Using a Web Board to Challenge Student Assumptions



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Fran Teague

University of Georgia



Athens, Georgia 30602

Using a Web Board to Challenge Student Assumptions
For the past five years I've been using web sites as a central part of my teaching. The University of Georgia offers WebCT, a package that allows me, as the instructor, to post the web pages I design, as well as various tools such as a calendar, chat rooms, a grade book, and web-based bulletin boards. The faculty support system is excellent. My university helps faculty develop their expertise by running a series of classes explaining how to work in HTML, how to use WebCT, and how to use such packages as Fireworks or DreamWeaver; I’ve attended a number of these, and I often consult the local experts when I run into problems, either by calling the help desk or by posting queries to the WebCT Instructor listserve.
What I’ve particularly appreciated about using a class homepage, however, has nothing to do with technology per se. In planning a course that uses web materials as an integral part of the teaching process, I’ve had to rethink completely what I was teaching and how I was teaching it. Having to consider what went where on the webpage initiated a total reorganization of the courses I regularly teach. Further, as someone who principally teaches drama, I like being able to include more visual elements in my on-line lecture notes. Here, then, is a short list of what I most appreciate about web learning:
Forces you to be a more organized instructor
Forces you to re-think your course content
Generally useful for students to learn how to use on-line materials
Able to provide illustrations, texts easily and attractively
Good tool for communicating with class, especially for large classes and especially with quiet students
Yet I’ve also seen some serious drawbacks. First of all, using such new techniques requires time from both the instructor and the students. Preparation a class web site eats the hours, especially the first time one does such a class. I could not in good conscience recommend that an assistant professor spend time learning how to work with such materials because the way that the tenure process is currently constituted means that such efforts are inadequately rewarded. On occasion, students balk because of time: they may agree that they will have to work online in the future, but they resent having to make room in their schedules for a trip to the computer lab if they do not have a good system at home. (And some dislike having to be out in the evening because they feel unsafe.) Some of the benefits I had hoped for simply haven’t materialized: students do not necessarily take advantage of useful links to explore a topic on their own, nor does anyone save paper since students print everything. Furthermore, I think that most of us have not put much thought into the ethics or legalities of placing copyright materials on our webpages.
Finally, I have on occasion been frustrated by indifference (or active antipathy) to the concerns of humanists. The tools that the package offers are designed for objective information, which works well for the social sciences or for science and technology topics. But there is relatively little for those of us whose subjects include the subjective or the aesthetic. If I want to put up a web page on King Lear, for example, the default icons I can choose are either utilitarian or cute, but neither is appropriate for that play. When I mentioned that problem to one of the support staff four years ago, he was genuinely astonished. It had never occurred to him that utility and cuteness might not be the tones in which one taught. And while he was very helpful about showing me a good site with freeware icons, I’m still waiting for the system fix that I was promised: WebCT has made other system changes based on my suggestions, but that’s one that has been ignored. Let me offer another instance. As a senior woman, I end up on a large number of campus committees having to do with technology. (One hesitates to breathe the word “token,” but I’m sure that’s a factor.) When we began using WebCT, I asked other users and support staff in debriefing meetings, “If the system designers can build in a handy little calculator or online chat room, why can they not supply a simple word processor for humanities students using the bulletin board?” That request was met by either silence or scorn from the non-humanists until about the third meeting when someone who had given the problem some thought came up with a solution of sorts (teach students to write their responses in WordPad and then cut and paste into the bulletin board). My sense is that most didn’t understand that tools for handling text are as important to a humanist as a calculator is to an engineer: because they didn’t understand it, some considered my question unreasonable or short-sighted. I still want a word processor inside the system, but doubt that I’ll ever see it. Lest I leave the impression that I’m deeply dissatisfied, however, I want to turn to one aspect that I consider an unqualified success.
The Response Papers
The tool I use most effectively is the bulletin board. I'd like to describe an assignment I've built around the bulletin board and explain how it's changed my classroom practice. I'm going to focus on a Renaissance Drama class, rather than a Shakespeare class, partly because I have a clearer set of student responses and partly because a section of this essay was already prepared,i but what I say here is applicable to all the courses I teach. [A different version of my paper will appear in Aproaches to Teaching Renaissance Drama, eds. Alexander Leggatt and Karen Bamford (New York: MLA).]
In my undergraduate classes I ask students to prepare a series of response papers; the average on these provides 10-15% of the final grade. Whenever the class begins study of a new play, each student writes a short paper, 250-500 words long. Recently I have moved the response papers on-line, asking students to post them to a bulletin board on a web page. (That bulletin board is the source for the student comments.) In their response papers, they may answer suggested questions about the play; their responses vary from a sentence to several paragraphs. I alter the assignment slightly every time I teach, but in general, here’s the message that they receive from me in an initial posting to the class.
I want everyone to post a response paper as soon as

possible.


What is a response paper? It simply asks you to jot down

a few comments about the play you've just read: draw

attention to whatever in the play caught your fancy,

outraged you, or puzzled you. Tell me who the most

important character is, what the key moment is, or what

the big idea is. Let me know you've done the reading.


The rationale is that the response papers reward you for

staying caught up with the reading. They help me by

pinpointing questions you might have or topics I'll need

to consider. Finally, they mean that when we start

working on a play, the class doesn't sit there--stupid

as paste--with nothing to say.


The grading is based on timeliness. If your RP

demonstrates you've done the reading and is written

before classtime on the day we start the play, you

receive full credit (10). It drops by 3 points for the

next two days after that (highest possible grade on

second day is 7, and the highest possible grade on any

subsequent day is a 4).
Please watch out for your tone: if your audience were

the parents of your best beloved, would you wince if



they saw what you've said in your response paper?
Marking the papers is easy: in a minute or two, I can read through each of them, offering a general comment or two to the class, and giving marks in the online grade book. All the responses on a particular play are sorted into a separate file and students have the ability to compile these as a whole if they want to do so (in studying for a test or when writing an essay, for instance). Students earn points for demonstrating that they have read and thought about the play and for completing their work on time. I do not deduct points for spelling or mechanical errors. If a student turns in a completed response paper showing first-hand knowledge on the day that we begin work on a particular play, then that individual receives ten points; if the paper arrives a day late, the grade is a maximum of seven points; after that, the paper can earn only four or five points.
Benefits
The series of response papers offers a number of benefits. From the instructor’s point of view, the assignment substantially increases the amount of writing that students do without substantially increasing the time in grading. Perhaps because they know they will not be penalized for mechanical or writing errors, students seem to regard writing on-line as not real writing: they take risks they would otherwise avoid. Response papers reward students for doing the reading in a timely fashion, and they provide me with a good sense of what issues need discussion, where students become confused, and so forth. From the students’ perspective, the class quickly realizes that the assignment is an easy A, one area in which they have complete control over the grade that they receive. Some like the idea that they can use the response papers to study for examinations or to generate essay topics. Since I have begun to use the web page bulletin board, which allows everyone to see all the other responses, students comment that they find it helpful to know that they are not alone in finding certain points difficult. I like the fact that the bulletin board allows them to respond to and to question one another. The best feature from the class's point of view is that they can engage more fully with the reading in class discussions. All of us prefer lively class discussion to those that are deadly dull. Because they come into class having done the reading and having formulated some opinions about the play, discussions are far better than they would otherwise be.
By resisting the answers that a class provides in those discussions, I can get the students to argue with me. For instance, if I have assigned Shoemakers Holiday, students will give varying answers to the question, “Who is the protagonist?” Some say Simon Eyre, while others name Rowland Lacy. If I say that I think the true protagonist is the King or Hammon, then I can expect a moment of silence and half an hour of heated debate. As we go over the various arguments that students make, we find ourselves talking about what sort of play Shoemakers Holiday is: a city comedy, a romantic comedy, or a shameless effort to curry favor at court. Asking students to identify the genre of a play like Philaster can generate a fine discussion, as does asking them to pick out a single turning point in Doctor Faustus. Because all students have already taken and defended a position in the response papers, they are far more likely to enter into the debate, especially once they see that I enjoy having them correct me. (They also learn that they gain no advantage by agreeing with me: if too many of them start to argue for my position, I simply announce that the discussion has become boring and that I am therefore reversing my position so that the discussion can continue.)
Breakdown as Break Through
What I like best about the response papers, however, is the moment that arrives each term when the class figures out that their assumptions about how plays work don’t always mesh with the literature that they’re reading. About midway through the term, students begin to compare what they’ve always believed about how plays work with what they are themselves experiencing and what they can see (via the response papers) their classmates are experiencing. Why, they may ask, must every play have a turning point or a protagonist or a genre? That moment exhilarates me, for they have learned on their own how conventional assumptions about drama can fail. The conversation that follows is always an exciting one. Sometimes we end up talking about why our culture seems to prefer tragedy to comedy, especially since the great majority of Renaissance plays were comedies; Jill Levenson estimates that “in the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre . . . [comedy] would finally surpass tragedy by a ratio of three to one” (269). We ask what happens if the central character of a play is relatively powerless instead of being a powerful aristocratic man (allowing students to notice subversive elements in a play always works more effectively than my pointing them out to the class). We may talk about how different plays vary structurally and why the model of Greek tragedy has exerted so much influence. In other words, the relative rigidity of the response papers leads students to question their own received wisdom about Renaissance drama. One term the class happened to be studying The Masque of Blackness after a breakthrough discussion. One of the first responses I received was the self-conscious comment, “I hope we are not supposed to evaluate "The Masque of Blackness" using the . . . format established for the other RPs, because I don't think I can pull it off!” Here are several other student responses to plays that show, I think, how they have learned to question their initial assumptions and the way that they have begun checking their own responses against those of other students:
Rachel: I love this play [The Duchess of Malfi]. It is such an attention grabber. I even stayed awake to read it after I took Benedryl and that is a very hard thing to do. My favorite character is Ferdinand. He is just so mean and awful and I am constantly getting these strange “in love with my own sister” vibes from him. What a great creation. He lends so much tension and drama to the play (more fun for us). I foud Antonio to be a little too sappy and easy to push around, though I will admitt that he was adorable during the engagement scene. I also found Bosola interesting because he actually attempts to change and grow during the corse of the play. He say that he “wakes” (IV.ii.326) and this is true.
Terri: I thoroughly disliked Penthea. She was whining, histrionic, and extremely self-absorbed. She loved nobody except for herself and I was glad when she died. Glad, do you hear me??? GLAD!! (Sorry -- a little histrionics of my own.)
Josh: Terri, I like that you’re opinionated! histrionics always make for entertaining academic work.
Josh: The most curious aspect of the play [The Changeling] was its tendency toward rough transitions or even abrupt ones. I did not feel a flow to the plot until the last two pages although I was well able to follow it. The scenes struck me as jarring glimpses at the least flattering aspects of people who would have been decent in nearly any other play, but I did not feel the coherence of a morality-play like Faustus.
Octavia: I'm inclined to agree with Josh that the weirdest thing about this play is the way everything just seems “thrown together”. I didn't really understand why the plot would shift so rapidly. Or maybe I simply didn’t get it.
Shapour: I think I’ll go back and read this play again later. I feel like I’ve missed a huge part of this play after reading everone else’s response papers.
Rachel is enjoying the characters in Duchess of Malfi on their own terms, not as stock characters who must be categorized or as case studies in aberrant psychology. Terri resists the nobleness of Penthea in The Broken Heart and has enough fun doing it that Josh backs her up; this exchange makes it clear to me that we have to discuss that response. And when Josh himself makes a good point about The Changeling, Octavia responds to him, although she admits that she may not fully understand what is occurring. Finally, Shapour is willing to re-read a play when she finds her response differs from that of her classmates. I don’t want to suggest that I see these responses as terribly sophisticated, but I do see them as more skeptical about their own assumptions and more willing to consider the plays without regard to other literature.
Why does an assignment, which seems initially to be busy work, turn out so well? I would argue (along with composition and rhetoric specialistsii) that writing is itself a mode of learning. As the title of Peter Elbow's influential 1983 article, “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing,” suggests, writing is an important part of the cognitive process. See for example work by Janet Emig, Elbow, Linda Flowers, and John Hayes. Entering the world of Renaissance drama can be daunting for undergraduates, who must wrestle with difficult language, outré plots, and unfamiliar conventions, as well as learn about the historical and cultural milieu of the plays. Moreover, they must do all of that in the shadow of Shakespeare, a presence that complicates the process by ensuring that they all think they have some knowledge, however inapplicable it may actually be. The response paper gives them a way to manage the plays: they may have an answer upside down and backwards, but if they make a good faith attempt, they will receive credit. Furthermore, by breaking down the elements of the play that they need to identify, they are more able to control the key points. Since I insist that they tell me why they give the answer that they do, they must analyze and evaluate the work in question. The response papers also serve to highlight problem areas: as soon as I read a set of response papers on The Broken Heart, for example, I know how well they understand the play’s assumptions about chastity and rape.
The response paper is generative. Obviously I value the discussion that response papers generate, but that is not quite what I mean. I am often told that the comments I make in the margins or on-line are important to individuals: they establish, however laconically, a dialogue between two people. Because I have placed a check mark by an apt sentence or scrawled, “Good idea,” students have found essay topics that they believe they can handle well. (They seem to gain such confidence from an affirming scribble that no amount of hard work fazes them.) And if they identify an effective passage or ask a penetrating question, they can count on seeing their own insight show up as a question on the midterm or final examinations. Given the discussion of Penthea and her situation, I asked this class to “Explain why understanding Renaissance marriage customs (such as the hand-fast marriage or the arranged marriage) is essential if one is to make sense out of The Broken Heart.” Their answers showed clearly who had paid attention to the discussion about the questions that they had raised in their response papers. By using a web-based system, they now receive comments and encouragement from their peers as well as from me, as the examples above show. Moreover, the knowledge that others in the class will read what they have to say makes them more thoughtful: when they adopt another student's idea, they give credit (as do Josh and Octavia), and when they disagree they take more care in explaining why they differ, so that their classmates won't be offended. (I do warn them at the outset to watch their tone because I will not tolerate flaming responses.) They even recognize the changes that take place in their understanding; as Jami wrote, “I'm really excited that I've finally got my comprehension instruments attuned to reading Ren. drama, even if it is only 6 weeks till class is over. ”
Renaissance plays demand a sensibility that appreciates allegorical action and melodramatic turns, as well as lyric speeches and clever dialogue. The response papers work well both because they allow students some control over their new reading experience and because they give students credit for being well-prepared readers. But the assignment is sufficiently rigid that it irritates students after a while. And once they express that irritation, they begin to understand that a formulaic assignment, like formulaic thinking, is simplistic and inadequate. The key, however, is that that recognition originates with the students themselves rather than with their instructor.
List of Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing.” Change 15.6 (1983): 37-40.


- - - . Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” College Composition and Communication 28.2 (1977): 122-8.
Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 32.4 (1981): 365-87.
Leggatt, Alexander. English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration 1590-1660. New York: Longman, 1988.
Levenson, Jill. “Comedy.” The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama. Eds. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 263-300.

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