Much of the material on this blog site is oriented toward teaching in a high school context. That is because of my long involvement with the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). However, I am not a high school teacher and I rely heavily on actual high school teachers to give me feedback on the modules I write. What I actually do for a living is teach rhetoric and literature at a state university.
This semester I am teaching two graduate seminars: English 5130 “Teaching Writing” and English 5131 “Pedagogies of Reading.” Our seminars tend to be bigger than those of a traditional English Department–20 students or more compared to 5 or 6 students that might have constituted a traditional seminar in the past. Now that we are on semesters rather than quarters I am experimenting with making the educational experience a little more seminar-like, with more student presentations. Each student is responsible for presenting one journal article or book chapter to the class. This addresses the fifth of our six learning outcomes for the program:
Pedagogical Insight: Ability to teach/adapt the body of knowledge and skills listed above to a variety of audiences, in particular fellow teachers and college students.
Faculty often complain that new graduate students are not good at reading journal articles. It is not surprising because few such articles are assigned to undergraduates. For this reason, I am giving them a bit of scaffolding. First, they must think about these overview questions:
- Who is the writer? Where does he or she teach? What else has he or she published?
- What is the thesis, research question, or main idea of the article?
- What does the article do to explore this idea or question?
- What is the exigence for the article? (What caused the writer to write the article? What is he or she responding to?)
- What are the main sources the article draws upon?
A journal article or a book chapter is a speech act that participates in a conversation that is ongoing in the field. These questions are designed to help the student situate the article in that conversation. If the article is old, what was going on at the time? If the article is current, what issues and practices are being debated at this moment? It is hard to understand the significance of an article unless you know something about the larger conversation it joins.
Next comes a discussion of the content of the article itself:
- What are the key points of the article?
- How are the ideas and arguments of the article supported? Are you convinced?
- In general, what conclusions does the writer draw?
- How might the article be attacked? What are its weak points?
These questions enact both the believing game and the doubting game. Thinking about both the key points and the weak points helps students engage in critical thinking about the issues and the arguments.
Finally, students put the article in the context of the discipline, the course, and their own teaching. We have been building toward this sort of contextualization through the whole process of preparing to present the article to the class:
- How does this article fit into the conversation going on in the field when it was published?
- How does it fit into the context of this course?
- If the ideas and arguments of the article are sound, what implications does it have for teaching?
- How will this article influence your own teaching philosophy (if at all)?
So far, this process has been going well. Because of the change to semesters, we have shorter seminar periods, so I have been having to make adjustments, in part because the presentations have elicited so much discussion. However, students are engaged, and I think that the format of these questions helps them situate not only the articles, but also their own teaching and scholarly work, in the context of the discipline. I am pleased with the results so far.