by David S. Hogsette, PhD
Teaching as Intellectual Exchange
I have been teaching undergraduate writing and literature courses since 1990. At the end of each semester I’d like to think I have things well in hand, but when the next semester begins, I’m reminded that good teaching is vibrant and dynamic. Successful teaching cannot be totally pre-packaged and mass-produced, because the students change with each semester and are varied within any single class. The joy of teaching is in the active exchange of ideas with individuals, and the challenge is to recognize each student’s individuality and its relationship to me and the other students. As the field of study develops, as I develop, and as students change, so does my teaching, all in an effort to improve learning in the classroom. I have found the best way to analyze and develop my teaching is to view it in terms of an ongoing intellectual conversation. However, I also carefully consider the point or end of this conversation. In my classrooms, we dialog not for the sake of mere dialog but, more importantly, for the sake of developing critical thinking skills.
The Literature Classroom: Critical Exchange and Scholarly Work
All of my classes are built around the basic principle that people learn most effectively through dialog. However, this assumes that those involved in the dialog are willing and fully able to exchange ideas. Dialog becomes more difficult when one is asked to speak about an unfamiliar topic. Literature, especially that of a removed historical or cultural perspective, often poses a unique challenge. In my Romantic period literature or Gothic literature classes, or even my science fiction and fantasy literature courses, students feel very removed from the historical contexts and even the language itself. This distance makes it difficult for some to respond. In such cases, I provide background PowerPoint lectures to fill in the gaps and to provide an intellectual and cultural contextual base from which to have a productive discussion. I also post these lectures as PowerPoint slides in Blackboard, so students can have access to them outside of class. I find that these lectures help create a common ground for the class to exchange ideas and to form specific responses to the literature that can be shared and discussed in class. Providing specific background information also helps students develop critical thinking skills, because they learn to examine their thoughts, reactions, ideas, and conclusions within the context of scholarly information on a given topic.
I extend this common ground beyond the confines of the classroom with online, asynchronous writing forums in Blackboard’s Discussion Board area. Some students are uncomfortable speaking in class, and others may take longer to formulate their views on a piece of literature. In the traditional classroom, such students are often left out of the conversation. The online forum offers these students an opportunity to contribute to the ongoing discussion and to the growing body of knowledge collaboratively created by the class. Sometimes, the class ends before the discussion has come to a satisfactory close, and at the start of the next class it is often difficult to pick up where we left off. The online discussion board allows us to continue these discussions. Moreover, these online discussions often branch out into other interesting threads that probably would not come up in class. The online discussion board provides students with another opportunity to share their knowledge and reactions to the literature. As students interact with each other and I with them, their thoughts and reactions are challenged and explored, and such interaction further develops student critical thinking skills.
I encourage scholarly dialog in my literature classes through independent research projects and brief oral presentations. Students write two short research papers in which they must address a specifically focused interpretive question and engage secondary, critical sources. The oral presentation is an extension of these research papers. Each student analyzes a critical article about one of the assigned literary texts. In the oral presentation, the student summarizes the article, evaluates the merits of the interpretive approach, and then offers discussion questions based on the article presented. I design these assignments such that students learn to engage a text as a personal conversation within the context of a critical dialog with other scholars. Students often have a greater investment in these assignments, for they set the parameters of the work. As a result, the dialog is rich and engaging. These assignments also allow students to contribute to the ongoing body of knowledge created by the academic world, and in the process they learn to develop and hone their critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking is key in all my courses, and there are various strategies I use for teaching and encouraging students to practice critical thinking. In each class period, I break students into groups and have them discuss specific discussion questions and then report their critical analysis back to the class. I also form oral presentation groups, and each group must read a critical article and then deliver an oral presentation in which they summarize the main points of the article, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, analyze what they agree and disagree with in the article, and discuss how it helps readers better understand the literature. I also assign critical thinking journal assignments in which students read a critical article, summarize a few main points they find interesting, and then analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the article as it relates to the literature. Finally, I assign literary research papers in which students must choose and narrow their own topic, develop a research plan, and write an analytical discussion of their topic. Indeed, I hope that students develop a general understanding and acquaintance with the literature they read in the course, but I’m mainly concerned that they develop and practice good reading, interpretive, and critical thinking skills.
The Writing Classroom: Writing Workshops and Virtual Spaces
Dialog and critical thinking are also central principles of my composition and professional writing courses, and I achieve this critical dialog by turning the classroom into a writing workshop. I make extensive use of Blackboard to create an electronic, virtual writing environment that can be accessed from the classroom, from home, or from any computer with Internet access. In Blackboard my composition students write interactive online responses (focused electronic journals) and work in virtual peer groups to write and revise their longer essays. In these peer groups, students post drafts of their papers, download and read peer drafts, and then post specific response comments in the group discussion board accessible only by the instructor and the peer group members. These students also engage in focused virtual chats online in which they discuss course readings. These synchronous writings serve as interactive brainstorming that prepares them to post their online responses. I introduce students to basic principles and processes of critical thinking (understanding ideas, evaluating them, and establishing well founded positions), and they practice these skills in their online writings and discussions.
In my technical writing courses, students post project progress reports to the class, and they work in peer project groups by posting drafts of their projects and writing peer commenting/evaluation reports on work completed. These students are introduced to project group management and “telecommuting,” a growing reality in the professional world. Basically, my writing students are constantly writing. This writing is not an isolated activity; rather, it is a public communication, an exchange of ideas with other thinking individuals. Students develop and sharpen their understanding of purpose, their sense of audience, and their command of genre and grammar expectations by writing for a real audience.
Teaching as Ongoing Critical Conversation
Teaching is a true joy. It offers tremendous personal and professional rewards and presents unique challenges. Teaching can remain fresh and innovative if viewed as an ongoing intellectual conversation in which the teacher challenges students and the students challenge the teacher. If one says the same thing in the same way, the conversation becomes dull. However, if new materials, different ideas, and an honest attempt to engage dialog enliven the conversation, then we can achieve true learning, for both teacher and student. The main goal is to consider students intellectual colleagues in the classroom. Although it is often necessary to lecture to students so as to impart information they do not already have, I also try to spend time in class talking with them and challenging their ideas, assumptions, conclusions, and interpretations. I want to teach my students how to think, so that when they figure out what they think about some issue or topic, they know why they think what they think, and they can explain the foundations for their principled thinking.