This portfolio is designed to demonstrate my capacity for reflecting on teaching practices. It is not an exhaustive summary of all my teaching tasks or the teaching resources I have produced.
Any critical rationale used as a basis for the teaching of literature must take into account the unusual level of disputation that surrounds attempted definitions of the discipline. Most disciplines have an agreed area of study – microbiologists have an activity designed by consensus to be limited to the study of microscopic organic life forms. Of course, no discipline has impermeable boundaries and these may in any case change over time, but all microbiologists have a second anchoring point in that they subscribe to the scientific method. Perhaps unfortunately, the discipline of literature has discarded both of these anchor points. There is no longer a general agreement about what primary objects are studied in the discipline – the older assurance that ‘great books’ were to be the focus of inquiry has collapsed under the force of objections that this ‘canon’ excluded large numbers of women, the working class and non-Europeans. The second anchor point of ‘method’ has not been thrown overboard but has been desperately fought over by every pirate afloat. Introducing students to a discipline that has no agreed boundaries or method constitutes some of the most delicate operations of my teaching conduct.
While there are countless articles about teaching literature in a tertiary environment, they have had theoretical imperatives rather than pedagogical ones. In other words, they are primarily arguments about what the discipline should consist of rather than how it should be taught. The way I handle this is to alert students to the fact that the discipline of literature is a field of battle. This is profoundly disturbing to students who expect to be instructed in the ‘truth’ from an authoritative lecturer. For others the liberation from a lecturer who claims to know the ‘right’ answer is an opportunity for the claim that their interpretations are as valid as mine. In a discipline so unsure of its own methods, what answer can there be to such relativism?
What I say in class is that I am prepared to accept any interpretation of a text so long as a student can argue in favour of it. In other words, interpretation is not a matter of decoding a text, and finding the answer the author has hidden, or which is somehow in my possession; rather it is a matter of constructing meaning through a ratiocinative, critical process. The kinds of evidence used for this argument become subjects for discussion; if a student opines that ‘Shakespeare intended that…’ the question as to how we know what was in the long-dead Shakespeare’s mind is raised. Thus the preconceptions behind interpretation may be laid bare in a kind of Socratic process, though one which does not have the lecturer as the authoritative source at the end. Indeed, I quite enjoy scandalising students that I don’t know what a particular work means, such as any of the poems of Emily Dickinson.
Vygotsky’s theory that knowledge is socially constructed is tested through the use of discussion boards. Given that they understand there is often no answer to a complex question in the sole possession of some authority, it seems reasonable for students to search for some consensual answers through discussion. This is also a way to connect their present reading to their past knowledge of literature. I use WebCT discussion boards to encourage students to share their own experience of literature and to debate the range of ways in which literature may be approached. These constructivist techniques place me firmly in the role of observer and only occasional participant, and allow the student to rehearse and refine their own understandings through writing. Inadequately understood ideas can be challenged by peers or by my intervention. Using these discussion boards means that much learning goes on outside the classroom and that social construction of knowledge is supported.
One qualification to my enthusiasm for constructivist modes of teaching is centred on the fact that the students may not have much previous knowledge on which to build. In order to quickly construct a platform of knowledge I give them some help with a literature database that we have built. This is reflected in the assessment of introductory courses in which I give a 20% mark to declarative knowledge.
The objectives of all my units are that students should develop:
The methods chosen align with the objectives and include:
The types of assessment test a range of declarative knowledges and procedural and strategic skills.
In diagrammatic form the alignment appears as this:
In 1993 I was appointed to a Lecturer (A) in Literature at the Australian Catholic University. ACU is a federated University, with six campuses in various locations within Australia. I am the only Literature lecturer on my campus. Given that the teaching on each campus is done in isolation from each other (there is little web sharing), I have had to develop the literature curriculum at the ACU Brisbane campus. Federally we have a standard Literature set of curricula from which we choose, but in terms of each unit only the barest outline exists. I find that I have written 15 units since appointment, or about 1.5 per year.
Being a one-person discipline puts a strain upon content competencies, in that I teach across a range of units which would usually require a significant number of people. The alternative would have been to develop a range of units within my own competencies, but this would have been a disservice to the students. Instead, I have worked hard at widening the scope of my knowledge, and while at times trying this has ultimately been very rewarding. Some Australian Studies and Literature units have given me the opportunity to weave my research interests in the fields of colonial literature into my teaching. At the same time I have created innovative approaches to the delivery of units. These efforts have been recognized by my University and by external organizations in the form of the Australian Catholic University Excellence in Teaching Award (1998) and the Award for Innovative Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Technology given by the 15th International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, Jacksonville, Florida in 2004.
The use of the Internet for teaching and learning purposes has been a particular interest. I was an early adopter of the web for instructional purposes, and my lectures have been available to students over the web for many years. The interactive aspects of the web are rather more difficult to develop for literature than for other disciplines, but I have been careful to guide my students through the use of web for research and to point them towards the more respectable sites to give the sense that exploring the web is not a passive activity but a skills they must gain. More recently, with ACU’s adoption of WebCT as a learning management system, I have placed the lectures there and exploited the discussion board tool to assist learning outside the classroom.
The position at ACU has involved:
Lecturing and taking tutorials for both introductory and advanced students in Literature. I have placed particular emphasis on teaching and curriculum development in this discipline. I also constructed the Honours program in Literature at McAuley and I have written special units for this area. I have been able to encourage several students to further their study into an Honours year, and several have gained First Class Honours, continuing to postgraduate level and achieving scholarships.
Conduct of lectures, tutorials, and workshops on all facets of Literature. As Lecturer-in-Charge, I have designed and implemented new subjects. Being responsible for coordinating several units has required me to initiate and develop curriculum, establish and formalise a system of assessment, and administer the allocation of final grades. The following list outlines my contribution in a wide range of subjects on offer at ACU. Italicised units are those in which I do about 50% of the teaching.
Through my experiences with web-assisted learning, I have become interested in the role that lectures play within the humanities in the University. In humanities, lectures have traditionally been the preserve of knowledge transmission, more or less according to an instructivist theory of learning. Instructivist modes of teaching have the support of behaviourist psychology, are teacher centred and are often aligned with conservative educational politics. Given that ‘learning by rote’ can be found as a method in Victorian textbooks this method is obviously far older than behaviourism and the work of B.F. Skinner with which it is often linked, and has shown a high degree of persistence within educational systems. The ‘sage of the stage’ is still a fixture of most university practice and the lecture’s purpose of transmitting information through ‘direct instruction’ largely remains unchanged.
Theories working in opposition to instructivism do not suggest the lecture’s abolition, but a modification of its purpose. The critique offered by constructivism has many connections with literary theory, particularly in regard to meaning. Contemporary literary theories reject the notion of the author as the sole origin or controller of meaning. Theory would therefore deny the ‘sage’ the status of oracular authority conferred on him or her by instructivist models. Perhaps more seriously, theory also denies that the information that is transmitted is as inert as instructivist models would have it. The idea that meaning, Biggs argues, “is ‘transmitted’ from teacher to student, like dubbing an audio-tape… is a common but untenable view”. (13) In ‘Metaphors For Instruction: Why We Talk About Learning Environments’ (http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~bwilson/metaphor.html), Brent Wilson notes the preponderance of the product metaphor in discourses about educational content. Again, literary theory has been integral in reworking the idea that meaning (or knowledge) is inherent in the text itself; the New Critical notion that the text is the locus of meaning has given way theories that detach meaning from any ‘thing’ and see it as the result of a process. It is worth noting that the more weight is put on the notion of the information as an inert package to be delivered, the more the teacher is reduced from mystery-shrouded oracle to a postal worker.
As literary theory has pointed out, there are serious problems with the package metaphor of information for the reader as well. For if the reader or learner simply has to open the package to uncover the information then it is difficult to see why education is not more immediately successful. At least New Critics could claim that the lyrical poetry in which they specialized was encrypted in especially dense poetic language, and that only trained cryptographer-critics could uncover this meaning – it is less clear why a lecturer in a learning environment would encrypt information.
Constructivism points to the absurdity of these approaches and emphasises the role of the learner in constructing personal knowledge through adopting new concepts rather than simply through accumulating information. In denigrating direct instruction’s fetishisation of knowledge for its own sake, however, constructivism may run the risk of underplaying the role of knowledge in concept-formation. I am concerned in teaching literature to try to generate in students a much wider knowledge base as rapidly as possible, not as an end in itself but in order that they may develop new concepts. In order that students may develop a solid knowledge base as rapidly as possible I have recently made two significant changes to my teaching.
Web delivery of lectures
I no longer spend the institutionally suggested period in delivering lectures. In the three units I am currently teaching I have put the lectures on the web in our LMS. These lectures are fairly complete representations of what I would say, as they are fully written out rather than dot points. I expect students to have read these before coming to class where they are discussed. Obviously, I can claim that this has the advantage of making students responsible for their own learning, but inert lectures alone would still be an instructionalist method, simply accomplished via a different delivery system. What makes the lectures student-centred is their frequent hyperlinks to in-house and external websites. This allows the students to explore connections by themselves, something that would not be possible in a conventionally delivered lecture.
One of the critical components Biggs identifies in achieving constructive alignment is ‘the climate we create in our interaction with students’ (26). I have always eschewed an authoritarian classroom style and have encouraged student interaction with me and with each other as much as possible. But some students have considerable difficulty formulating responses in the classroom due to self-consciousness and other factors. Our institution has recently provided WebCT and I am using the discussion tools to generate interaction on a variety of topics. Many of these topics are seemingly peripheral to the area of study. For example in Literary Theory I ask what literature students experienced in school. The next topic, however, asks them to analyse what approaches to literature were taken in these school classes, thus requiring them to apply their new knowledge of literary theories.
These two changes were made as a response to the student evaluation forms I had received, which commented that there was not enough time for class discussion. In getting rid of formal lectures and providing an electronic forum much more class and external time is opened for discussion and I will be interested to see the changes in the next student evaluation.
There is much anecdotal and experiential evidence to support the assertion in An Unquiet Pedagogy: Transforming Practice in the English Classroom (Kutz and Roskelly 1991) that ‘grading is detrimental to learning in most instances’ (279). The authors are well aware that contemporary institutionalized learning cannot avoid evaluation of individual learning, but they do suggest several way in which evaluations’ tendency to drive superficial learning (‘is this on the exam?’) may be ameliorated. One of the key aspects of assessment is preventing superficial learning by design of adequate assessment tasks.
What form should assessment take?
The suggestions that Kutz and Roskelly make to improve student learning relate largely to written essays. There is virtually no support in the literature for multiple choice type questions and associated short answer tests in testing literary analysis skills. As a discipline, literary studies is different from the sciences in that the content knowledge is subsumed to skills in interpretation and expression. There may be a minor role for content questioning – for example my Introduction to Literature has a short answer test worth 20% -- but I am not under the illusion that knowing that Chaucer wrote in the C14th is really much more than superficial learning. Yet I am reluctant to entirely abandon content questioning in some courses I teach as some basic knowledges are needed for higher learning to subsequently take place. However, the bulk of student grading is through assignments written to answer a question that I pose.
Extensive vs Reflexive writing
Kutz and Roskelly (156) note that research into teacher-determined essay assignments (extensive writing) tend to be shorter, less complex, less interesting and less fluent than reflexive essays where the topic is determined by the student. In an address to the 2003 Australian Universities Teaching Committee Forum, Professor Wayne Hudson demonstrated just such a scheme in his Introduction to World History unit. Students were encouraged to write on anything vaguely historical in nature (indeed they were even invited to comment on the lecturer’s own performance). The key here was that the students themselves determined what they wrote about and therefore had some imaginative investment in forming the topic.
I have developed two strategies by which reflexive writing may be encouraged without being quite this radical. Firstly I have as a component of some courses a very open ended essay question. For example the assignment sheet for my current Introduction to Literary Theory course simply asks students to write an essay on Frankenstein using any of the theories taught. This topic allows them to tailor the essay as they would like without being irrelevant to the course. The other scheme I have adopted is using WebCT discussion boards to elicit more informal and student-driven writing. I may develop this further next semester by getting each student to administer a discussion on a particular topic, and while attempting to keep the informality and enjoyment of back and forth argument, insist that the discussions do have some verifiable research/learning that supports the cases the observations or arguments they are making. Assessing the rapidly multiplying discussions threads will have its own challenges.
Assessing essays in literature
Perhaps the first assessor of the essay should be the student herself. As well as suggesting that writing is a recursive process, rather than a linear one, and that remodeling large parts of the essay should be a common experience, I ask to students to become their own assessors/editors. I have not supplied them with checklists. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education (Brown et.al. 1997, Fig 5.7) has an example of such a checklist drawn from the work of Dai Hounsell, who is quite prominent in the field of assessing essays. Such a checklist has considerable value but the more items added – ‘Introduction: defines key or problematic terms, sets the question topic against a wider background’ etc – the more the chance that the resulting essay will be programmatic.
Until recently, the criteria sheets I used to assess essays have not been seen by students until the essay was handed back. The gradual effluxion of time made the lack of justice in marking according to unseen criteria clear to me, and they are now distributed with the essay sheets. I am not comfortable with criteria sheets as they conceivably lead to superficial learning, or, at least, inhibit the more daring textual experiences that are possible. But my real problem with criteria sheets is that the complexity of my response goes beyond any box that can be ticked, and so I tend both to tick boxes AND write long comments. Sometimes these comments are elaborations of why a box has been ticked ‘poor’, but on occasion there are matters to be commented upon which are not in the criteria and yet which bear upon the success or lack of it in the essay. I try to make these comments as positive as possible but I am aware that pressure of space and time mean that the ones that are critical take precedence.
Boards in the Literature teaching and learning
Theory and practice in literature
Before ACU does move to adopt fully networked teaching and learning, where a literature teacher in Brisbane would have a class composed of students from, say, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, it is important for the institution to have a very clear idea of the deficiencies of the web as a teaching and learning tool. ACU National’s first year students have mostly achieved at a very moderate level at school, and will experience low motivation, lack of career direction and will be involved in significant amounts of part-time work. They are not necessarily ready for self-activated journeys through learning. Tara Brabazon’s recent book Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching, a fierce corrective to the more mindlessly enthusiastic proponents of web-based pedagogy, reminds us of the importance of the embodiment of the teacher. Gestures, voice intonations, appearance, eye contact, and the various ways in which they embody enthusiasm, excitement, curiosity and doubt are all lost in web content (or at least the web content that does not use video and audio). It is apparent that our first year student both desire and need this kind of embodied contact with lecturers who may communicate this excitement and enthusiasm for learning and in being corporeally present may even in some sense act as role models of the educative process.
On the positive side, the web obviously offers many benefits to students of all levels. Databases, full-text articles, good quality websites and other resources ‘make life easier’ for students who may be under considerable time pressures and financial stress. The tool that I have chosen to use in the conduct of my teaching is the discussion board. Threaded discussions on particular topics are used to enhance student understanding. Discussion boards in the educational context are not without critics: the ‘What’s Wrong with Discussion Boards’ web page notes that discussion boards have the following problems. They
not allow submission of picture and other media elements
In the ‘Implementation’ section below I outline how I have tried to correct many of these problems that I agree exist, but which I do not think are fatal to the use of the boards. This is a two semester process.
the idea came from
I have been deeply persuaded by reading Vygotsky’s Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (1978) and critical sources concerning Vygtosky’s work. Social constructivism as well as elements in my own discipline suggested that encouraging student writing, peer assessment, dialogue and collaborative work would help to improve their intellectual development.
Through WebCT I set up a number of discussion topics dealing with literary theory and asked small groups to make the initial submissions to them. I then encouraged all the students to respond to each thread. I read the original submissions and made occasional comments, but also let the original authors moderate the threads. This means that a high percentage of the course’s discussion takes place outside of the classroom, and without the sometimes overbearing thought that the person providing the opinion or insight will be contradicted by the lecturer.
This dialogic process, the construction of writing as a social process operating within individual’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 90) was designed so that they fulfilled the constructivist criteria of joining new knowledge onto the ideas students already had. Some example topics were:
Composition research has shown that these kinds of collaborative writing activities increased student enthusiasm about writing and improved the understanding of essay topics (Benton 254).
My innovations in this regard had one serious problem – the discussions did not lead directly to the essays. They were discussions about fundamental issues but I fel other discussions about essay topics and approaches would have helped. I did encourage these in an informal way, but will in future formalise the process.
My major teaching innovation for next semester is the improvement of the use of the discussion boards by formalising them. I did find that in the first semester some of the objections made in the site ‘What is Wrong with Discussion Boards’ indeed appeared in practice. There was a tendency to fragmentation of discussion, questionable collaborative strategies and little connection between discussion and task. My strategy for the second semester is to formalise the discussions by asking for the first submission to be a polished and collaborative piece of work that is discussed by every member of the class – participation will be tracked to discourage ‘lurkers’. A reviewed copy of the essay will then be submitted taking class observations into account.
There are considerable dangers to some of these changes. Delivering Learning on the Net (Weller 66) notes that web-based constructivist teaching can be frustrating for students as educators can withdraw from the whole process, refuse to give ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, and that mistaken beliefs which go uncorrected can develop. Despite the discipline’s fuzziness there still remain things which are clearly errors and need to be labelled as such. And, as as Miall and Dobson have pointed out, some web-based innovations such as hypertext formatting can actually impede the reading process and interfere with comprehension (http://jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v02/i01/Miall/). Despite the rejection of my role as the final arbiter of meaning, I am the assessor, if not of the primary texts, then of the texts the students themselves produce. If web-based teaching goes too far in effacing my role it seems to me to be dishonest. And as Brabazon has noted, my personal classroom presence carries meanings that a web ‘presence’ would not.
Typically, I had won an Excellence in Teaching Award before developing much of an interest in questions of teaching and learning. I had received this award on the basis that my teaching was informed by my research but some feelings of inadequacy remained. Like many lecturers at ACU I have to range across a breadth of material of which no single human has a command. There is nothing much I can do about this, and in some respects I enjoy the variety. A second cause, however, was this: even if I did accept I was a ‘good teacher’, I didn’t know why. The teaching-research nexus I had used as a claim was certainly a contributing factor, and yet this did not explain why I was not like those stereotypical lecturers who cannot communicate their knowledge in class.
I did believe that I had a certain facility for being more lively and possibly even entertaining. But I couldn’t be sure what particular strategies worked, or if there was a range of techniques that may have been used that were not. The same problems emanated from my relatively early adoption of the Internet for teaching – I intuitively had, and still have, the sense that they assist learning, but it is very difficult to prove. The mild embarrassment I feel at having had my teaching recognized has lead me to a much more self-reflexive position in which I am more willing to adopt other methods of teaching and learning. In particular I have become much more conscious of constructivist views of learning, and have attempted to weave some methods based on this approach into my teaching. Fortunately, much of my teaching was already predicated on the idea that knowledge is not a ‘given’ but is contested, and students introduced early to the idea that the disciplinary field is composed of argument and views at variance with one another.
My next steps will be to continue to discover the research that has been done in two areas: the teaching of literature at tertiary level, and the use of the Internet and specifically of discussion boards in teaching and learning. Together they will give me a greater capacity for informed self-reflexion as well as suggestions for methods that might prove valuable.
What’s Wrong with Discussion Boards. http://www.foruminc.com/WhatsWrongAboutDiscussionBoards.htm
Benton, Stephen. ‘Foundations of Writing’. Handbook of Academic Learning: Construction of Knowledge. Ed Gary D. Phye.San Diego: Academic Press, 1997.
Biggs, John. (2003). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. 2nd edition. Berkshire: Open University P.
Brabazon, Tara. Digital Hemlock: The Internet and the Poisoning of Teaching. Sydeny: UNSW P, 2002.
Brown, G. et.al. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge, 1997.
Suzanne. ‘Evaluating Students’ Participation in On-Line
Kutz, E. and H. Roskelly. An Unquiet Pedagogy: Transforming Practice in the English Classroom, Boynton: Cook P, 1991.Miall, David. S. and Teresa Dobson. Reading Hypertext and the Experience of Literature. Journal of Digital Information, Volume 2 Issue 1 Article No. 46, 2001-08-13. Available at http://jodi.ecs.soton.ac.uk/Articles/v02/i01/Miall/. Accessed 21 May 2004.
Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. (ed Cole, Michael et.al.). Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
Weller, Martin. Delivering Learning on the Net. London: Kogan Page, 2002.
Wilson, Brent G. (1995). ‘Metaphors For Instruction: Why We Talk About Learning Environments’. Educational Technology, 35 (5), 25-30. Also available: http://www.cudenver.edu/~bwilson