bon voyage!

Just wanted to wish everyone a smooth start to the semester. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out this piece by James Lang, an English professor and author of the invaluable Small Teaching. Lang’s basic point is that we can use the seemingly “empty” time while students are arriving and we’re getting settled to signal our excitement about the subject material and our investment in their ideas and their lives. Especially important at CUNY, where relationships between students and faculty are often hard to develop, what with the fast pace and punishing commutes.

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ACERT introduction to Teaching on the CUNY Academic Commons: January 9th, 12-2pm

REMINDER: I’m co-leading a workshop on campus next week (Wed 1/9) introducing the CUNY Commons as a teaching tool. If you’ve ever wanted to try alternatives to Bb, this is a great way to get some support! Details below.

cross-posted at ACERT

Julie Van Peteghem (Romance Languages) and I are co-leading a workshop on teaching on the CUNY Commons in January. For an quick overview of the topic, check out this video of Julie and me talking about it. And then come see us in early January. Details below:


When: January 9, 2019, 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm Where: Center for Online Learning, Hunter North C105 Topic(s): Course design, Discussion, Learning management systems, Open Educational Resources

Presenter(s): Jeff Allred (English), Julie Van Peteghem (Romance Languages)

The CUNY Academic Commons has become a robust and flexible platform: a place for discussion, faculty collaboration, professional networking, private and public writing, communicating with your students, and storing your course materials. In recent semesters, some CUNY instructors have begun using the Commons as the learning management system (LMS) in their courses as an open education alternative to Blackboard. If you’re interested in hosting your course on the Commons next semester or simply want to learn more about the platform, please join us for an initial 2-hour guided exploration on Wednesday, January 9, 12-2pm. You will learn more about the basics of the Commons, the many interactive features of the platform, its possibilities to offer your course at zero cost or create open education resource (OER) materials, and see how fellow CUNY instructors have used the Commons for their courses. By the end of the first meeting, you will have your Commons account and site up and running, and your different course needs matched with the many features and functions of the Commons. The instructors will then host monthly in-person check-ins over the course of the Spring semester. In these meetings, participants can bring questions, examples, and ideas about teaching on the Commons that they would like to discuss. In addition, the instructors will remain available for further assistance and consultation for participants throughout the semester.

Lunch will be served at the January 9th meeting! Please RSVP to acert@hunter.cuny.edu

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Recap of meeting with 306 instructors

This week I met with Nico Israel and Mark Miller about English 306 (Introduction to Literary Theory). Both have extensive experience teaching the course, and we tried to articulate some broad goals and best practices to guide faculty who teach the course. 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. Here, I will sketch out some of our conclusions, which will be subsequently edited into a nice one-pager for novice instructors along the lines of the FAQ for 252 instructors. If you haven’t, please join our group on the Commons, which is a growing trove of resources for instructors of the course.

These guidelines should be read, not as prescriptions or rules from on high, but as suggestions that grow out of extensive experience with the course and with its place in the curriculum as a whole. I will move from the broadest aims to the more granular level of assignment structure:

Broad aims:

  • the course should be a survey of theory with a strong historical emphasis and deep engagement with philosophical “primary texts.”
  • it should emphasize theory rather than criticism. English 252 is a criticism course that emphasizes the protocols of critical writing, the process of doing literary research, and the relationship between the close reading of primary texts and the integration of secondary sources into arguments about primary texts. English 306 is different: it provides an introduction to a wide historical and topical range of texts such that students in subsequent “topics” courses can identify theoretical traditions and weave theoretical discourse into their own arguments.
  • English 306 is an introduction to theory. Thus, it should not be limited to one topic or “school” of theory or time period. Rather, it should begin with introductory texts that facilitate discussion around what theory is (e.g., selections from Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory or perhaps foundational texts from antiquity (Nico uses the Norton’s selections from Plato and from the book of Genesis). Then it would provide a survey, firmly rooted in classic twentieth-century texts with some material from the nineteenth century (e.g., Marx on ideology, Henry James on the novel genre) and certainly some texts from the past twenty years at the end. See the FILES section of our group for examples; my own syllabus is open, so check it out. The department has a “topics in theory” course, so if you’re interested in teaching a more targeted, specialized theory course, contact me.
  • In terms of assignment structure, most instructors emphasize exams over formal essays or research papers. Given the amount of material students must assimiliate and the dense interrelationships between texts that they must synthethize, a well-constructed exam with lots of writing helps them to produce mastery rather than just reflect it. See the examples from Jeff Allred and from Tanya Agathocleous in FILES.
  • Frequent, low-stakes writing is a must. I use blog posts of 500-800 words, assigned roughly every other week. Others use brief response papers or in-class writing. However you do it, it’s essential to have students devote time to engaging these formidable texts in writing.
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Ideas for the last week of class

Congratulations: the hay is mostly in the barn, as one of my coaches used to say. But what to do with the final session? We often–myself included–end with a whimper rather than a bang: we’re tired, the students are tireder (and often have big deadlines on that day), no one has read anything new. But giving in to this inertia misses out on a valuable opportunity for synthesis and/or speculation about where the ideas you’ve wrestled with might go in the future.

Our English colleague Paul McPherron has an excellent video (via ACERT, Hunter’s center for teaching and learning, which he directs) that describes his strategy. Paul has students collaborate on a visualization of the course’s content, posting small notes on the blackboard or wall, and arranging them in ways that emphasize the connections linking the various elements of the course:

ACERT Teaching Hack – Finishing Strong

In this Teaching Hack, Paul McPherron (English) discusses his end-of-semester activity that encourages students to reflect on what they’ve learned throughout the course. This activity prompts students to think about what they might want to take with them into their future studies and careers, and it gives Paul feedback as to what they liked most about the course and what could be improved.

I also recommend an article that Paul alludes to, James Lang’s “Finishing Strong” from the Chronicle.

As for me, I ply students with food and drink when possible, and I often have them give tiny, informal “lightning talks” based on their final research projects. I find that this no-stakes approach (I don’t grade them on this) allows students to get a sense of each other’s work and to feel like they’re part of a scholarly community (however evanescent); it also encourages them to focus on the process of research and especially the tendency of research to stir up new ideas for further research. Here’s my prompt along these lines for my last session this term.

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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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Pedagogy and Play: a quick primer, with lots of examples

I’ve been thinking a lot about play recently. In part my thinking is probably driven by having my children migrate from play-based preschools to the avalanche of worksheets that characterizes my local P.S. (and probably yours, whether you know it or not). Why do we oppose ludic spaces and activities to work? Why do we relegate play to the first few years of life? Why do we think of thinking, analyzing, writing, and discussing in ways that are counterposed, explicitly or implicitly, to the realm of the playful?

I’m influenced here by a recent deep dive into the literature on play. For those interested in dipping in a toe, you could do worse that start with Ian Bogost’s Play Anything: Bogost is a game designer and theorist of play, and this book (his most recent) verges on the self-help genre in its investment in the capacity of play to renovate nearly every area of everyday life. More proximate to our work as teachers is Mark Sample’s brief essay in the invaluable MLA “Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities” online volume: there he sketches out playful pedagogy as the countermethod to the orthodox “serious” modes of instruction that dominate education, methods Sample calls “zombie play.”

Fine, but how do we play in the classroom, you might ask? I recently participated in a panel with Lauren Spradlin, a student at the GC who teaches linguistics at Hunter, in which she described a wide range of “small teaching” interventions involving simple games of her own design. Here’s a post on her experiments (and others), and here’s a brief video in which Lauren and I discuss the topic.

In the above links, you’ll also see references to my experiments with Ivanhoe, a concept developed by Jerome McGann, Bethany Nowiskie, and Johanna Drucker at UVA in the early 2000s. Ivanhoe involves the transformation of a fictional text into a “role-playing game,” in which students perform the text, so to speak, by creating a persona in or around the text and writing brief “moves” in the voice of that persona. Ivanhoe requires a much bigger investment of time and energy than the “small teaching” interventions Lauren describes, but it’s a very promising way of mooring the traditional work of the discipline (e.g., close reading, empathic imagination, research in primary and secondary sources) to free-form, improvisatory writing and a playful, open-ended spirit. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in trying this out on your own: it’s very easy to get the game up and running on the CUNY Academic Commons. For examples of how it works, check out the sites where students “played” Melville’s Billy Budd in 2016 or Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Tales last spring. And check out a draft of a piece I’m working on on the broader topic of Ivanhoe, play, and teaching literary research here.

In closing, a word from Roland Barthes, whose thinking about reading and writing as a form of play never fails to inspire me:

In fact, reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text. ‘Playing’ must be understood here in all its polysemy: the text itself plays (like a door, like a machine with ‘play’) and the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it, but, in order that that practice not be reduced to a passive, inner mimesis (the Text is precisely that which resists such a reduction), also playing the Text in the musical sense of the term. (“From Work to Text”)

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ACERT “lightning talks” on teaching: this Thursday, 11/1, 12-2pm, HE 1203

ACERT is putting together an informal grab-bag of “lightning talks” for this Thursday as part of its Tu/Th “lunchtime seminars” series. Come check them out, or even better, sign up as a presenter.

For those who have never seen/done one, “lightning talks” are quick and informal thumbnails on a topic (three minutes/max three slides). For this event, anything you do in the classroom is fair game. ACERTives have been reading pieces from James Lang’s “small teaching” series from the Chronicle of Higher Education, so a reflection on one of those would be great, as would a brief presentation on an assignment or approach you use or would like to use in your pedagogy.

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CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative “lightning talks” event: Tuesday, November 13, 2018 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM

CUNYs Digital Humanities Initiative is hosting its annual “lightning talks” event in a few weeks. I’ve participated in this event a couple of times in the past. As a presenter, it offers a friendly audience of CUNY colleagues and requires minimal prep (a “lightning talk” is a roughly three-minute precis of a project with maximum three slides). As a spectator, it offers a breathtaking array of work from colleagues across the CUNYverse representing a diverse range of disciplines and approaches. Pedagogical projects are warmly welcomed. The deadline is November 6th to apply as a presenter. So come! Details and link to submit are below.


Come present your digital projects, ongoing digital humanities work, or research questions at the Fourth Annual CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative Lightning Talks event.

When: Tuesday, November 13, 2018 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM

Who: All CUNY Students, Faculty, and Staff

Where: The Graduate Center, CUNY, Room C198

What: Present your digital humanities project, research, or questions during a 3-minute / 3-slide “lightning” talk. Lightning talks offer a very brief insight into your ongoing digital humanities project, research, or activity to a community of engaged CUNY colleagues.

How to participate: Sign up using this form before November 6th.

Don’t miss this year’s CUNY DHI event, featuring a keynote lecture by Kim Knight titled “Wearable Interfaces and Feminist Sleeper Agents.”  Following the keynote, CUNY students, faculty, and staff will  share their projects through short 3-minute, 3 slide talks, showcasing the diverse and innovative digital humanities projects happening across the CUNY system. We invite individual students, faculty, staff or groups from all disciplines to join more than 50 scholars who have already shared their projects in previous CUNY DHI events (learn more about some of these projects in the CUNY DHI website). We welcome first-time presenters, as well as those who have participated in past CUNY DHI Lightning Talks.

Reception to follow in Room 5307. This event is free and open to the public.

Please share this call widely with friends and colleagues whom you think might be interested in joining the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative to present their work.

We look forward to seeing you there and to welcoming you into the CUNY DHI community!

Register to participate here.

Deadline: November 6th, 2018

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Participation and Grading: a guide

Last week in our department meeting, Mark Bobrow walked us through some of the issues around attendance, participation, and grades. As you may know, as of summer 2018, CUNY has declared itself a “non-attendance-taking institution,” meaning that we faculty are not allowed to grade on the basis of attendance (or, more to the point, failing to attend). On the face of it, this sounds ridiculous: why can’t we penalize, or even fail, students who neglect to attend more than X number of sessions without a legitimate excuse?

Leaving aside the arguments, pro and con, regarding the policy change, we faculty still have a lot of latitude to ensure that students are required, not just to attend, but to participate actively in class, in order to succeed in the course. It’s called the good old “attendance” grade. On the basis of Mark’s excellent presentation and the vibrant discussion that followed, this change offers an opportunity for us to think more deeply about the participation grade, which can often be something of an afterthought in comparison for grades for exams and high-stakes writing and research assignments. What follows are some ideas gleaned from Mark’s work with English 220 instructors, with a little gloss from me.

First off, what is “participation”? Mark’s materials, which we are all welcome to appropriate for our own syllabi, define terms precisely and usefully:

In English 220, in-class participation includes:

  • contributing to class discussion by responding to instructors’ and classmates’ questions, posing questions, and commenting on relevant aspects of the subject;
  • attentive listening to classmates and instructor;
  • contributing to group activities, presentations, and peer review sessions;
  • bringing to class discussion questions and reading those questions aloud as part of full class and smaller group activities;
  • undertaking in-class writing assignments and quizzes;
  • meeting in conference with the instructor on those occasions when the instructor has set aside class time for individual conferences;
  • bringing to class assigned formal response papers and reading from them when called upon to do so either as part of class discussion or a group activity;
  • posting to class discussion boards and/or blogs when assigned to do so.

Because participation occurs in real time during class sessions, students may not make up class discussion, but as an alternative students may be given the opportunity to write a short response that demonstrates understanding of the material/discussion missed during the session. At the instructor’s discretion, students who miss in-class writing assignments may be asked to make them up. As always, students who miss class due to religious observance or documented medical reasons should be given ample time to make up the work upon returning to class.

The participation grade is determined both by the quantity and quality of participation. Failure to submit written work (including quizzes) or to contribute to verbal activities will adversely affect students’ participation grade.

What I admire about this language is the emphasis on the importance of all activities in class. There’s a tendency for students to think that everything that’s not “on the test,” as it were, is inert and not subject to evaluation and, thus, less worth one’s attention or even attendance. Here, Mark makes it clear that everything that unfolds in the class hour/s is subject to evaluation. Second, note Mark’s emphasis on incorporating activities and work into the class hour that are subject to evaluation, giving a material basis for the participation grade, or part of it at least. Added bonus: folding in low-stakes writing assignments, like spontaneous bits of writing, quizzes, and the like, is just sound pedagogy and develops students’ skills in crucial areas.

Mark continues his documentation for 220 instructors with suggestions regarding how to weight participation and how to communicate expectations to students:

It is up to you to determine what percentage of the grade to devote to participation, and how to calculate the participation grade. It is important, though, that students know if you weight some aspects of participation more than others, so please consider a participation rubric or description. I provide one such sample description below, deliberately vague in some areas (such as “meaningful participation”) to provide flexibility. Also below are some notes on ways to calculate and account for participation grades, but you should not feel bound by them:

  1. Make everything but the formal close reading paper, research paper, and final exam part of the participation grade. For example, if you count the research paper for 35% of the final grade, a mid-semester close reading paper for 20%, and the final for 5%, the participation grade would account for 40% of the student’s grade. You might then weight some activities more than others. For example, formal response papers (including precis) and in-class writing may count for half the participation grade (20% of the overall final grade), and contributions to class discussion, in-class writing, and group work for the other half. Or you might simply approach the participation grade holistically.
  2. Include only in-class activities in the participation grade and have a separate category for response papers.

Finally, here is the rubric Mark offers for 220 instructors (and us) to use or adapt:

Here is a draft description of an English 220 Participation Rubric:

A: meaningful contribution to nearly all class discussion, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; full or nearly full participation in all group activities, including peer review; completion of all or nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with at least satisfactory results.

B: meaningful contribution to at least 75% of all class discussions, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; full participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with no less than satisfactory results.

C: meaningful contribution to at least 50% of class discussions, which may include reading passages aloud and reading from in-class writing and/or writing prepared for class; nearly full participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of nearly all in-class writing activities, including quizzes, with mostly satisfactory results; completion of all response papers with mostly satisfactory results.

D: inconsistent meaningful contribution to class discussions; inconsistent participation in group activities, including peer review; completion of at least 60% of in-class activities, including quizzes, with some unsatisfactory results; completion of at least 60% of response papers with mostly unsatisfactory results.

F: little or no meaningful contribution to class discussions; little or no participation in group activities, including peer review; failure to complete at least 60% of in-class writing activities including quizzes, with mostly unsatisfactory results on those completed; failure to complete at least 60% of response papers, with mostly unsatisfactory results on those completed.

This assumes holistic participation grading. Separate categories could also be weighted.

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Teaching Writing with ENGL 220 in the Rear-View Mirror

[guest author: Austin Bailey]

Many instructors make their foray into college-level English instruction by teaching within first-year composition (FYC) programs. While literature is often taught within the composition sequence, it is also typically the case that pedagogical priority is given–and with good reason–to writing and the writing process rather than to the content and/or total coverage of a given field of literature.

Instructors making the switch from composition to gateway courses to the major, like Hunter’s 252 and/or upper-division courses like our 338 or 395, often confront fundamental pedagogical questions: what amount of writing instruction is appropriate, which approaches and techniques from comp courses translate well to more advanced courses, and so on.

Specifically, instructors now teaching courses within the major might wonder about how best to organize a survey course or an introduction to literary studies or critical theory course, whether these courses should be broadly topical or narrowly themed, and to what extent, and in what ways, one should incorporate theoretical frameworks and/or secondary sources. Equally pressing might be questions of assessment: How is student writing assessed in these courses and what kind of assignments should be given?

Of course, there are no “right” answers to these questions. Many instructors do different things and take different approaches. This open site, and the “groups” on the CUNY Academic Commons aimed at instructors of (so far) 252, 306, 338, and 395, contain a small but rapidly-growing array of resources to support instructors in our department: join any relevant group/s if you haven’t, “follow” this site (you enter your email in the bottom right-hand corner of this page), and consider taking some of the following steps:

  • Peruse the syllabi for the course/s you teach on your group site/s and contact the author for insight into how/why they organized the course thus.
  • Click the number corresponding to the course/s you teach in the top menu of this blog. The pickings are slim at present but will grow rapidly.
  • Check out ACERT, Hunter’s center for teaching and learning: their site has a wealth of resources and videos, and they host a series of “lunchtime seminars” (Tu/Th 12-2) with actual free lunches and convivial presentations/discussions pertaining to pedagogy.
  • Investigate WAC, Writing Across the Curriculum as a resource. WAC Fellows are available for consultation as well as classroom visits and student workshops. If you’d like to discuss writing pedagogy, the Fall-Spring WAC Fellow for 2018 is  Austin Bailey: austinbailey329@gmail.com
  • Most important, share your own knowledge: upload your syllabus, assignments, exams, and miscellanies to the group/s for your course/s. Also, you can post a query to the “forum” in your group to learn how others have confronted tricky aspects of a given course. Feel free to come to Jeff Allred’s office hours (Tu/Th 10a-1p in 1208 HW) to pitch ideas for this blog or talk about pedagogical ideas/issues.
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