For my final session of English 205 this semester, we are doing exam preparation. I’m toying with the idea of doing a think-aloud. I’ve tried it a few times this semester, but found it difficult to write about the process and its effect. The first time I tried it, it was without much forethought or preparation other than “it’s been a while since I read this, so I’ll try to show my students my process for reading.” I’m not sure it was a good use of class time, and may have been just extended professorial packing.

Having done this, I tried a similar activity, but with the text in question written on the board, and in collaboration with my class. This had, I think, a better benefit in that it was possible to engage in the practice of close reading for some students in the class. I did make sure this time to name and describe the techniques I was applying to the text as I went through it.

My directions for this week are to prepare two answers to test-style questions, and then work through a passage analysis with my students. The passage analysis is not the part I want to do a think-aloud through, but rather writing a short answer question.

It seems to me the discrete skills required to answer these types of questions on an exam are:

  1. Identifying the questions I can do best on (my students will need to answer 10 out of 15 possible questions)
    1. Is the text one I’m well versed in?
    2. Can I do the thing it is asking me to do?
    3. Is the question easier or harder to answer?
  2. Reading the question directions
    1. What is it asking me to do?
    2. Are there key words which indicate the type of content required?
    3. How much recall vs. analysis am I being asked to do?
  3. Writing the answers
    1. Outlining (do I need to?)
    2. MEAL model for paragraphs
    3. Using complex sentence patterns (not sure I have time to deal with this, or if its appropriate to the level of the course)

Based on previous tests my students are, broadly speaking, fairly good at recalling information about a specific play (3-4/5) and fairly good at setting that information into some kind of larger context (3-4/5). I’ve had a few students ask what to do to take their answers to the next level (going from 6 or 7 out of 10 to 9/10). So, I think the think-aloud might be helpful in terms of narrating through the process of answering one of these questions.

Thanks to Ambrose and Linkon (and Chick and Halpern) I know that I need to be explicit about the moves that I am making in drafting my answer. I know, as well, that for this exercise to be an effective one and not a self-aggrandizing time-waster that debriefing is essential.

I think what I need to do is first introduce the question, then identify the various options (strategic knowledge) that I will apply to answering it. Then, on the board I can fill in the MEAL model. At this point, I should get my students to draft paragraphs in groups, and trade them around the room for critique.

What’s the principle at work here? (Besides me wanting grades. And procrastinating other work.) This should help to increase student efficacy expectations, by ultimately getting them to engage in practicing the activity that they will have to do on their final exam. With a small number of assignments, I will also have the ability to give targeted feedback on new material. (In other words, every student should receive feedback on work they have contributed to during the class period.) This should help my students to develop mastery, giving them the opportunity to identify and enhance component skills. Ideally, they would become consciously competent right around now and before their final exams.

Anyways, that’s what I’m thinking about for my final tutorial session on Wednesday.

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Thoughts on Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others”

Dr. Lai’s comments about her experiences teaching at UBC resonated with something I would like to talk about. (Fun fact: this is my third draft.)

I believe that as an educator in Canada I have a responsibility to assist in the process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. At the very least, I should not make things worse. Dr. Lai’s comment that she makes every student read Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others” led me to read this essay.

In it, Alcoff suggests that “that anyone who speaks for others should only do so out of a concrete analysis of the particular power relations and discursive effects involved” (24) in speaking for an Other, elaborating further that “we must also interrogate the bearing of our location and context on what it is we are saying, and this should be an explicit part of every serious discursive practice we engage in” (25).

In other words, as white male instructor in a post-secondary institution, in order to use indigenous literatures I need to analyze the power relations and discursive effects involved in incorporating this material, and that further I must also interrogate the bearing of my presence on Treaty 6 and/or 7 territories, and consider the effects of colonialism while I do so. But, this speaks to content knowledge.

A wider perspective on SoTL might help. What strategic knowledge is necessary to perform the necessary work that Alcoff argues for? And, how can I impart that strategic knowledge in the classroom?

I’m going meta. In the selections I’ve chosen, there are a few critical steps which are named:

  1. Concrete analysis of particular power relations
  2. Concrete analysis of discursive effects involved
  3. Interrogate the bearing of our location and context on what it is we are saying
  4. This process should be an explicit part of every serious discursive practice we engage in

Step 1: Power Relations

Immediately, I’m thinking of feminism because of the exploration of the relationship between the patriarchy and everyone else. Something like Butler’s suggestions that we perform our identities might be helpful here.  To bring this kind of theory in to the mix, I would need to likely introduce a key idea in a short lecture, and connect it to at least one or two other texts.

Marxist theory also springs to mind, because it describes relationships across class. Again, I’d need a specific concept and to link it to a text.

In either case, I’d want students to explicitly know that we are using these concepts to help explain the difference in power between people on various axes of difference (gender/race/degree of conformity to established norms/etc).

So, scaffolding would be important here, and a think-out-loud would also help to show how to use the theory to examine the text. What about applying it to something the (currently hypothetical) class has already worked on? They’d be more familiar, and it’d be more specific, and then they could apply it with some scaffolding to something new before getting to the Other-content.

Step 1 requires, then, students to look at a familiar text in a new way, and then to transfer that new perspective to another text. That feels pretty strategic.

Step 2: Concrete analysis of discursive effects involved

Discursive effects probably means that there are some effects on a discourse when I adopt it? Is it kind of adaptation for me to speak for an Other? It’s a good question though – what is the effect of having me reading something by someone like Jamaica Kincaid out loud? But how would that work in a class? I’m not sure how to make this work yet. But I think it’s interesting, and am struck by the idea that voice somehow connotes authority.

In terms of strategic knowledge, though, step 1 outlines it: look at a text in a new way and practice transferring that perspective to other texts.

Step 3: Interrogate location and context

The treaty acknowledgements are a gesture toward this, but I think it’s important to talk about colonialism and some of the general concepts from post-colonial theory. I’ve noticed that students are very comfortable talking about the racism inherent in Nazi Germany, but much less so addressing the racism inherent in Central Alberta. One useful resource is the TRC report, and its definition of cultural genocide. The knowledge of the history of colonialism generally and its specific implementation in Canada should also help to evaluate familiar text and then transfer perspective (as step 1).

Step 4 is basically, then, do step 1 to everything. In designing a course, then, if this is a thing I want students to be able to do, I need to select texts that have utility on some other level, but are also good for rewarding shifts in perspective. It also means that I can somehow incorporate indigenous texts into my classes in a responsible way.


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Preliminary Thoughts on an Assignment

I don’t know why I can’t seem to let How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster go, but I think it probably has something to do with the fact that it was the very first book I had read in AP English Literature and Composition that lifted some of the opacity on literary criticism. In order to shed some light on my own expert blind spots, I flipped through a few of my high school (sticky-) notes, to see what about English Literature that was so difficult back when I was still very much focused on science.

In class last week, we mentioned that English Literature is complex and multiplicitous, and our goal, especially when teaching non-English students, should be to encourage this kind of nuanced thinking. Despite having many different, complex readings, not everything goes; we accept many different answers as correct (as long as they are well-defended), but that doesn’t mean there are no wrong readings. Until I had read Foster’s book, I struggled to recognize where these readings came from (how they are more than simply recycled bovine waste), and the literary tradition behind both the fictional prose and the critical works that surrounds it.

In my portfolio, I think I may be interested in creating a mock syllabus for ENGL 201, focusing on (possibly young adult) literature that reinvent other popular works; (For example, I will probably want to include books like Ella Enchanted which rewrote Cinderella; Carry On which was greatly inspired by Harry Potter; and/or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Hamlet.)

I wanted to organize a course the way Linkon had suggested:

  • What do I want students to understand at the end of this course?

Linkon has spent so much time on strategic rather than content knowledge, and I want to make sure the skills and information I am leaving behind could be applied in a variety of ways and could essentially form a miniature tool kit for the student in future English courses. While I may include a few, short critical works, I want the students to start doing their own leg work through the guidelines and helpful hints in Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. While I don’t want them to be dependent on the categories Foster had set out, I do want them to be familiar enough with these guidelines so students are able to come up with their own readings and start spotting patterns in books.

  • How could they effectively demonstrate that understanding?

I am probably in the minority here, but I think there is some value to a final exam in an entry-level or non-specialist English course like ENGL 201. I think it is an opportunity to see what a students’ gut reaction is to a text, and whether the strategic knowledge we hoped to leave behind would actually kick into gear, and if the student remembers enough of the content knowledge to apply it (rather than having it be subject to inertia, fantasia, or amnesia).

  • What experiences and information will help them develop that understanding and the ability to demonstrate it effectively?

Therefore, I think my assignment will probably be titled something like “a literary treasure hunt”, when students are looking for literary patterns and writing blog posts as they are doing their readings. I imagine it will make up a significant chunk of the final grade, because it must strike a balance where each piece is significant enough to motivate students to write it, but not so much that it cannot be scaffolded. Most will be focused on the apply and analyze sections of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but I think there needs to be a revision or reflective section where students are able to go back to their analysis and evaluate their work, and possible think about how it works into a final paper, or the creation of a more complex or nuanced argument. (Perhaps 5% for each post, followed by 10% for the revisions?) The goal of having it be part of a process, and, more importantly, scaffolded, is the ability to provide feedback at multiple stages and to see the evolution of the argument and ideas.

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Post #3.5 The Sequel to the Reading Week Blog. (AKA: 2 Blog 2 Post)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Reading Week post, as well as the critical works that I wanted to connect it to. Seeing how we are rapidly approaching the end of the semester, I’ve been thinking about the benefits of frontloading, rather than backloading the coursework, especially since Reading Week is meant to be at the midpoint of a semester.

In this week’s Stukenberg article, Steve Healey talked about the benefits of “‘front-load-ing’ opportunity for ‘intervention in the writing process’” rather than the backloading of most courses (287), and I’m inclined to agree. And I’ve been thinking about how that pedagogy could work in tandem with Ambrose’s ideas about balance through feedback so students are not overwhelmed at the beginning of the term because of the feedback and the end of the term with all of the backloaded work (140)

Seeing how many things are due at the end of the semester–including a portfolio for this particular course–I have tried to imagine what a course might have looked like if the major project (or essay, or portfolio) was due during the middle of the semester instead.

I do think it is much easier to compose a creative writing course this way. One of my prose writing classes during undergrad was essentially two parts, the first being largely shorter pieces and small group workshops, and the second half involving the entire class on a single, longer piece. This is particularly useful if the focus of the workshop is critique and reflective writing (Stukenberg 286). I think one of the biggest struggles of reflecting on a creative piece is the lack of critical distance and time between the written work and the revision process. If the portfolio was due before Reading Week, it not only give students an opportunity to rest and take a break from their own writing, but it also gives them an activity that doesn’t have a concrete deadline, but is useful in processing their own thoughts. This gap is also useful because it gives students who may need an extension (for accessibility of otherwise) an opportunity to get caught up with their peers.

The far more complicated matter is critical work. After all, as Linkon had stated, most professors still begin their course preparation with a list of tests that needs to be covered. And this is certainly a problem with a lot of essays and projects, because a student might be interested in a particular text, only to have it be at an inconvenient time of the year and/or clashing with another course. The course I TA’d for Aruna was interesting because it asked students to come up with their own syllabus, with a portfolio due at the end of the semester along with a learning log; I wonder if it would be possible to do something similar with a critical course where the first half of the class was dedicated to a handful of texts, but more importantly on general themes that could be connected to a variety of texts so students could find meaning regardless of which ones they have chosen to read first. If the portfolio / final project / essay was due just before reading week, reading week could be spent doing exactly that–reading the texts that the students may not have gotten to. The second half of the class could then be dedicated to rewriting, and class discussion, once against front loading rather than backloading.

I think these hypotheticals are useful in the analysis of the course structure, as well as the benefits of the Iowa Workshop format that is not perfect but quite different than the standard English classroom. And, more importantly, I want to reanalyze what Reading Week is, and what its function is supposed to be. Despite its name, I think it could be put to use for things other than reading.

See you on Friday.


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Assignment in Progress

I’ve started working through an assignment that incorporated Bloom’s Taxonomy explicitly into its structure, and things are getting a little bit out of hand. What follows is some musings about what I’d like my hypothetical students to be able to do (strategic knowledge goals) and a rough draft of the first half of the assignment which corresponds to the first three categories on Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised).

Some context: this is material that I will be adapting for a future upgrading course. The History of Emily Montague is both delightful and perhaps the first Canadian novel; it is helpful in setting up a question of how Canadian identity is shaped by the narratives in Canadian culture. So, without further ado…

Big ideas: The History of Emily Montague is both delightful and engages with some of the questions I’d like to structure my broader course around, primarily the role of culture as a hegemonizing force in the pre-Confederation period. But this is all content stuff. In terms of strategy, over the course of this assignment, I’d like students to learn to select quotations and use them in an essay, to make inferences from their reading and be able to reasonably explain the significance of those inferences, and to write a literary essay which engages in the primary source text. I think it’s also reasonable to get them to create some kind of reference framework (perhaps collaboratively). Also, because I teach things like upgrading, there should be some basic academic skills like annotating and note taking and whatnot.

I’d also like to consider student motivation. Because this is an important factor, I feel like there should be options somehow. Which is why I’ll suggest group work and stuff.

[Interjection: There’s not a lot of explicit motivation stuff in the descriptions which follow; however, most of the stages of the assignment will present choices. According to Ambrose, providing choices is a way to increase student motivation.]

English 2XX
Fall 2018
The History of Emily Montague Unit Overview

This set of assignments is designed to engage with the epistolary novel The History of Emily Montague on a number of levels. Each step in the assignment corresponds to one or more of the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. [insert introductory text, which lays out specific outcomes for this unit: note taking skills, summarizing, quotation selecting, using dictionaries to help tease out connotations, incorporating secondary sources/they say I say, outlining, and essay writing.]

(5%) Section 1: Remembering

Option 1 – Table of Contents (Group Assignment)

In a group of 4-6 students, create a table of contents for The History of Emily Montague. Each entry should have the following information: Letter Number, Author, Addressee, and a sentence-long description of the contents.




Letter From To Summary
1 Ed Rivers John Temple Ed tells John he is looking for land that he is entitled to as a part of his wages from the army, and suggests that settling in Canada may be romantic, but a better choice than in New York.

The purpose of creating a table of contents like this one is to:

  1. Practice summarizing information so that it can be quickly recalled later
  2. Use an organized structure to help locate specific information for future assignments
  3. Collectively read the entire text, and benefit from communicating with classmates

Option 2 – Select one of the following characters (Lucy Rivers, Ed Rivers, Arabella Fermor, John Temple, or Emily Montague), and read the letters they have written. Then, identify the following:

  1. What does your character want?
  2. How are they connected to the other characters listed above?
  3. Why are they in Canada?
  4. What are their goals – either personally or professionally?
  5. What are two or three obstacles that these characters must overcome? Are they able to do so?

The purpose of this assignment is to practice reading and recalling information.

(5%) Section 2: Understanding

Select letter 6, 10, 11, or 16 and paraphrase it into your own words. Follow these steps:

  1. Print a copy of your letter out, and annotate it. (A version in modern typesetting is available here.) Underline:
    1. Big “so what” ideas or thematic points
    2. Facts/details/plot points
    3. Turns or critical moments (is a decision made, is something requested?)
    4. Connections to prior knowledge (how does this letter connect to what we already know about the character and plot of the novel?)
    5. Key Quotes

In addition, have any questions about the text, or disagreements with the character, write those in the margins. Finally, select three words and in point form suggest what connotations they might have in this letter.


The purpose of this step is to practice annotating a text. Annotating can help to improve recall of information, and can be an important step in thinking about the contents of a text in a more strategic way.

2. Paraphrase the letter, idea for idea. (In terms of how to organize your paraphrase, you can imitate the structure of the letter. Your paraphrase may be somewhat shorter, but this is partly due to the change in writing conventions between the eighteenth century and now.) Please format your paper using the MLA Guidelines.

The purpose of this step is to practice summarizing information. When we summarize texts, we are highlighting the most useful information and presenting it in an understandable and organized form.

When you’re done, submit both your paraphrase and annotated letter stapled together.

(5%) Section 3: Application

Option 1: Respond to Letter 72, 132, or 152. In each of these Fermor suggests a solution to one of the challenges of Anglicizing the formerly French Province of Quebec. Provide a criticism of Fermor’s logic, and then suggest an alternative solution to the challenge he discusses.

In preparing your letter, you will need to complete at least one of the following challenges:

  1. Consider Pease’ concept of national narratives in “National Narratives, Postnational Narration” and what relationship the proposals that Fermor puts forward have to the inscribing of a proto-Canadian identity in Quebec. 
  2. Look for a primary source document in the Early Canadiana or Early Encounters in North America database which relates to the relationship between the Catholic church, the French language, or relationships between settlers and indigenous populations. 
  3. Read the introduction of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (pages 1 – 23), and identify connections between the systems that Fermor would like to implement and the issues identified in the report.

Use direct quotations or paraphrase the information you find to help support the argument you are making in your letter. As a rule of thumb, one quotation per paragraph is sufficient.

The purpose of this assignment is to practice selecting quotations and using them to support arguments. A secondary purpose is to conduct research and integrate the information discovered into your own text.

Option 2: Dating Profile

Prepare a dating profile for one of the main characters in The History of Emily Montague. Review the letters they have written, and select two or three qualities that would make them an attractive partner in an eighteenth century marriage. (Remember: marrying for love is a new idea at this point, while marrying to transfer and consolidate power, money, property, or influence are not uncommon in the social strata these folks move in.)

Once you’ve completed writing the profile, in a paragraph suggest why you’ve selected the traits you have, and provide references to the text to justify your choices.

The purpose of this assignment is to determine which character attributes would be most helpful in enhancing their social lives, and to support your choices with connections to the text.

So, in terms of questions I have:

  1. Do the proposed assignments seem to fit into their designated levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and are they sufficiently qualified that a student who is paying attention in class would likely be able to read this and then run with a given assignment?
  2. Does stating the purpose of the assignment sufficiently reveal some of the strategic knowledge that should be necessarily tested or enhanced by completing the assignment? Or is more information required?
  3. If you were a student in my class, which of these would you choose? What questions would you have about how to proceed?
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Centering, decentering, and a few words about politics

I began this blog as a response to a response. Faye remarked on my last blog post “How we read and how we respond”, commenting on when and where we know to center and decenter our writing. She also mentioned the politics that we implicitly bring to our writing. My response began to take on a life of its own, and a number of important issues came to mind as I typed. So, instead of simply responding quickly, I have reworked the writing to present as my fifth blog post. I hope it contributes to this blog’s readers’ notions of  decentering and centering in our writing and in the classroom; I also hope it leads to a conversation, or perhaps individual thoughts, on politics in writing and the classroom.

A few weeks ago in class Faye and I chatted briefly on how Stephen Greenblatt often begins articles with some kind of personal anecdote or other short narrative that can seem unrelated to the critical task at hand. It is an attention-grabbing technique, and considering how he uses it often, he must feel confident in its effectiveness.

About a year ago, I read Greenblatt’s book Swerve for a course. He begins with a story of his undergraduate years when he found Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things in a pile of discounted books at the university bookstore. He says reading the book over summer holidays changed his entire approach to literature and ideas. He gestures back to that episode in his life at various points in Swerve. In this case, Greenblatt wrote the book for a wide audience (I believe Swerve may even have been a best seller), so the centered perspective serves Greenblatt to hold the attention of his non-specialist readers.

One observation I have drawn, then, is that centering is appropriate to most writing, but only by degree. For example, it is entirely legitimate for a personal journal, autobiography, or blog to be tightly centered. In fact, I think a diarist would be surprised – perhaps even annoyed – if a reader were to say, “Your book is pretty good, but maybe you should talk more about people other than yourself”. Greenblatt situates his book on Lucretius further along the continuum between mostly centered and mostly decentered texts.  He realizes his audience would appreciate some centering, so he weaves it into his book; but there are important critical discussions in the work, too, so he moves away from the personal center at those times.

Faye noted in her response to my last blog that political views are implicit in our writing; I agree with this and would go further to say that they are implicit in nearly all we do in life. I do not know anything about Greenblatt’s political views. I only know about him as a name that keeps coming up everywhere I go in my literary travels – he seems to have written about all literary topics under the sun and has now taken over as General Editor of Norton Anthologies from MH Abrams (a person I thought was immortal and would edit Norton forever!). But the personal anecdotes in Greenblatt’s work can be nostalgic in tone – does this mark him as an intellectual conservative? I read somewhere that Greenblatt was one of the original New Historicists. Does this place him at the vanguard of literary criticism? Or is he positioned instead at the very back, looking over his shoulder at the past (i.e. history)? Now that Greenblatt sits atop Norton, he holds a significant degree of influence over canon formation and reformation, so he is in a position of some power in the academy. His political views and opinions should be of concern to academicians. I intend to read up a bit more on Professor Greenblatt…

But first permit me to move a short distance further along the continuum. At a conference – like last week’s Free-Ex, for example – centering helps to keep an audience in the game. The language of literary criticism is often marked by complex verbiage.  For instance, we find numerous Latinate words with “z-ing” added to the end of them (“totalizing”, “deterritorializing”, “instancializing”, etc.) that may be appropriate in written criticism – especially if the terms have been specified and agreed upon (at least provisionally) by scholars for particular literary contexts – but they can be difficult to follow in a brief, abstract speech laden with ideas. Here, the well-chosen personal anecdote can bring the speech alive – a rhetorical needle, popping participants’ wandering thoughts. The anecdote must be pertinent to the debate, though, and I think the subtleties of drawing an anecdote into a presentation or even panel discussion is an ability scholars refine over the years. I believe, too, that published conference proceedings/papers are appropriate forums where scholars can submit more formal articles with area-specific language used more prominently.

At the end of the continuum are journal publications and books. Editors and readers of these works expect a degree of specialized language. This kind of wordsmithing can open up debate, offering arguments that may be difficult, but not impossible to follow. Here, to paraphrase Keats, is where we can see “negative capability”, an acceptance of working in ambiguity. Pushing the limits of language and argument are important things for journals and academic publishers to do. I think of the example of Lacan, whose prolix style – heavy with philosophy, science, semiotics, perhaps made even more difficult through translation – can turn off readers. Yet, academics, journals, and publishers recognized important elements to Lacan’s arguments. Without a forum for publishing Lacan’s ideas on the mirror stage of infancy, for example, concepts of “othering” or alterity may have been delayed in presentation to the academy. But look where those ideas went, how they developed — through the works of feminist, postcolonial, new historical, and posthumanist theorists, to name but a few – and how concepts of “othering” remain crucial to literary criticism today.

Acting to center and decenter serves so many uses: centering can offer a diarist or the diarist’s readers a means to plumb the depths of their own souls (Meltzer speaks compellingly to the importance of self-reflective writing on pp 74-76 and elsewhere in “The Power of Writing Across the Curriculum”); centering and decentering within a book or at a conference can make the esoteric audible; moving towards decentering can help unpack for the academy some important, though perhaps initially daunting, philosophical ideas. For intellectuals – including the nascent intellectuals also known as undergraduates – understanding where and when to center and decenter is a process that involves practicing and repracticing, thinking and rethinking. And yes, we can model, scaffold, and be strategic about it in the literature classroom. If we, as instructors, are serious about multiplicity of interpretation in the classroom, working with students on centering and decentering is our duty. It should be one of the big ideas students carry with them when the class is in their past and they continue along through life.


A final few words on politics. “Politics” may be a dirty word today, but since politics is everywhere else in society, we should acknowledge its presence in the classroom. When we speak of “multiplicity of interpretation” in the classroom, we do not explicitly state the politics of this kind of pedagogy. This educational approach recognizes pluralism in society, freedom of thought and expression, and other values often associated with the politically liberal center or left. Proponents of positivist notions of interpretation, where a certain perspective (or perhaps two) is valued above others, bring a more conservative politics and pedagogy to the classroom. Often what I see in practice are instructors that value multiplicity in the class but rely on old, positivist instructional techniques. This has been my own problem, and a main reason why I am taking this class. I wish my classroom practice to align better, not only with my ethics but with my (unspoken but present) politics.

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Invitation to post a draft of an assignment

We ended class on 3/16 brainstorming particular assignments that would both fit both different cognitive levels a la Bloom and under the enduring understanding that “Literature is Complex.” I invite you to post an assignment (i.e., the instrux sheet you’d give out for it) to the blog. It could either involve fleshing out one we mentioned in class or coming up with a different one. If it’s toward a different enduring understanding or pitched to a different level of student, be sure to let us know what they are.

You’ll receive some feedback on it. It’s optional, but it’s an opportunity to practice a component of your final portfolio.


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How we read and how we respond

Every now and again I think about a short story I read for the first time about 25 years ago, Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”.  It is a humorous account of a pompous, middling French poet whose magnum opus is a reimagining (of sorts) of Don Quixote.  The entirely credulous narrator — a friend of Menard defending the poet’s legacy — notes how Menard began to learn 17th century Castilian at the outset of his Quixote project.  However, the poet considered it “too easy” to “be Miguel de Cervantes” (91) by recreating the Spanish writer’s language and life.  Instead, Menard decides to reconstruct some chapters of the epic entirely in his own head.  Here are the results, according to the narrator:

It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes.  Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history.  Menard, on the other hand, writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth! — the idea is staggering… (94)

Part of the humour here lies in the narrator accepting and arguing for Menard’s claims of producing a verbatim version of Cervantes’ work simply through deep thought!  Another aspect to the humour, though, is the notion that Menard’s version takes into account all of world history, literature, philosophy, and science that has occurred in the 300 years since the publication of Don Quixote (93).  Somehow that 300 years adds something to this latest version/facsimile, though the words of the reproduced Quixote represent no change from the original. The narrator reads Cervantes’ text and concludes it is “mere rhetorical praise of history” and “archaic”; he sees Menard’s exact copy and comes to an opposite conclusion of “striking” to the point of “staggering” (94).

All of this seeming absurdity is nonetheless suggestive of more sober judgements in the Graff and Manarin papers.  Graff writes about relativism in undergraduate textual interpretation:  “Such relativism is indeed entailed by the theory that readings are produced by readers without being grounded in the text… to argue, as I do, that no text tells us what to say about it does not mean that we can legitimately say anything at all about it” (72).  Manarin adds:

This focus on a reader’s response … is ubiquitous … Scholes places our failures to teach close reading in the context of ‘the death of the author, reader-response criticism, the self-deconstructing text, and the symptomatic readings of cultural studies, all of which, in various ways, undermine the notion of authorial intention as a feature of the reading process’” (288).

Borges’ short story takes to an extreme the relativism that Graff and Manarin observe, showing us in fiction how absurd textual interpretation can become when authorial intention is disregarded.

Having written all of the above, I am still convinced there remains a place for centred interpretation of texts — an important place.  I was reminded of this at the Free-Exchange conference last weekend.  I was one of three panelists discussing collections (a session chaired by our colleague, Shuyin).  All three panelists constructed interesting, detached arguments about collections, citing relevant scholars.  Yet, when we made personal, centred observations, the audience really sat up and listened.  When I mentioned that I was “conned all along” in assembling a collection of woodworking magazines, people chuckled;  several of the questions asked of me afterwards concerned my personal opinions about woodworking.  Another panelist spoke of hirs mother’s collecting that led to hoarding.  When ze told everyone of the toll this took on the rest of the family, it was one of the most powerful, compelling moments in the entire conference. Decentering is important — to make close reading more like distant reading (Manarin 291) — but centred interpretation, when handled well, can offer extraordinary learning moments.  “Pierre Menard’s” eccentric narrator does not grasp this requirement for balance, but in the real world of teaching that we occupy with Graff and Manarin, we need to help our students come to a better understanding about appropriate moments to centre and to decentre.  I plan to keep this in mind for my own reading and interpretation, too.

Work Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis.  “Pierre Menard,  Author of the Quixote”.

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Formative Feedback in Large Classes

This issue has proven remarkably resistant to exploration for me so far; I suspect that I have spent too much time attempting to frame my discussion in some kind of context, and so am attempting to do less of that here. If the question is how we might provide formative feedback to a large class, it strikes me that this requires some definition.

For the purpose of this discussion, then, a large class is 125 students enrolled in a first year English course. I assume that the average student in this large class is in their first or second semester at University, that they did reasonably well in their ELA 30-1 or equivalent course, and that they are taking a first year English course because they have to.

Ambrose defines formative feedback as feedback which “explicitly communicates to students about some specific aspects of their performance relative to specific target criteria, and [that] provides information that helps students progress toward meeting those criteria” (139). Formative feedback, then, needs to provide explicit communication about specific aspects of performance.

Generally, the feedback that I provide on written assignments consists of the following:

  1. Copy-editing of the first paragraph or so
  2. short (1-5 words) comments written in the margins
  3. a point-form conclusive comment containing
    1. a summary of the paper’s position
    2. three tips for next time

I try to reinforce what a students has done well with short comments, and in the summary portion, and perhaps also in the three tips, but also make suggestions about one or two things that the student might work on for their next assignment. This is meant to be transferable strategic knowledge.

This grading/feedback takes me approximately 15 minutes to make on a 1,000-ish word paper, so for the class sizes I am used to dealing with (25-35 students), I can expect to spend about ten hours split up into two or three sessions grading a class set of essays. Generally, the criteria on the assignments I grade for my instructors of record is reasonably specific, but Dr. X does not provide rubrics, preferring to suggest that an A paper has a different feel than a B or C paper.

Typically, students receive feedback in the form of 2-3 tests and 2-3 written assignments over the course of a semester, so if I imagine that I’m suddenly teaching 120 students instead of 40, there will be some immediate needs to adapt. (120 students likely take 30-ish hours to grade, which means in a semester I would either need TA’s or have to spend about half of every work-day grading.)

So, I think that one technique worth exploring is to “Look for Patterns of Errors in Student Work” (148). The general idea here is that a large number of students will have consistent patterns of error. Particularly if the same instructor taught the same course over a number of years, there should be enough data to pull out the major problems that students are encountering. (I imagine these to be unclear or absent theses, poor use of quotations, and a reliance on plot recapping.)

Knowing that students will experience these kinds of problems, they need to be provided with practice. Here a scaffolded assignment, asking first for the summary of a critical article, then something relatively short that forces the student to articulate their position in a page or less, then something reflective which requires the student to respond to feedback, before finally submitting the essay should have a number of benefits.

First, the student is forced to work through a writing process rather than cranking out a first draft for submission. Second, the first few stages of the assignment are relatively short, and can likely be graded on very specific criteria allowing for much quicker grading. The comments could also be directed at pointing out where a student can see immediate improvement. (A rubric would be useful in cases like this.) “For the next stage, make sure to emphasize X,” or “you can

Second, because there are a number of smaller assignments, there are a greater number of opportunities to receive feedback. This also allows the instructor to monitor for specific problems and make interventions with the class as a whole. In theory this should also cut down on plagiarism, but that’s another issue.

Providing the feedback over the course of two or three shorter assignments, and making suggestions about how best to revise their material into the next phase of the assignment seems more formative than summative, particularly if there were two staged papers in a semester. It would, perhaps, be possible to grade each of these shorter assignments in a week. Arguably a final essay of better written material should also be faster to grade (or at least more enjoyable to read).

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Formative in Large Classes

March 9

This activity was very hard, actually. Because so many of the resources that are available focus on providing summative feedback.

As someone very invested in technology and believe in the benefits of incorporating technology into classes in order to get plenty of information and process said information as quickly as possible. While most of the applications available provide summative feedback, it is possible to repurpose them for formative feedback. I do think formative and summative feedback can exist on a spectrum, and to look at summative as a step when trying to figure out exactly how students are processing and remembering information.

Tophat, for example, allows for students to contribute onto a digital board in response to a question. Because most (if not all) of the students are able to contribute answer to a question, and so it is possible to see the general gist of student thought. If someone is completely out of the loop or is completely off base, it is possible to correct or redirect that student. On a similar strain, I am a big fan of Kahoot, which allows for surveys and could be starting points for discussion. What is particuarly good about Kahoot is that it will provide analytics for the class responses, and thus it is possible to look over the class and make targeted feedback and changes when necessary. This is especially true when you can see recurring patterns in student thinking, or when a whole bunch of students have a misconstrued information. While it isn’t as flexible as Tophat in terms of responses, it is able to process student responses faster than a conventional method. While I have seen professors incorporate things like Twitter and Remind into their class plans, I found that these specialized applications are better able to target student interests.

When I was at the University of Toronto, I had an instructor who incorporated multiple ways for students to interact with him and with other students in case there are accessibility needs. He would allow for students to drop off post-it notes with questions and concerns and he could either respond to the class or privately. The important thing is being flexible, and being able to adopt to student needs and concerns. Post-It recently released an app that allows people to take pictures of various post-it notes, and allows you to organize it via colour, allowing the classroom to integrate both paper and technology. While I personally prefer the purely technological models because it provides analytics and allows for instant one-on-one communication, the paper model means only the professor needs access to technology in order to process all of the information.

I do, however, think there is nothing that is quite able to provide the formative feedback that intensive, personal work is able to provide. But some of the ways to cut back on the amount of comments it may be necessary to leave to each students may be to comment on patterns that you’ve seen in the class’s work, and provide individual remarks on the student’s papers. The University of Toronto, infamous for its large classes, would often rely on this practice even in tutorials, in order to provide some uniformity in student experiences.

See you on Friday.


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