Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My First Literature Class*

I just finished teaching my first college literature course during the five-week intensive summer semester.  What a blast!

It was a section of English 2025, Introduction to Fiction; I had made my section a themed one on southern women writers.  We met Monday through Friday from 12:40-2:10.  The weekend before classes began, I had forty students enrolled in the class (plus a waitlist).  However, another instructor's course fell through, so the night before classes started I got an email that my class had been split into two sections, and that half of the students would be assigned to the new section. 

That meant that ultimately, I ended up with 17 students enrolled in my class--an aspect of the class that I think has a lot to do with what a wonderful experience the class was for me.  With 17 students meeting five days a week, I knew everyone's name much faster than ever before, and the class quickly became the kind of classroom community that I hope for each semester.  While I continued to break students up into smaller groups to encourage discussion (and mix up the groups, so that they worked with different people), pretty quickly most of the students were piping up in the full class discussions--what's more, I often had students responding to each other in the full class discussions and even disagreeing with each other.  Being able to stand back while students discuss the text among themselves was just delightful. 

It was so difficult to narrow the readings down--class daily for five weeks meant that I was even more limited in what I could assign.  One realization I had when planning was that I didn't have to assign the readings chronologically--as an intro to fiction, and not a survey class, I didn't have to be comprehensive.  That helped immensely.  With this realization, I started the class with Ellen Douglas's brilliant Can't Quit You, Baby (a novel that pre-dates The Help by a couple of decades and addresses similar themes in a much more thorough manner)--I'm quite pleased with this choice.  Can't Quit You, Baby set up most of the themes I wished to address in the class; throughout the course, students referenced the Douglas novel in comparison to subsequent readings.  And, though I didn't realize it when making the course schedule, many students found the novel's style--the narrator's direct address of the reader, the changing points of view, and the role of the imagination in narration--to require some adjustment, so it also started the course off with the sense that students were going to need to put forth some effort.

I put a lot of credit for the course's success in my "QHQ" assignments, which I did as a student in a graduate seminar and which a colleague reported having success with in teaching an intro to fiction course.  I had students submit online one per week, with a 500-word minimum.  Though at the midterm (i.e., two and a half weeks in) students across the board said they liked them and found them helpful, in the course evals at the end of the semester, many students complained that they were too lengthy.  I'm wondering if perhaps this fall, I might have them be 300 words.  Regardless of the length, I really like like them as an assignment--they lead students through a bit more structure than a more open-ended response paper.  I especially like the kind of thought that ending on a question leads to. 

Plus, as summer students, the students tended to be extra-motivated.  I love all of the readings I assigned.  Students consistently surprised me with insights totally new to me--even of texts like Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," a text I thought I knew backwards and forwards. 

We started with Can't Quit You, Baby, and ended with The Color Purple (two texts which several students reported crying over, along with Kay Gibbons' Ellen Foster).  I'm really pleased with the arc that these two texts anchored, and I'm feeling a bit annoyed that I haven't found similar anchors for my fall literature class (which I've themed "The Many Souths," but keep having the problem that all of the texts I want to teach are set in Mississippi!).  Still, I'm really pleased (and a bit relieved!) that my first experience in the college literature classroom was such a positive one.  I hope that I can carry this positivity over to my fall class, and find ways to form a tight community in a class that's got more than twice the number I had this summer!

*Well, technically my second, counting last summer's Shakespeare course at Davidson for the Duke/TIP program, but that was three weeks of even more intensive coursework with gifted seventh and eighth graders, which was a unique experience

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