Initial Comments for the September 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

I have been offered a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition for the September 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio–and I’ve signed my contract for it. The course will run from 2 September through 27 October 2018, and it will meet wholly online. I admit to preferring hybrid or on-site courses to fully online work, but I also admit to preferring having income to not, so I was pleased to accept the course.

Ah, to see such a thing…
The image comes from DeVry University. It seems to fit, given the topic here.

I note, also, that there have been some adjustments to the assignment sequence in the course. As such, I’ll need to adjust my teaching materials somewhat from those I’ve been using for the past couple of years. It’s not a bad thing; updates need to happen as more research is done into what best practices are (even if that research tends to focus on traditional undergraduates, who are not the students DeVry tends to teach), and there were things in the previous assignment sequences that flatly did not work well.

Whether or not I assign a topic for consideration is still undetermined. I did not have great success with it the last time I did so, as I believe I noted. My concerns about it remain in place–the more so with a wholly online class, where students are typically even more pressured to cleave to assignments as prescribed and less inclined to range out from their expectations. (It’s not my first wholly online course, and my own mother completed a wholly online degree. I’ll admit my experience is limited, but it is still what I have to work with.) If I do, I do not think I will restrict myself to the previously assigned topic; again, few of the students I taught felt as if they could meaningfully address it. (I wonder if it derives from their having been underserved by their previous academic experiences.) Perhaps if I prescribe a topic, I will work with humor once again–although the circumstances of the class are not such as admit of jocularity easily.

In any event, I have it to do one more time, at least. Even if I do confine myself to the “standard” offerings this time around–and I might, that I might better negotiate the changes to the course sequence since the last time I taught it–I will be glad to have the opportunity to work with students yet again, hopefully to help them move beyond the idea of research as compiling and reporting information only and into the notion of research being the revelation or creation of new knowledge. Students in first-year writing classes do not necessarily often make such breakthroughs, but when they do, it is quite a joy to see; every time I am able to help it happen, I am pleased with myself.

Every time it happens, whether I am responsible for it or not, the world is that much better off than it was before. And more of that needs to happen.

In Response to Thomas Cogswell

On 20 May 2018, Thomas Cogswell’s “True Confessions of a Reluctant Administrator” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece, Cogswell glosses over his early-career experience shirking institutional service in favor of teaching–until he was confronted by an incoming dean who effectively forced him into committee work and assigned him administrative duties afterward. He afterwards comments about faculty governance and its joys before concluding with the note that his own experience has led him to make committee selections.

Cogswell’s piece reads as an attempt at humor, invoking long-known and well-worn tropes of 12-step programs (explicitly: the piece opens with an injunction to “Imagine this is a 12-step program and that I am standing before you, tearfully confessing my transgressions”). And there is some sense to framing a joke in such a way; life in academe, generally, has properties that are not unlike addiction. It starts out innocently enough, with people lured in through often-false promises of esoteric pleasures, and it quickly becomes compulsive, with people scrambling to put together larger sums of money than they can afford to continue to indulge it. Exit is difficult, occasioning no few psychological changes, as any amount of quit lit can attest. Too, as has been mentioned in connection with certain scholarly gatherings, there is a strong correlation of scholarly gatherings and heavy drinking–which has occasioned events designed to give those in recovery, who probably ought to be in recovery, and who simply want to spare their livers so much trauma places to gather.

That said, the joke falls flat for me. As I’ve noted on more than one occasion, I work for a substance abuse treatment facility, one that makes use of 12-step methodologies and which treats clients who are engaged in 12-step programs. They are not among the most privileged people; of those who have entered the facility’s outpatient treatment this calendar year, only nine percent have not been economically disadvantaged, and all are struggling to achieve and maintain sobriety, whether from marijuana (which remains illegal where I am), alcohol, methamphetamine, or some other substance. They are in pain, in trouble with the law, and, in many cases, struggling to keep their families intact. The joke Cogswell seems to be trying to make seems to be made at the expense of my facility’s clients and people like them–and that seems to me to be punching more than a bit down. And I would expect better from someone who would present himself as a fellow-sufferer.

Any help for my facility will be greatly appreciated. Please give.

In Response to David Graeber

On 6 May 2018, David Graeber’s “Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone” appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article–a longer one–opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor–especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on “Chloe, the nonexecutive dean” is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe–although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading up on and contributing to the study of bullshit–such as this piece and some panels I’ve chaired–the piece immediately attracted my attention. One of the things I have striven to do across several years is find joy and humor in the work I do, and getting to read about bullshit and to write about it–as well as to write the word itself, many, many times–helps me to do so. As with other words, the simple juxtaposition of a scholar writing with and about such language reads as humorous–and not only for outside readers, whom a Chronicle piece might well not reach, but for academics, as well; as I said, I have worked with such material before, presenting it at conferences, and even “stuffy” academics have been audibly titillated by the work. And having a working definition of bullshit labor–the performance by workers aware of its uselessness of useless work–offers a good rubric to apply elsewhere. So that much was good to see; additions to taurascatology as a field, even if at a middle-brow level, are decidedly welcome.

Similarly welcome was the core discussion of the piece; rather than being merely a chance to write the word bullshit or a variation of it 27 times in an article, Graeber’s piece offers a frank treatment of the often-unseen-by-those-outside-academe parts of academic labor that annoy and distract. As an academic expatriate–it’s the most accurate term I have to hand for my own status relative to academia–I’ve been in a position to see both the bullshit labor of the academy (whence my end-of-session reports, originally) and the bullshit labor of the outside world (a previous job abounded in it, and there are elements of it, to be sure, in my current work). What Graeber reports largely aligns with my experiences and the reports I have from others, and what does not can, in most cases, be put down to the differences among individual institutions and departments.

That does not mean, however, that all in Graeber’s piece is well with me. I’ll be taking up one major thread of it in another webspace (and please read the Tales after Tolkien Society blog!), but there are several issues that need to be addressed. One of them is that the piece makes several assumptions, overt and otherwise. An early example is the parenthetical assumption that “the provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated [by the excision of bullshit labor] continue to be supported,” which seems far less than likely in the increasingly profit-driven social environment in which Graeber writes, I read, and many others languish amid spreading manure. Similarly, the notion that “the easiest way to de-bullshitize academic life would be to do something about the current precarity of intellectual life” seems at odds with the experiences and attitudes I have seen reported; the tendency, so far as I have noticed, has been towards the large-scale elimination of academic life–and demolition is far easier than reconstruction.

Too, the sudden shift in the last two paragraphs to the idea of universal basic income is jarring. While the idea itself is attractive to me, since I have had times when an assured minimum income would have been a blessing (my job searches were not short, folks, although they were diligently pursued and far-reaching), the presentation of it as 1) a useful remedy to academic precarity and 2) briefly and at the end of an article on bullshit labor seems forced and tacked-on. Honestly, it reads as the kind of disjunctive organization for which students are often (rightly) criticized, and it weakens the rhetorical force of Graeber’s argument–as well as the idea, itself, which already labors under a broad onus. In the end, then, Graeber’s argument offers some disappointment; its central tenets, explicating what the bullshit labor is and the conditions of its emergence and spread, are good, but there is enough that falters in the presentation of those tenets that they are all too likely to be lost in the fray.

No bullshit; I could use your support.

Reflective Comments for the March 2018 Session at DeVry University in San Antonio

Continuing a practice I most recently iterated at the end of the January 2018 session at DeVry University in San Antonio, comments below offer impressions of class performance among students enrolled in SPCH 275 and ENGL 135 during the March 2018 session at that institution. After a brief outline of each course and statistics about it, impressions and implications for further teaching are discussed.

SPCH 275: Public Speaking

Students enrolled in SPCH 275 during the March 2018 session were asked to complete a number of assignments in quick succession. Many, including the weightiest, related to the overall course project; others were presentations meant to offer practice in speech-giving and homework reflecting upon performance in the presentations. Those assignments and their prescribed point-values are

20180300 SPCH 275 Grade Breakdown

  • Online Discussions
    • Two threads in each of Weeks 1-7, 15 points each
  • Homework Assignments
    • Week 1, 20 points
    • Week 2, 20 points
    • Week 3, 20 points
    • Week 4, 25 points
    • Week 5, 50 points
    • Week 6, 25 points
    • Week 7, 30 points
  • Weekly Presentations
    • Week 1, 25 points
    • Week 2, 35 points
    • Week 3, 50 points
    • Week 4, 100 points
    • Week 5, 50 points
    • Week 6, 100 points
  • Course Project
    • Weekly Work, Weeks 2-7, 15 points each
    • Final Presentation, 150 points

Unlike before, most assignments were assessed holistically, with assessment being conducted more gently in light of less formality.

The section met on Wednesdays from 1800-2150 in Room 108 of the San Antonio campus of DeVry University. Its overall data includes

  • End-of-term enrollment: 5
  • Average class score: 698.91/1000 (D)
    • Standard deviation: 174.36
  • Students earning a grade of A (900/1000 points or more): 0
  • Students earning a grade of F (below 600/1000 points): 1

Attendance was recorded with each class meeting. Despite that, absenteeism was a problem in the course. Perhaps concomitantly, non-submission of assignments was also a problem, with several students failing to submit one or more major assignments–and suffering grade penalties as a result.

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ENGL 135: Advanced Composition

Students enrolled in ENGL 135 during the March session were also asked to complete a number of assignments in quick succession. Many, and the weightiest, related to the overall course project; others were homework meant to practice skills used in the workplace and in later stages of the course project. Those assignments and their prescribed point-values are

20180300 ENGL 135 Grade Breakdown

    • Discussions
      • Weeks 1 and 7, 60 points each
      • Weeks 2-6, 30 points each
    • Homework
      • Information Literacy Module- 30 points
      • APA Assessment Activity Module- 30 points
    • Course Project
      • Topic Selection- 50 points
      • Source Summary- 100 points
      • Research Proposal- 50 points
      • Annotated Bibliography- 100 points
      • First Draft- 75 points
      • Second Draft- 80 points
      • Final Draft- 120 points
      • Reflective Postscript- 50 points
    • Participation- 45 points

As before, most assignments were assessed by means of rubrics provided by the institution. Other assignments were generally assessed by rubrics of similar form, announced to students in advance of assignments being due and returned to students with comments once assessment was completed. Some few were assessed holistically, with assessment being conducted more gently in light of less formality.

The section met on Saturdays from 0900-1250 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus of DeVry University. Its overall data includes

  • End-of-term enrollment: 13
  • Average class score: 597.97/1000 (F)
    • Standard deviation: 269.96/1000
  • Students earning a grade of A (900/1000 points or more): 2
  • Students earning a grade of F (below 600/1000 points): 5

Despite shifts in assessment that meant attendance was able to influence grading, absenteeism was a problem in the course. Perhaps concomitantly, non-submission of assignments was also a problem, with several students failing to submit one or more major assignments (one submitted none of the major assignments and only a handful of the minor ones)–and suffering grade penalties as a result.

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Impressions and Implications

There is always something to say about the teaching that goes on during a session. Some of it is held over from earlier work; I continue to go off on tangents, for one thing, although they seem to have been better integrated into the lectures and discussions this session than in many previous ones. And absenteeism continues to be a problem, as does non-submission; I do what I can to prompt showing up and turning work in, but I teach adults, and my hold over them is sharply limited.

Assigned topics–in this case, curricular reform–did not go over as well this time as in the past. The speech class accepted the topic, but not as much was done with it as might be hoped. I want to put that down to it being the first time I’ve taught the class at the present institution; being less familiar with it meant that I did not know what problems were likely to occur, so I could not correct for them. But I do not think I can ascribe all of the difficulty to that.

The composition class largely avoided the topic, many students noting to me that they did not feel competent to treat it. Given the non-traditional student body with which I work, I can understand the concern, although I argued to them that they, having lived outside academe and in the “real” world (problematic as that term is), are well-positioned to see what does and does not correspond to the demands imposed outside the ivory tower. Still, given that few if any attempted it, I feel I must adjust my approach.

That said, I will make at least one more attempt to use the specific topic; the ENGL 216: Technical Writing class I am assigned for the May 2018 term will be treating it, with my thinking being that the more advanced students will have more agency with the topic–and restricting them from the pallid institution-suggested topics will produce better, more engaged work. Further, if I am given another section of ENGL 135, it will return to a fall-back for me: humor. I can hope that future students will enjoy their work more, and that I will have an easier time reading, as a result. And, if I am given another section of the speech class, I will convert the weekly course project work to participation scores much as I have done with an assignment in ENGL 135.

All of this, of course, assumes that I will continue to have the opportunity to teach. I am aware of my contingent status and therefore appreciate that each offer of a course is a gift whose endurance I cannot take for granted. As such, I remain grateful for the opportunity to put to use those skills that years of study have developed in me and for the chance to help others cultivate their skills and themselves.

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In Response to Joseph Conley

On 8 March 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Joseph Conley’s “Just Another Piece of Quit Lit.” In the piece, which seems to have been prompted by Erin Bartram’s own piece of quit lit–about which more here–Conley puts forth the idea that more people ought to leave academe than have–and earlier than tends to be discussed. After acknowledging the difficulty in making the decision to quit, he notes to readers that, at least in his case, nobody made much of his decision to leave–and few were willing to extend him any consideration for having studied as he did. Conley also acknowledges that he was wrong to begin his course of study, summarizing years of undergraduate and graduate experience as a slow decline into self-destructive, alienating behavior encouraged by academe. After repudiating that way of life, he pivots into noting that things get better–with time and effort before making an attempt at humor and concluding that sticking with a choice made in early adulthood, rather than exploring other options, is what quitting really is.

As someone who has largely left academe and who is in a “real world” position that acts with more care and respect for me than my teaching largely seemed to, I found myself nodding along with Conley’s piece at many points. Like him, I am better off for having (mostly) left the field, for taking a job that is just a job and that I can leave behind me at the end of the work day. (That I have been largely able to treat the teaching I still do as that kind of thing helps. And even these comments are done as relaxation and practice, something I enjoy doing rather than something I have to do.) Too, I am married to a wife who made a similar decision; we met in our MA program, and I moved to New York to be with her as she pursued her PhD, but when she moved to Stillwater because I landed a job and we found out that our daughter was on the way, she decided that a doctorate in support of a career she did not want and could not really expect to have was no longer worth pursuing.

She, and later I, found that the sense of shame inhering in giving up, which Conley describes, does not fade quickly. My wife seems at peace with things, but I clearly do not, else I’d not continue to follow quit-lit pieces or comment on them, or bring up my own status as an academic expatriate so often as I do. Other people do seem to be happy with us, our value not bound up in dwelling in the ivory tower, and both of us scrabbled to find jobs that now afford us a better standard of living than we had enjoyed for several years–certainly since leaving New York, if not ever. So the experience of my family is much like what Conley describes; his account rings true for me.

If only I’d been able to get my piece in the Chronicle

One thing that comes out for me in Conley’s piece, though, is a certain amount of bitterness. Comments he makes throughout the article–many of which amount to “nobody cares about you or your academic work”–may be accurate, but that they are made at all betrays dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. That would not be a problem, except that the purported point of the article, the sentiment on which it concludes, is exactly the opposite of it. If we are better off for quitting academe, why the jabs at those who remain in it, those who are already suffering (if Conley is correct)? At best, they come off as jokes that fall flat. More likely, they represent a bit of sour grape-ism, bitter swipes at those who were able to enact their long-held dreams.

I understand the allure, certainly; I am not without my own bitterness in the matter. Having seen people objectively less qualified than I get jobs for which I applied stung, and the sting has not yet faded; it is not to be wondered at that I would harbor some resentment while I still feel the pain. And I can easily imagine that Conley does, as well, despite the therapy he mentions and the good job he reports having, just as I do despite the many good things in my life and the greater freedom to be me that I have more or less outside academe than I had while trying to nestle deeper into it.

Perhaps there may be some balm for that hurt for Conley–and for me.

Care to help me find my way to healing? This can help!

On Little Fears

A thing I ought to do more often than I do is write about the things I read–not just the news media pieces to which I respond, but also the works of my fellow bloggers. Since I hope to have my own work taken up and considered, I owe it to my compatriots to do the same, to note what I read and appreciate in them–and one I very much appreciate writes at Little Fears.

A WordPress-powered blog, Little Fears is a series of illustrations and short pieces, typically humor and horror, that I’ve been following for a while, now–and even commenting on, which I do all too rarely. I do so chiefly for the humor–a long series of puns, some of which are quite groan-worthy. I am a dad, though, so that kind of joke caters to my needs; dads seemingly have to make puns, typically zeugma, and Little Fears presents no few examples of that form that can be taken up and re-deployed. (The blog also makes liberal use of homophonic puns, although those work less well in text than in speech by their very nature, as a recent post about aquatic mammals exemplifies.)

The blog also offers no few other items: the aforementioned horror, SkillShare courses, and merchandise of various sorts. It seems to be doing well enough to keep itself going on those efforts alone, so it serves as a useful model to follow for those who would do the same with their own work. And the author does respond to comments left on the blog posts, which is often a good thing; readers are invited into conversations thereby and made to feel as if they contribute something of value to what they presumably enjoy. So that much, along with much else, is worth the consideration.

Pronghorn, Chapter 11: Local History (II)

Continued from the previous chapter, here.

The major business of Pronghorn has been honey production since the Smithersons established themselves in the area, and Pronghorn Honey has been perhaps the major employer in town throughout the town’s existence. But the Smithersons, having been apiarists for generations, were well attuned to the secondary industries that could arise from their primary vocation. Wax was the first of them, and early in Pronghorn’s development, the Smithersons made themselves useful to the already-placed Zapatas and Hochstedlers through providing it alongside the honey. A chandlery soon emerged as another business in the burgeoning town, and its history in the town serves as something of a bellwether for the economy of Pronghorn as a whole.

Early in town history, candles were the primary indoor light source for homes in the area, as shipping lanterns and their oil into town was deemed too expensive–and the glass kept breaking, in any event, owing to the ruggedness of the Hill Country terrain–but both wax from the Smitherson hives and tallow from the local beef were available fairly readily, and cotton for wicking could be gotten without too much trouble. As the town grew, then, the Smitherson chandlery–operated at one point by Chandler Smitherson; there is still a somewhat perverse sense of humor at work among the family–grew, perhaps even faster than the honey production in town, and the Smithersons as a whole came to control more and more of the town’s financial output.

The increasing control did cause some strain in the relationships the Smithersons had with the Zapatas and the Hochstedlers, of course, both of which families saw their relative influence diminish against it (although, with more and more kin among the Smithersons, they were not wholly displeased). It is perhaps traceable to that strain that the Smitherson Chandlery was burned one night in the early 1900s. A bucket brigade was formed in short order, of course, and enough people were nearby that they could draw water straight up from Pronghorn Creek. But there is only so quickly a bucket brigade can work, and the Chandlery was lost. It was not the only building affected, either; typically dry Hill Country weather and the stiff wind of an incoming front conspired to send sparks over to the Hochstedler Saloon, which burned rapidly–as would be expected of a place filled with alcohol. It was fortunate, then, that the front drove rain with it, and the ensuing sudden thunderstorm drenched the flames still live and soaked the town such that no others could catch.

The Chandlery was rebuilt reasonably quickly; the Smithersons had been thrifty folks and had saved much of their money in the town bank. (They also helped underwrite the reconstruction of the Hochstedler Saloon, with obvious consequences.) The second construction made more use of the local limestone than had the first, and the building soon resumed its earlier level of production. Production improved when water services began to be installed, and it changed focus when the Great War broke out and many of the town’s young men shipped out to fight in Europe. When they returned and began to call for the kinds of improvements they had seen–albeit in damaged form–overseas, the Chandlery helped to underwrite many of them–again, with obvious consequences.

In the wake of the Great Depression, however, and the beginning of the work of the Rural Electrification Administration, the Chandlery experienced a marked downturn. The Depression itself affected almost all businesses and industries, although the agricultural production of the town itself and the wisdom of the preeminent families ensured that few if any of Pronghorn’s residents went hungry; too, ranches almost always can use more hands to tend the herds–and the goats raised in the area benefited from additional attention, as well. Electrification, however, in offering a safer source of light than open flames, did much to reduce the call for candles–and so for the Chandlery’s services. (Federal authorities prevented the outright assumption of power over the power supply by the Smithersons, and when they–along with the Zapatas and Hochstedlers–attempted to establish themselves as the controllers of the public utility board, one federal agent interdicted the attempt. Courts supported the interdiction, and it was long before the Pronghorn utility commission was free from direct federal oversight.)

Production increased again during World War II, with some candles being sent overseas to support the war effort, and others being used to ease burdens on the electrical grid so that other areas, more vital to the production of materiel and the training of troops–San Antonio is not too far away–could be more fully powered. But it fell off once again after the war ended, and Pronghorn did not experience as much of the post-war prosperity that much of the rest of the country did. Indeed, for a time in the 1960s, the Chandlery looked as if it would close utterly; the Smithersons used it as a way to ensure that some of the less convetionally desirable cousins could find something with which to occupy themselves, which is hardly the best way to ensure the endurance of a business. The town followed suit, with many of the youth leaving for other places and not returning except for holidays and in extreme distress.

As with many small towns in Texas, it was tourism that saved Pronghorn–and that saved the Chandlery. A resurgence of interest in Western life and Texana began to drive people to the Hill Country for visits, and retirement beckoned to many, as well, and Pronghorn benefited from both. The Chandlery, where candles were still made by hand in a way passed down for centuries, found itself similarly returned to prominence as people started seeking out “more authentic experiences” and the goods that undergirded them. Honey production still remained the primary focus of the Smithersons, but the Chandlery did much to support the family coffers, as well, and proceeds from it began again to underwrite other businesses and public works projects. Its success became Pronghorn’s once again.

Did I bring you as much pleasure as a nice candle does? Could you kick in as much for me as you pay for that so I can keep doing what you like? Click here, then, and thanks!

Schreiner University, ENGL 1302: Literature & Composition—Essays

Below appears an authoritative version of the guidelines for the essay assignments, superseding any previously published information regarding them.


As is noted for another, similar assignment, that the assignment sheet is long is understood. It is also an artifact of trying to be detailed and explicit about expectations for the project. Additionally, it offers practice in attending closely to detail, which is likely to be of benefit.

Because ENGL 1302: Literature & Composition is a writing class that takes as its subject matter a variety of works in poetry, drama, and prose, it makes sense that it would require students to write essays about such works. Doing so not only addresses curricular requirements—a must in any educational organization—but fosters deeper engagement with works of literature and therefore with the cultures that produce those works and, as is traditionally held, with the underlying humanity of those cultures’ peoples. As such, writing literary essays seems an eminently desirable activity to have students do.

Given the demands of the course, students are asked to write four essays—one on a work of each of poetry (PoEss), drama (DrEss), and prose (PrEss), and a fourth on a work in a genre of the student’s choosing (ChEss). As students in the class are presumed to be relatively new to such tasks—the course is a first-year course, after all—the essays are to be relatively brief (although still of a length suitable for publication, so that students mimic the kind of work done professionally) and scaffolded.

Completing each paper will require students to accomplish several tasks:

Information about each follows, along with a copy of the relevant grading rubric and notes.

Identify a Topic of Discussion

As I have noted elsewhere, writing a paper requires having something about which to write it. Fortunately, a class that makes much of literature—particularly one that operates under a mandate to focus on “discussion and writing about great works of literature,” as the University notes is true of ENGL 1302—has much to treat in each of the three overarching genres of prose, drama, and poetry.

In the interests of offering students the chance to customize their course experiences and follow their interests to some degree, as well as to foster additional reading (always to the good for literary scholars), the papers should each treat a text 1) from the appropriate genre (i.e., the PoEss should treat a poem, the DrEss a play, and the PrEss a story; the ChEss can treat a poem, a play, or a story, as the student decides), 2) included in the Course Pack, and 3) not already part of the assigned reading list. Additionally, each paper a student will write must be on a different work. While it may seem that such restrictions are overly harsh, they still leave a great deal of material open to treatment, so students should be able to find something that speaks to them and their interests.

Students may also petition to treat other topics. Such topics must still be of the appropriate genre, and preference will be given to treatments of works in earlier Englishes—although approval is not guaranteed in any event. Petitions must be made to the instructor in writing, preferably early on in the process to facilitate review and possible approval. Papers treating non-approved topics will automatically receive failing grades, so getting a start on permission for desired non-standard topics is worth doing.

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Review Secondary (And, Optionally, Tertiary/Critical) Sources

Texts such as those generally available for treatment in the class essays, as befits selections for a “great works” class, attract no small amount of commentary. Some of it is contemporary to the works themselves, bespeaking then-current interpretations and understandings of the texts. Some is ephemeral commentary that has grown up through continued reading and interpretation of the works since their initial dissemination. Some is scholarly, informed commentary drafted by those who specialize in the interpretation of the texts and, because they have the time to focus on honing their craft, can therefore plumb the texts in ways not normally ready to hand for more casual readers. Despite the protestations of certain quarters, the attentions of critical experts can be revelatory; they should be considered therefore.

As such, students are asked to look into collections of criticism about their selected topics after they have done their initial selections and readings of their chosen texts and made their initial forays into interpreting the texts for themselves. That is, students should read criticism offered in literary critical journals and monographs after having begun to form their own ideas, using what is already present to situate themselves among the already-existing critical work being done. Finding support from others is useful. Finding that others disagree is also so, as it makes some intellectual work easier to do. And finding that others have not seen a particular aspect of a given work is perhaps most useful of all, as it offers the most promise of finding a new thing entirely, something that has heretofore not been known.

Also likely to be useful, although optional in its invocation, is material that offers context for the work and its circumstances rather than treating the work directly. Such material is referred to as tertiary, in that it helps to inform secondary (i.e., material treating the selected topic) material and to support understanding of the primary (i.e., the selected topic itself). Further likely to be of use is material that offers a framework for approaching the primary material, generally referred to as critical sources. For the course essays, neither tertiary nor critical material is required, but either or both are likely to be helpful; their inclusion would be welcomed.

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Develop a Thesis

After having read the selected topic closely and developed an idea about it, and after having worked to situate that idea amid extant criticism of the topic, students will need to assert a thesis about the work. Typically, the thesis should take a form such as “[Selected topic] [performs some action or serves some purpose] for [a specific audience] through [the means by which the performance is made or the service enacted].” That is, it should say that the given topic does a particular thing for a particular audience in a particular way. Any number of such theses are available for such works as the essays are expected to treat, although some will be discounted for such reasons as being unavailable to specified audiences for one reason or another.

Experience suggests that the most common reason for students’ theses to be untenable is anachronism. A work written in the late 1300s cannot do anything for an audience found in the court of Alfred the Great, for example, since Alfred reigned in the late 800s, half a millennium too early for his courtiers to have read such works. Check on dates; they matter.

Some more commonly accessible areas of inquiry for theses are listed below. The list is far from exhaustive, however; students are not required to use any of the ideas noted:

  • Death (How is death handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)
  • Faith (How is faith handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)
  • Gender (How are questions of masculinity/femininity/non-binary life handled, who would get the references, and why would they be treated so for that audience?)
  • Humor (What joke is made, how, and for whom?)
  • Politics (How is power handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)
  • Professions (How is any one given type of work handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)
  • Race (How is race handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)
  • Sex (How is sex handled, who would get the references, and why would it be treated so for that audience?)

Students should keep in mind that the thesis advances an idea to be tested in the process of composing the rest of the essay. As work on each essay progresses, the thesis may well need to shift to reflect best understandings and available evidence. That it does so is far from a mark of shame; instead, it reflects a growing and developing mind that makes it, and such is to be desired.

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Develop Support for the Thesis

The thesis is the most important single statement to be made in the essay, but it will not suffice on its own. That is, readers must be given reason to believe that the idea advanced in the thesis is reasonable and worth considering to inform their own understanding of the work and the world in which the work exists. As such, students will need to provide evidence from their selected topic that it is doing what they claim it is doing. They will also, and more importantly, need to explain to their readers how what they claim is happening is happening; keeping in mind that each reader’s context of reception differs, students will need to explicate their individual contexts so that readers can follow along their lines of thought and arrive at the same theses the students do. Application of secondary and tertiary/critical materials will likely be of benefit in doing so.

The bulk of each essay should inhere in the presentation of evidence and its explanation—and explanation should far exceed presentation. The sample essays in the course pack demonstrate how such can be done.

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Develop an Introduction

With a thesis and support for it in place, students should turn to how they will get into their arguments. That is, they should work on how to lead readers from where they may be to the central point the essay will make and subsequently support. Doing so can take several forms, but one that is not likely to be of great use when addressing the writings on which the essays are expected to focus is summarizing what is presented, particularly offering an extended summary. Papers treating “great works” can, do, and quite possibly ought to assume readers are familiar with the works being treated; generally, only pieces treating obscure passages of larger works need to offer much in the way of summary, and that only to orient the reader.

A far better way to introduce a paper, particularly one of relatively limited scope (such as the requested essays are expected to be), is to offer a brief overview of current criticism of the work and to present the thesis within the context thereof. Papers that apply critical models to selected works can instead offer summaries of the critical model to follow, thereby contextualizing the specific discussion to be had. Other means of introducing the materials are also available, and students should not feel restricted to those enumerated herein.

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Develop a Conclusion

Papers should not simply stop; they should return from the thesis the paper supports to the broader world in which the reader lives. That is, they need to come back out to a greater discussion. One particularly useful way to do so is to conclude a paper by addressing the issue of what readers can do with the thesis that the paper (hopefully) validates, to answer the question of “So what?” as a way to exit the discussion. Doing so not only offers opportunity for brief reflection, but it also demonstrates the applicability of the work done to the work and lives of others, and that demonstration is both needed in a time that tends to devalue humanistic work and a liberal arts education such as the University prides itself on offering and helpful for students who might otherwise not realize how what they do now helps them later. (It also moves away from cheap repetition that too easily annoys.)

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Compose the Paper’s RV

The preceding sections can be considered an extended prewriting exercise. That is, they work towards the generation of deliverable writing, but they do not themselves generate it. The first deliverable towards which they lead is the review version (RV) of each of the essays.

Each essay will do well to open with a brief introductory paragraph that offers context for a thesis it then asserts. Each will do well, then, to follow with a series of paragraphs that present supporting evidence for the thesis, explaining how each point serves to support the thesis. Each will then do well to conclude with a relatively brief paragraph that demonstrates the utility of the thesis advanced in the paper. Each essay will also do well to be written in such a way as demonstrates its writer merits serious consideration as a young literary scholar; that is, each essay should read as if the work of an incoming professional, one striving to contribute to the centuries-long conversation about the human condition that is literary study.

Each essay should be approximately 1,300 words in length (± 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations. (See Note 1, below.) Each essay should be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages with one-inch margins; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should be in the margin at the top of the page at the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper. The ending Works Cited list should be in the same spacing and typeface; its caption should be centered horizontally on the first line of the page, and its entries should be indented as MLA standards assert.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of each essay’s RV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time according to the schedule noted below:

  • PoEss RV, 17 February 2017
  • DrEss RV, 3 March 2017
  • PrEss RV, 31 March 2017
  • ChEss RV, 24 April 2017

The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened, reviewed, and commented on by the instructor; other file formats potentially pose difficulties in such regards, and a paper that cannot be reviewed cannot receive a useful score or commentary. Each RV will be assessed a grade according to the grading rubric below for a minor assignment grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide improvements to the work. (Obviously, those students who do not submit the RVs in timely fashion should not expect to receive any helpful score or commentary on them. Note the “Late Work” section of the course syllabus.)

Although a reasonably complete paper is expected, it is understood that each RV is a work in progress. Some changes are therefore expected; they should not be viewed as failures, but seized upon as more opportunities to improve writing techniques and to enhance the connections among topic, writer, and reader yet more. Also, please note that consulting with the instructor and/or with the Writing Center throughout the process of composition is likely to be of benefit. No specific grade item will attach itself to doing so, but past practice suggests that those writers who do seek such input and attention generate far better writing than those who do not (which, for the grade-conscious, translates to higher scores).

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Revise the Paper’s RV into the Paper’s FV

After receiving instructor feedback, writers should take their papers, review the comments made by their reader, and incorporate those found useful into their ongoing work. That is, they should work to improve their introductions to and statements of their theses, their motion into and through the supporting points, and their conclusions, ensuring that their papers encourage reading rather than interfering with it. The result will become the final versions (FVs) of each of the essays.

Each essay will still do well to open with a brief introductory paragraph that offers context for a thesis it then asserts. Each will do well, then, to follow still with a series of paragraphs that present supporting evidence for the thesis, explaining how each point serves to support the thesis. Each will then do well to conclude with a relatively brief paragraph that demonstrates the utility of the thesis advanced in the paper. Each essay will also do well to continue to be written in such a way as demonstrates its writer merits serious consideration as a young literary scholar; that is, each essay should read as if the work of an incoming professional, one striving to contribute to the centuries-long conversation about the human condition that is literary study.

Each essay should still be approximately 1,300 words in length (± 25), exclusive of heading (student name, instructor name, course/section, and date of composition), title, and any necessary end-citations. (See Note 1, below.) Each essay should still be typed in black, double-spaced, 12-point Garamond, Georgia, or Times New Roman font on letter-sized pages with one-inch margins; the heading should be flush left, the title centered horizontally, and the body flush left with first lines of paragraphs indented one-half inch from the left margin. Page numbers should still be in the margin at the top of the page at the right margin, preceded by the writer’s surname, and in the same typeface as the rest of the paper. The ending Works Cited list should still be in the same spacing and typeface; its caption should still be centered horizontally on the first line of the page, and its entries should still be indented as MLA standards assert.

Each writer should submit a typed, electronic copy of each essay’s FV to the instructor through Schreiner One before the beginning of class time according to the schedule noted below:

  • PoEss FV, 24 February 2017
  • DrEss FV, 10 March 2017
  • PrEss FV, 12 April 2017
  • ChEss FV, 5 May 2017

The copy needs to be in .doc, .docx, or .rtf format so that it can be opened, reviewed, and commented on by the instructor; other file formats potentially pose difficulties in such regards, and a paper that cannot be reviewed cannot receive a useful score or commentary. Each FV will be assessed a grade according to the grading rubric below for a major assignment worth 15 % of the total course grade, and comments will be offered on a copy thereof that are meant to guide improvements to the work. (Please note the “Late Work” and “Revisions” sections of the course syllabus.)

Please note that consulting with the instructor and/or with the Writing Center throughout the process of composition is likely to be of benefit. No specific grade item will attach itself to doing so, but past practice suggests that those writers who do seek such input and attention generate far better writing than those who do not (which, for the grade-conscious, translates to higher scores).

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Grading Rubric

The rubric through which the RV and FV of each paper will be assessed can be found here: G. Elliott ENGL 1302 Essays Grading Rubric. It is in PDF format, so Acrobat Reader will be obligatory.

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Notes

  1. Since the essays will each reference specific material, both primary and secondary sources, formal citation will be necessary. Current MLA guidelines apply; they can be found online here. Both in-text and end-of-text citation are obligatory; failure to provide them may be investigated as an academic integrity violation, per the course syllabus.
  2. Several examples of the kinds of essay requested of students are presented in the “Sample Essays” section of the course packet. They are, in fact, included specifically to serve as examples for student use; review of them is greatly encouraged. Additional example essays can be found here. Not all are directed towards the kind of assignment represented by the essays requested for the course, but many are—and even those that are not can offer useful models of composition. (It is possible that sample essays will continue to be composed to supplement those already available. They will be posted to the course website when and if they are.)

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Geoffrey B. Elliott, 3 February 2017
Updated to clarify formatting requirements.

Report of Results from the Fall 2016 Surveys

Continuing a practice most recently iterated near the end of my tenure in Oklahoma, I asked students after their impressions of the courses I taught at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, during the Fall 2016 instructional term there. Students were emailed a link to an anonymous Google survey and were offered a grade reward to encourage participation. Initial announcements were made in class on 16 November 2016, and the surveys were open until approximately noon on 21 November 2016, so students had ample time to address the surveys. One form was linked; students filled out different question sets depending on their enrollment, although broad similarities exist among the questions about demographic and academic data, as well as course details. Responses are reported in order, and impressions and implications thereof are discussed afterwards.

Note that, as many of the questions follow prior practice, much of the report will follow earlier reports in content. Repetition is made without further comment.

 Demographic Data

In each class, students were asked to self-report their age, their gender of identification, their race, their ethnicity, and their socio-economic status. Available answers to the first were “Under 17,” “17,” “18,” “19,” “20,” “21,” “Over 21,” and “Prefer not to respond”; students were allowed to select one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, ten students report being 18, nine 19, and one over 21; no other answers were reported.
  • In ENGL 2340, two students reported being 18, one 19, one 21, and four over 21; no other answers were reported.
  • In ENGL 3333, two report being each of 21 and over 21. No other answers were reported.

Available answers to the question of gender were “Female,” “Male,” “Prefer not to say,” and “Other”; students were allowed to select one answer. (Choices were restricted from earlier surveys due to an overall lack of selection by students.)

  • In ENGL 1301, 13 students self-identified as female and 6 as male; one opted not to identify.
  • In ENGL 2340, 4 students self-identified as female and 3 as male; one self-identified as non-binary/androgynous.
  • In ENGL 3333, 2 identified as each of female and male; no other answers were reported.

Available answers to the question of race were “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian,” “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” “Black or African-American,” “While,” “Some Other Race,” and “Prefer not to identify”; definitions follow 2010 US Census Bureau standards. Students were allowed to select multiple answers.

  • In ENGL 1301, 1 student identified as Asian, 2 as Black or African-American, 1 as both Black/African-American and White, 2 as Some Other Race, and 14 as White; no other answers were recorded.
  • In ENGL 2340, 8 students self-identified as White; no other answers were recorded.
  • In ENGL 3333, 2 self-identified as White and 1 as Some Other Race; one opted not to respond.

Regarding ethnicity, students were asked whether or not they identify as Hispanic, following the 2010 US Census Bureau definition of the term. Available answers were “Yes,” “No,” and “Prefer not to identify”; students could select only one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, 9 report being Hispanic, 10 report not, and 1 opted not to identify.
  • In ENGL 2340, 2 report being Hispanic; 6 report not.
  • In ENGL 3333, 3 report being Hispanic; 1 reports not.

Available answers to the question of socio-economic status were “Upper class,” “Upper middle class,” “Middle class,” “Lower middle class,” “Working class,” “Lower class/Underclass,” “Prefer not to identify,” and “Other.” Students were allowed to select one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, 1 self-identified as lower middle class, 13 as middle class, and 2 each as upper middle class and working class; 2 others opted not to identify.
  • In ENGL 2340, 2 self-identified as lower/underclass, 2 as upper middle class, 1 as lower middle class, and 1 as middle class. One opted not to self-report, and another claimed to be a “student.”
  • In ENGL 3333, 2 identify as middle class and 1 as working class; the other opted not to identify.

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Academic Data

Students were asked to indicate what course in which they were enrolled, their classification, current GPA, School of major, major, and minor. Available answers for the course question were those I taught at Schreiner University during its Fall 2016 instructional term: ENGL 1301: Rhetoric & Composition, ENGL 2340: World Literature through the Renaissance, and ENGL/THRE 3333: Shakespeare: Comedies & Sonnets. Each respondent was asked to select only one answer.

  • ENGL 1301 received 20 responses.
  • ENGL 2340 received 8 responses.
  • ENGL 3333 received 4 responses.

Available answers for the classification question were “Freshman,” “Sophomore,” “Junior,” “Senior,” and “Prefer not to respond.” Students were allowed to select only one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, 14 report being freshmen, 3 report being sophomores, and 3 gave no answer.
  • In ENGL 2340, 3 report being freshmen, 1 a sophomore, 3 juniors, and 1 a senior.
  • In ENGL 3333, all report being seniors.

Answers regarding GPA were “3.5+,” “3.0-3.499,” “2.5-2.999,” “2.0-2.499,” “1.5-1.999,” “1.0-1.499,” “Below 1.0,” “No GPA recorded yet,” and “Prefer not to respond”; students were allowed to select only one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, three students report a GPA of 2.0-2.499, three more 2.5-2.999, seven 3.0-3.499, one 3.5+, and six report having no recorded GPA.
  • In ENGL 2340, one student reports a GPA of 1.5-1.999, two 3.0-3.499, three 3.5+, and two no recorded GPA; no other answers were reported.
  • In ENGL 3333, two report a GPA of 2.5-2.999 and two report a GPA of 3.0-3.499.

The question about Schools of majors was expressed as “In what School is your major? (If you have a double-major that crosses Schools, please fill out the “Other” line, below. Indicate which Schools host your majors.)” It admitted of the following answers: “School of Liberal Arts,” “Trull School of Science and Mathematics,” “Callioux School of Professional Studies,” “Undeclared,” “Prefer not to respond,” and “Other.” Students were allowed to select only one answer.

  • In ENGL 1301, 5 report majors in the Callioux School, 7 in the Liberal Arts, and 6 in the Trull School; two other answers are recorded.
  • In ENGL 2340, 6 report majors in the School of Liberal Arts and 1 in the Trull School. One opted not to identify.
  • In ENGL 3333, all report a major in the School of Liberal Arts.

The question about majors was expressed as “What is your major? (If you are a double-major, list both majors. If you are undeclared, note it. If you prefer not to identify, please type ‘Prefer not to identify.’).” It admitted of a short-answer response. After coding to consolidate equivalent answers, the following results emerge:

  • In ENGL 1301, one student reported majoring in each of Arts Management, Communication Design, Education, History, Management, Marketing, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, Multidisciplinary Studies EC-6, Pre-law, and Theater; two reported majoring in each of Exercise Science, Health Science, and Psychology. Three reported majoring in English, with one of them double-majoring in History also and another double-majoring in Psychology also.
  • In ENGL 2340, one student reported majoring in each of Exercise Science, History, Public Health, and Theater. Four reported majoring in English.
  • In ENGL 3333, all report majoring in English.

The question about minors was expressed as “Do you have, or intend to take, a minor? If so, in what? (If you are unsure, note that you are unsure. If you prefer not to identify, please type ‘Prefer not to identify.’)” It admitted of a short-answer response. After coding to consolidate equivalent answers, the following results emerge:

  • In ENGL 1301, two students reported minoring in Computer Information Technology; one reported minoring in each of Communications, Mathematics, Music, Psychology, Religious Studies, Spanish, Sports Management, and Teacher Certification. Six expressed uncertainty about minoring, and four indicated not taking a minor.
  • In ENGL 2340, one student reports minoring in each of English, Photography, and pursuit of teaching certification. Two disclaim minors, and three express uncertainty.
  • In ENGL 3333, all report having no minor.

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Course Details

While students in each course were asked the same questions about demographic and academic data, they were asked different questions about course content. Some differences were only in specific wording, reflecting the different assignment sequences across the classes. Students in ENGL 1301, however, were asked an additional question, one bearing in on their later work.

ENGL 1301

Students in ENGL 1301 were asked six questions about the course:

  1. Of the assignments in the class (Desc PV, Desc RV, Desc FV, Narr PV, Narr RV, Narr FV, IllDef PV, IlLDef RV, IllDef FV, C/C PV, and the riddles), which has been the most helpful? How has it helped you?
  2. Of the assignments so far (Desc PV, Desc RV, Desc FV, Narr PV, Narr RV, Narr FV, IllDef PV, IlLDef RV, IllDef FV, C/C PV, and the riddles), which has been the least helpful? What has made it less helpful than it could be?
  3. What one thing would you like to see your instructor start doing in the classroom? What would make it good to see?
  4. What one thing would you like to see your instructor stop doing in the classroom? What makes it bad to see?
  5. What one thing would you like to see your instructor continue doing in the classroom? What makes it good to see?
  6. For the FinEx, which of the following options would you like? Select one and only one; the choice with the most responses will be the one written for the class.

The sixth question is treated in relevant assignment materials; its results are not rehearsed in the current report.

Of the responses to the first question, one reported each of the Desc FV, the Desc RV, the Narr PV, and the Narr RV as most helpful. Two reported each of the IllDef FV and IllDef RV as most helpful. Three reported each of the IllDef as a whole and the Narr FV as most helpful. Four cited the riddles. One claimed all exercises helpful; one other opted against individual assignments in favor of the instructor. Reasons reported often addressed the challenges presented as prompting improvement.

Of the responses to the second question, one cited each of the C/C PV (too recent to have impact) and the Narr RV (preconceived notions) as least helpful. Two cited each of the IllDef FV (confusing), the IllDev PV, the IllDef RV, and the riddles (insufficiently challenging). Three cited the Desc PV (bad peer review, first assignment learning curve). Additionally, one student set aside all exercises in favor of the instructor, another condemned the Desc as a whole (too easy), yet another the IllDef as a whole (confusing and low grades), and still another all of the PVs (other students’ comments are unhelpful). Two reported no unhelpful exercises. One gave an unclear answer, noting dissatisfaction with peer review.

Of the responses to the third question (paraphrased), four noted a desire for more in-class activity, two asked for narrower breakdown of concepts, two others for more overt engagement, one for tighter focus, and one for a greater variety of activities. One reported uncertainty, and another responded in jest. Eight responded with some variation on “nothing.”

Of the responses to the fourth question, one asked for an end to each of calling-out, the “evil laugh,” peer reviews (useless), reading certain texts aloud (“Any college student who can’t read shouldn’t be here.”), and reflecting on readings (insufficient participation from other students). Five asked for an end to tangential discussions. Two expressed uncertainty, and another eight responded with a variation on “nothing.”

Of the responses to the fifth question, one addressed the in-class tangential discussions. Two addressed in-class exercises; three addressed each of examples given and the overall assignment sequence. Five offered some variation on instructor approachability, in class and out, and six addressed excitement and enthusiasm.

ENGL 2340

Students in ENGL 2340 were asked five questions about the course, mirroring older practice:

  1. Of the assignments in the class (Ppr 1 PV, Ppr 1 RV, Ppr 1 FV, MtEx, Ppr 2 PV, Discus, or quizzes), which has been the most helpful? How has it helped you?
  2. Of the assignments so far (Ppr 1 PV, Ppr 1 RV, Ppr 1 FV, MtEx, Ppr 2 PV, Discus, or quizzes), which has been the least helpful? What has made it less helpful than it could be?
  3. What one thing would you like to see your instructor start doing in the classroom? What would make it good to see?
  4. What one thing would you like to see your instructor stop doing in the classroom? What makes it bad to see?
  5. What one thing would you like to see your instructor continue doing in the classroom? What makes it good to see?

Of the responses to the first question, one cited Ppr 1 FV as helpful (instructor feedback). Two cited Ppr 2 RV (feedback again). Three cited the quizzes (vocabulary-building). One cited both discussions and quizzes (diverse view and vocabulary), and one the papers as a whole and discussions (improvement as a writer and diverse views).

Of the responses to the second question, one reported each of the MTEx (needless, given other assignments) and Ppr 2 PV (poor feedback). Two each reported the Discus (tedious) and peer reviews (poor feedback). One reported the papers as a whole (humor has no place in academia), and one reported nothing unhelpful.

Of the responses to the third question, two were offered in jest and three were variations on “nothing.” One response asked for group work, while another asked for mandatory student-led discussion, and yet another asked for more specific focus on assigned readings.

Of the responses to the fourth question, two asked for restraint in the humor in the class, one asked for less professor-led and more student-led discussion, another asked for gentler peer-review grading, and yet another asked for fewer tangents. The other three offer variations on “nothing.”

Of the responses to the fifth question, all directly or indirectly address instructor energy and enthusiasm. Four also address the humor in the class.

ENGL/THRE 3333

Students in ENGL/THRE 3333 were asked five questions about the course, mirroring older practice:

  1. Of the assignments in the class (PProp, Expl, AnnBib, Discus, or the homework assignments), which has been the most helpful? How has it helped you?
  2. Of the assignments so far (PProp, Expl, AnnBib, Discus, or the homework assignments), which has been the least helpful? What has made it less helpful than it could be?
  3. What one thing would you like to see your instructor start doing in the classroom? What would make it good to see?
  4. What one thing would you like to see your instructor stop doing in the classroom? What makes it bad to see?
  5. What one thing would you like to see your instructor continue doing in the classroom? What makes it good to see?

Of the responses to the first question, two report the Expl as helpful in that it promoted beginning work. One reports the Annbib as useful because of the new approach to research. Another reports homework assignments as being helpful in the same way as the Expl.

Of the responses to the second question, three complain of the Discus, citing it as tedious and overburdensome. One reports that nothing has been unhelpful.

Of the responses to the third question, two ask for more focused lecture. One asks for more student-led discussion, and another asks for multimedia work to address divergent learning styles.

Of the responses to the fourth question, one asks for less discursive work out of concern that key concepts will be missed. Another asks for less of an attempt to display intellect, while another asks for certain jokes to be restrained. The fourth endorses all current classroom practices.

Of the responses to the fifth question, one prizes the supplied examples, while another applauds references made. A third lauds the open discussion format of the course, and the fourth encourages the humorous thrust of the course.

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Impressions and Implications

Before other discussion can take place, a couple of comments must be made. Some results are adjusted to account for errors in the forms sent out found only after the survey was emailed (and the errors are regretted). Also, some clear duplicate results (including at least one announced as such) were deleted. Reporting discrepancies therefore must be considered, as in earlier, similar exercises, limiting but not eliminating the usefulness of results.

The demographic data collected do not stand out as particularly surprising; they largely accord with expectations of the levels of classes involved and with general understandings of traditional college student populations. Similarly, academic data do not stand out as unusual, given the classes involved. Such theoretical implications thereof are addressed in earlier reports made of similar surveys; they need not be repeated again here.

As has been the case in the past, I am happy to see the validation that has come in from students. Each class has at least one student who reports being well served by current practice, and it is flattering to see that at least some of the efforts being expended are appreciated. Also pleasing is the demonstration that at least some of the students are comfortable enough to crack wise, which bespeaks some belief in agency and comfort with the setting sufficient to permit humor. And that the humor in the classes, generally, receives commendation is gratifying.

That said, there is clearly still room for me to improve upon my classroom work. Some results from the simple fact of a new teaching environment; the Fall 2016 term is my first at Schreiner, and some adjustment period is to be expected. Some remains grounded in my own persistent patterns; I remain prone to sidebar discussions and being led far afield from my central points in my speech, and students continue to be distracted by my doing so to some degree. My efforts to address the issue thus far have not yielded as much progress as might be hoped.

Going forward, I expect that I will follow one prevailing thread of commentaries, at least, and eliminate peer review sessions from my teaching. In honesty, I have maintained them largely because I see them discussed with favor in major publications, but I seem not to have a handle on how to administer them. I think I have made enough attempts at the exercise to find that it does not work well with my teaching; it can be discontinued.

Other issues do not necessarily present themselves so clearly, given mixed opinions voiced among the students. As ever, though, all that can be done is to try to improve–and I shall continue to work to that end.

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Sample Paper: A Quiet Zinger in Gantz’s “Pwyll Lord of Dyved”

What appears below is a sample of the kind of paper students in my Fall 2016 section of ENGL 2340: World Literature through the Renaissance are asked to write here. Its topic is one that would need approval, although it would likely receive it if requested. It does, however, adhere to the length requirements expressed to students. They are asked for 1,300 to 1,625 words, exclusive of heading, title,  page numbers, and any necessary Works Cited entries; the paper below is 1,328 words long as assessed by those standards. Its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.

One of the best-known works of medieval Welsh literature, The Mabinogion relates a number of stories that compose what Jeffrey Gantz describes as the only collection of medieval Welsh folktales available (10). No few translations of the tales allow them to be studied and appreciated by those who have no facility with one of the last living Celtic languages, but all such translations necessarily impose other standards and other perspectives on the text. They are distortions of both the original language and the target (Conley 20-21), and so they will necessarily have different valences for different audiences. Following Naoki Sakai, they are not neutral; they specifically privilege and address particular usage communities, whether intentionally or otherwise. Which communities are addressed can be inferred from any number of features, ranging from the diction in the target language to the editorial apparatus–or gaps therein. One example among many that can be found inheres in Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved,” the story with which his rendition of The Mabinogion begins. In it, editorial apparatus points towards–but not at–a bit of political commentary easily passed over by many readers; those readers who do see the commentary, likely to be erudite cynical punsters (or those who fancy themselves such, at least) may well be those Gantz seeks to address most directly.

The political commentary in question inheres in a bit of wordplay that relies on an emblematic reading of character names. Gantz begins to motion toward it in a footnote appended to the first word of the tale, noting that the eponymous Pwyll of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” bears a name meaning “sense, judgment” (46n1). The name is a fitting one for a ruler, as it is often hoped that those in power have some idea what they are about; this is almost certainly the case for the late twentieth century initial readership of Gantz’s translation from the Welsh, particularly given the upheavals of the Baby Boomers beginning to come into full adulthood and those who led the Greatest Generation passing on or retiring from active work. Motion towards the word-play continues as the character of Arawn King of Annwvyn is introduced; Gantz glosses the word tentatively as meaning “not-world” (47n5), implying that it is like More’s Utopia, a no-place, something not to be found within the world. The motion is completed in a later comment, one that takes place after Pwyll and Arawn have concluded their bargain and grown into fast friends; narration remarks that the Lord of Dyved “was called Pwyll Head of Annwvyn ever after” (51). Following Gantz’s glosses, he became known as Sense, Head of Nowhere, a comment not explicitly heralded in the editorial apparatus, although it can be inferred from those things that are so announced.

The joke itself, of course, is in its thrust a commonplace. Complaints about the irrationality of those in power persist in the literary and historical records, ranging in intensity from polite mentions that other decisions would be preferable to vitriolic screeds that rage against the inanity of governance, in length from such quips as Lord Acton’s to tome-length deconstructions of authority. Many of them make for entertaining and humorous reading. That Gantz’s translation–and, presumably, the original work being translated–would make such a comment does not, therefore, serve to narrow the audience for Gantz’s translation further than those who, already cynical, look for ways to heap aspersion upon things; making a widely understood joke bespeaks a wide audience.

The way the comment is presented, however, helps to direct the joke towards a narrower group. For one, unless Gantz’s reader is also a reader of Welsh, identifying the valence of Pwyll is a task requiring a glossary. So is discerning the meaning of Annwvyn. (Since the text is published in 1976, it is not one that can readily assume the availability of machine translation–but even for readers that have such access, using it to untangle proper nouns is not necessarily a go-to task; names are often readily accepted as themselves, having no greater significance.) Gantz provides one, as noted above, but a Cymræg/English dictionary would also suffice–and in both cases, the possession and use of such a device denotes a particular kind of reading (and reader) commonly associated with greater education and formal training, thus, however arbitrarily, with greater intelligence. That is, setting up the joke in editorial, scholarly apparatus positions the joke to be taken up not by a casual reader, but by a “serious” one.

Many people can be counted on to look at the words presented on the page when they read a book or a story within one, however, so while embedding clues to a joke in footnotes begins to move that joke away from casual readers, it is not enough to take it fully away from them. (Admittedly, endnotes, requiring more effort to follow and removing explanation further from the explained, might do so.) Obliging that provided pieces be assembled, though, at least carries the joke further afield than the easy reading a causal reader might do would go, placing it more firmly among the paths trodden by the (perhaps self-styled) erudite. Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” does not make a comment when the eponymous character is relabeled as Pwyll Head of Annwyvn; it does not point out the punning reference to the absence of good sense amid the governance of corporeal nations. Instead, it leaves readers to infer that such a comment is being made, demanding a higher level of reading comprehension than openly announcing the contents of the joke would. A cynical pun is thus aimed at those who look more deeply into things than might otherwise be the case–and such people are often held to be more intelligent.

It might well be argued that failing to call out the joke means the joke was deemed unimportant, or perhaps that it was not noticed or intended. Yet the fact that the components of the joke are identified and explained when they are first presented suggests that their result bears attention, as well; again, names of people and places are readily accepted as complete within themselves, needing no other meaning to be significant and needing no explanation to identify characters and geography. (Indeed, Arawn’s name is not defined; nor are many other names in the text.) Too, it is not to be expected that scholars–and the editorial apparatus and prefatory blurb for the volume, which identifies Gantz as having earned a doctorate in language and literature from Harvard (1), both indicate that Gantz is a scholar–would fail to notice a clever combination of textual elements in their areas of specialty, even if those outside it might not. And mention of the intentional fallacy allows for discard of whether the joke is meant or not; whether it was meant consciously has no bearing on whether it has a given function. Gantz could have been responding to subconscious or prevailing cultural ideas–the years leading up to 1976 were not a time of great trust in government–and it is a commonplace that people do things that others view as funny without any premeditation to that end.

That there is a bit of humor at work among the scholarly paraphernalia in Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” is clear. That it is a comment bespeaking the age-old cynical conceit that government is senseless is evident. That it relies on word-play, making it a pun, is groaningly obvious. That it consists of parts embedded in places where only more educated–and therefore “more intelligent”–readers are likely to look can be sussed out. That the joke itself has to be sussed out means that it restricts the audience for the joke–and perhaps the audience Gantz’s translation has in mind, not simply one of scholars, but one of scholars who look for cynical commentaries and who revel in subtle puns wherever they might be.

Works Cited

  • Conley, Verena. “Living in Translation.” Profession, 2010, pp.18-24.
  • Gantz, Jeffrey, translator and editor. The Mabinogion. Penguin, 1976.
  • Sakai, Naoki. “Translation and the Figure of Border: Toward the Apprehension of Translation as a Social Action.” Profession, 2010, pp. 25-34.