Tuesday, January 15, 2008

And So It Begins Again

The semester, that is. Today I taught my first class of the spring, as well as had a number of meetings related to other things I'll be doing this semester. I have to say, I'm wicked-energized as I think about all of what I'll be doing in the coming months. That's not to say that I won't have to work my ass off, but I feel like I've got new and interesting challenges in front of me this semester, rather than the continued slog on old challenges, if that makes any sense. I suppose a lot of my excitement does have to do with having a clear-ish research plate (I actually do have some loose ends that I need to tie up, but no new projects in process) and so I feel almost... I don't know... liberated? It's not that I don't care deeply about research or that I don't enjoy it or find it rewarding, but I'm feeling very happy to be in a position where I can put it on the back burner without feeling angsty about it.

Also, I had my first meeting with the Brand New Class (BNC from this point forward) that promises to challenge me as a teacher in ways that I've never been challenged before. I don't want to talk in depth about the topic on the blog (although I have brought it up in the past, so with digging you could figure it out - I just feel like if I want to post about the course regularly I should probably be a bit more circumspect in the interest of being able to speak more freely about it) but suffice it to say that I'm teaching something that is outside of my direct area of expertise, although it has figured into my research. For this reason, I do feel like I'm a bit out on a limb with the course. Sure, I do feel confident about my ability to teach generally, but because I'm doing something more far afield with this course, I wonder whether my tried and true techniques will work in this context. It's strange, because I thought that I was insecure about the new class that I taught in the fall, but that was more because the content was potentially controversial, not because the kind of content wasn't part of my repertoire, if that makes sense. This semester, I'm not really concerned about the content itself - it's pretty standard fare, I think, for a course of its type - but because I've never taught this kind of material before.

So, the first assignment in BNC is a definitions assignment. The idea is that most of the students are coming in totally unfamiliar with this kind of material. With that being the case, I figured that better than launching right in would be to start by having them define a long list of terms so that when they get into their reading, they will have a vocabulary to jump-start them. So here's the assignment, and I'll post again to give an idea of how it worked. It strikes me that this assignment would be adaptable for intro sorts of classes, and so that's why I post it here.

Today, on the first day because I'm a meanie, I gave them the assignment sheet. On the front was a list of directions and of decent sources for finding the definitions, on the back the list of terms. First, students had five minutes to look over the terms. They were directed to put a check next to the terms that they already knew, a question mark next to those that they'd seen before but about which they weren't sure of the meaning, and an x next to the terms that they'd never encountered before. There were around 50 terms on the list. (They're going to turn the sheets with their notations in to me next class, so this also works as a diagnostic for me to let me know how much they know before they really get into the reading.)

Then, I'd broken the students into two groups, and they were to meet with the groups and introduce themselves and then divide the terms between them equally. This brief meeting was first intended to get the students talking to one another. Also, it means that each student in the class is only responsible for defining about 10 terms a piece, which I believed was a doable amount since they don't really have a reading assignment. (These are pretty specialized terms, and they're likely to have to consult specialized reference materials to find them, or at the very least to wade through lengthy entries in wikipedia to come up with a workable and brief definition.) Before the next class, they are to email me their definitions so I'll have an electronic version of them that I can review. Since the class is in two groups, I should have two definitions per term (unless I get some weird drops, but if anybody drops, then there should be at least one definition per term unless something goes totally wacky).

Now, you'll note that I told the students where to find the definitions. That's another thing that this assignment was designed to do: to point them to sources that will help them to find definitions for other terms that come up in their reading with which they aren't familiar. So while I chose the ones that I thought were most important, they will have the tools to find this sort of information on their own when they encounter stuff in the reading that they've not seen before.

But so, when they come to class next time, they will have already submitted their definitions to me electronically, and they will also have one hard copy of their definitions with them. At the start of class, the groups will meet again to go over their definitions together and to come up with any questions that they still have about any of the terms. Again, this is partly just about getting them comfortable with talking with one another. (I know about half of the students in the class, and I divided the groups so that the ones who know each other are separated, so after this activity nearly every student in the course will know nearly every other student.) It's also about having them hear the definitions that they didn't themselves look up.

Then, we'll convene as an entire class, and I'll project the definitions onto the screen so that we can talk about them (some in more depth than others) together, and I will address any questions that the groups had. (So now they're seeing all of the definitions and going over them a second time, as well as continuing to discuss them and having me make connections that might not be readily apparent.) Finally, after class I'll post the definitions to our course site so that students will have access to them throughout the semester.

While obviously I'll have to see how this goes, I feel like it's a really strong assignment, whether for a course with difficult material or for an introductory course where students might not have a strong vocabulary for discussing the material when they enter. (I've already been thinking about how I might incorporate such an assignment for literary terms into my lower-level courses.) So I figured I'd post it here, in case it seemed like something that some of you might like adapting for your own needs. Obviously, if the whole thing goes horribly awry, I'll be sure to give you the 411 so that you can abort any plans of using such an assignment in your own classes.

So those are my thoughts as this semester starts. I'm feeling energized and like I'm doing cool stuff. I can't think of a better way for the semester to begin.


Maude Lebowski said...

oooh, i really like this idea. i feel like i must log it away in my brain to remember as a teaching tool just in case i actually end up with a job in the next year or two.

sounds really cool! i can't wait to hear more about the class as the semester progresses.

Kate said...

This sounds brilliant, especially given what I remember of what the course is about. Nice thinking! I'll want to incorporate it into a course I'm teaching in the fall, I think.