Friday, November 13, 2020

Teaching Literature Online


This semester, I taught a section of Introduction to Literature for the first time. I had been looking forward to this opportunity since I had heard of it, but creating my own syllabus was more difficult than I had imagined. My literary interests are scattered, so nothing I could come up with was a broad enough theme to trace across a survey of literature. Thankfully, I had support for this brainstorming process and for the theme I eventually came up with during my Introduction to Graduate Studies course.

My course is titled: “The Hero(ine)’s Journey.” Unsurprisingly, most of the texts ended up falling into the category of children’s literature. We began the semester by reading a section of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to introduce “The Hero’s Journey,” as it would be the foundational theory from which we would begin our analysis of heroes in literature. Campbell was followed by a poetry unit on the characters of Beowulf and Psyche to compare older notions of heroes with heroines. Those texts were then examined in contrast to the contemporary novels The Lightning Thief and Children of Blood and Bone.

Truth be told, I can hardly remember what the first day of class was like, though it was evident that the students and I were both cautious about the new virtual environment we were learning in. The pressure to make a good first impression was both compounded and eased by Zoom. As the host of the meeting, I felt in control about how I would present myself – but at the same time, I had no experience with the format of a hybrid online course. I could see how I appeared to students, but it was much harder to tell how they perceived me. I was upfront about my position as a graduate student specializing in children’s literature, and the students seemed to respond favorably. There was more shuffling during the add/drop period than I had experienced when teaching rhetoric and writing studies last semester, but I took nothing personally as I knew that academic advising was difficult to access. As the class roster settled, we fell into a routine that the students and I felt comfortable with.

            Here’s a look into a regular week of our hybrid online course! On Mondays and Wednesdays, we meet via Zoom for fifty minutes. Before class, students read the assigned text and then submit a short meeting prep/reading quiz. This is a small-stakes assignment meant to assess reading comprehension or prepare students for the topic of that day’s class. During our Zoom time, I often begin with a plot check for the more complicated texts, then introduce whatever concept I have planned for the day. Occasionally, I squeeze in a video, poll question, or article relevant to our topic. We spend most of our time on the discussion questions I have prepped ahead of time. Discussion takes various forms: verbal conversations, chat quick replies or detailed responses, and breakout groups.

I found that it was difficult to build a sense of community on Zoom, particularly when students were not able or willing to turn their cameras on. As a result, group work has been awkward and generally results in lackluster responses. What seems to work best with this group of students is for me to lead them through the concept or article for the day, converse with discussion questions, and then assign some individual work to be completed and sent in the chat box. Fifty minutes is a short amount of time to get this done, but I have been impressed with how students engaged with the text and the concepts I threw at them. On Fridays, students submit a discussion post on Canvas responding to a question or on whatever free-write topic they would like to bring up. This is a chance to think deeply about the text, elaborate on topics briefly discussed, and to practice MLA citing. They can also “like” each other’s posts.  

Having just finished our “reading half” of the semester after Children of Blood and Bone, we paused reading and discussing texts to begin the “writing half.” Their first major assignment was a literary analysis essay. A couple of weeks were dedicated to the writing and conferencing process, and students submitted a three to four-page paper on one of three prompts. Online peer review was something of a nightmare: if one student submitted late or in the wrong place, the other students would not have access to their peer’s paper. Canvas closed the peer review deadline a day early, so we had to work around it by using email. Conferencing, on the other hand, was much more efficient with Zoom. I made a simple sign-up sheet and hopped into Zoom when I knew a student was coming. I was able to share my screen to point students to where I had left feedback on their rough drafts, and could affirm whether or not they could see it on their end. It also seemed to work better for people’s schedules; they could open up the Zoom app during a work break and didn’t have to worry about commuting.

Once the literary analysis essays were successfully submitted, we took a “break” with a picture book and graphic novel section analyzing ethnicity and disability through Super Cilantro Girl and El Deafo. The conversation about representation that these texts engendered led into the research essays that students are currently developing as I write this. The prompt is quite open-ended: “What kind of representation should we see more of?” Students are tasked with selecting a topic and genre – for example, an essay that focuses on Chicanas in picture books could use Super Cilantro Girl as the main text – to argue that representation is lacking or insufficient. I am excited by the range of topics and genres that students have expressed interest in, and hope that the writing and research process will be enjoyable because of how flexible the prompt is.

I cannot end this blog post without mentioning the fantastic internship course, ENGL 796, that is paired with the first semester of teaching as a graduate student in SDSU’s English department. ENGL 796 is guided by an associate professor and, this semester, is comprised of two M.A. students teaching Intro to Literature and two M.F.A. students teaching Intro to Creative Writing. This course has kept me abreast of current issues and innovations in pedagogy as well as gave me the chance to prepare a portfolio for future hiring. Most importantly, I can share my concerns and successes with peers as we use Zoom to teach our first ENGL classes.  

I am very grateful for the opportunity to teach an introductory course during my time as a graduate student. So far, despite the less-than-ideal online format, it has been wonderful to delve deeply into topics in literature that my non-English major students would rarely discuss otherwise. Though varied in academic year, all of them are taking the study of children’s literature seriously and have shared profound insights in class and in their written work. It is a bit sad to look back at how much we have completed, knowing that there are only four weeks left until the semester ends. Yet I can already see students making connections between their lives and the texts we read, which I hope they will take away with them even after they move on to other courses. My goal as a novice teacher is to encourage students to do this critical analytical work, discovering its relevance to their lives so that they can enact the change they want to see in the world. With this first class, I hope that analyzing “The Hero(ine)’s Journey” will lead to students becoming the hero(in)es they themselves need no matter where they go. 

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