The end of the semester is such a hectic time – students write essays and then immediately rush to their holidays, while faculty grade, grade, grade in a Herculean effort to finish before Christmas. Nowhere is there time for quiet reflection on the semester. But as I finish my senior students’ essays (which are quite good, in fact!), I wonder exactly what my students will remember from this course in a year, five years, ten years?
Last week, I attended a workshop on "backwards design",  Wiggins and McTighe's formula for first articulating the main goals of the course, the big ideas that are central to one’s discipline, and then figuring out ways students might demonstrate this knowledge. Central to this method is the realization that most students do not remember the vast amount of content covered in a course; however, they may remember the big ideas, particularly if they are given engaging and challenging ways of enacting them. In order to do “backwards design,” one must let go of the tenacious notion that because we cover material, students will have learned it and will retain it.
Tonight I have been reading my students' final essays, in which they trace a question through three of the British novels we’ve read this semester. It's fascinating to read see the development of their arguments, and to notice the insightful (and sometimes erroneous) points they make. Because this is a course on Victorian novels, we read a hefty amount. How much do they remember? I hope that they have honed their ability to read carefully and critically, to perform close readings of passages, and to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the questions we ask of literature. But what about the particular novels I assign?
When I’m planning my course, I fuss endlessly over whether to assign one novel or another -- Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist or Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for example. Will these texts directly influence their understanding of modernism, of literature, or perhaps, of life itself?
What do you remember about your college courses — particularly those of you who did not go on to become professors? When I think back on my college classes, I remember the formidable professor who once revealed a lost love while discussing a sonnet; I recall the chalky black room in which I performed beginning acting exercises (badly). I remember, as well, my own romantic concerns, my money worries, and other non-academic problems. When I think of the content of the courses, it's not my professors' interpretations I remember, it is my own active engagement with the texts.
What will my students remember? I have no idea. Probably the novel they loved best, the day my daughter came to class and put Dora stickers on their exams, or a moment they found themselves making a more sophisticated analysis than they thought they were capable of.
As I plan for next semester, I realize how finite our class time is, how unpredictable its effects, and how little control we have over what our students remember.