Monday, May 30, 2011

The sorrows of summer school: now less sorrowful!

My intensive summer class is now complete and I'm back from Cosimo's college reunion (on which, perhaps, another time), so I'm coming up for air to think through what worked and what didn't in the two-week format.

To my surprise, this class went really well, producing roughly the same range of grades and the same kinds of markers of intellectual progress that I see in a typical semester-length class. However, it's hard to know how much of that is about the self-selection of the students who enrolled: summer students tend to be more on the ball and are less likely to be distracted by outside concerns than at least some of the students that I see during a regular semester. (If a class demands roughly 40 hours of work a week, students can't ALSO be holding down a regular job or taking five other classes--and if they have kids they have to have partners or reliable childcare). This isn't to say that my students this summer were the best students I've ever had at RU, but they were remarkably focused, enthusiastic, and diligent. I probably lost the top 5% of students that I see in a typical class, but I also lost the bottom 15%. That's not the world's worst trade-off.

So here are the specs:

In a full-length semester, I assign ten plays and two 5-6pp. papers, give a midterm, a final, regular reading quizzes, and a couple of short assignments including a scansion exercise. In this summer class we read five plays and watched two more purely as films (mostly because I needed to free up some homework hours for them to write papers and study for the exam). I had to eliminate the midterm, but pretty much everything else stayed. To make the first essay more manageable, I changed it from a standard topical essay to a close-reading of a single passage, and I shortened it to 4pp.

That was the best decision I made, and one I expect to incorporate in a slightly different form in my regular Shakespeare class: I always begin with an intensive couple of days on poetics and scansion and how the verse provides clues to character and motivation, but in a regular semester, after those first couple of days, I bring up those issues less frequently and less pointedly. However, in this class, because I'd changed the first paper (and because we had so few days to ramp up to it!), I built in lots more focused practice on those skills, and on getting from identifying interesting poetic features to making an argument about how they changed a reading of a particular scene or character.

The good: meeting for four hours a day, every day, although personally draining, was also kinda awesome. I got to know all my students individually, and since we spent more time per play than I usually get to, we did a lot more close work with Shakespeare's language. There was no opportunity to forget what we'd done in the previous class, and I think my students are much more perceptive and articulate analyzers of literary language as a result.

At the same time, we covered a reasonable number of texts. Shakespeare is a required course in part because it's a state requirement for a teaching license, and I believe that there's value in having encountered a goodly number of his plays (rather than just knowing a few of them inside and out). If I teach this class again in this format, I'd still teach five plays and add a sixth on film, though I'd probably eliminate the second film.

The less-good: obviously, there was less time to live with the language and to get accustomed to Renaissance culture and literary conventions, and that's a real loss. There's also less time to recover from an early mistake or two, or a flukey life emergency.

My students did a lot better and got more out of the class than I expected (I was half prepared to hate myself for perpetrating pedagogical malpractice), but I'm sure they would have gotten still more out of a regular-length class and would have had more opportunities to improve, especially as writers. I'm also skeptical about how well they'll retain material learned over such a short period.

However: of my 14 students, three have already signed up for one of the Renaissance lit classes I'm teaching this fall--two of them for Shakespeare. So there's time yet.


Veralinda said...

Thanks for the full report! Sounds like it went really well. I'd love to see your syllabus for a regular semester-length course, by the way. I rarely want to teach more than 6 plays a semester, and try to urge my students to read them twice. I think they do learn very deeply, but I'm sometimes frustrated by the lack of breadth. When you have a chance.

And glad you enjoyed the reunion hoo-ha.

Flavia said...


Sure thing! My 10-play semester is partly inspired by the fact that my own alma mater taught 13 plays in a semester (which meant 10 sounded totally reasonably), but it's also been enabled by the fact that RU has really long course periods: 90 minutes, twice a week, or three hours once a week. That allows me to do a lot of scene work, and to linger for an agreeably long period of time on tough passages while still having time for other kinds of activities and discussion.

We're moving to 75-minute class periods next spring, however, which I suspect will eventually mean I drop at least one play a semester.

Simplicius said...

Thanks, Flavia. This is all very interesting and useful.