Tiny Tweaks, Powerful Payoffs

I know that one of my great teaching weaknesses is my tendency to historicize heavily, sometimes at the expense of the literature I’m supposed to be teaching. The main criticism I got from the chair of my department when she observed my literature class last year was this – that I spent too much time and energy on the historical context and not enough time on discussion and analysis of the literature.

With this feedback in mind, I’ve begun a new practice in my literature course this semester. Every class session begins with a list of topics on the board, as I began to do last year. But now I add a ten- to fifteen-minute writing assignment at the start of class:

For each topic listed on the board, find one quote in the text and copy it onto a separate sheet of paper.

Once in a while, I’ll ask them to reflect on a topic as well and I’ll collect that as a low-stakes writing assignment. More often than not, I plan to simply ask them to pull these quotes out for use in the class discussion.

It’s been three weeks, and I can already see the effects of this new practice. While I still veer off into historicism during lecture and when intervening in discussion, my students constantly refer to the quotes they’ve written down, constantly direct their classmates to the appropriate lines, and take notes on each other’s chosen quotes as well. In their Blackboard assignments, I included no language about quoting and citing the text and yet every single post so far includes at least two quotations with the proper citation.

They’re working on their first essays now, due next week, and I am looking forward to grading a more literature-based batch of essays than I’ve received the last two times I taught this class.

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