Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class this summer. As a grad student, I was super excited about the possibility of not having to live the #gradstudentsummerstruggle again. As someone who loves teaching, I also was excited about the prospect of teaching a summer course, which is something I hadn’t done before. So, of course, I accepted.
Because many of the typical summer offerings are Composition classes, I’d expected to be slotted into one of those courses. However, I was assigned to teach Introduction to Fiction. Now if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I primarily research television, film and pop culture. But you might not know that my BA is in English Education, my MA is in English & American Literature, I previously taught at the secondary level, and I’m actually getting my PhD in an English Department (we’re a big all-encompassing English Department, but an English Department nonetheless). So I have a fair amount of familiarity with both the study and teaching of literature. However, until this summer, it’d been several years since I’d done either.
Intro to Fiction at my university is a pretty flexible course. The basic expectations of the course are that we provide opportunities for students to analyze and interpret literature and they make connections between literature and culture. Beyond that, a person could focus on whatever texts they want, whatever assignments they want, etc. I both love and hate having a lot of space to build classes because I’m the type of person who has approximately 1 million ideas that I ultimately have to whittle down. That being said, the class did come with some constraints. First, it was only six weeks, which is a pretty brutal contrast to the typical semester I’m familiar with. Second, the section I was assigned to was online. In fact, all but one of the sections of this class that my department offered this summer were online. There are a number of reasons why this occurred, but on a purely fundamental level, students were much more inclined to sign up for the online sections than they were for the in-person section.
But I’d never taught online before, and I’d heard more than a few online class horror stories (from both teachers and students). So I really wanted to make the class…not terrible. One of the first things I had to figure out was what students were going to read. Because, by the time I got the assignment, the spring semester was almost over. If I was going to expect students to get novels, I would have to sort that out pretty quickly. I knew that a lot of people had used short stories in the class, but I’ve always been the type to prefer novels to short stories (except fan fiction, but that’s its own category for me). After discussing possibilities with people who had taught the class as well as people in my department who’d taught other literature-based summer classes, I decided to go with two novels (sidebar: I initially thought I’d do three novels, and I had to pull myself back from the brink of ridiculous). The two books I chose were Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation:
I read both books earlier this year, and I found them very engaging reads and thought-provoking in various ways. They’re both YA, which is generally my preferred category of reading (my Master’s thesis is actually about YA), and I knew I wouldn’t likely be duplicating what students would be reading in other classes (I have read Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales so many times for classes, y’all). Also, both books feature young Black female protagonists, and if given the opportunity, I definitely wanted to share those voices. I knew there was a possibility that some people might not see them as “significant” texts. But I was confident that they had a lot to offer the class, so I let it roll.
Because I’m a nerd, I read a bunch of books and articles about online teaching in preparation for the class. This spurred me to make at least a few key decisions: (1) Have basically everything ready and uploaded on day 1, (2) Don’t give students access to everything at once, and (3) Be present, but not too present (this last one usually meant restraining myself from responding to every single discussion board post haha).
Speaking of discussion boards, within a classroom context, a lot of people hate them. I get it. As I was putting the class together, I thought about experimenting with audio and/or video submission options in lieu of discussion board posts. But I didn’t want to take on too much in the first run. So I stuck with the discussion board posts, but again, I tried to make it not terrible. Students had ten posts throughout the summer session. The prompts were identical for each post except there’d be one different question for each that was tied to that module’s lecture (the lectures themselves covered an assortment of critical lenses and elements of fiction). Beyond that, the tasks that students had to complete in every post were to (1) share their response to that module’s reading, (2) make a text-to-self, text-to-text, or text-to-world connection, and (3) compose a discussion question. And then they each had to respond to at least one discussion question per module (but the posts and the responses were due on separate days, so we could avoid the mad dash midnight posting flurries).
Honestly, the discussion board posts went really well. Students dug into the material and reflected on the messages being conveyed in fantastic ways. One other thing I did was put the students in 10-person discussion groups rather than having one giant discussion board for all forty students. I think this made the students much more inclined to really share and engage with each others’ submissions. In particular, the responses to the text-to-self/text/world portion were often illuminating. As indicated above, I didn’t really lecture on context, but the students often brought it in here, including but not limited to making connections between the texts and internment camps, the proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
One thing that I realized here is that students know a lot. I mean, I’ve always known that. But I was able to see it here more concretely because I was getting individual responses from each student about their thoughts and feelings and understandings while reading these texts. I definitely know more about each student’s thoughts than I probably would know in a face-to-face class, and that’s a difference that was both welcome and not something I anticipated.
(Lest anybody think they were simply parroting each other, I’ll also note that the discussion board was set up so that they could not see each others’ posts until they posted)
The other assignments for the class, bearing in mind the condensed nature, were 5 quizzes and a final project. I’m often somewhat ambivalent about the value of quizzes, but I wanted to offer something that wasn’t discussion board posts that would allow me to check in on student comprehension. They did fulfill that role, but I’m not sure that I would do them again if I could think of a more impactful way to accomplish the same goals.
The final project is probably one of my favorite things I’ve done in a class thus far. Students had three options: (1) a traditional analytical essay applying one of the critical lenses to one of the novels, (2) a creative writing remix in which students had to rewrite part of one of the novels from another character’s POV, or (3) an analytical mixtape in which students had to identify a theme in the novel and develop a playlist based on that theme (this last idea is one I got from Maia Butler). The latter two options also required explanatory components in which students shared their thought processes and made connections between the texts and their creations. To my surprise, about half of the students chose option #2. The remaining students were split almost exactly between options #1 and #3. Honestly, I expected more students to go with #1 because it was the most familiar option (as a student, I would have gone with #3 myself). I really enjoyed having this variety of assignments because I feel like the students really were able to pick something they were interested in, and it showed in the final products.
(I’m going to talk more about this final project in an upcoming post Pedagogy and American Literary Studies)
Ultimately, there was a lot that I enjoyed about this class. My students brought a willingness to really think about literature that was very much appreciated. I loved getting to read all of their thoughts, and this has spurred me more to think about more ways to encourage such sharing in face-to-face scenarios. I loved teaching those particular books, and thinking about different ways to read the books.
There were some things that I didn’t like as much. Like the thing about having everything ready at the beginning of the class is that it makes logical sense, but it doesn’t mesh well with my typical responsive teaching style in which I often tweak things as we go. That being said, one way that I did sort of work around this was to send weekly emails in which I summarized some of the points students were making in their posts, made relevant connections, and provided useful resources outside of our course material. I also know that I thrive on my interactions with students in face-to-face classrooms. My personality comes through pretty strongly in my teaching, and it was harder to do that online. Though I did try to convey it in both lectures and the discussion board responses that I did make.
In the end, based on the final projects as well as responses on the class’ evaluations, students seemed to mostly enjoy and take a lot away from the class. There were some changes that were suggested such as making everything available to students at the start rather than having things unlocking throughout the semester (I probably wouldn’t do that because I know it would be disastrous for a lot of people), making fewer/longer modules (I probably would do that though), and adding more quizzes/fewer posts (eh, we’ll see). A fair amount said that they were now thinking about the texts they consumed differently, and they appreciated having choice for the final project, especially more creative options. For a while, when I was preparing the course, I stressed myself out a little bit trying to think about the plausibility of doing a semester’s worth of work in six weeks. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s a useful way to think about a condensed class. But I do think we achieved the learning objectives designated for the class. And as I currently work on building the face-to-face class I’m teaching this fall, I’m taking lessons I learned in teaching this summer back with me to the front of the class.