Structuring Equality in my American Literature Survey Course

IMG_20180723_092051_744It’s syllabus-writing season! After some time away from teaching, time for reflection and growth as an educator, I am thrilled to be teaching “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” again this fall. I’ve taught this course twice, so I feel confident enough to hand my syllabus over to my students to plan all the readings after October 4th. (I will give them a list of suggested readings to start with although they could choose something outside of that, divide them into groups to plan manageable chunks of the syllabus from policy to reading content, and then we’ll vote as a class.) I’ve planned readings, activities, and guest lectures for the first 10 class periods and then the rest depends on which adventure they decide to go on. While this may seem to some like I’m blowing off work, the opposite is true: I will need to adjust in real time to meet the demands of my students and potentially teach things outside my comfort zone. This requires an enormous amount of class prep and structure to make it a success and give my students the tools they need to plan well and not flounder.

Our first class will start with the best active-learning tool out there: Think-Pair-Share. On Monday next week, I’ll hand out note cards and ask students to write down their answers to this question (I’ve added my timing in parentheses):

“What is your goal for this class? What do you want to learn that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life? Is it mastery of the canon? Is it reading stories by founding women and people of color? Is your goal to be a better-informed citizen? A future leader of the free world?” (90 seconds); Pair up and combine goals into one goal (2 minutes); Volunteers share with the class (5 minutes)

The whole activity won’t take up more than 10 minutes. From there, we’ll go over the skeleton syllabus I’ve prepared with suggestions for their consideration. You’ll see that there’s plenty of content on there but most of it is up for debate. I headline at the beginning that this isn’t going to be like other classes and that may feel uncomfortable at first, but there are good reasons for running a classroom like this–it gives students more agency and better prepares them for the world after the university. Here’s how I phrase it in my syllabus:

**A note about my pedagogy for your consideration. My teaching is student-centered, which means our syllabus will be shaped largely by you, the students (see “Schedule of Readings”). You will get out of this class what you put into it, and you will have a say in how you will be held accountable for the work (see “Grading Breakdown”). Although I was not democratically elected to be your “leader,” we will negotiate and democratically vote on:

(1) a contract/constitution for how class time will be spent;

(2) a fair and just attendance policy;

(3) multiple forms of participation that give everyone room to participate;

(4) how you will be given feedback and grades;

(5) what adventure in reading we choose to go on after October 4th.

Unless indicated otherwise, everything on this syllabus is negotiable, which means both you (by majority vote) and I must agree to them. Leaders must be good listeners to their constituents, and represent them well, otherwise they get voted out of office. I promise to be a good listener. If you would rather sit in a classroom and listen to long lectures, this probably isn’t the right class for you.**

After we’ve reviewed the skeleton syllabus, I’ll put students into groups of 5-6 and assign each group a specific list of tasks. I’m giving them 30 minutes of class time for this and then devoting our second class to sharing their proposed revisions, deliberating, and voting.

Click here for the full lesson plan for the first day, and here’s the breakdown of the group work for the last 30 minutes of class:

Group 1

  1. What’s a fair and just attendance policy? Is lateness different from absence? Are excused absences allowed?
  2. How should attendance be taken? (See suggestions on syllabus.)
  3. Make a recommendation for how much attendance should factor into one’s final grade.
  4. Propose revised “Attendance Policy,” “Attendance Method Options,” and “Excused Absences” sections for the syllabus.

Group 2

  1. How should class time be spent (think lecture/discussion – 30/70, 20/80)?
  2. What counts as participation? Do we need time-keepers? Do we rotate who calls on whom? Should there be limits on how much one person can speak?
  3. Make a recommendation for how much participation should count for in one’s overall grade.
  4. Propose revised “Course Expectations,” “Class Constitution,” and “Individual Participation” sections for syllabus.

Group 3:

  1. What kind of feedback is most helpful to you? (e.g., do you want feedback just from your instructor or also from your peers? Do you want qualitative comments or letter grades or both?) How often do you want it?
  2. Would you rather have a Midterm or Reading Reflections? Why?
  3. Based on your answer to (2) above, what do you want that evaluation to look like? (See suggestions on syllabus.)
  4. Propose revised “Midterm or Reading Reflections” section for syllabus.

Group 4:

  1. How do you want to be held accountable for your work? (To your professor only or to your peers, for example to group/team members?)
  2. Would you like to rotate who you work with in groups or have static groups? How would rotation v. static impact frequency and quality of peer evaluations?
  3. Make a recommendation for how you want to be held accountable for your work (e.g., how much or how little group work or collaboration would you like to do?), how you want to be evaluated for your work (e.g., a mid-semester check-in, a monthly check-in), and how much that should count toward your final grade.
  4. Propose revised “Accountability for Doing Work” section for syllabus.

Group 5:

  1. Synthesize what you heard from your peers when they shared their goals for this semester. What are the big things we should focus on this year? Make a list.
  2. Brainstorm how we can reach those goals. What would help us make sure we stay on track?
  3. Turn your goals into “Learning Outcomes” and compare your list to the “Learning Outcomes” on the syllabus. Rewrite or revise the “Learning Outcomes,” preparing a recommendation for the class.
  4. Review the “Final Project or Final Paper” section on the syllabus. Will it help students meet your revised “Learning Outcomes”? What should be changed? Propose your recommended revisions to the class.

When it comes time to choose readings for October, I will do something similar. Students will get into groups and propose to the class what they think should be on the reading list. Each group will get to plan a small chunk of the reading schedule but the class as a whole must vote to ratify the proposed readings, and incorporate them into the syllabus. I’ll offer them a list of nineteenth-century literature to start with but they can make a case for reading something off the list (like Octavia Butler’s Kindred).