"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, December 10, 2012

On the Incredible Importance of Introductory Classes


It's the dark of the morning, the first real cold day we've had in Lincoln thus far, and I seem to have forgotten what seven degrees actually feels like on my skin.  And, for once, my office in Andrews Hall is toasty warm.  My Stanley thermos is full of piping-hot, sunshine-in-tea, the delightfulness of Earl Grey Supreme on the Monday of finals week, when I'm sitting in my office, waiting for my students to come by to pick up their final papers.  It seems an appropriate time to put thoughts to page, thoughts that have been twirling around my brain for the last month, slightly solidified as I've read my students' finals (in both the comp and lit classes) and their reflections.  

In what might be my best moment of the semester, one of my composition students is changing his major to English, because he learned over the course of our class the power of the written word.  Yes.  This is why I do what I do, the reason I love teaching composition even though I identify myself as a creative writer.  In my literature class, the reflections of my students are equally enlightening--and the number of them who have decided to take more English classes (now that their ACE requirements have been fulfilled) or seriously consider English majors or minors just makes my little teacher heart go pitty pat.  This semester has been incredibly stressful for a number of different reasons, but here's the part of the semester when I'm specifically reminded why I do what I do.  I love reading their reflections.

A sampling of their reflection comments:

“I’ve learned a lot about literature and reading this semester, probably the most I’ve learned since actually learning to read.”

“Much of the information people know is not from first-hand experience.  Literature has the power to educate people on cultures and areas of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise know about.”

“Literature can shape our beliefs and mental capacity, making us smarter and more valuable human beings.”

“I am excited to have learned that there is still much to learn about the area of reading and literature, and I hope to continue exploring the area by reading more in my free time.  In general, taking this course sparked my interest in reading more.  This was definitely in part due to the passion for reading displayed by the instructor.  By reading and reflecting so many times on different texts, it was a reminder that great authors or people of any profession, are really great beause they love what they do.  It is not only by extreme effort and focus that people become wonderful at what they do, but by a love for what they are doing.”

“I had never taken a class that went through as much detail as we did this semester.  I had no idea, and never even thought that there was such a thing as social class, natural or built environment, or even gendering.”

Nearly all of the students in my literature class told me in the first week that they don't really like to read, that they were only in my class because it fulfilled one of their core requirements.  It didn't surprise me.  I'm used to it.  For my entire teaching career, I've taught the required core curriculum classes, from my composition work at Bowling Green and the classes that I've been able to teach here at UNL.  The general consensus seems to be--from both the teaching and the student perspectives--that those required classes are a waste of time.  Nobody wants to teach those classes, so they’re farmed off on adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty (which is what the General Studies Writing program was comprised of and who are currently fighting for their job security) or graduate students, at larger institutions.  Of course, this demeans both the classes, the students, and the faculty, especially since I actually like teaching these intro classes.  How many hundreds, thousands of students do we see through these introductory classes--that for these students, these might be the only humanities courses they ever take?

“I had never really cared about literature before I took this class to be quite honest.  I wasn’t something that I deemed as important to my life; however, after taking this class, I have grown a solid appreciation for what literature stands for and how it molds your mind into something greater.”

In a recent article in theChronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo advocates for “flipping the curriculum,” that “Introductory courses should be just as good as the Capstone experience.”  He writes, “A few weeks ago, at a conference on the future of higher education held at George Mason University, the topic of large introductory courses came up several times during a panel discussion on how to engage students and strengthen learning. As one audience member described a stimulating capstone experience for seniors, one of the panelists, Mills Kelly, asked why the university makes them wait four years to get it.”  And this was one of those moments that resonated with something I’d heard six weeks earlier, at the American Conference of Irish Studies, where history professor Tim Mahoney from Marquette University argued that the way we structure our curriculum is backwards.  Instead of starting broad in survey courses in the first years and narrow to specific courses in upper-level classes, why don’t we teach those narrow courses (which are often on topics that appeal to students) in the first years?  Especially in these days of declining enrollments in majors like English (and the push in places like Florida to make English majors pay more for their degree than a STEM degree), why are we not putting our time and energy into those introductory classes, the first line of defense (so to speak) where we have the most focused face-time with students?  Selingo’s plan is—at least in theory—brilliantly easy:  “In the spirit of “flipping the classroom,” I call his suggestion “flipping the curriculum.” It would call for small classes in the freshman and senior years and larger classes for sophomores and particularly for juniors. The profit that the university makes right now on introductory classes would remain, but just shift to the junior year.”  Obviously I’m not so na├»ve to think that completely restructuring a curriculum would be easy, but this idea is so incredibly awesome.

“I realize throughout the semester, that reading a book and making a connection with it, doesn’t always mean you have to be relating to the story.  Relating is not always possible, so when it’s not that doesn’t mean you have to put the book down, it means you should keep reading until a connection is made.”

I came from an undergraduate experience where the entire English department, from full professors down to the adjuncts, all taught composition.  They considered introductory classes so important that everybody in the entire department was required to teach them.  I’m sure that some of them grumbled about it, but the philosophy was one that shaped my ideas of what we consider important in undergraduate education.  And as I started my teaching career in various different environments (Eastern Washington University is much different than Bowling Green is different than UNL), always teaching in the required courses, part of my commitment to my students involved a commitment to the classes I was teaching, because I believe so fervently in the power of the written word.  My students are, most often, not majors.  What does it do to a teacher to consistently teach in an environment where they students don’t want to be there?  In a word, it’s tough.  But it’s my job—and because I believe the written word is essential to life—and it’s my job to teach them that they can write, that they can read, that there is more in heaven and earth, and heaven and earth are incredibly interesting places.  I am never surprised when my students tell me they hate writing.  Or they hate reading.  It hurts to hear that, that somewhere along the line they decided that reading was something to be avoided. 

This semester, teaching these two brand-new classes, I was reminded again of why it’s important to meet students where they are, that there are so many incredible moments to be had when those light bulbs go off in their heads, when the meteorology major sees the role that weather plays in the plot of a novel, when a finance major says he’d rather be reading books than taking calculus, when students realize that they’ve written something amazing that they never thought they could.  It’s been obvious to me this semester, teaching this crime literature course, that one book really does lead to another.  I started my interest here just a year ago, when I taught William Kent Krueger’s Iron Lake in my Intro to Fiction class, studying how a novel is put together, and my students told me they didn’t like mysteries until they read that book.  It was accidental that the novel I chose for the next incarnation of that fiction writing class (the Irish version) was another mystery, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.  In that same semester, I took a Women’s Rhetoric class, in which a friend did her project on sex trafficking as represented in popular fiction—and that was a turning point for me.  What happens when we analyze the texts we read for entertainment?  How does that type of literature raise questions in the way that Capital-L Literature does not or cannot?  And thus this Crime Literature class was born. What happens when we teach very narrowly specific classes in the first year courses?  Do we encourage more majors to join us or do they join us after taking general survey courses?  (I don't know, I haven't done the research on the effect of those survey courses.)

In the same way, I crafted this particular English 151 (Rhetoric as Argument) class around the idea of the Rhetoric of Science, hoping to meet my STEM students where they were, to teach them how to look at the rhetoric of the texts they saw around them every day.  (I think that about half of my 151 class had some sort of science or social science majors.)  Writing isn’t just confined to English departments, ideas and stories are not confined to Andrews Hall.  I wanted to give them not just academic-type nonfiction to read (like we read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but I wanted to give them science fiction—not otherwordly science fiction, but Andrea Barrett’s science fiction.  Maybe the next time I teach a literature class, maybe I’ll theme it on Science Fiction (and find a better way to title it so that it’s not confused with aliens).  Why don’t we have more communication between departments, to cross-list classes that might be of interest to students in other majors?  What about asking the biology department, the hospitality management department what they might like to see in an English class for their majors?  Reading Andrea Barrett in a science lit class, reading M.F.K. Fisher or even checking out these two awesome works (one on hotels in the arts, the other a critical book on hotelsin German and Austrian literature).  There are so many possibilities here that it makes me tingle a little, though that might be the Earl Grey. 

We get one shot to reach these students in these introductory classes.  This is not a problem or a challenge; it is the greatest kind of opportunity.  Maybe two shots, given how many required English classes a curriculum requires.  Flipping the curriculum--and empowering both the faculty who teach those introductory classes and the students who take them--might be a way to solve some of the apathy problems we see from both faculty and students, especially as budgets are getting slashed and academia becomes a much harder place to be.  Creating--and flipping-- our curriculum so that our teachers are as incredibly excited about the intro classes they're teaching as they are about upper-level classes seems to be a logical step.  Teaching specific courses at the upper-level is fun and important, but there's also great fun to be had when students are just starting to think about these ideas.  We need to trust our intro students to have the same sort of instincts that our majors have, to give them an entry to writing and literature that meets them where they are, empowers them to recognize their life on the page, recognize how other lives function on the page.  There is great benefit in expecting the best of our students, especially in the intro levels.  It really does boil down to remembering that if we're bored, there's no way we're going to be able to inspire our students to make the kind of connection we know they can make, take the kind of risks we know will lead to great things.  And this is the best kind of opportunity for all of us.

“Literature allows you to expand your boundaries and think in ways that you typically would not.”

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