On Selfish Teaching

April 4, 2018

Today’s post is inspired by Two Writing Teachers, specifically Deb’s post No More Cookie Cutter Teaching. In it, she says:

As educators, we need to take ownership of our teaching.  If you think your tried and true lessons are lackluster, then change them.  Start by looking at your students and asking, what do my students need?

I teach college composition, so I actually take a more selfish approach and ask, “What types of assignments do I want to read?” and then build student choice into that. I mean, yes, obviously, I care about what they need but since I typically have to read over 100 essays at any given time, I have learned that the best thing for me is to consider what interests me.

For example, I am in love with my poetry assignment. But when I mentioned it to a colleague who is currently teaching poetry, she recoiled. “Oh no,” she said. “I don’t want to read their poetry.” To which I said, “See?  So you wouldn’t assign that.” And she readily agreed. So even though I find that a great way to teach analysis, form, and making connections, doing that would lead to lackluster lessons and teaching on her part because she would hate it.

That’s how I felt all last semester. Since I was new to my institution, I did the assignments they told me were required and even struggled to find a way to make the research paper interesting to me because I hate reading traditional research papers. (This is mostly because I hate writing them, to be fair.) So over break, I threw out everything I did last semester (except summary, which I consider a necessary evil) (I only call it evil because everybody struggles with it and even though they’re short, they take forever to grade) and thought about what I wanted to read and how to get students invested in their research projects.

So this semester, instead of writing a theme paper (“What is the theme of x?”), I’m having my students do a newsletter for survivors of the Station Eleven pandemic that will be followed by an explanation (rhetorical analysis, basically) that explains their choices and why those choices would work for their audience. At the beginning of the semester, I had them write two summaries and then synthesize those readings by writing a literacy narrative. They’ll end the semester with a research project, of course, but instead of a traditional research essay, I’m having them write a Twitter thread instead. Why? Because I love when people do Twitter threads about their research interests or history.

It’s the same reason I have my students write missing scene fanfic or reconsider a portion of a story from a different point of view or create a soundtrack or write their own one-act play and then explain their choices: the papers may be terrible but at least I’ll have fun reading them.

So, basically, I prefer to have the vast majority of my assignments right there in the create section of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

My problem, of course, is that all assignments can’t be creative assignments. Well, that, and I have too many ideas to do all of them in a sixteen-week course.

It is true, though, that I keep what my students need in mind. Last semester, the students in my developmental course said they wish we had done more longer essays, so this semester, we did a soundtrack paper. We’re still doing a ton of summary since they need to practice reading and writing skills, but I also explained to them that we’re ending our semester where my first-year class begins: reading the same essay and doing the same assignment. Why? Because some of them are scared they’re not ready for the transfer-level course, but when I told them how I set up the course, they were like “Oh.” To which I said, “See? I know you can do it. That’s why I end the class that way.”

(It also has the added bonus of making them think I’m absolutely brilliant. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself.)

Anyway, my favorite part of being an instructor is making up assignments (you know, second to opening young minds) and that’s what I missed most when I was away from teaching: the creativity.

So, yes, I consider my students’ needs. But I also think it’s important for me to remember what interests and engages me because then it’s easier for me to engage my students.

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  1. Ally Bean

    I’ll admit that my college education did not include any creative writing courses. I was taught to write research papers and reports and opinion pieces based on facts. Serious stuff. Nothing at all like what you get to do with your students. Wonder what I missed?

    • Akilah

      You missed a chance to explore your creativity. I do still require those other things, but just presented in a way that makes it more palatable to me (i.e., students analyzing their own work).

  2. Roof Beam Reader

    Completely agree with you, and I love some of your assignment ideas! I would have to work up the courage to try them (and the time to build a new unit around the assignment). I do the same with my classes, though. I try to incorporate a variety of writing assignments, especially in my Comp 101 classes, so that the students are learning and practicing skills in a number of genres. It keeps them interested, it keeps me interested, and they’re learning transferable skills. I tend have some kind of “argument” at the core of each of their assignments, leading to a final, formal argument paper where they need to be much more explicit in using their persuasive strategies, audience appeals, etc. I often incorporate things like personal narrative, business writing, media analysis, and digital rhetoric/visual composition (electronic portfolio, online journaling) and what not, to help students understand voice and genre together. I love the Twitter thread idea & would like to learn more about how you build up to that assignment (I actually have a good percentage of students these days who avoid social media, although snapchat still seems to be nearly ubiquitous.) Last semester, I had a couple of students who would not do an online e-portfolio because of privacy concerns, so I had to incorporate a work-around option because the concern made sense to me. In the light of all these data mining and breaching events, I’m starting to wonder if I should even keep this project at all. But then, how am I teaching authentic writing and rhetoric in the 21st century? Hmm.

  3. Akilah

    For Twitter, I’m having them tweet using a course hashtag and collect those tweets into a Twitter Moment every three weeks just to get used to the platform. They’re supposed to be tweeting about the readings and making course connections, but most of them seem to be using it to vent about their homework (which means they’re into the community building part but not so much getting the whole FOR CLASS part). Before they do the actual Twitter thread for their final project, I’m going to have them analyze a couple of different ones. I’m also having them draft the entire thread and get feedback on it BEFORE they post the final to Twitter.

    I hear you on the privacy concerns. I allow students to password protect their posts, and I showed them how I keep the Twitter I’m using for class anonymous. But, yeah, one semester I had a student tell me she didn’t even want her name associated with her blog in class for her classmates to know they were commenting on hers because she was so fierce about protecting her online identity. It’s good that they’re so mindful but some of them have an all or nothing approach to online stuff, which I blame on Real Name Internet (aka Facebook). I didn’t have these problems when I used LiveJournal back in the day when the internet was for anonymity. Sigh.

  4. Chandra Lynn

    If I see that Bloom’s taxonomy chart one more time, I’m going to scream. Lol! I agree about teaching what interests you and about summary (they don’t get it). I teach the traditional research paper because students have to exercise the research process and research writing skills in their upper division major courses, but I use non-traditional means to get us there.

    • Akilah

      Yeah, I did the same this semester and it worked out well. One of my colleagues told me she has her students do a literature review, and I’ve done that the past two semesters. It’s worked out really well, and the students seem to understand research better after doing it (according to their reflections).

      • Chandra Lynn

        I’m shaking some things up–as usual. Just have to figure out what we’re going to focus on 2018-19.


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