Teaching Japanese SF, part 2

Took my student evals a minute to come in, but we’re back!  Last time, I posted my syllabus and some of the thinking behind it.  This time, I’m going to talk a little bit about what worked from that design, what didn’t, and what I want to improve for next time.  And I swear, that book review I promised is coming soon!  But for now, let’s talk about talking about SF.

The good news: my student evaluations were very positive overall!  The bad news: the positivity mostly centered on classroom rapport and my enthusiasm for the subject and my students’ learning.  Now, I know, that’s not necessarily a bad thing!  Classroom rapport is important, and enthusiasm for a topic is often what sticks in students’ heads and gets them revved up to come to class!  With that said, as an extrovert, I think enthusiasm is the thing I’m able to do the most easily.  Well-designed assignments and well-run class sessions, however, take a bit more skill and planning, and also represent the quantifiable, nuts-and-bolts things that you can put in a teaching portfolio, so I was hoping to find my footing on those.  Most students didn’t comment at all on the assignments, and those that did said that they weren’t the best.  Let’s review in a bit more detail.

As you’ll remember if you read part 1 of this post, I had three major assignments: an informal “associative” paper, an in-class debate, and a final project that could be either an academic paper or a creative treatment of the class themes.  Beyond this, though, I had one other “mini-assignment” that I came up with at the last minute.  The class size ended up being much, much larger than I had expected, capping out at 25 students with a few left on the waitlist.  Being a humanities instructor who hopes that each student is absorbing and processing the lessons I teach in such a way as to be able to express them on their own, I made participation a whopping 50% of the final grade.  But with only 80 minutes in each session, there was no way I was going to get all (or even most) of them to speak every time to show me that they were processing what I said.  I needed something I could grab as a proxy for participation.  The solution I landed on was one suggested by one of my exam committee members: on the first day of class, I suggested three “meta-topics” of discussion.  These were large-scale questions, somewhat vaguely defined but centered on specific issues, that I predicted would be backstage throughout the quarter in our discussions, even if we only rarely dealt with them directly.  They were “body,” “network,” and “medium.”  I divided the class into three groups, one for each topic, and assigned them the task of conferring with their groupmates on their assigned topics in breakout discussions at the end of each week.  A volunteer from the group was to post the results of this discussion on the class website each week for us to discuss in the next session, and groups rotated through the topics over the course of the term.

Predictably, the results of this were mixed.  Posts were frequently missed, despite my repeated reminders that these were counting toward the largest chunk of the grade, and the students often seemed at a loss for direction when I asked them to spontaneously create a discussion with their groups.  Especially in weeks where the materials didn’t lend themselves easily to one topic or another, they seemed like they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing.  This is one of the assignments I’d consider scrapping altogether for next time, but in the interest of prudence, I’ve tried to think of things I could do to improve it, instead.  One of these things I actually did late in the term, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.  I simply had the groups themselves lead discussion on their post each week, rather than summarizing it and asking pointed questions myself.  That said, this was only halfway effective in getting the students jazzed about the extra discussions, and they still felt directionless.  One thing I would do if I use this technique in the future is provide some kind of rubric that makes my expectations for the assignment very clear.  Another option I might consider is asking them to give short presentations every couple of weeks as a kind of “long-term vision” of their topic.  One of the complaints in my evaluations was that we didn’t revisit the “big questions” often enough (i.e. the questions I asked at the beginning of the term as a means of establishing that the kinds of topics we can talk about with Japanese SF are larger than just Japan or SF), and taking half a class, or so, at the end of each unit to have the meta-topic experts give a short lecture on how they think their topic relates to the entirety of the content for that unit might have been a way to alleviate that issue.

The other critique I knew was coming was that we didn’t discuss the films enough.  To a certain extent, I think this is an easy fix (devote more class time to discussing the films, duh), but at the same time, I also feel like there are elements that would still give me issues.  For one thing, I will admit that I actually don’t know how to pull clips from a film and put them in a PowerPoint.  Maybe this would be solved with 5 minutes of poking around VLC and PowerPoint, or maybe there’s some digital alchemy I need to perform first.  It’s not like I don’t have friends that could teach me (though yes, I am kind of embarrassed to ask them: this is supposed to be my wheelhouse).  The second, somewhat larger issue is that I don’t feel like I can talk about film with quite the same granularity as I can literature.  I can do plot analyses, sure, but my readings of things like cinematography only go as far as a “feeling,” generally, and I struggle to put words to thoughts in a way that I would feel comfortable teaching.  Guess I gotta watch more movies!  And for what it’s worth, I’m sure if I had just broken out half an hour, reviewed a few clips with the class, and said, “Go,” they would have been on-point.  If you’ll pardon a moment of gushing, my students were absolutely incredible, and one of the things I learned through the class was that I can get away with having a lot of faith that they can carry discussion.  Some of the best moments in the class were when I simply kept my mouth shut and asked them what they thought about our materials.  This was inevitably where novel ideas and unexpected readings I never would have seen on my own came out.  Loosening my grip on the direction of discussion and seeing what the students produce is something I need to improve next time (I just hate awkward silences, even if they’re simply the product of students gathering their thoughts), and it could be really good for film discussions.  The other thing that would be good for film discussions is recognizing that only having one reading on the syllabus for a day isn’t a bad thing if we’re also discussing a film that day.  Need to wean myself off of syllabus bloat.

One unexpected critique, however, was that the midterm debate I assigned them didn’t click for a few people.  I was surprised by this, given how well everyone did and how enthusiastic they’d seemed during the assignment.  The criticisms were that (1) they hadn’t known my expectations, and (2) hadn’t had enough time to meet with their teammates to discuss their strategies.  For my expectations, I’m not sure how much clearer I can get than, “These are the metrics by which I’ll be grading you,” so I somewhat suspect that it might just have been a case of the debate form as an assignment being alien to them.  My guess is they haven’t done many of these, so they may just have been leery of it as a type of assignment.  If that’s the case, then I’m not as worried since it’s not necessarily a problem with my own teaching.  As for the issue of time, I gave them a full week, and encouraged them to use group chats on the website, but fair play.  Devoting class time might have been a good idea, and would have also let me listen in to be sure they’re on the right track.  I’m committed to the idea, though.  A debate was actually the first assignment idea I’d thought of when I was designing the course.  Burnt out on Facebook arguments and political debates that felt like wheel-spinning, I wanted to make communication a major learning objective: communicating rigorously thought-out ideas in a variety of idioms and in a way that is attentive to your interlocutor’s value systems and ideals.  Communicating across ideological divides and communicating with logical rhetoric is the bread and butter of debate, so I want to stick with it.  This election season proved the danger of substituting ideology for facts, especially when that ideology appeals to the most reactionary parts of society.

So 1600 words later, those are some of my post-mortem thoughts on my first ever solo-taught course.  I imagine it will be a while before I get to teach a course like this again, but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to do so.  I can only hope that my future students are as good as these ones were, and that my future self is a better instructor than I am now.  This quarter went well, and it made me want to do better.


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