” on the first day of class, because students in both sections of comp feverishly messaged me when it came out on Slack with “we’re watching and discussing this in class, right? RIGHT?!?!?!”

The Pop Culture projects, once again, went very well. I’ve been deploying that project for a while now, and other than some minor rubric tweaks very little was changed from last semester (now, the rubrics are focusing even more on seamless quote integration and urging students not to cherry-pick phrases, but to contextualize them more). Students use these rubrics during peer review, so become very familiar with this assessment strategy very quickly.

And just quickly (but most importantly), before I dump a bunch of links and embed all kinds of docs, here’s a tweet from Dr. Tiffany Pogue that I used to dive into my portion of a little chat today at the Graduate Center’s Teaching and Learning Center Summer Institute, preparing doctoral students for their graduate teaching fellowships (the bulk of this blog post was generated prior to that even today, but I thought this reminder was still super-necessary). 2

 

 

This process of reflection and syllabus-crafting is deeply political, and should be thought about deeply as well; this shouldn’t be a last-minute endeavor, though it often ends up being so. I’ve gotten into the habit of scribbling notes in/on my hard copy of my teaching plans, or in the GoogleDoc itself, on my commute home, as a reminder of what went well, what fell flat, how timing might need to be tweaked (what we need more/less time on), and what I need to change for the next go ’round. Don’t wait to make these changes months after grades are handed in: track what you need to fix as you go, or you’ll almost certainly forget it. This sounds basic, but it’s really key to reflect while it’s fresh, and with distance alike (and I know I’ve been guilty of putting this off at moments).

Without further ado, the docs. If you click on any of the headings, you can get to the Doc itself to copy/paste/tinker with it. Of course, I’m still making tweaks and adjustments to all these documents, but the basics are all here.

 

Syllabus

Get Out Paper Prompt

Pop Culture Project

Teaching Plans

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. I’m leaving a .1% margin here to account for things like fire. Or natural disasters and extreme weather that prevent students from physically getting to class, or other things outside of our control.
  2. Many thanks to Elizabeth Alsop, Luke Waltzer, and the TLC Summer Institute participants for inviting me!

2 comments

  1. Mary says:

    I love these posts, Bethany. I’m always returning to your blog when I’m deep into syllabus creation/revision. Keep ’em coming!

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