Looking back: teaching semester 1

This academic year I’m trying  take  more time to really reflect on my courses. I decided to delve a little deeper into the two Master’s courses I taught in semester 1. I’m using both my own observations as well as student evaluations (though I know full well how problematic these evaluations often are). I had been thinking about doing a reflection like this for a while, inspired in particular by Bonni Stachowiak’s reflections.


While my institution sends out standardised evaluation forms to students as well, I Dia6decided to create my own a few years ago. There are things specific to my courses that I want students’ opinions on, and I like to do these evaluations in class so that we can have a conversation about it as well (if you’re curious, these are the evaluation forms I used: Survey and LTL).


The two courses are a MA year 2 survey course on 19th, 20th and 21st-century British literature (mainly poetry and short fiction), which I taught for the sixth time in a row this Dia6 copyyear (!). The other is a course called Literature and Teaching Literature (LTL), a course for our first year MA-students. The programme prepares them to teach in upper-secondary education, and this course is often their first encounter with literary pedagogy. It was the first time I taught this course, which had been developed and was taught by a colleague of mine for the previous 8 or 9 years.


Literature Survey course
I’ve been tweaking and changing the survey course for years: it’s become more interactive, I’ve switched some texts and have incorporated more retrieval practice since reading James Lang’s Small Teaching last year. This year, we had a very small group: only 5 students, of which one fell ill halfway through the semester and attended sporadically after that. Teaching such a small group meant that I had to make my classes even more interactive: I simply couldn’t rely on ‘class discussion’ to naturally lead to interesting discussion. This is something I constantly try to develop, so I’m glad I challenged myself more in this sense.

I tried out more interactive assignments, from having them make ‘intertextual webs’, for texts, to having them lead the discussion, and devising a game with questions that sent them around a quest centered on John Burnside’s poem “The Day Etta Died”.  Something I’m pleased with, and which I’m using for the second time in a row, is the image-assignment in the first week – rather than giving them a timeline of important events in the period that we cover (19th, 20th and 21st century Britain) in a lecture, I hand them a stack of images. They have to figure out what the image is of, and put the images in the correct chronological order. I do hand out a timeline after the activity to help them remember.

Literature and Teaching Literature
I taught Literature and Teaching Literature for the first time this year. Whenever I’m new to a course I keep nearly everything the same: I don’t want to make any big changes before I’ve gotten the hang of a course. There were a lot of things that I liked about the course, the peer teaching element, primarily, and the use of Deborah Appleman’s book on using literary theory in the classroom (we also use Teaching Literature to Adolescents, which is great too).


There were also some things that were starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable. The advance tasks that the students had to do every week, and which were tied in with the weekly reading, often felt not challenging enough, and a bit boring at times. They just didn’t seem to work with the group. I also struggled to make clear how the assignments they had to do for the course were tied in to each other. And, in the first half of the course, there seemed to be a disconnect between the classes as I interpreted them based on my predecessor’s material, and the assignments the students had to hand in.


This was reflected in the course evaluations. Most students wanted to get rid of the advance tasks in this form, and see other changes as well. One student made this explicit in the evaluation:


“In the beginning things were less well-prepared and it didn’t feel as if you were in charge of the course, but that the course was imposed upon you. That changed after the first period I think. I would like to see more influence of you on assignments and topics so that it all comes together in a course that you stand for. You did a good job and are inspiring as a literature teacher.”


Although I was just as well-prepared in the beginning as I was towards the end, this student did pick up on the feeling I had that the beginning of the course wasn’t great. At the same time, I wonder whether if I hadn’t made this feeling of discomfort explicit halfway through the course, they would also have picked up on it.


So, halfway through the course I decided to change things (see this article on the midsemester course correction by David Gooblar). I waited until I had my usual middle-of-the-course stop/start/continue evaluation, so I could incorporate some of the students’ feedback as well. While I didn’t change the syllabus radically, I did change the nature of the advance tasks, something I’d been doing gradually anyway.  I divided the second half of the semester up in weeks relating to the three assignments the students had to hand in for the final exam, and tied the advance tasks and class assignments in with that. Every week the students got time to work explicitly on their assignments, and discuss their work and progress with each other. I also build in feedback moments, so they could hand in drafts of their assignments through Canvas.


Other evaluation outcomes
  • In both courses, the students felt they had achieved the learning objectives. This is the first year I’m asking students to reflect this explicitly, and I like it
  • As a lecturer, I score highest on being an expert on the course subject matter, and on having well-structured classes (more so in the Survey course than in the LTL course).


“I really enjoyed your lectures. I really liked your clear, structured approach. Also I really appreciated the extra feedback moments for the different parts of the end exams. Thanks for the enjoyable lessons.”


Looking ahead
Three students noted that they missed the element of literary analysis in Literature and Teaching Literature. We spent some time on that in the first two weeks, but the focus of the course was on teaching literature – hoping that students would have enough experience already and gain experience in the other literature course offered in semester 1. I’m tempted to take out the literary analysis part completely – the course seems simply too short for much attention on in-depth analysis and teaching, and we do a lot of analysis in the other literature courses offered throughout the programme.


In both the LTL course and the Survey course I didn’t score very high on motivating students to prepare for class. Relevance is often discussed in relation to motivation (in, for instance, Small Teaching and in Minds Online, two books I recently read and enjoyed). Ironically, LTL revolves around ways of teaching literature, and the students are teachers who are supposed to teach literature. That should make the course feel very relevant. I might have a conversation with the students next time, about what I could do to motivate them, or what they could do to motivate themselves more, as I’m genuinely curious how that works with them. In the first class of semester 2, I’ll ask students to make explicit what they want to take away from the course, including at least one way in which they expect to implement the course in their own teaching.

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