Monthly Archives: August 2013

First-day expectations

A colleague whom I met at a conference on teaching book history at the Folger last year has a tip, published by the website Pedagogy Unbound, for gauging student expectations of their performance while simultaneously encouraging them to take more responsibility for their education. She suggests a quick questionnaire on the first day that asks students three questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?
2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?
3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? (quoted from the website)

It starts the year with a sense of student responsibility, gives her something to work with when students come to office hours upset about grades, and provides a means for students to reflect on their performance at the end of the year.

I think I’ll be adding this to my repertoire this semester. I already give midterm evaluations (students evaluating the course and their learning, not me evaluating them), with a format borrowed from a professor for whom I TAed in my second comp lit teaching semester (Professor William Moebius). Students are asked to complete three sentences. The first begins with the words “I’m learning,” the second with “I like” and the third with “I wish.” Like Sarah Neville’s exercise, some answers are very thoughtful and serious and some are silly, but it provides a moment to reflect on course experiences in the middle of the course, both for my students and for me (I take them very seriously).

Good luck to everyone starting classes over the next week!

Logic in the Classroom

Over the semesters that I’ve taught Comp Lit, one of the problems that I’ve run into often is that students have a difficult time articulating logical connections in their papers. Conferences about their papers usually reveal that they know what the connections are, although I’m sure that some students struggle with that as well. This semester, I want to emphasize the importance of logical thinking and the articulation of logical processes in my course and see whether some of the paper-writing problems can be resolved simply by foregrounding logic as a component of writing.

To that end, I’m trying out an odd beginning-of-the-semester logic assignment. I’ve posted three different logic puzzles on our course website– the humorous, wordy, but uniquely solvable Self-Referential Aptitude Test by Jim Propp that I posted about a while ago, a  Kakuro puzzle that involves the integers 0-9, sums, and non-repeating rows and columns, and a 7×7 More or Less (Futoshiki) puzzle that also requires non-repeating rows and columns, with some requirements about which number be larger.

I know that these are tough, so I’m not requiring students to finish them, or even to figure out how to start all three. Each student is assigned to choose one of the puzzles and write out an explanation of the logical process by which they made their first decisions. The idea is to get them to articulate a logical process clearly, and ideally to someone who chose a different puzzle (possibly because the logic of that puzzle made more sense to them).

I’ll use this exercise to start a discussion about the kinds of logic that we typically use in literary study and critical writing: implications, correlations, cause and effect (and lack thereof), accumulation of evidence to point to one single outcome… I’m also hoping that I can convince my students that logic is an important part of critical reasoning in general. I’ll also point out that while I’m asking them to write these explanations out in English sentences, other fields that also use logic have their own systems of notation for expressing the same relationships, and that like in math, for example, it’s important in English to follow the “notational rules” for logic so that the argument makes sense.

We’ll see how it goes over!

Late-summer planning

I’m back to my desk after a week visiting my family, including three days up on top of the garage re-roofing it.

One of my late-summer tasks is finishing my syllabus and ordering books. I’m teaching Good and Evil in the fall (a gen-ed, 100-level Comp Lit course where each TA gets to create their own syllabus within a broad course description). This will be my second time teaching it, but I’m making a completely new reading list. The assignments will probably stay largely the same, but the organizing principle this time is…

Bargains and Negotiations.

The goal is to discuss morality and the notions of good and evil in a variety of cultural contexts and historical periods. The texts I’ve chosen are about different types of negotiation- humans bargaining with deities and supernatural beings, with each other, humans negotiating different ideas of morality and different cultural systems.

We’re going to start off with a Christian framework and read a little bit about St. Augustine’s notions of the nature of evil, along with the medieval tale (attr. Anna Bijns) of Mary of Nijmeghen, a Faust-like figure who surrenders her soul to a demon for knowledge, but then (unlike Faust) repents and is saved. We’ll also read Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (A-text) along with some of the historical documents about Faust and a couple of other short texts that prefigure the Faust story.

I’m still not sure of the order of the rest of the course, but we’ll be reading some negotiations with Death (the story of Sati Savitri from the Mahabharata Book of the Forest and Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life), some folk tales about bargaining with witches, the first half of Arthur Waley’s Monkey (a translation and abridgment of Journey to the West) where Monkey tricks and deceives his way into establishing himself both as an immortal and a troublemaker, the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” To finish up, we’ll read Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North, taking our discussion of morality and negotiations between moral systems away from the supernatural. I’m still planning to add a few short texts (suggestions are welcome!) but that’s the main outline.

Along the way, we’ll be able to talk about various different ethical systems related to the religious or moral frameworks of the texts we’re reading, as well as the difficulties entailed in reading and discussing the concepts of good and evil (already culturally loaded) across cultures. I’m planning to have the class read the first chapter of a much more academic translation of Journey to the West as well (by Anthony Yu), along with Waley’s translation, to discuss the role of genre in how we approach texts, and the ways that the translator is himself a negotiator.

Last spring, I taught Good and Evil with a focus on heroes and/as sociopaths, and we had some great discussions. I’m looking forward to this semester, and building on some of my ideas about assignments and organization from last semester. Wish me well!