Course Context: This course is an advanced theory class for sophomore-senior level English majors. A prerequisite for the course is that they have taken ENGL 2010 (Introduction to Literary Theory). I have never taught this course before though I do teach the Intro to Literary Theory course fairly regularly. The class is small, under 20 students. I have taught Advanced Theory before but under a different topic and there I found that usually only very ambitious English majors sign up for the course as it’s quite challenging conceptually. Usually they do not take the course unless they find theory interesting and useful. For my part, I find many conceptual hurdles and bottlenecks in this material. Frequent assessments will be extremely useful in moving past these conceptual challenges.
Target of improvement/evidence:
1) To better understand students’ expectations are of what Marxist theory is and their experience and prior knowledge of literary theory coming into the course and assessing their understanding and experience of the course material as they move through the semester;
Report: I assessed students on the first day, twice during the term and via an essay question format on the take-home final exam. This was very helpful in learning how best to present the material of this course. Students were far more positive than I expected given my overly self-critical voice. I could see where the course could be improved whereas they were experiencing a whole new way to look at the world.
2) To improve the teaching of threshold concepts and critical thinking and writing;
Report: Commodity fetishism, labor theory of value and the dialectical method were the 3 threshold concepts of the course and I think the first was the most transformative in students’ learning (and the one they self-reported to have been the breakthrough moment in their learning).
3) To increase student interaction and engagement.
Report: This was a small course (20 students) and so there were plenty of opportunities for student interaction and engagement. That said, some students reported feeling the most cohesion and involvement during their end of the term group presentation. Some asked that a group project be assigned at the beginning of the term to create this cohesion and engagement early on.
- students will learn what Marxist theory is, how it evolved, and how it applies to the study of literature;
- they will understand and be able to apply to an analysis of a text several key concepts in Marxist theory, including: globalization, class, historical materialism, exchange value vs. use value, labor theory of value, fetishization, and reification;
- they will investigate how reading/thinking about literature is a worldly activity that shapes how we think about, imagine, and act in our world;
- students will work on communicating their ideas effectively both within the classroom and in written discourse in order to create a scholarly community for the formation, refinement and exchange of ideas.
Report: of these learning goals, I think most were realized. The only one I didn’t end up stressing was the literature as a worldly activity. We only read one novel at the beginning of class and so the literary side wasn’t stressed as much as it could have been.
Learning Assessment Activities:
1) Baseline and follow-up data collection: I will design a short in-class writing assignment (anonymous) for the first day of class that will measure: student preconceptions of what Marxist theory is; what they understand literary theory to be and their previous experience with using and studying literary theory; their interest in the topic and why; their general background as English majors. I will ask similar questions mid-way through the term and then at the end. I will also ask during follow-up assessments what is working for them (what learning strategies) and what they would like to see more of in order to help them learn.
Report: This was the most important assessment tool I used all semester. I probably would have thrown in the towel on the course after my struggles with how best to present the material except that the end of term assessments were so overwhelmingly positive and exciting.
2) Threshold concept exercises. I will ask students (in pairs or groups of 3) to define threshold concepts and use them in a particular empirical or literary scenario. (We are reading Heart of Darkness as our literary text-guinea pig).
Report: This worked well. See above.
3) Minute papers: I will administer periodically “minute papers” to assess what part of that day’s material (both the reading material and the lecture) to see what was unclear.
Report: This didn’t happen. The closest I came to minute papers was group exercises in preparing for the mid-term and in doing some readings in which groups put concepts and responses on the board for the class to discuss and for me to evaluate informally.
4) Exam preparation: write a sample short-answer exam question and then we can discuss an excellent, good and mediocre answer as a way of preparing for the exam.
Report: Didn’t do this. Hadn’t written the exams yet. I expect this will become easier once I offer the course again.
5) On-line discussion forum: This media has worked best for me in the past when students respond to a reading assignment prior to the Friday discussion of the week’s material. They are also required to write a discussion question. They have already done the reading and sat through the lecture and it’s helpful for me to know where to launch discussion, what parts are unclear, and how students see the reading impacting how they interpret literature or apply the theory to the world around them.
Report: This forum didn’t go as well as it does for me in straightforward literature courses. Students got off topic really easily (trying to imagine a revolutionary socialist society) rather than analyzing existing capitalist society (which is what the posts were for: to respond to the reading material, using quotes, and post one discussion question). They need to be able to talk about the implications of what Marx is arguing but I usually had to steer them back to the actual topic. I’d like to find some material to allow them to talk about this but in a more structured manner.