Continuing the end of the semester reflections, I want to take the time with today’s post to self-reflect on my own practices in regard to constructing syllabi and conducting research. This post arises out of two recent pieces that I have read from Constance Bailey and Maha Bali. Bailey’s piece provides tips for developing and designing your dream course(s), something I have been doing on this blog for quite some time. Bali’s piece corresponds with Bailey’s because it class upon us as scholars and teachers to examine whether or not we practice “inclusive citation.” Today, I thought I would take some time to walk through my reflections after reading these two posts and talk about what I can do better on each front.
In preparing a course, the first tip derived from Bailey’s presentation calls upon us to think about using texts outside of our disciplines. For me, this is something that we need to consider. I see English, specifically, as an interdisciplinary program. As such, I have taken, over the past few semesters, to incorporate texts that do not, per se, lie within the realm of literary studies. For example, I have used court cases in composition classrooms, comics, music, and other “texts” to get students engaged and to help them draw connections between what they learn in my course and the world in which they inhabit daily.
Another important tip that Bailey provides centers on varying our “teaching methods, assignments, or content” to meet students where they are at. Every semester, I try to vary up the ways I present material to students. When I started at my current university, I decided to make a semester length Prezi that tied every text together. Interspersed with the Prezi, I would have students do active learning discussion assignments. The more semester I taught, I realized that the Prezi/lecture was not beneficial to students. As such, I moved more towards an active learning classroom where students discussed questions in groups then came back together to discuss texts with the entire class. This approach, for those students, appeared to work the best.
An important part of teaching Is being able to learn from and adapt to our students’ needs and learning styles. Over my fifteen years in higher education, I have tried various methods in courses. Some work; some don’t. If something doesn’t work, I may tweak it or drop it totally. If something does work, I use it for a while then change it up. When I change up successful methods, I typically change them because it helps me remain fresh and engaged. As teachers, we can get into ruts just like our students, so we need to vary up what we do in the classroom partly for our own sanity.
Along with changing up methods and assignments, I make it a point, at least when I teach survey courses, to vary up the readings from time to time. I typically add/delete two to three texts per semester. Again, I see what works and wat doesn’t work and go from there. For example, I taught “Sentimental Fragments” last semester, and it did not work very well in a survey course. This could partly be due to the structure of my course. So, this semester, to help students understand sentimentalism a little better, I removed “Sentimental Fragments” and the longer work I have been teaching, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. To make this work, I reinserted selections from Harriett Jacobs, which will be the shorter work, and added Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple as the longer work. In making this move, I sought to maintain the structure of the course by maintain the various voices I have constantly presented in my classes.
Bailey provides other tips that every teacher, no matter the level, should keep in mind when constructing a course. One of the most useful, for me, is having guest lecturers. This could come in a myriad of forms. If, for example, you are having students read a short story, novel, or poetry collection by an author you know, then see if that author can Skype in with your class. I’ve done this a few times, and students really look forward to it because they can ask the author, directly, about the text. The same applies for scholars. If students read a scholar, have the scholar Skype in. These opportunities highlight the collaborative nature of what we do as scholars and teachers.
Thinking about Bailey’s tips and what I do in my own classroom made me start thinking about Bali’s post on “inclusive citation.” When constructing my syllabus, I make it a priority to provide voices from varying perspectives. These courses, mostly surveys, do not include scholarship, so I do not really think about that aspect when I compose my annual syllabi. However, I do construct those dream courses that I will hopefully teach one day. Looking back at those syllabi, I realized that I relied on a wide-variety of perspectives when adding scholarship into the class.
Bali opens the post by calling upon us to,
Look at the reference list for your latest few articles or presentations. How many of the people you are citing are people like you, how many people different from you? How many are dominant (white, male, straight, you name it) and how many are marginal in some way? If you’re active there, look at your recent Twitter interactions, how diverse are those? Now look at your blogroll, the authors you follow regularly (if you don’t read blogs). How diverse are they? Why does this matter?
This self-reflection is important. What does it mean if I, as a white-cisgender-heterosexual male, fail to have any scholarship by female, non-Western, Latino/x, Black, Transgender, or Homosexual scholars? What perspective, then, do I privilege if I rely solely on white-cisgender-heterosexual males? How would this privileging affect not just my scholarship but also my pedagogy? How would it affect my students? These are important things to consider not just when we construct our syllabi but also when we conduct scholarship.
Bali provides a few tips to become more inclusive in our citations, and for me, one of the most important is to look at our social media interactions and to examine who we follow. Through social media, I have opened myself up to different perspectives. Through this, I have expanded my scholarship and knowledge. What does this expansion do? It helps me to convey to my students various perspectives that may differ from their own, but it also allows me to understand students’ perspectives that may differ from the majority. This helps me as well the entire classroom.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.