Thesis-Driven Versus Inquiry-Driven Assignments

Does the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools have something to do with the polarization of our society?

In my previous post I described a “Survey of Opinion” assignment in which I asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but instead of doing the rhetorical analysis, many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions, essentially writing their own op-eds. They were quite surprised when I told them they had not done the assignment.

In response I wrote the post “Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?” in which I argued that a rhetorician must cultivate a “moment of neutrality” and step back from the ideological fray in order to objectively analyze the discourse.

Later in the course I assigned another inquiry-driven project that was modeled on investigative journalism, inspired by Marilyn Cooper’s article “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” (185-201) in the collection Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers. Bruno Latour is a sociologist whose main contribution is something called Actor-Network Theory or ANT, which treats both humans and nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others) as potential actors or “actants” in a network.

Basic concepts from Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

  • None of us acts alone. Everything we do is part of an Actor-Network.
  • Actor-Networks are made up of both human and non-human actants, such as animals and computers. From this perspective, we might see the novel corona virus as an actant.
  • An Actor-Network is made up of intermediaries and mediators. An act flows through an intermediary without being changed. However, the input and output of a mediator is not the same, so the act is transformed to an extent.
  • Actor-Networks are constantly being formed and unformed.
  • We study an Actor-Network by describing it, not interpreting or explaining it.

I also told my students that in this assignment, “You don’t start with a thesis and look for ways to support it. That is actually not a legitimate way to proceed with research anyway. That is cherry picking items that support the thesis and ignoring conflicting information. Instead, you might start with a research question, such as ‘How did this happen?’ or ‘How did this get here?’”

A Model Text

As a model, I gave my students an article from the New Yorker (“Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by Adam Davidson) about a Trump Tower in Azerbaijan, a 5-star luxury hotel which has been completed but never opened, so inconveniently located that local taxi drivers can see it, but don’t know how to get to it. How in the world did this hotel get there? The writer describes the scene of the hotel, then proceeds to trace the network of connections that caused it to be built, including politicians, financiers, investors, contractors, lawyers, oligarchs, and powerful families in Azerbaijan, Iran, and of course the Trump Organization. The writer has no explicit thesis for all of these connections, but part of the network extends to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the most charitable conclusion that a reader can draw is that the Trump Organization is none too careful about whom it will deal with.

To help my students engage with the lengthy text, I divided it into sections and annotated it. I also gave them a handout with just the annotations. I am sure that some of them only read the handout.

The Resulting Papers

I got some good papers from this. One student was investigating Planned Parenthood and found that the founder, Margret Sanger, had connections to the eugenics movement that also inspired Adolph Hitler. Another discussed a bridge over the Grand Canyon and looked at the plans and actions of a Native American tribe, environmentalists, politicians, investors, and the tourist industry, all pulling the project in different directions. Another investigated Mt. Rushmore, and found that not only had the land been stolen from the Lakota, but the sculptor had connections to the KKK and had also been involved in a project, never completed, to make a similar monument to Confederate leaders. These projects followed the dictates of the assignment. No thesis, trace a network of connections, let the reader draw the conclusions.

However, many of the papers took the standard thesis/support approach. They thought they knew that a “research paper” was a paper in which you stated your thesis and found facts to back it up, while mostly ignoring contrary facts and views. They fired up their “research paper generation process” and largely ignored the particulars of the assignment. A middle group did some network tracing, but lapsed into editorializing at various points. I guess we could say that their “moment of neutrality” was brief and unstable.


Of course, this kind of writing is never entirely objective. When the author of “Trump’s Worst Deal” began his investigation, he undoubtedly thought he would find corruption. But going into the investigation with an open mind, following the connections where they lead, and letting the reader draw the conclusions is ultimately more persuasive than the standard thesis-driven op-ed. And both the writer and the reader learn so much more.

I might be stretching things a bit, but I think that the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools may have something to do with the polarization our society experiences today. The “Survey of Opinion” assignment has behind it the question “What do people think and how do they talk about it?” The network tracing assignment asks “Who are the actors, what are the facts, and where do they lead?” The thesis/support model, at least in its most simplistic form, is about “This is what I think and this is why I’m right.”

Perhaps we should diversify our assignment game a bit.

How ERWC Informs My Online Instruction

In face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

It has now been two years since I stepped down from the ERWC Steering Committee after chairing it for 15 years. (For those who don’t know ERWC, it stands for “Expository Reading and Writing Course,” a California State University project designed to prepare high school seniors for reading and writing in college. The course is now taught in more than half the high schools in the state. There are lots of ERWC materials on this site, but for an overview of the approach, you might look at ERWC in a Nutshell and What Will ERWC 3.0 Be Like?)

I have lost track of how many ERWC modules I wrote and I have written others that are on this site that never became part of an ERWC course. I am now out of the loop on what ERWC is doing, as it is in the capable hands of Jennifer Fletcher at CSU Monterey Bay. However, as I plan my courses for fall 2020, I find myself falling back into ERWC ways.

Bridging Gaps on the Fly

A good course needs learning goals, accessible materials, effective pedagogy, structure, connections, and assessments. This is true whether the course is face-to-face or online, but in the face-to-face situation, a lot of gaps and disjunctions can be bridged on the fly. For example, if I have assigned a difficult reading, when I walk into the class meeting I can tell from silences, body language, and facial expressions that the class didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. I have to change strategies in the moment. On a Zoom session, I don’t have enough resolution or bandwidth to assess the situation in this informal way.

An Imaginative Process

ERWC has always been highly structured by the common template that forms the skeleton of every module. (You can see an outline of this template in “What Is a Mini-Module?“) Whenever I wrote an ERWC module, I felt like I was engaged in an imaginative process. I had to imagine a teacher teaching the material and students, who were not my own, doing the tasks. I had to imagine what the students were capable of doing at each point in the module and what they needed to learn or do to perform the next set of tasks. The module would unfold in time, but it was also connected in sort a timeless moment because every element had to connect with every other element. The template was the foundation of this imaginative process.

Remote Course Design

I am now in the midst of an online course for the faculty at my institution called “Remote Course Design Course” (RCDC). It has been very helpful. We are using a Blackboard template (Blackboard is our course management system) based on the principles of “Quality Matters.” Students begin by clicking on “Start Here!” In “Course Content” they find folders for each week that contain the learning outcomes, a step-by-step guide to all the materials and assignments, and links to all the texts. Everything they need for the week is right there. Although we still produce a syllabus, one of the participants commented that the syllabus is actually redundant because the whole structure of the course is visible in Blackboard. Here’s a screenshot of Module 1 Week 1:

Blackboard Screenshot of Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1
Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1

The Course Introduction video and the video on the first chapters of Performing Prose are not posted yet because, while I have done the PowerPoints for them, I haven’t shot them yet.

I used to have all of the materials of a course in two Blackboard folders: “Course Documents” and “Online Resources.” Students had to read the syllabus and then hunt down the documents, which were not organized in any particular order. I now realize how confusing that was!

Advanced Expository Writing

I am designing a junior-level “Advanced Expository Writing” course. I have five modules:

  • Thinking about Style and Narrative
  • Thinking about Rhetorical Strategies
  • Thinking about Argument and Evidence
  • Thinking about Research
  • Thinking about Publication

Each one takes between one to four weeks. As I design the assignments and populate the folders with links, I find myself thinking about ERWC modules. I am not using the ERWC template, or any template really. But I find myself imagining moving through time with the students, anticipating their needs and questions, structuring activities, and designing little formative assessments to make up for the lack of resolution in Zoom.

As I said above, in face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

I got some online teaching experience in spring when we had to shift from face-to-face to online in five days because of the pandemic. I am drawing on that experience, but I think that right now, ERWC is informing my teaching design more than that, and more than the RCDC course. It is good stuff.

Literature Program Outcomes

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching a section of our capstone course “Senior Symposium” in the fall. One feature of this course is a portfolio that counts as part of the course grade, but is later used to assess the program. Those of you who are high school teachers have been living with Common Core learning outcomes and other top down standards for some time now. In higher education, outcomes assessment has been a topic among administrators for more than a decade, but departmental faculty are still pretty much doing their own thing.

I was on the Learning and Teaching Committee, responsible for developing and assessing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for many years. At first it was fun and it seemed important. University faculty tend to think seriously about their own courses without ever thinking about what the whole program adds up to. This was a way to make faculty think about the whole.

I came to think about outcomes assessment in terms of four questions:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • How are we doing it?
  • How do we know we are doing it well?
  • How can we improve?

A discussion of just those four questions can help a department come together and function as a team with a vision of the big picture beyond individual courses.

However, administrators tended to want to make things much more complicated than a discussion of four questions. And teaching literature is not quite the same as teaching engineering or science. The administration kept asking for lists of the knowledge and skills we were teaching and matrices that indicated in which courses those skills were introduced, reinforced, and mastered. We called these “lego matrices” because they appeared to assume that a degree was built up out of a series of small pieces. This never worked very well for an English Department. They kept asking for more and more detail and it became clear that many thought that if you had trouble filling out the matrix, you weren’t teaching anything of real substance.

Another problem was that over the years, we kept changing the outcomes and the assessment procedures. That probably surprises high school teachers, who usually don’t have much control over the SLOs or the assessments. However, because we kept changing them, we don’t have a baseline, so we can’t answer the “How can we improve?” question.

As part of the portfolio for the “Senior Symposium,” my students will have to write a cover letter that argues that they have met the current outcomes and point to evidence in the rest of the portfolio, which contains a critical paper and some other materials, including papers from past courses if they want to include them, to support their argument. I created a worksheet including the current outcomes to help them prepare to write this paper:


We used to have an “Oral Communications” outcome that caused most faculty to require student presentations in their courses. Some students reported in exit interviews that this practice had made them much more confident about speaking in front of people. However, other students complained that they didn’t get enough guidance in creating the presentations or enough feedback afterwards. The presentations were also difficult to evaluate on a program-wide basis. Rather than taking steps to improve, the department decided to eliminate the outcome. Again, I am sure high school teachers are surprised. I was too.

However, I do think the above outcomes represent a reasonable set of goals for the program. I also think that having students connect their own experiences to the SLOs and think about work they have produced that demonstrates that they have met them is a very useful culminating activity. Students are often surprised at how much they have learned.

Teaching Haruki Murakami

As a capstone course for the Language and Literature option, my department offers a “Senior Symposium.” The course is designed to allow students to apply everything they have learned in the program to an array of unfamiliar texts and literary works.

The course is usually designed around a study of multiple works by a single author. When I was asked to teach the course, I chose to assign a selection of novels by Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is popular, but controversial, in Japan. He is also very popular world-wide, translated into many languages. Do Murakami’s novels and short stories represent achievements of enduring literary merit? Or are they books of the moment, designed for popular appeal? Even in Japan, critics are unsure. And why, exactly, are they so popular? We will explore these questions, among others.

The Kodansha Edition of  Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami’s first novel, written on a whim and submitted to a contest. The cover shows The Rat sitting and watching a beacon, thinking about the woman he is seeing, like Gatsby watching the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

My late wife was an early fan of Murakami when she was in college in Yokohama and his novels were being serialized in literary magazines in Japan. She gave me English translations of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, published by Kodansha in Japan before he became internationally famous with the publication in the U.S. of Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. I also became an early fan.

Along with Wild Sheep Chase, the three early novels are often called “The Rat Trilogy.” They all feature the same nameless narrator, his friend “The Rat,” and J’s bar. Hear the Wind Sing is the novel Murakami wrote on a whim and sent to a contest, which he won. Pinball, 1973 is a sequel, also written while he was still running a jazz bar. In a strange way, the narrator, The Rat, and J of J’s bar, all seem to be versions of Murakami himself. In the course, we will start with Wild Sheep Chase.

Typical Characters

A Murakami novel usually has a first person narrator, often nameless, who calls himself “boku,” an informal first-person pronoun usually used by young boys. The narrator lives a relatively nondescript life on the margins of Japanese society, but often experiences visions of another world through powerful dreams, or through such actions as taking an elevator to the wrong floor, opening the wrong door, or even through climbing down a well. He has often lost his wife or girlfriend and doggedly seeks her, often encountering other versions of her in the process. The boundary between the “real” world and the other world is variously permeable. Characters who are dead in the “real” world often continue to exist in the other world. Some characters, such as the Sheep Man in Wild Sheep Chase, exist primarily in the other world.

The narrator generally lacks affect, and responds to extraordinary and unexplainable events by reverting to daily routines, such as making coffee, drinking a beer, or cooking spaghetti. The only unique characteristic of the narrator is that he loves jazz (sometimes American pop music, sometimes classical) and usually has an encyclopedic knowledge of the recordings.

Though the writing is rather flat emotionally (though often evocative of emotions in the reader), Murakami novels are laden with symbols, portents, historical anecdotes, and odd metaphors. Common themes include friendship, love, marriage, divorce, sexuality, aging, identity, boundaries and borders, sanity, and responsibility. Some later novels deal with aspects of recent Japanese history, including World War II.

Not Quite Japan

The world of the novels has the geography of Japan, but is not quite Japan. The real Japan is full of salarymen in suits and office ladies in fashionable attire hurrying to and from work. If a car is seen parked on the street with a small dent in it, passersby assume that it must belong to a foreigner. Maintaining appearances is an essential aspect of social life. However, Murakami’s characters are more likely to wear blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and drive old, dented cars. They are often in-between jobs. They are odd-balls, just barely getting by. They often favor American products and cultural artifacts, such as beer, music, and films. They don’t seem very Japanese. And yet, they are.

Non-fiction and Other Novels

We will also read sections of Underground, Murakami’s non-fiction account of interviews with the victims and the perpetrators of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. This book is filled with stories from real Japanese people, in their own words, describing their experiences on that fateful day. The ordinary Japanese in these accounts are rather different from the typical Murakami characters in the novels.

For further contrast, this time we will also read a couple of novels by Japanese women, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and Convenience Store Woman by by Sayaka Murata. The Memory Police is a take on 1984 in which the government decrees that certain “useless” things must be forgotten. The police have some sort of mind control that causes most people to forget the forbidden things entirely. Early in the novel, birds disappear. Some people can still remember the forbidden things, but those who can are tracked down and arrested.

Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious, but sad novella about a woman who just likes running a 7-Eleven or a Lawson’s, both of which are ubiquitous in Japan. She doesn’t want a husband or a better job or anything else, but just to work in a little store. It is what brings her joy. Of course, no one in her family approves.

The students will bring everything they know about literary interpretation to these novels. They will demonstrate this knowledge and these skills in writing about these works as a culminating experience. I am looking forward to working with them.

Update (2/25/20): I created a sort of Murakami Bingo Card for students to fill out as they read each novel. It is designed to help them notice commonalities between the novels and see how his technique develops over time.

Teaching Online in Fall 2020

I am teaching English 3150 “Advanced Expository Writing” in the fall. I have taught it several times before, but never in a completely online asynchronous situation. When students enrolled in it, it was listed as face-to-face. It is still three months before classes start, but I wanted to contact the students to make sure that they knew what was in store, so I sent the following email to the class:

Dear English 3150 Students:

You recently got an email informing you that the course you signed up for has been switched to an online format. We had to do this because of decisions made by the Chancellor’s Office and Cal Poly Pomona to protect students, faculty, and staff from Covid-19. It is disappointing, but is probably a wise decision.

I want to tell you a bit about how English 3150 will be designed. During the summer, all faculty will be taking an online course about best practices for teaching online, so this may change a little as I learn new techniques, but here are my plans at the moment.

The course will be designed around the theme “How Life Has Changed.” I have Covid-19 in mind, but the theme could go beyond that. I will produce podcasts and videos on the course content and provide feedback on the submitted projects. We will also have weekly Zoom meetings.

Throughout the course, you will work together in small writing groups. Your group will be able to form their own discussion places on Blackboard and elsewhere to give each other feedback, advice, and encouragement. You will get to know your group very well.

In the first part of the course we will work on style with exercises, experiments, and other activities designed to stretch your stylistic repertoire. This will result in a personal narrative about your own experiences of change in the world and in your life.

In the second part of the course we will focus on rhetorical strategies, argumentation and persuasion. We will explore different organizational patterns and ways of persuading audiences. In this part of the course you will write an op-ed arguing for a particular change or course of action in how we do things. You might be writing about employment, racial disparity, medical issues, social practices, protests, supply chains, scarcity, art, literature, technology, politics etc., anything that is interesting to you.

In the final part of the course you will begin a research project that will look like investigative journalism. You will choose an issue and go on a research expedition to take a deep dive and follow links and connections to discover the truth about the matter. You will do this through online library databases and other online resources.

I have several blog sites that I maintain. I plan to convert one of them into a sort of online magazine. In the final weeks of the course, your group will decide which pieces–the narrative, the op-ed, or the investigative piece, one from each writer–should go up on the public website. At this point you will be functioning as editors, choosing and revising pieces for a new audience.

That’s the plan so far. I look forward to working with you in the fall.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

I learned a lot in the past three months about teaching online. The first question is whether the course should be synchronous, with the students meeting online with the professor through Zoom or another platform at the designated class times, or asynchronous, with online lectures and online work to be done according to the student’s schedule. In the spring, I kept my graduate seminar in teaching writing synchronous through Zoom and Slack meetings every Tuesday evening, as originally scheduled. This worked well. It was a small class with engaged, well-prepared students. They all finished the work.

My Genre Fiction course became asynchronous. I created podcasts, and at the end a video using Kaltura, a video capture and hosting app. I had blogs and discussion boards. I felt I was losing track of some students so I started doing a weekly voluntary Zoom meeting that attracted pretty much the same seven students every week. A number of students were not participating in the discussion boards, so I created alternative extra credit assignments. I ignored due dates. By the end, I lost only two students. One other student got a D. The rest passed and there were many A’s because of the extra credit and the relaxed due dates.

The upshot? A synchronous course provides structure and can build community. However, student work and family schedules under lockdown or semi-lockdown can vary widely. An asynchronous course provides much more flexibility. My informal surveys of students were inconclusive. Some students prefer synchronous, some asynchronous. What was clear was that they preferred face-to-face meetings.

I am going to go asychronous with voluntary weekly Zoom meetings. In the spring, these turned into group office hour sessions that were as helpful for me as for the students.

Discussion Boards?

The other thing I learned was that students hate discussion boards. In a face-to-face class, there are always five to seven students who are eager to participate, while the majority of the students prefer to sit back and listen to smart people talk. Even in a face-to-face course, I usually have an online discussion board of some kind, but it is usually low stakes. However, the discussion board in the newly online Genre Fiction course was high stakes because it was replacing the class meetings. It became a big part of the grade. I had multiple discussion questions for each week. Many students listened to the podcasts, read my notes, but did not post to the discussion boards. I felt that a major component of my teaching was simply not working.

Story Response Sheets

However, I found that students liked another aspect of the course, something I called the “Story Response Sheet” or SRS. This sheet asks questions about themes, characters, exposition devices, plot, point of view, style, and other aspects of story craft. Then it asks for a rating on the “Read-O-Meter” from 1 (Totally Dreadful) to 10 (Totally Awesome) and a paragraph about why they gave the story that rating. They happily turned these in and reported that filling them out caused them to think about aspects of the stories they would not normally think about.


In fall 2020 I intend to continue to use a discussion board, but I will make it mostly about personal responses–things they noticed, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things that surprised them, etc. I will use something like the SRS assignment for more substantive questions. Those will be submitted to me and will not be available to other students.

Fall 2020 will be an adventure for the students and for me. All faculty will take an online course in teaching online starting in June, so I will have more ideas by the end of the summer. I will report on those too.

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer


Rachel, a scavenger in a burned out city in a dystopian world, finds a houseplant-sized piece of glowing biotech tangled in the fur of Mord, a giant flying bear who terrorizes the human inhabitants. She lives in an abandoned, partially-ruined apartment complex called “The Balcony Cliffs,” with Wick, a genius biotech designer. She takes her salvaged biotech home to find that it grows and learns and becomes a sentient being she calls “Borne.”

This science fiction novel has a hint of Frankenstein about it. Mord was created by the “Company,” along with other monsters, but they lost control of him. Is Borne another Frankenstein? Will we have Frankenstein versus Frankenstein?

I used to teach Finch, another Jeff Vandermeer novel in this course. Finch is about a noir Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow-style detective trying to solve a double murder in a city run by “Gray Caps,” fungal alien beings who came up out of the ground. It’s a science fiction detective novel. However, it went out of print and used copies are very expensive. I’ll bring it back if it ever goes back in print. But my students enjoyed Borne.

As with Stranger in Olondria, I made podcasts for each section of the book. However, these podcasts are organized a bit differently. I focused on character development and issues rather than doing a chronological walk through of the reading. I also stopped putting a list of questions at the end because the students felt that they had to answer the questions rather than engaging in their own speculations. The questions are still there, but they are scattered throughout the presentation.

I may be teaching this again a year from now. I imagine that for now the podcasts and questions could also be used for a book club sort of discussion. The podcasts contain spoilers, so it is best to read the section before listening to the podcast or reading the notes. The notes were created to script the podcasts, but the podcasts often contain additional comments that come to me on the fly.

Borne Part 1, 3-56


Borne Part 2, 59-193


Borne Part 3a, 197-264 (Part 3 has been divided in half)


Borne Part 3b, 264-323


A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar


One of the novels my genre fiction class is reading is A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, a Somali-American who has taught in Sudan, Egypt, and California. She has received or been nominated for numerous literary awards. The novel is about Jevick of Tyom, an islander whose father grows pepper. Jevick’s father is a wealthy, respected leader in the community. Once a year, he travels to Bain, the capitol of Olondria, to sell his pepper. After one of these voyages, he brings Jevick a tutor, Lunre, a scholar from Bain. Jevick learns to read and to love books, and dreams of Olondria. His father dies suddenly, and Jevick goes to Bain to sell pepper. On the boat, he briefly encounters Jissavet, a girl with a genetic illness that causes her hair to turn red. This is a fatal encounter that immerses Jevick in a struggle between two religious cults, the cult of Avalei, the goddess of love and death, and the cult of the Stone, supported by the king but not the people.

The novel is rich with beautiful sentences and sensory detail. Because I am teaching online, I made a podcast for each of the six parts of the novel. I am including the podcasts and my notes below. Each podcast has questions for discussion. I highly recommend the novel. The religious and political conflicts are not unlike our own, though the world of the novel is very different and Jevick is a hero of an unusual sort.

I suppose that outside of my course, these materials could be used for a book club discussion, or in a different class. My podcasts may contain spoilers, so it would be best to read the appropriate section of the novel before listening. On the other hand, if you don’t intend to read the novel, or are not sure, the podcasts may be interesting, or may inspire you to want to read it.

Because they were created out of the need for converting to an online format during the Covid-19 pandemic, there are references to this difficult situation.

Book One: The Wind of Miracles


Book Two: The City of Bain


Book Three: The Holy City


Book Four: The Breath of Angels


Book Five: A Garden of Spears


Book Six: Southward


Genre Fiction: Week 11

We are in spring break at the moment, though the concept of spring break seems meaningless under these circumstances. I am continuing to create podcasts and grade assignments. Next week, we will finish up the stories from Peter Beagle’s Secret History of Fantasy. After that, each student will choose one of the two novels I have assigned, A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (who I found out yesterday is an Assistant Professor in English at our sister campus, CSU Channel Islands) or Bourne by Jeff Vandermeer. Because I am letting them choose, I will essentially be teaching two novels simultaneously! The prerecorded podcasts should make that possible, but I hope to finish the podcasts for Stranger during this break so that I can record the podcasts for Bourne next week.

Week 11 Podcasts and Notes

Peter Beagle, “Sleight of Hand”

Peter Beagle is the editor of the collection and the author of this story, “Sleight of Hand.” He is most famous for his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, about a unicorn trying to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, aided by a powerful but somewhat incompetent wizard, Schmendrick. “Sleight of Hand” is about a woman who makes a fatal decision that accidentally results in the death of her husband and daughter, but is given a chance to remake that decision by a mysterious magician.

Here are the notes.

Robert Holdstock, “Mythago Wood”

This novella was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (to which I have subscribed at various points in my life. The magazine, unlike most in these genres, is still in publication, though I no longer have a subscription). Holdstock later turned it into a novel, and then wrote numerous other pieces in the same universe. The story is set in Ryhope Wood, a three square mile tract of original, primeval oak forest. The Huxley family lives in Oak Lodge, on the edge of the forest. The father believes that the forest contains wild boar and manifestations of ancient heroes. When he dies, one of the sons takes up his explorations. It is a memorable, haunting story, grounded in a theory of Jungian archetypes.

Here are the notes.

Kiji Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”

A woman buys a monkey show for $1.00, including 26 monkeys of various types and a tour bus. The monkey act climaxes with the entire troop of monkeys vanishing from a suspended bathtub. They return hours later, in ones and twos. She doesn’t know how they vanish or where they go. The story explores the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life.

Here are the notes.

The students, at least most of them, seem to enjoy the podcasts. The discussions on the discussion boards have been interesting. I think what is key to this is that I am not telling them what the stories mean. I am pointing things out, drawing attention to stylistic features and writerly decisions, and asking questions that could have many possible answers. They seem to feel free to express their opinions, which means they are engaged with the stories.

I read their mini-proposals yesterday. All of them want to write stories rather than a critical paper. More on that later.

Suddenly Teaching Online: A Path Made by Walking

I have now been teaching my previously face-to-face classes completely online for two weeks. My campus uses Blackboard as a course management system. It’s ok. It has some glitches and some design flaws, the worst of which is the inefficient way it uses screen real estate. I’m pretty familiar with Blackboard because I have been using it to support most of my classes for almost 20 years. And before that I was using WebCT, which Blackboard bought. Yes, it has been that long.


Here is what Blackboard looks like when you are responding to papers:

The text box is really small. Lots of space is wasted at the top. The right side is taken up mostly by blank, unused, gray space. I can scroll down to eliminate some of the wasted space at the top, but I have to redo that positioning for EVERY SINGLE PAPER. I can make in-text comments (good) but it is hard to make the comment box go away without turning off the commenting feature, so it is basically, turn comments on, make a comment, turn comments off (bad). I can create, edit, and attach a rubric and score a paper by clicking in the appropriate cells (good), but if I score one paper and then find out that I have made a ridiculous error in the rubric, it will not let me edit the rubric. I have to score every subsequent paper with the defective rubric (bad).

Blackboard is full of issues like this. It has discussion boards and blogs, but the only real difference between them is that the discussion boards are organized by topic and the blogs are organized by student. They aren’t real blogs. Both tools are functional, but clunky. In the blog tool, in order to see other student’s blogs, you have to click a tiny down arrow underneath your own name, which produces a drop down menu. By default, it only shows blogs with posts, so at the beginning of the semester if you are the first one to post something, when you click on the down arrow, you see nothing. This causes a great deal of confusion.

So I am familiar with Blackboard, but I have never used it to teach a totally online course.

Other Tools

We also have access to Zoom for video conferencing and chat and Kultura for creating and uploading videos. The problem with video is bandwidth. Many of our students don’t have wifi at home and the places they used to use for wifi access–Starbucks, McDonalds, libraries–are closed. Besides, the whole point is to stay home and stay well. So they use their phones, but quickly blow through data caps.

Some of my colleagues are using Slack, which has a free plan, for chat. My grad students recommended that too. As near as I can tell, Zoom and Slack are overlapping products. Zoom emphasizes video, but does chat, while Slack emphasizes chat but does video. In my last seminar meeting, we did one hour of Zoom followed by one hour of Slack. They both worked well, but provided different experiences.

Genre Fiction So Far

For my “Genre Fiction” class, as I have posted previously, I have been producing podcasts for each story and giving them my notes. We are also using both blogs and discussion boards, using the Blackboard tools. Though there has been lively interaction on the discussion boards, there are six students out of 26 who are not participating. I have emailed them several times. Because I felt that I was losing touch with the class, I decided to have a non-mandatory Zoom meeting at the time when the face-to-face class would have normally met. Seven students showed up. It turned into a sort of focus group.

Only three students activated video, and one of these had arranged the lighting so that his face was obscured. The others not only did not activate video, but they were muted too. They communicated through chat or through icons like thumbs up. I had not expected such shyness.

They were all feeling overwhelmed, but they did not blame faculty. However, they pointed out that discussion boards were a lot more work than showing up in class. In a discussion board, everyone has to think and express their ideas. They see showing up for class as an interesting and even fun experience, but the discussion board is work. From their point of view, the homework load has increased tremendously.

This may mean that the ones who participate in the online activities are actually learning more than before. The in-class experience for them is more comfortable, enjoyable, but also more passive, at least for some.

After this discussion, I decided to eliminate one of the novels I was going to teach as well as the final, on the grounds that the discussion board work was ample evidence of their engagement and understanding. This will give them more time to work on their stories.

One of the books I am using in my seminar argues that teaching is “a path made by walking.” That certainly seems true for our sudden detour into online instruction.

Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.


“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.


“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.


“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?