The rush of freedom

I want to begin describing what I’m trying to do with the advanced seminar I’m teaching right now, a class focused on the intensive study of Ulysses.

I’ll start with a simple contrast.

Here is the current version of a response assignment I have used for years, at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. As you can see, the assignment is longer than the responses themselves; the assignment is long, detailed, procedural.

Here, by contrast, is the version of that assignment I have given to the Ulysses seminar: short, suggestive, non-directive. I wouldn’t attempt this one without a great deal of confidence in the ability and ambition of the students.

You can see the results to date on the class blog: Prairie Bloom.

Week one of teaching with blogs

The advent of this blog coincides with my embrace of a new set of digital tools for teaching. I’ll explain what I mean by that statement and report on progress and problems in the coming weeks.

I recently described the process of giving my first blog assignment in the course we call Tutorial. Now I’ve completed my first week of teaching with blogs in two courses: the Tutorial and a seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’m encouraged by the early results.

I’ll explain the Ulysses bit later because it’s complicated, but the Tutorial offers a direct comparison between an old Blackboard discussion board assignment and a new WordPress blog assignment. (For those who don’t know: the Blackboard discussion board function is part of a useful but clunky and unattractive software package for classes. Every Grinnell student is used to using our Blackboard interface for classes and administrative tasks.)

Moving from my last Tutorial to this, I kept

1. the same topic (comedy),
2. the same content on the syllabus (mostly–I do tinker)
3. the same response assignment, and
4. the same privacy settings limiting access to the posts to the people in the class. (The seminar is posting publicly.)

The only change I made to the first-week assignment was shifting the environment from the usual Blackboard interface to a sparkling new WordPress group blog, created just for this set of students. The students picked up the WordPress routine with very little trouble (not much more than Blackboard usually causes).

When the first group of students posted its first response assignment, I was surprised to see a dramatic new effect: they wrote the longest set of responses I have ever gotten from an introductory class. (A good set, too!) I have always found new students, even very good ones (such as my wonderful former Tutorial students–hi!), reluctant to write at length on class discussion boards; this week, for the first time, I found myself reminding a class of the assignment’s word limit after they posted their first responses.

Based on this experience and the first posts from my Ulysses group, I strongly suspect that the attractiveness of the blog environment, which resembles high-quality websites everywhere (thank you, WordPress), prompted the students to a new expansiveness, a new sense of authorship. We’ll see what happens as this and subsequent semesters unfold.

Teaching meets parenting

A change of pace:

Last week, my four-year-old son asked us at dinner what poetry is. My wife got going on a good four-year-old-level answer, and then Pete volunteered,

“A poem is when you read something, and you see things that are different.”

And we said, bwa? I have no idea where this came from, and I don’t mean that in a “Wow, this kid is an inexplicable genius” kind of way. I mean that we can’t remember saying or reading anything remotely like this to Pete, and it isn’t the kind of thing we think he’d run into at daycare. And although we’ve read tons of poems to him, they tend, of course, to be rhyming, story-driven kids’ poems, so it’s hard to imagine him deriving such a definition from that. He has never said anything I found so mysterious.

In the moment, of course, I didn’t tell him any of this. I did what any parent would do: I scolded him for wordiness, made him revise out the two needless “to be” verbs, and showed him how he could express the same sentiment directly as “poetry transforms vision.” Then I explained how even better formulations might reflect the transformative power of poetry in their language, and sent him to bed with a copy of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry and my lecture notes.