Stephen Cushman, Robert C. Taylor Professor and Cavaliers’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, shares his experiences engaging students with an experimental course project.
What do teachers want? We want to feel excited by our courses, and we want our students to feel that way, too. Even more, we want to feel, and we want them to feel, excited by all aspects of our courses, not just the lively lecture or the animated discussion. And we want to be excited by the production and evaluation of the work we require. During the spring of 2015 I tried an experiment that succeeded in sparking this excitement, both for me and for the students.
The etymology of “student,” through its Latin ancestry, is “to be eager.” In turn, the Latin descends from an Indo-European root suggesting “to be pressing forward.” We want our students eager; we want them pressing forward. Meanwhile, the Indo-European root of “teacher” implies showing, and its descendants include the word Latin digitus, meaning “finger,” or that which one uses to point or indicate. A teacher’s job is to show, to point. In the best of all possible pedagogical worlds, the teacher points the way for the eager student to press forward.
How wonderfully simple. And yet how hard. A teacher can point at a bird or an airplane, and the student can be eager to press forward and fly, but the combination does not guarantee liftoff. What should a teacher show a student in order to generate and make the best use of that student’s eagerness? In many cases teachers who manage to show students their own eagerness to press forward will have accomplished a great deal, and many of their students will respond by celebrating their teachers’ “enthusiasm” (a powerful word that originally meant “having a god within”) on course evaluations.
But while a teacher’s enthusiasm can make a class livelier or more fun, it cannot, by itself, guarantee eagerness in a student. We often modify enthusiasm with the adjective “infectious” or “contagious” and, in doing so, reveal our hope that somehow enthusiasm will spread itself spontaneously; yet for all kinds of reasons there will always be students who do not share in a general susceptibility to a particular teacher’s enthusiasm and remain immune to it.
One hard truth about teaching is that it cannot work without some initial eagerness on the student’s part, and a second hard truth about teaching is that no teacher’s eagerness is inexhaustible; it depends at some level on the student’s eagerness to press forward toward what the teacher is pointing out. Some teachers will depend on their students’ eagerness more than others, but no teacher is wholly free of the dependency.
So the question becomes, What can a teacher do to enhance or magnify a student’s initial eagerness so that the student’s enhanced or magnified eagerness will in turn keep the teacher eager to press forward toward showing the student more effectively what there is to show?
The search for an answer to this question led to an experiment during the spring of 2015 in ENSP 4800, a major-level English department seminar bearing the plain title “The Bible.” Here is the course description: “The goal of this course is simple: to sample a range of stories and poems in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, so that readers and writers of English can recognize and appreciate allusions to them or echoes of them in other contexts, whether artistic or not. No prior knowledge of the Bible needed or assumed. All are welcome, as are all points of view, religious and secular. Participants may choose to submit analytic work or creative work.”
There are several experiments implicit in this description, such as the experiment of reading the Bible as the source for so much that circulates around us every day, rather than reading it “as literature,” an overly familiar qualification that will sound to many ears as though somehow the Bible is being discounted and pigeonholed safely next to novels and other works of the imagination we seek for distraction in the luxury of our leisure moments. But the experiment that concerns us here is the one to which the final sentence points: “Participants may choose to submit analytic or creative work.”
Let us be frank. Anyone who reads student writing for more than three decades is quite likely to find his or her eagerness to read more of it in need of replenishment, especially when the eagerness of students to churn out yet one more example of the standard critical essay is also in need of replenishment. For every student who can write a standard-template essay that makes a teacher feel as though the top of his or her head had been taken off, there are many more students for whom cranking out the familiar product has become stale, soulless drudgery wholly disconnected from anything vital and nourishing in the rest of the student’s life. For these students and their teachers, the production and evaluation of required writing is a lose-lose situation.
But what if the teacher gave students every chance to follow the leads of their initial eagerness? The assumption here is that a student at the University of Virginia who enrolls in an upper-level elective will have some minimal eagerness to do so, and the assumption feels like a reasonably safe one. Presumably, that initial, minimal eagerness will exist in a student who also has other interests, some of which will tend more or less in a critical or analytic direction, some of which will tend more or less in a creative one. A second assumption is that encouraging a student to connect any one of these other interests with work for a course will enhance and magnify that student’s initial, minimal eagerness. This assumption also feels reasonably safe.
So the experiment was to throw wide open the requirements of ENSP 4800, according to guidelines on the syllabus, which appear at the end here. The guidelines encouraged students to do whatever they were most eager to do. Out of seventeen, three chose to turn in conventional critical essays (one wrote a 20-pager, one two 10-pagers, one four 5-pagers); three turned in fiction or poetry or both; three turned in both a conventional critical essay and pieces of fiction; one devoted a blog to writing about the Bible; a student in the Curry School developed lessons plans for teaching the Bible to high school students; one student, a DJ, produced two CD mixes based on books of the Bible, along with liner notes for each song chosen; three students turned in works of visual art; one student composed songs, accompanied by guitar, and recorded them; one student developed a web site devoted to images and discussion of four women in the Bible. Proud of their own work and curious about the work of their classmates, the students pushed to turn the final meeting of the semester into a session during which they could exhibit, read, perform, or describe what they had done.
The point of the guidelines was to encourage rigor in the midst of freedom and some kind of common understanding in the midst of diversity. The experiment showed that the students who did the most impressive work, in whatever genre or medium they chose, were those who also chose to demonstrate the link between their work and the reading for the course by producing some kind of summary written statement about that reading at the end of the semester. The “tip” that now appears in section two of the guidelines resulted from this observation. In addition, I have added language about grading that puts in writing things I said to the students in class. Otherwise, the language is from the original syllabus, offered here for others to consider and use in whatever ways they please.
Excerpts from Syllabus
Your Work for the Course
The flexibility here is large, the possibilities great. You may elect to submit analytic work, creative work, or a combination. There is nothing wrong with choosing to submit conventional papers of the kind you are used to writing. You are also free to submit poems, short stories, personal essays, as well as other kinds of creative work. Digital projects are also fine.
A few guidelines to help you work with so much freedom.
- Due by [a date two weeks into the semester] in hard copy at the beginning of class: a proposal for work you would like to do, including dates for its submission and what parts of it you would like graded. These dates become your deadlines, and work that comes in after the deadlines will be penalized for lateness. The proposal becomes binding once I have reviewed it, made suggestions for you to incorporate, and returned it to you. Please include in your proposal a statement for how you would like to be evaluated. You may elect to receive grades on each piece of work you submit; you may elect to receive one grade at the end of the course; you may elect to have some things graded and some ungraded; you may specify how much weight you would like one thing to receive relative to another. You may also specify what you would like to me to focus on, e.g., “I’m really trying to improve my sentences, so please focus on grammar and syntax,” or “I’ve been told my writing is disorganized, so please focus on structure and organization,” or “I’ve always wanted to try writing fiction (or composing music or painting a painting), so please focus on how well my creative work conveys a serious and sustained engagement with what we’re reading for the course.”
- In all cases the burden of proof is on you. If you elect, say, to choreograph a dance piece inspired by a section of the Bible, it is up to you to make clear in some way that you have done the reading for the course. You might submit a reading journal in addition to video footage of the dance piece; you might submit an informal prose statement describing your reading and how it inspired you; you might elect to have an extended question-and-answer session with me or with other students in which you talk about your reading. In all cases the question I will be asking is, Could you have produced this piece of work without taking this course? If the answer is yes, then the piece of work will not be successful in this context. Again, it is up to you to show the link between the work and the course. Tip: People who have done the best in this course have included some sort of written summary statement about their reading both in the Bible itself and in the essays at the end of our edition. The statement can be an informal one.
- Degree of difficulty will figure in the final assessment of your work. For example, if you elect to submit a single haiku for the semester, it is unlikely that the quality of the haiku, no matter how high, will offset the easiness of producing only seventeen syllables in fourteen weeks.
- Be wise in scheduling. Don’t put off everything until the end of the semester, when the weather will be fine and you will be stricken with spring fever [or when the days will be cold and dark at 5 p.m. and you will have a terrible cold and be anxious about getting home for the holidays]. Turn in something early in the semester, before other obligations flood you.
Class Preparation, Attendance, and Participation
NO LAPTOPS OR PHONES IN CLASS, PLEASE. Attendance is required, and your eager presence is the factor most likely to make this course succeed. Two absences allowed, no questions asked, no excuses wanted. Each absence over two will lower final grade by one-third. Lateness is discourteous to all. Please avoid it. Portions of class time missed will be counted toward absences, e.g., if you miss the first thirds of three classes, you have missed an entire class. Spirited class participation is expected, and its scarcity or absence will affect a final grade. At the beginning of each class someone will be chosen by lot to start the conversation. Come to each class as though you knew you were the one to be chosen. Be ready to point to a particular word, phrase, verse, or passage (have the page number at hand) and have something in mind to say about it, a statement, a question, an attraction, a repulsion.