Monday, November 24, 2014

Pedagogical Styles 3: Courses I have taught (or taken)

Now that I’ve put some ideas on the table – Vygotsky, coaching, lecturing – I want to describe four different courses, three of which I’ve taught, one that I took. All of that took place in the ancient days before personal computing and the web. My objective is simply to get four different kinds of courses together in one document.

What affordances to these course have for co-learning?

Freshman Comp

I was trained in English literature, which means that, like just about everyone with such training, I also had to teach composition – first, to earn my tuition while getting the degree and then when I got my first (and only) teaching job. The fact is that Ph. D. training in literature doesn’t even train you to teach literature – at least it didn’t back in those days – much less train you to teach writing, with is an entirely different kind of activity. The two have only one thing in common: the written language.

One consequence of this disparity is that many a freshman comp course has been taught as a “content” course that just happens to have a lot of writing assignments, generally weekly. Between graduate school and my faculty job at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I taught freshman comp, say, a half dozen or more times. I doubt that I taught it the same way twice and I forget what I did most of the times I taught the course.

But, one time at RPI I taught the course using a reader – a common thing to do. I forget which of the many such readers I used, but, like all of them, it had a large selection of pieces, both fictional and not, which you could use as the basis of a writing assignment. The weekly assignment, then, is simple: Read such and such a selection and write such and such a piece based on what you read. I’m sure I had some strategy with which I selected the weekly assignments, and I’m sure I allowed various alternatives as well, but I don’t remember that.

As I recall, the major difficulty was in making useful comments about student writing, where the problems ranged from grammar and spelling to theme, organization, and logic. I often thought that it would have been easier for me simply to re-write a sentence or paragraph than to explain what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how to do better. I note in passing that this was before the days of personal computers, much less before the time when every student had one.

I came away from this experience with two general impressions: First, what you need to do to learn to write is, above all, to write, a lot. More than you do in a one-semester composition course. Writing a lot may even be more important and useful than having an instructor make sometimes helpful sometimes obscure remarks on your paper. Second, this really would go better with weekly one-hour one-on-one tutorial sessions, like music lessons.

One year at RPI I somehow ended up doing an independent study version of freshman comp for one student. I forget just how this happened – maybe the student needed the course to graduate and couldn’t fit one of the existing sections into his schedule. He was a sports announcer at the college radio station. He did color commentary. He was the guy who told interesting facts and anecdotes about the players and the game while the play-by-play guy told you what was actually happening.

At this point I forget what kind of assignments we worked out. About all I remember is that, while his writing was not standard English, it was fluent and enjoyable. I figure that’s because his radio gig forced him to speak coherent, if non-standard, English on the fly. So it was relatively easy for him to transfer the fluency to paper.

That experience helped confirm my belief that simply doing lots of it – in his case, radio announcing rather than writing – was important and useful. I have little sense of what freshman comp is, or could be like, now that online communication is common. (And, no, I’m really not worried about the English language disintegrating thru all the short cuts 1 uses online.)

Technical Communication

I also taught technical communication at RPI, which is, after all, a tech school. Basic tech communication is like freshman comp in that it is a writing course – though giving an oral presentation is also standard in tech writing. But this isn’t a course a lit professor can transform into a lit course which just happens to have lots of writing assignments.

You have to teach standard tech writing genres, which include description of mechanism, description of process, instructions, and also standard forms of business communication. Tech writing texts are organized around these genres. Note that some of these assignments may well require diagrams of one kind or another: the mechanism being described, a flow-chart of a process or set of instructions, and so forth.

* * * * *

What these two courses have in common is that the student is learning how to build something, a piece of written communication. The thing that you are building is the point of the exercise. By contrast, in the other courses, writing is a vehicle from expressing something but is not itself the point of the course.

The Contemporary Novel

I taught such a course at RPI. It is, of course, an utterly standard literature course, though it is generally restricted by nation – which is how literary study has traditionally been structured. So: The Contemporary British Novel, The Contemporary English Novel, The Contemporary French Novel, and so forth.

The text I used were all English language, but I rather doubt that I would have restricted them to either British or American texts. I did do, however, do two things that were modestly innovative at the time. I included texts from pop culture genres (science fiction, detective) in addition to “literary” fiction and I included text that were more or less actually contemporary. I taught this course in the early 1980s and all I my texts were written after WWII. What I call “standard issue” contemporary novel courses tended to choose texts written in the first half of the 20th century – that’s more recent than the 18th or 19th centuries, but hardly contemporary.

Students in this course had to do some writing, probably two (relatively) short pieces during the semester and one longer “term paper” of some kind. These writing assignments were a vehicle through which students could express their understanding and engagement of some texts, but the writing wasn’t the point of the course – though, as a practical matter, I did pay attention to how they wrote as well as to what they wrote. (As an aside, I note that the “writing across the curriculum” movement was just getting started when I was teaching.) I probably also had a test or two, probably identification (I list this or that and the student had to identify text and author), short answer, and an essay (I likely gave two topics where the student could pick one).

So, unlike the two writing courses, this course had specific content that I wanted students to engage with. Yes, I know, I taught that freshman comp course from a reader, but I really wasn’t teaching the content of those reading selections. Rather, they served as prompts for student writing. The other difference, of course, is what I had the students do and how I evaluated their performance in the course. In that writing courses, that’s what the students did and all that they did. In the lit course, yes, they wrote. But I was more interested in what they said, than in how they said it (though I did pay attention to that). Moreover part of the evaluation was based on tests, tests, however, that involved writing.

So, let’s look at a course that doesn’t involve writing. I’ve never taught such a course, but I’ve taken some of them – though not a lot of them.

Symbolic Logic

I took this course my senior year at Johns Hopkins. I took it to satisfy my math requirement. The course had one textbook, Methods of Logic, by Willard Van Orman Quine. It started with the predicate calculus and then went to set theory and concluded with the rudiments of set theoretic construction of arithmetic.

I remember two things from the class: 1) The first day of class some ROTC students were sitting in the first row and two or three of them managed to ask, in somewhat different language: what’s going to be on the text? The professor’s answer: this isn’t the army; I don’t have an answer for everything. 2) Translating ordinary English sentences into logical formalism was strange.

Though I don’t specifically remember, I’m sure there was a mid-term exam and a final exam. Mostly there was some combination of weekly exercises and pop quizzes.

* * * * *

I seems to me that these four courses offer distinctly different affordances for either blended courses or exclusively on-line courses involving co-learning. At one extreme, it’s not at all clear to me that symbolic logic opens up very well to co-learning though, as always, students can help one another and those with the best and quickest feel for the subject can help others. But this has always been the case, no?

Tech-writing, on the other hand, offers interesting possibilities. One of them is for students to form teams each of which creates an imaginary company. The students in the company then write all the documentation required to develop, maintain, market, and sell the company’s product. For that matter, why not have the student teams create complementary imaginary companies so that their respective firms are buying from and selling to on another.

I’m also thinking that getting something like that to function really well would take a LOT of work.


  1. This was fun to read, Bill, and I think the idea of "affordances" is a really good one for looking at how you can approach the design of different classes. Although I don't teach freshman comp, the writing classes I teach are more like your freshman comp than the lit course because the content really is first and foremost the raw material for the students to use in their writing (although, of course, I am glad for the content too; by re-using the content in their writing, I do hope the students will remember it longer!).
    Anyway, just to say that your comment about writing A LOT is spot on, and with that goes lots of feedback on the writing. Both are important, and that can be hard to do in terms of time. Online, I find it easier than in the classroom since we basically dispense with all the orality, so it's really just the writing. If you are curious, posts are coming in from my students now about their reading and writing experiences in the class (feedback for me plus advice for me to pass on to future students). The amount of writing is something they comment on again and again, but in a positive way. Anyway, you can see what they say here: Reading and Writing posts for end of semester. (That's an HTML clippings from my Inoreader RSS feed of their blogs.)

  2. Thanks, Laura. How is it time wise for you?

  3. I spend probably about 30 hours per week doing feedback... and that's what the students need; most of them have never received detailed feedback on their writing ever, just scribbled notes in margins and maybe holistic comments about the content. But since these online teaching gig is my fulltime job, that works just fine for me; if my teaching load were less, I would reduce the amount of formal writing in the class (right now it is every week), and substitute informal instead, more peer feedback, etc. But I am glad I have the time to spend this way; I think it's the most helpful thing I can do for the students (and that goes for people writing at all levels, which is nice). Plus, it's really stimulating to be in this "language laboratory" of sorts, watching how college students write, seeing how things happen over time. I have seen the rise of the word "relatable" (meaning something you can relate to) over the years, and on and on. Always fascinating for me.

  4. 30 hours a week, for how many students?

  5. Three classes of 25-30, so around 80-90 students total. For me, it's ideal. I am very glad that the Dean who set up our online program years ago was committed to small classes. :-)