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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Thoughts on an Unsuccessful Course
July 1, 2014 - 8:32pm

This past semester I had one of my most, let’s call it interesting, challenges of my teaching career.

My first year writing course was paired with a second semester Biology course as part of a Learning Community, which is part of College of Charleston’s First Year Experience, a program like those on many other campuses designed to put a small cohort of students in a seminar format in order to provide an engaging academic experience, as well as a peer support system for outside the classroom. It's a great program, and I'm a huge believer in its mission.

For my section, twenty students were selected out of the much larger Biology lecture. The same cohort would also work together in their smaller Biology lab. This meant they would spend nine hours together in close contact, in theory, a great way to shrink a 10,000 student undergraduate college to a manageable size.

I was excited. I enjoy the chance to tinker purposefully with courses I’ve taught for a long time. It also gave me an opportunity to work closely with another faculty member and an undergraduate peer facilitator as part of a team, which was a welcome relief from the usual solo work of teaching.

I was right about the pleasure of team-teaching with colleagues. Our every-other-week meetings to discuss student progress and course design were both fun and edifying. As a NTT instructor, having the chance to work closely with a tenured professor (from another department to boot) gave me a different perspective on my teaching and my role at the college.

The other thing the meetings allowed was a chance for me to vent my worries and fears for the students in the class.

It’s not that the class went poorly, exactly. Thanks to now having fifteen years of experience it’s less and less likely for a course to go off the rails. But all semester, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t going as well as it could have been, that I was missing out on really tapping into this unique opportunity.

I’ve been reflecting on what happened since and have some tentative hypotheses.

1. Incomplete audience analysis leading to non-optimal assignment design. One of the things I pride myself on most as a teacher is my ability to analyze my student audience and gear the instruction to their needs, attitudes, and knowledge. When I teach first year writing, I acknowledge the fact that most of them are taking the course against their will, and that some of them may be apprehensive about writing. I find this opens them up to the sort of exploration I’m wishing for them. I also try my best to make the course engaging, particularly by designing assignments that allow them to research and analyze things they’re personally interested or invested in.

 

My plan for the Learning Community was to take advantage of the fact that everyone in the class was a Biology major and design their assignments around questions of science and Biology. It seemed like a no brainer.

It wasn’t. The vast majority of the students didn’t have a particular interest in Biology. Almost all of them were Biology majors because of what Biology majors often go on to do, work in medical fields. Most of the students who want to work in medicine say it’s because they want to “help people.” They also recognize medicine as a stable and high paying field. Biology itself is just one of many hurdles to clear along the way.

So while my students did have widely shared attitudes, they weren’t the ones I identified. The result was that I was drowning them in Biology, a problem made worse given that their Biology course is designed to be challenging – not a weed out per se – but a bit of a gut check for students to really see if they have the interest and drive to go on.

2. The dangers of monoculture. By having so many students pursuing the same field and taking the same courses, we had less of a mix than usual, something that works against the kind of active, Socratic teaching I employ.

More important was the monoculture of their schedules. For good reason, first year writing was judged the less important part of the pairing. When a Biology test was on the horizon, all of the oxygen was sucked out of my class.

Teaching composition, I’ve found that it’s common for students to see the course as less important than ones in their majors, but in sections where everyone’s doing something a little different, it might just be two or three students at any given time who throttle their effort back to idle. In this case, there were periods where half of the students were simply incapable of juggling the work of both classes, particularly given the amount of pressure so many put on themselves to excel in Biology in order to pave a path to medical or graduate school.

3. Taking it easy. Prior to the semester, I did recognize that in the final month they’d be subject to a lot of work and pressure, so I eased back on some of the requirements for their final research project and extended the unit by a week. In hindsight, I gave them too much time and too little to do. Many of those who were on top of things got their projects into B/B+ shape and then coasted into the finish line, not making the final push that would take the work from “good enough” to “can’t be better.” The procrastinators just used the extra week to procrastinate longer.

It’s not that students did horribly. To some degree, my discontent is par for the course, a failure to reach impossible expectations. The average grade was in line with my other section of the course. It’s just that in the final conferences I had with each student, as we reviewed their work, I could sense the missed opportunities over and over. My work with them was “good enough,” but only that.

What would I do differently?

The biggest change would be to recognize that they got enough Biology in Biology. Rather than make them write more about Biology, I would have them apply the kind of thinking and analysis scientists do to other questions.

I would design the course and assignments so that first year writing served as a combination booster shot/antidote for their major field of study. One the one hand, they’d be exercising similar academic muscles. On the other hand, they wouldn’t really recognize they were doing so until later. Rather than seeing first year writing as more of the same grind, it could’ve been a cleansing breath.

Most of the things I do – teaching, writing, rec-league no-check hockey – are extended exercises in falling short of the goals I make for myself, so this class was no different from any other in that sense.

Still, it’s obviously been bugging me. School ended six weeks ago.

So I remind myself that the best part about teaching, and writing, and rec-league no-check hockey – is that you get another bite at the apple time after time.

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