recap of December 2018 meeting with 252 instructors

This week I met with, or corresponded with, a handful of 252 instructors. We focused on the issue of culminating assignments (in most cases, final essays) and meandered from there into broader discussions of the aims of the course and some of the challenges of teaching it. I wanted to sum up some of this discussion for the benefit of next year’s instructors and the current instructors of the course who couldn’t attend.

We first discussed final projects. Donna Paparella shared her excellent prompts for two essays in her section: one asks students to engage with theoretical arguments about a literary text (Jeffrey Cohen’s “monster theory” in re: Shelley’s Frankenstein), and the other to dig up historical and/or biographical materials that illuminate Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Debarati Biswas shared her nicely scaffolded final essay. Her assignment features a clearly-explained annotated bibliography stage that culminates in a 7 page research paper. The topic is open, but she gives some “hints” of topics students might take on regarding The Great Gatsby. Both assignments are visible/downloadable via the 252 Commons group’s FILES page.

We proceeded to broad discussion of two major challenges to 252ers.

  • how to bridge the mostly theory- and secondary criticism-free 220 and the criticism-rich upper reaches of the curriculum, and
  • how to deal with heterogeneous student populations in this course, especially transfer students who may not have taken ENGL 120 or 220 sections with the same expectations of the ones we offer at Hunter.

To the first point, faculty noted that most 300 level courses, and especially ENGL 306 (Intro to Literary Theory), expect students to read cutting-edge work in a given field, grasp the arguments, and integrate them into one’s own reading of a primary text. Matthew Knip described his attempts this term to “de-center the primary texts in order to prioritize close reading, analysis, and comparison of secondary texts and their methodologies.” He limits the primary reading to a group of perhaps twenty poems by Dickinson and Whitman and then “foreground(s) representative methods that critics use to write about the literary texts we are reading … . The course thus becomes a course about reception” with a strong emphasis on how to decode, analyze, and employ secondary material in a given field. Students then leave the course able to “connect secondary material to theoretical perspectives and languages so that when they go to the databases, they are better able to understand the interdisciplinary world they encounter there.” Matthew’s syllabus is also available via the aforementioned FILES page.

Donna discussed her attempts to use 252 to work the middle ground between 220-level “close reading” and 300-level full-blown literary research. She described rolling up her sleeves and devoting significant time to basic aspects of research, writing, and analysis: she gave the example of helping students develop the basic, crucial skill of integrating quotations of primary texts into analytic frame within an essay.

To the second point, on heterogeneous student populations in the course, we acknowledged that this is an issue common to all Hunter courses, but perhaps especially acute in 252, where transfer students might have taken 120/220 in less rigorous and discipline-specific contexts and thus have less familiarity with evaluating and locating sources, reading critical articles, close reading, or even writing fluently and frequently. Donna mentioned that a sizable minority of her students this term had never searched for critical articles, for example. The issue of what to do with the more sophisticated students emerged as well, as Donna described creating an alternative pathway to the final assignment for students who seek a tougher challenge. I think this emphasis on differentiation, constructing assignments in ways that allow hard-working students with lagging skill sets to succeed while allowing more experienced and better-prepared students to stretch themselves, is crucial to success in 252.

We wrapped up the hour with a chat about how the department might better support faculty in general, we discussed the issue of creating a stronger set of norms for 252, and for required courses more generally. Suggestions included having an agreed-upon common text for 252; for survey courses like 338 and 395, a core set of “must read” texts to be supplemented by elective ones; for 306, agreement on core texts and or a basic time frame (e.g., most of the texts from 1900-present, rather than a focus on theories from antiquity or nineteenth-century theory). We also discussed the need for full-time faculty to share their materials: part-time faculty lack the time/resources for “extra” contributions, and part-timers might feel that, in sharing materials, they risk making themselves less competitive and distinctive in the job market.

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