Reflecting on Transforming Literature

Mon, Aug 20, 2018
In Pedagogy

I finally picked up the course evaluations for my Spring term English class, “Transforming Literature: Fan Fiction, Literary Mashups and Other Canon Fodder.” I hadn’t picked them up until now because I was convinced they would be terrible. I tried out a bunch of new-to-me stuff, and I threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick, and even though the class seemed to have gone smoothly, I was certain that the course evaluations would reveal it to have been a disaster.

The course evaluations were uniformly positive. I wish I’d picked them up three months ago, because it would have been much nicer to have spent the summer feeling confident in my teaching than anxiously procrastinating facing up to what I was sure was going to be a failure. I’m not entirely sure why I was so convinced the class had gone poorly. The evidence, especially in the first part of the class, indicated that everything was going well. Even by week four, when everyone is tired, nothing was outwardly amiss. But I just had this feeling in my gut that the students had been being polite all month and were really seething. Those worries are largely related to the Spring term format, which does not play to my strengths as a teacher. Spring term courses run for four weeks, and generally meet for 8-12 hours a week. They are meant to be immersive and intensive, so the workload, in theory, should be about equivalent to a 12-week term. In practice, you simply can’t ask a student to read as much in four weeks as you would in 12, even if they aren’t taking any other classes. They still have lives. They still have attention spans.

And, of course, you can’t just structure your course like you would during a long term. Grading is different. Discussion lasts way longer, and you have to cover more ground. All of that is hard enough, but at my institution, Spring term classes are implicitly supposed to be fun. Nobody ever comes out and says that, but the way the courses are marketed and the way the term is discussed suggests that Spring term is special because the courses are intensive and engaging and fun.

Being fun takes energy. Teaching a single class for 12 hours a week takes energy. Combine those two and you have a herculean task, at least for someone with a relatively low-key classroom style like me. By the end of Spring term, I’m so worn out that it seems like everything is going off-kilter.

But this time, at least, the enormous outlay of energy paid off, because the students uniformly enjoyed the class, found the writing instruction helpful, appreciated the opportunity to play with literature, and agreed that the course material was well-suited to the abbreviated schedule. I made a lot of choices in designing the course that were guided by the affordances and constraints of the Spring term schedule, and it was nice to see that by and large, those choices worked out.

A few things I did:

  • Began with a narrow and open course topic. The goals of the course were to explore what literary transformation is, to read theory and scholarship about fan fiction, and to create literary transformations. That probably wouldn’t be enough for 12 weeks, but it was ideal for four.
  • Chose a topic that allowed me to assign only short readings. We read a lot of short stories, a few poems, and a number of essays and articles. I assigned quite a few readings each class day, but each of the readings was the sort that could be read in a single sitting.
  • Designed assignments that balanced freedom and constraint. Each week contained both formal assignments, like close reading and analytic papers, and informal or creative assignments that asked students to transform a work of literature in whatever way they wanted. The daily response assignment simply asked that students write about a reading on their Tumblr site—no requirements beyond word count and focusing on the reading. The creative assignments tended to be completion grades, while the formal assignments had more traditional requirements. This approach both made the grading manageable for me and gave students the chance to play and have fun without worrying too much about their grade on the more experimental/creative assignments.
  • Scheduled twice-weekly lab sessions in the afternoon. These sessions provided time for hands-on work, including guided brainstorming, collaborative creative sessions, and time when students could sit in the classroom and write. I was around to answer questions during the labs, and the structured time helped some with the necessarily accelerated schedule. It also cut down on office hour visits, leaving me with more much-needed grading time.
  • Planned for flexibility. Not all aspects of my life are hyper- (or at all) organized, but my teaching tends to be about as Type A as you get. Everything is planned and structured ahead of time. This course was still highly structured (I can’t imagine making it through a four-week intensive course without having done an enormous amount of the organization and planning up front), but I went into it knowing I need to be flexible and make changes according to student interests and needs. For the first time probably ever, my course evaluations mentioned flexibility alongside organization.

Some of these changes are particular to the four-week course format, but others—especially being more flexible and balancing highly-structured and deliberately-unstructured assignments—are changes I’m going to work to carry over into my other teaching. I went into my Spring term course knowing I needed to make space for students to try out whatever struck their interest, because there was absolutely no way I could describe the exact form a literary transformation could take or design a step-by-step assignment for creating one. We would have to experiment together. I’m now trying to figure out how I can incorporate a similar ethos into my first-year writing course.

This post is brought to you by: do that thing you were dreading, it’s probably not as bad as you think.

Revising Writing in Public