Online Teaching: A New Semester, A New Plan

Over the past few days on Twitter, there’s been a lot of talk about reassessing and re-evaluating methods used in the Fall 2020 semester, the first semester some of us taught fully online. Stimulating conversations about platforms, schedules, assignment sequences, etc., have captivated me. I’m reading through long threads and reply chains of methods and considerations, of questions as well as answers. The collegial support, first of all, is so amazing. And the ideas being shared are invigorating. They also made me review the methods I’ve been using – and constantly tweaking – this semester, and the plans I’ve been making for the Spring 2021 semester. And I – to my own surprise, as usual – have lots of thoughts! So, time for a blog post rounding up some things I’ve learned over the last few months of our new normal.

As usual, this turned out to be far more than I expected to write. So skip down to the end to see what I’m planning for next semester if you don’t want to read in-depth reflections of my past semester.

Content Links:

Consideration #1: Scheduling
Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences
Consideration #3: Accountability
Spring 2021 Scheduling
Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences
Spring 2021 Accountability

Consideration #1: Scheduling

In the fall semester, I’ve been teaching three classes. One class is scheduled to meet twice a week for 1.5 hours each time, and the other two are scheduled to meet once a week for 3 hours. In planning my classes over the summer, I wanted to avoid “Zoom-fatigue,” and I also wanted to take advantage of the online tools available to us now. I designed the syllabus to be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous class. My plan was for each class to meet for half of the weekly allotted time.

For the twice-a-week class (English 300), we would meet only on Monday mornings for 1.5 hours. The other 1.5 hours of scheduled meeting time would be replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards, due by Sunday evening before we meet. I planned to upload a video lecture on Sundays, about the text which students would be reading for the following Monday. So students’ weeks would look like this:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Monday afternoon.
  • Read the text due the following Monday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Sunday.
  • Come to class on Monday morning, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

For my English 300 class, this worked fairly well. I think the reason it worked is in large part due to the strict assignment routine I set up, which I’ll discuss in the next consideration.

This was not the case for my other two classes, both of which were English 223. These two classes were scheduled for once-a-week meetings, 3 hours each. One section met on Monday evenings, and the other section on Thursday evenings. Again, I planned to meet for 1.5 hours rather than 3 hours, with the other 1.5 hours of class time replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards and a video lecture. Students’ weeks were supposed to look the same as what I envisoned for the English 300 class:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Tuesday morning for the Monday evening section, and starting on Friday morning for the Thursday evening section.
  • Read the text due the following Monday or Thursday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Monday morning or Thursday morning.
  • Come to class on Monday or Thursday evening, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

The main problem with this schedule is that it gave me little time to read Discussion Boards before class. I had made the deadline just before synchronous class meetings because I wanted to give students the full flexibility that asynchronicity affords. I knew that some students would wait until the last second, but I (foolishly, I guess) assumed at least some students would post earlier in the week. I stressed over and over again in the first month of the semester that the earlier they post, the better. My English 300 class was a bit better at posting earlier in the week, which I think may be due to a few reasons.

First, they had signed up for a bi-weekly class. So setting aside time on Wednesday morning was part of their plan when they registered. My English 223 students had registered for one evening a week, and they were unlikely to use the remaining 1.5 hours to get started on the following week’s texts after spending 1.5 hours in synchronous class.

Second, most of my English 223 students had signed up for evening classes because they work full-time during the day. Many of them also have children or parents to take care of when they get home. They simply do not have time during the day to do 1.5 hours worth of work. And their other evenings are occupied by their other classes.

Third, I was a lot looser in my initial planning for English 223 than I was for English 300. As I mentioned before, my English 300 class kept to a strict routine, and the purpose of each assignment and of the overall course structure was entirely transparent. I did not do so well with my English 223 class. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences

Over the summer, as I planned my Fall 2020 classes, I wanted to set up a routine of the same assignments each week. That way, students would know the broad outlines of what was expected of them each week, and not have to worry about forgetting new assignments.

For my English 300 class, this goal worked out well.

In part (I suspect), this was because I had a clearer idea of the overall goal of the course. English 300 is Introduction to Literary Study. It’s a required course for all English majors, and its goal is to prepare students to study English literature. Fairly simple. When I looked at sample syllabi provided by the English department (this was my first semester teaching the class), I saw that some professors treated the class like a historical survey. I knew immediately that I would not do that. The department has other classes specifically for that purpose. Other professors treated it like a theory class, studying one theory in depth every few weeks. I didn’t want to do that either. I knew that I wanted to teach skill more than theory or content. So I combined a few things, and decided on this approach:

  • I would begin the semester with a lecture on New Criticism, pointing out that students are already familiar with this method of analyzing texts and providing terms for concepts and analytical techniques they are already comfortable with. We would read two short texts (a translation of Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon”) and apply the methods of New Criticism to the texts.
  • Then, I would divide the class into five groups. Each group would be assigned one theory to read in the textbook. We would spend two weeks reading and discussing the theories.
  • After that, the whole class would read the same primary texts each week, and each group would read that week’s text through the lens of their assigned theory.
  • The first essay would ask students to analyze one of the texts we read using their assigned theory.
  • We would then repeat the process, shuffling the groups with each new group studying another theory for a week, reading new primary texts, and writing another essay using this second theory.
  • We would end by reading one more text, everyone thinking about all the theories we’d studied over the semester, and they would write a final paper using any two theories they wanted.

The first week went wonderfully, as we close-read “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Reluctant Dragon.” In Discussion Boards, I pointed out when students were using theoretical lenses like feminism, Marxism, animal studies, etc., to prepare them for seeing the new theories as things they already know and think about, rather than scary complicated new ideas.

In the next few weeks, students stressed the fuck out. They read 30-page chapters on theory, and freaked out about not understanding it on the first read. Despite my numerous reassurances that I did not expect them to understand them on the first read, despite the Discussion Boards which were divided into two sections:

  • 1) What did you find interesting in this chapter? Anything you recognized from previous classes or general knowledge?
  • 2) What questions do you have? What confused you?

They worried not only that they didn’t understand the theory itself, but that they didn’t know how to apply the theories to literary texts. I started despairing and almost pulled the plug on my whole plan. But I stuck with it. And I’m glad I did. I just had to keep reiterating that I did not expect them to become experts overnight, and that the whole point of devoting the following weeks to reading texts through their assigned theories was that they would learn how to read texts through theoretical lenses!

When we read primary texts, each week’s two Discussion Boards were the same:

  • Open Discussion on the text: I started some threads with questions and observations. This was a space for extremely casual and informal discussion of and reaction to the texts.
  • Theoretical Application: This forum each week asked students to use terms and ideas from their assigned theories to think about that week’s texts. I asked them to either write an interpretation of a specific plotline, character, element, etc., or to write some questions about the text through their theoretical lens.

I engaged in both weekly Discussion Boards often throughout the week (which I was able to d because students posted throughout the week and didn’t wait until the last second). I used lots of emojis and memes in the Open Discussion forum to encourage informality, and I wrote lengthy comments in response to the Theoretical Application posts. I also utilized the private feedback spaces to guide individual students who were struggling, rather than calling them out where the whole class could see.

Each synchronous class session was designed the same as well:

  • We begin with an open discussion where students can ask questions or tell us their burning opinions about the text. I address any issues I saw come up in the Discussion Boards, I mention some on-point comments from the Discussion Board, and we have an informal chat (via unmuting and texting in the chat widow) for about 20 minutes.
  • Students then move into breakout rooms, meeting with their assigned theory group to discuss their theory and its application to the text, expanding on their Discussion Board conversations. (I move between groups to answer questions and guide conversations.)
  • We come back to the main room, where students can ask questions that came up during groupwork or share some exciting insights.
  • Students then get shuffled into random groups, where each student teaches the others about their theory and recaps what their group discussed about the text. (Again, I move between groups.)
  • Finally, we come back into the main room, debrief, set up for the next week, and say goodbye.

By the time we moved on to the second set of theories, students commented on how different the experience was the second time around, that they now understood what the point was, and that it’s easier this time around because they know what to expect, they know how to think about theory, and they know how to think about applying the theory to literature. (One student even said “our professor is a genius,” which I will absolutely take.)

I did change the essay requirement so that students didn’t have to use any particular theory. It was a good decision, because it opened the opportunity for students to write about any aspect of the text that caught their interest in the preceding weeks. And the essays were almost all a smashing success.

My English 223 classes were a different story.

English 223 at Lehman is (for one more semester, before the curriculum overhaul takes effect in Fall 2021) an overview of English Literature for non-majors. It’s supposed to cover all of British literature, from Old English to 21st-century literature. That’s… a lot.

Again, this was my first time teaching the course, so I turned to sample syllabi provided by the English department. It seemed like some professors tried to cover all literary eras with three or four short texts each week; some skipped around and assigned a mixture of longer and shorter texts, without covering all literary eras; and many focused on their area of expertise. There did not seem to be a clear consensus on what the purpose of the course was. The catalog description is “Masterworks that form the basis of the literary heritage of the English language. Authors may include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift or Pope, Wordsworth or Keats, Yeats, and a nineteenth- or twentieth-century novel.” I decided to frame the course as a question about the description itself, asking who decides what gets categorized as a “masterwork,” and what “the literary heritage of the English language” even means.

I started the semester with a collection of readings about “the” canon, about “identity canons” (ie, the gay canon, the canon of women writers, the Latinx canon, etc.), and about how and why we read. I then began a backwards-march through British literature, beginning with a postmodern dystopian novel (Individutopia, by Joss Sheldon) and aiming to end with Beowulf. The point was to flip the expected, to ask “what is the current state of English literature” before moving on to “what forms the basis of this body of literature?”

The plan for routine was:

  • A detailed video lecture about the ideas I wanted to focus on, including historical context and literary analysis.
  • Two Discussion Boards each week, with specific questions that students choose from. Students post one original thread in each forum, and reply to at least five classmates overall.
  • Groupwork in synchronous class sessions to work on various literary analysis skills.

From the beginning, this was a disaster. I had taught composition classes before, where students were not English majors. I thought I knew what to expect. But students in my 223 classes struggled with reading the texts on the canon and all its issues, and seemed to be using the page citations in my Discussion Board questions as an invitation to read only those pages. So their responses were completely out of context. Too late, I realized that I should have begun with at least one or two weeks about how to read, only then (maybe) moving on to these meta discussions.

Discussion of Individutopia was okay, not great. The essays on Individutopia displayed a complete lack of knowledge about writing paragraphs, essays, thesis statements, etc. This is a writing intensive class, but it’s not a composition class. I had set aside time to teach writing, but not to the extent that most students clearly needed. I do not blame the students, of course. But I was very frustrated.

We moved on to the Modernism week, where I had students reading an excerpt from Woolf’s essay on Modernism, Joyce’s “Araby,” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was a bit hesitant to assign that much reading for one week, but the sample syllabi I had consulted assigned far more per week than that. It was an unmitigated disaster. Clearly, almost no one read all three texts. Some students could not differentiate between the editor’s headnote and the actual text. And the comments on the video lecture displayed very little understanding of the concepts of modernism I was explaining.

After that week, I changed the entire syllabus. I scrapped all the future readings. I had not assigned any full novels after the two weeks on Individutopia, in order to allow each week to be focused on a different literary era. Now, I assigned Pride and Prejudice to be read over three weeks (I provided the text as a PDF, not asking students to make a sudden mid-semester purchase), the 2005 movie for one week, and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride for three weeks. The remainder of the semester would be spent on in-class essay-writing work. I split the class into three groups, with each group required to attend synchronous classes only once every three weeks. Smaller class sizes would, I hoped, allow me to provide more direction to individual students. All students were told to watch the recording of class lectures afterwards.

I also reduced Discussion Boards to one per week, no longer requiring students to create a new thread: their only Discussion Board requirement was to post three times per week, original thread or as a response to a classmate (or me, since I did start some threads). I added Reading Responses instead of the second Discussion Board. I wrote detailed instructions for short responses, designed to scaffold some reading and writing skills I hadn’t thought I would need to teach, in preparation for the second essay. I emphasized again and again that these Reading Responses were preparation for the essay, and that some students may even be able to use whole sentences or paragraphs from the Reading Responses in their essays.

  • The first Reading Response for Pride and Prejudice asked students to identify three characters, describe their social status, wealth, and personality; and reflect on how these three elements affect their interactions with others (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we focused on analyzing short passages of text.
  • The following week’s Reading Response asked students to copy over a single short passage, explain why they chose it, and analyze its significance (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we zoomed out to look at chapter summaries. In groups, students wrote chapter summaries in a Google Slides document. I asked them to write a five-point plot summary, a one-sentence plot summary, and one sentence about the chapter’s significance to the novel’s overall plots, relationships, and themes.
  • The Reading Response for the following week asked them to do literally that exact thing with one chapter chosen from the next 20 chapters.
  • In the following week’s synchronous class, by which time students were supposed to have finished reading the novel, we made lists of couples in the novel. We took notes on how their relationships end (happy? rich? in love?) and the trajectory of how each couple go to where they are. I showed them how looking at these patterns can lead us to answer “what is the novel saying about relationships? about marriage? about society’s rules? etc.?” (See image below.) Students pasted potential thesis statements into the chat, I copied them into a document I was sharing on their screens, and I asked each student to explain their thesis (essentially asking for proof and support). I bolded components of the thesis to show how theses can be broken down into components that require support and proof.
  • They watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie for the next week, and the Reading Response asked them to do review the thesis work we had done in class, and then think about whether the relationships and social rules play out the same way in the movie (again, total 250 words).
  • The essay asked them to take all of that work and put it into an essay which makes a claim about what the novel (or movie) says about marriage, relationships, social rules, pride, etc.
Image: Document of notes taken in class as described above, charting relationships’ trajectories and end results. The last one is crossed out because the student realized, after trying to prove it, that this interpretation is insupportable by the novel – a victory for learning about how interpretation and support works!

None of that worked as planned, either.

The students who were doing fine continued to show up for synchronous classes as required, and some even attended during weeks when they weren’t scheduled (they asked my permission first). They also submitted their Reading Responses with thoughtful writing, showing sufficient preparation for writing their next essay. They made appointments to speak with me during office hours, and we reviewed their first essay and their Reading Responses one-on-one.

Some students who had been struggling stopped coming to synchronous classes at all. I wasn’t holding them accountable for attendance, and they knew that. So they stopped coming.

Some students who had been severely misunderstanding the texts and the assignments submitted Reading Responses that were way off the mark. When that happened, I provided detailed feedback and encouraged them to meet with me during office hours, and to visit the writing center. When I finally got in touch with a few who were really failing, they candidly told me that they were not even reading the assignment sheets, just assuming that a Reading Response meant “write some thoughts about what you read.” I was despairing, no idea how to fix this. (You would think that these students would then make sure to read the directions for the following assignments. That did not happen.)

Eventually, I was able to see that my feeling of failure here was coming from the unique position that online teaching puts both professors and students in. I know not every student will get an A, and I know a good few students might fail. But in “regular” classes, I don’t see it as clearly as I was seeing it now, every week, with every assignment. As Jody Greene points out in an excellent Twitter thread, the result of our wonderful thinking about how to keep students engaged and motivated during these online semesters often results in exposing the accountability (or lack thereof) we may not have realized wasn’t in place before. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #3: Accountability

My immediate reaction to Jody Greene’s tweet thread was this:

Two tweets from Dainy Bernstein. Tweet 1 text: "This is pretty much it. Students are used to opening the text five minutes before class, skimming the intro, reading Sparknotes. In class, depend on clues from other students to pick up and engage just enough in conversation and groupwork. Now, they can't do that." Tweet 2 text: "That's not necessarily a good thing. When I realized early this semester that I was asking students to come up with original thoughts each week in a way I wouldn't expect in f2f classes, I scaled it all way back. Making space for removing that pressure actually raised engagement."

As I said above, online teaching means that I see and register students’ failure to engage or understand differently. If a student is checked out in a regular classroom setting, I may notice it, but it won’t distract me. I won’t obsess over it. In online teaching, if a student is doing the bare minimum or less, it’s right there in my face when I read their Discussion Boards and Reading Responses, when I check on the Grade Center (which I am doing so much more often than I usually do). At first, I thought – great! This is built-in capability to keep an eye on students, identify who needs help early, and actually support students better! I forgot that some students just aren’t interested in that. And that some students don’t think they need help, no matter how much I may offer it.

Like, this RMP review shouldn’t bother me, because I know I reached out to all students who got zeroes on assignments and essays to offer help, I know that I spent forty-five minutes talking to one student who got a zero on his essay and subsequently gave him an A, and I know that each zero was very much deserved, and yet it still bothers me (and not just because of the misgendering).

screenshot from Rate My Professor, with an "awful" rating. Review reads: "Skip her class she is a lousy grader. She likes to give zeroes on papers."

Now, Jody Greene’s observation that “our previous expectations of how much work students were actually doing in our classes were off by a mile” is a good one. But I did always know that a significant percentage of students rarely do the reading before class, and that the ones who do don’t always read it as carefully as I would like.

And that’s usually fine! In-person classes allow students to sit back during the first part of discussion, to listen to the conversation and pick up on key details. When we point to specific lines in the text, they can get a sense of the text. When I assign groupwork, they’ll admit to their groupmates that they didn’t read (but please don’t let the professor know), and their group members will catch them up and protect them from my potential wrath.

And all of that is fine. That’s how learning works. With those who have more time and energy (and interest) sometimes carrying those whose jobs and families overwhelm them.

(The students who genuinely don’t care won’t be doing these things I describe to catch up in class. They’re a whole separate story. But again, I can usually ignore them during in-person classes, after establishing that they’re not interested in my help. I only have to deal with them when they’re upset at their inevitable bad essay grades.)

But students are feeling now that they’re being expected to do more work, because we are holding them accountable and grading bits and pieces of weekly work on a level we have not done until now. Sure, we collected and graded in-class writing, but being in person and jotting down some things on a paper during class sessions is very different from submitting Discussion Boards or Reading Responses outside of synchronous class sessions.

Which leads me to my Spring 2021 plans.

Will they work better? Only time will tell. But they’re based on all of the above thoughts and considerations, so maybe.

Spring 2021 Scheduling:

I’m teaching two classes in Spring 2021. They’re both classes I’ve taught before, though not for a little while. My English 121 class (English Composition II: Introduction to Literature) meets on Wednesday evenings for 4 hours. My English 301 class (British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern) meets on Tuesday evenings for 3 hours. I am planning to ask students to attend class for the full time, rather than splitting things up into a combination of synchronous and asynchronous. Here’s how they’ll work:

English 121: English Composition II: Introduction to Literature

The class is scheduled to run from 6pm to 9:40pm. Composition classes are always 4 hours / 4 credits at Lehman. Once-a-week 4-hour classes can be brutal. I taught two back-to-back sections of once-a-week 4-hour composition classes at College of Staten Island one semester, so I have some ideas from that coming into play here too.

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. I will lecture a bit and facilitate discussion of the assigned reading, the writing skill we’re discussing, etc.
  • At 6:45pm, our video session will end. Students remain logged into Teams but our activity moves to the text channels. They will read or re-read the text for that week, and will chat via text channels. They will ask questions about specific words or ideas and get answers from me in real time. They will respond to specific prompts. They will engage in informal conversation with classmates and with me. We’ll do this for 1 hour 15 minutes (the extra 15 minutes is a buffer for getting drinks, bathroom breaks, and getting back into the video session).
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll return to a Teams video session. We’ll review any questions, talk about implications of the text channel discussions, etc. I will introduce a new key concept or skill.
  • At 8:45pm, our Teams video session ends again. Students remain logged onto the text channels. They complete some writing work, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs or groups. They ask questions via the text channel, and they submit their writing. I won’t be able to see their work as they write.
  • At 9:15pm, we return to the Teams video session. We review any questions and insights, we take a look at a few students’ work, we critique them, and we wrap up the session. I tell them what we’ll be reading / writing for next week, and we say goodbye at 9:40pm.
  • I stay on for a half hour longer to comment on the writing of students’ whose submissions were not used as samples in the last section of class.

English 301: British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern

(First of all, yes, the course title is being changed along with the complete curriculum overhaul.)

This class is scheduled meet from 6pm to 8:40pm on Tuesdays. It is a writing-intensive course, but (in contrast to the 223 classes I taught in fall 2020) almost all students enrolled in this class are English majors. Many are also education majors. I am planning to use plenty of class time to teach, practice, and critique writing. Those weeks when they’re writing essay drafts will of course look slightly different than the schedule I outline here:

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. Students will have (supposedly) read the assigned text ahead of class. I will have prepared them for reading via a short lecture at the end of the previous week’s class. We’ll spend half an hour on open discussion, plot review, etc. I will set up the focus of the evening.
  • At 6:30pm, our video session will end. Students will remain logged onto Teams and will move to text channels. They will follow instructions to re-read (or read for the first time) the text, or specific sections of a longer text. They will ask for clarification about specific words, lines, characters, plot points, etc. I will post prompts and questions to think about as they read. They will discuss these questions and themes with me and with each other in the text channel. I will encourage them to cite specific lines as they share their thoughts and analyses. For some sessions, they’ll work in pairs or groups. For some sessions, I’ll provide worksheets for them to use in addition to the regular text-chatting.
  • At 7:30pm, we will return to our Teams video session. We’ll talk about the points brought up in the text chat. I’ll make any corrections or clarifications necessary, which I’ll have been marking down during the hour of text-chatting.
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll end the video session again and move back to text-chatting. This time, I’ll ask students to move beyond the comprehension / light analysis of the previous text-session. They will write brief analytic responses to the text we’ve been discussing, using my prompt which will direct them in skills of literary analysis (building throughout the semester).
  • At 8:30pm, we’ll jump back into our video session one last time. We’ll review any questions, and I will set them up for next week’s reading.

And that’s it!

It’s a lot of moving back and forth, but it accomplishes at least two things:

  1. It avoids “Zoom fatigue.”
  2. It allows the “extra work” of Discussion Boards and Responses, when there’s an asynchronous component, to more closely resemble the “regular” in-class work of reading, discussing, and low-stakes writing.

Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences

Since I’m setting aside so much time during synchronous class sessions for writing, I won’t feel the need to “check in” and “make sure” students are reading more than I normally do in in-person classes. As Roopika Risam put it on Twitter:

Screenshot of tweet thread by Roopika Risam (username @roopikarisam) QT Jody Greene: Tweet 1 reads: "Unpopular opinion but there’s a pandemic on. If you trusted that students did the reading and were satisfied with how they did in your class before the pandemic, don’t add more assignments for “accountability” just because it gives you a sense of security." Tweet 2 reads: "Having worked in faculty support for online teaching during this pandemic, I’ve seen so many courses designed to obtain proof that students read *everything* assigned. It adds up. Then multiply by 5. And that’s before factoring in direct and indirect pandemic effects." Tweet 3 reads: "No wonder students are struggling! We didn’t prepare them for this much “accountability” before and are now dumping it on them in the middle of a public health, economic, and political crisis like many of them have never experienced before."

So now I’m able to more consciously go back to designing assignments the way I used to: designed to help students practice skills of reading and writing, not to prove that they’re doing the work.

Assignment Sequence for English 121:

The overarching idea behind the whole sequence is, of course, scaffolding. I begin this composition class with basic skills of summarizing and close reading, and then move on to a more complex essay. We end with a research essay. The weekly assignments are directly tied to these essays.

Each week, students will submit a short piece of writing, except for weeks when essays are due, of course. Each week’s assignment is due on Monday of the following week (five days after our synchronous session). The assignment will be drawn directly from what we worked on in the synchronous session, giving students an immediate chance to practice the skills they just learned. The will be allowed – and encouraged – to simply revise their in-class work for submission by Monday.

The assignments are as follows, week by week:

  1. Introduction Video: a close reading of a personal item.
  2. Summary of the short text we read and discussed in class.
  3. Essay #1: a short (2-3 page) close reading of one of the previous weeks’ short texts.
  4. Summary of a critical essay (we will read this entirely in class, no reading due while they work on their essay).
  5. Summary and analysis of a critical essay.
  6. Creative writing (we’re talking about narratives and how the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, reveal things about us, our values, and our hopes for the future, etc.)
  7. Essay #2 First Draft.
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft, after a session on revision, organization, development, and peer review.
  9. Spring Break – no work. (Only I have to grade all their essays!)
  10. Summary of the movie we discussed in class.
  11. Analysis of the movie.
  12. A “video essay,” based on the YouTube video essay we discussed in class.
  13. Research Question for the final essay, following a practical session about choosing and refining a research question.
  14. Annotated Bibliography, following a practical session about finding and evaluating sources.
  15. Final Essay First Draft, after a session on citation and peer review.

The Graded Draft of the Final Essay will be due during Finals Week.

Assignment Sequence for English 301:

This is primarily a literature class, so it’s weighted less heavily to writing. As I’ve described above, I will assign reading due before the synchronous class times, as usual. But I am also building in the opportunity for students to catch up in case they didn’t have time to start or finish reading before class. The writing for this class is also scaffolded, but I’m not asking the students to do any low-stakes writing outside of class. Their essays, including all scaffolded stages, are due on Fridays, following the Tuesday synchronous classes. (I’ll accept submission over Saturday and Sunday also with no penalty.)

So the week-by-week writing schedule looks like this:

  1. Introduction Video.
  2. None.
  3. Essay #1 Graded Draft (on medieval and early modern poetry, using the work they’ll have done in class over the past three weeks).
  4. None.
  5. None.
  6. None.
  7. Essay #2 First Draft (on medieval romance; they’ll have submitted a proposal which I will respond to immediately at the end of class).
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft (following a peer review session in class on Tuesday).
  9. Spring Break – no assignments (again, I will spend Spring Break grading!)
  10. None.
  11. None.
  12. Annotated Bibliography (following two sessions on finding secondary sources).
  13. Final Essay Proposal (on medieval and early modern drama).
  14. Final Essay First Draft.

During Finals Week: Final Essay Graded Draft (following peer review in our last synchronous session).

Gosh, even just typing that makes me feel like a weight’s been lifted off my chest. I can’t even imagine what that will do to students juggling four or five classes.

And finally: Spring 2021 Accountability

None. I’ve eliminated the need for it.

With tremendous thanks to all my colleagues on Twitter (and Facebook, and the ESA Discord server) whose ideas and discussions are so valuable as we grapple with all this. Here’s hoping this intense work informs my teaching practices forever after. (Sorry, I am feeling very choked up with emotion after re-reading and proofreading this…)

Happy teaching, y’all!

From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

On October 29, 2020, over 60 people tuned in from all over the world to participate in “On the Margins of Contemporary Jewish Orthodoxies,” a symposium organized by Baruch College. The symposium featured talks on historical predecessors of contemporary exiters, the social realities of contemporary exiters, people who live on the margins of orthodoxies, and the portrayal of exiters in literature and film.

Naomi Seidman noted in the final keynote of the day that this is an “OTD moment” in multiple arenas: on social media, OTD groups abound; adding to the visibility of those social media groups are the films and TV shows centering or featuring OTD characters and narratives; and in the academic field of Jewish Studies, there is discussion of creating a separate OTD Studies discipline.

In addition to the formal presentations, the Zoom chat was alive with conversation from presenters and attendees. The presentations themselves were academic in style and content, and – in typical OTD fashion – the chat resembled a bais medrash coffee room, moving with ease between textual and philosophical analysis, social and emotional confessions, and jokes that ranged from intellectual or tinged with pain and sadness, to the kind with the punchline of “magical goyishe penis.”

There was much overlap between almost all of the presentations. I had prepared a talk about OTD memoirs and fictional films. Earlier in the day, Zalman Newfield talked about how the OTD experience matches or doesn’t match the experiences depicted in OTD memoirs, based on sociological research. His talk touched on both of the memoirs I would speak about later. Sara Feldman, speaking on the same panel I was on, talked about OTD films in Yiddish. Her focus was on a period earlier than the last decade, which I would focus on. But she did touch on the three films I would talk about. The overlap was generative, each of our talks building on what was said before.

In full disclosure, I don’t work on OTD Studies as part of my main work. I work on childhood and children’s literature, and my dissertation is on American Haredi children’s literature, 1980-2000. The focus there is not on those leaving the community, but on the community itself. Of course, the topics are connected. But I submitted an abstract to this symposium because I could not pass up the chance to talk with scholars about a topic so interesting in general and so personal to me; and because I had *thoughts* with a capital T about these memoirs and films, and this would give me an opportunity to talk about them and not feel like I’m shouting into a void.

But after this symposium, the whole day, left me exhilarated and recharged, I realized that while I may not be itching to be a part of that field, it has never left me. One of the organizers sent me a private message after I finished my presentation, asking if I had ever published any of this. I was startled – this talk was literally just me writing up some thoughts and conversations I’d had on Facebook with friends. I spent a grand total of three days actually writing the presentation, the weekend before the symposium. (I had been thinking about it for far longer than that, of course.) I wasn’t even sure I was saying anything that wasn’t obvious! And he thought it was publishable??

Anyway, I am not going to work on any of this in the near future because I really, really (like, really) need to finish writing my dissertation. But how can I deprive people of my brilliance? 😉 So I’m posting the presentation and my talk here, lightly edited for the different format of the blog.

Title slide: From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

Anyone who was aware of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox, when it was published in 2012 undoubtedly remembers the controversy and furious debate surrounding the book – maybe even more than the book itself. There were three main groups of reactions to the book: The Hasidic and frum communities reacted with anger; people who had left Orthodox Judaism reacted with skepticism on the whole; and people who had no experience with either community ate it up eagerly and praised Feldman for her courage.

Slide: The cover of Feldman’s book “Unorthodox,” and lines quoted below.

This is not necessarily a flaw in the design: as Feldman acknowledges in the afterword to the revised 2020 edition:

“Writing a book was part of a much bigger plan, a necessity if I was to truly be free to start a new life with my son outside of our community. The publicity it would bring me would serve as a tool, my lawyer had explained, would provide me with leverage against people who would normally render me voiceless and therefore powerless.”

The project of writing the book was, for Feldman, both a creative process initiated by her classes at Sarah Lawrence, and a tool in her journey to self-actualization. That the people who loved the book enough to stand by her side were those who could prove useful and powerful in her fight against the forces holding her back is no coincidence. She wielded the tools she had at her disposal, and the ability to shock with a glimpse into a usually-cloistered community and the “scandalous” rejection of that community was one of those tools.

Even in the first edition of the memoir, Feldman acknowledges that she uses her unique past, ironically the place where her voice and individuality were denied, to stand out among the crowd. For her college admissions essays:

“The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got.”

All high school seniors are advised to find the one thing that makes them unique, makes them stand out from the crowd, and it just so happens that Feldman’s is her Hasidic upbringing.

Naomi Seidman makes a similar comment in her review of the fictionalized Netflix mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir.

In this version, the protagonist, Esty, is not a writer but a musician: a pianist and a singer. One of the most emotional moments in the mini-series comes in the fourth and final episode, when Esty auditions for admission into a prestigious Berlin conservatory. Her first song choice is Schubert’s “An die musik”. When the admissions committee asks her why she chose to sing that song, which is not the right song for her voice, she tells them the story of her Hasidic grandmother listening to Schubert’s records in secret.

Slide: Still of Esty singing from the show “Unorthodox,” and lines from Seidman’s review quoted below.

When the committee asks “why secret,” Seidman writes:

“Maybe, just maybe Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind.”

The admissions committee allows her to sing another song, and she performs a powerful rendition of “Mi bon siyach,” the song traditionally sung as the kallah circles the chosson under the chuppah. Again Seidman explains:

“Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared.”

Just as Feldman used her scandalous, titillating story to break her way into the writing market, Esty does too. She knows that this is her “shtick,” that outsiders would sit up and pay attention to this story about a community of repression and strict rules, and about a young girl breaking free and finding her voice.

The structure of Feldman’s memoir is somewhat at odds with the title of her book. Although the title promises a “scandalous rejection,” the book delivers eight chapters of Feldman’s life within the Satmar community and only one chapter detailing her escape.

Part of this is due to the timeline on which she wrote the book: She had only just left the community when she wrote it. In fact, her meeting with her editor and subsequent rush to finish the book is a significant component of Chapter 9: Up in Arms. If she was going to use this memoir as a tool, as a way to prevent the community from silencing her, it makes sense that it comes at the beginning of her escape. But that means that the focus of the book is on the ills of her family and community, rather than on her life outside of it. Her sequel, Exodus (2015), chronicles more of her journey afterwards.

But the first book, Unorthodox, not only focuses on the community more than the rejection; it also includes reflections that are not thought-through, at times childish, and almost always angry. As any good therapist will tell someone experiencing post-traumatic stress, anger is a natural and necessary stage. But anger is not the goal – the goal is to be able to reflect on the trauma and heal from it. Anger is an indication that the affected person is still hurting.

Slide: Feldman signing books, and lines from her book quoted below

Feldman addresses this, albeit obliquely, in her afterword to the 2020 revised edition, when she describes the feeling that overcame her when she wrote her first memoir: as she sank into one memory, and then the next:

“the process began to feel intuitive, like I could shut off the part of myself concentrated on outlines and chapter and characters and all the other things I had learned in college workshops and just trust some long-lost inner voice.”

As she writes a novel years later, she waits “for that ghost to haunt me again,” and

“I have come to understand that she has always been ready and willing, and that it is I who have not always been tolerant of her presence. Because she is from the past, and the rest of me is very much trying to be in the present, so as not to be burdened by anything that came before. We are two women, one lost and one found, still trying to find a way to work together to tell a story.”

One of the key rules about writing memoir is that it’s not therapy – the writing process is an extremely useful tool in therapy, but the public-facing work needs to move past that. The purpose of memoir is to give readers something they can identify with on some level. But Feldman’s book, written by someone who, by her own admission, had not yet reconciled the parts of her that were still hurting, aims to expose, to “provide a glimpse,” as many reviews said, into a secretive community.

Later memoirs, even those published just a few years later, are less angry; their structure is not so heavily weighted toward the author’s childhood and adolescent years; and they provide enough reflection to provide relief from the pain, and from the anger that characterizes the first stages of healing from trauma.

Slide: the cover of Deen’s book “All Who Go Do Not Return,” and lines from the book quoted below.

Shulem Deen published his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, in 2015, three years after Feldman’s. But he began writing his memoir before Feldman’s was published. Unlike Feldman, he was not using his memoir as a tool in his journey, so he had the luxury and the advantage of revising, editing, revising, and editing again. Feldman’s memoir begins with a prologue in which her mother tells her about their family, and the story proper begins with Devorah as a young child. Shulem Deen’s memoir, on the other hand, begins with the sentence:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others.”

The story Deen tells is personal. But from the very first sentence, the reader is aware of a vast number of others who have shared this very personal experience and is thus invited to see themselves in whichever part of the story resonates with them. This is a story of a single individual within a community, whereas Feldman’s is a story about a single individual and a community. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Deen does not shy away from describing traditions, rituals, and practices of his New Square community. But the story is not about the community, nor is it designed to shock or to titillate outsiders who want to peer into this “strange” world. It is a story of one person who finds other like-minded people despite the community.

In addition, Deen had spent years reflecting on his past by the time his memoir was published. The Shulem of the text is easily distinguished from the Shulem who wrote it for the first half of the book, because Deen is able to critically reflect on his past. He does not paint himself as a saint. He is anxious for the reader to understand that he is not a saint, speaking frankly about the times when he hit his students, when he perpetuates the system that he later comes to be horrified at. Deen takes the reader on an intense emotional journey, a journey of interiority.

The epilogue of All Who Go Do Not Return narrates a day Deen spends with his son Akiva. When he is told that his son Hershy would not be joining them as planned, he feels “a rising sense of fury.” He writes that

“it was eight weeks since I’d last seen the boys. Several years since I’d seen Tziri and Freidy – and even Chaya Suri stopped coming soon after I moved to Brooklyn, after she turned thirteen.”

He thinks about how their lives may have changed, and how he knows nothing about that.

“My calls and letters continue to go unanswered. The cell phones I bought them must never have been charged, always going straight to voice mail, my messages unreturned. In the beginning, Akiva would call on occasion, but now, even he no longer does. I can sense, with each visit, the growing distance between us. Soon, I am all too aware, the boys, too, will turn thirteen.”

The paragraph begins with “a rising sense of fury” at the response of “does it matter” to his question about why Hershy will not be joining him that day, but Deen leads us right past that anger and into a sense of deep sadness about the reality of missing out on his own children’s lives. Deen lays himself open, vulnerable and raw, in a way that Feldman doesn’t.

So what accounts for this difference? A lot of things, of course.

Slide: comparison of Feldman’s memoir an Deen’s memoir

We can’t ignore the gender difference – men have certain advantages, even in such restricted communities. There’s also the stage each author was at when writing their memoir.

But I want to turn from the authors themselves, from their choices and lives, and look at the market. Would Shulem Deen’s raw, vulnerable, painful memoir have sold as well if the non-frum and non-OTD world had not been shocked and scandalized and titillated by Feldman’s memoir first? That’s a speculative question, but I think the answer is no.

Shock factor, as we all know too well now, plays an important role in disseminating an idea. To the non-frum and non-Jewish reading public, that delicious feeling of being able to express horror at “them,” and to righteously support a young woman fighting for her freedom, opened the doors for more memoirs about this community and those who left it.

And of course, publishers accept and reject manuscripts based on how well they think the books will sell. The controversy raised over Feldman’s memoir, no matter where you come down on that question, also helped open the market. Those who stood firmly with Feldman – most often non-frum and non-OTD people – jumped at the chance to read more exposé, more scandal, in Deen’s and other memoirs. Those who were disappointed in Feldman’s style or portrayal – mostly OTD people – jumped at the chance to read a different version of their own story and to perhaps find more identification and catharsis through that. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Feldman’s book, with all its controversies and all its problems, paved the way for more nuanced and more vulnerable memoirs, including Deen’s.

[As a side-note: I’m not including One of Us because it’s neither memoir nor fiction. But of course, the documentary play a large role in this whole story.]

This same trajectory appears in fictional portrayals of those who leave Hasidic and frum Orthodoxy.

Slide: stills from the films “Mendy: A Question of Faith,” “Felix et Meira,” and “Disobedience”

The 2003 film Mendy: A Question of Faith portrays the freedom and wild abandon experienced by a young man breaking free of his Hasidic community. Mendy is immediately caught up in drug-dealing, he has sex workers thrown at him in seedy clubs, he takes psychedelic drugs and dances away the night in a flashing, whirling sequence, and wakes up in bed next to a naked woman whose name he never knows. Basically, it’s a vision of what our parents and teachers warn is waiting for us. It’s a wild breaking free, and it deals with very little of Mendy’s feelings about his community except anger.

The 2014 Felix et Meira is quieter. It focuses on Meira’s pain – and joy as she finds her own path. The final shot of the movie, in which she holds her son and sits with her new partner in a boat drifting down the river, suggests that she stays on the “outside.” But it doesn’t make it look like an easy future. She and her new partner are both aware of the painful journey still ahead.

The 2017 film Disobedience, based on the book of the same name, is likewise quieter, more internally-focused. The story centers on Ronit’s feelings about her father, her uncle, her childhood friends; and on Esty’s feelings about her husband and Ronit. There is some scandal in that people in the community find out about Esty and Ronit’s relationship, but the focus of the story is on the pain and grief of leaving one’s community, of finding one’s path – not on shock or scandal. That Disobedience was embraced by non-frum, non-OTD, and non-Jewish lesbians as a “lesbian film” is further proof of its resonance on an emotional level, rather than the titillating narrative of repression and freedom in Mendy’s story.

The mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir encapsulates this shift: while the 2012 memoir focuses on the harshness of Feldman’s family and community, the 2020 fictional mini-series focuses instead on Esty’s deeply intimate struggle to find herself and carve a place for herself in the world.

Slide: Titled “Conclusions,” showing covers of 6 memoirs, 3 films, and 1 miniseries, with contact info

In terms of the market, exposés and scandalous narratives may have been necessary to jumpstart interest in the OTD experience, as the earlier memoirs including Feldman’s suggest. But by now, thankfully, there is room for emotional vulnerability, for narratives of pain and grief, which can lead to a collective healing for both OTD individuals and the frum community.

Happy Birthday World! A Story for Rosh Hashanah by Sadie Rose Weilerstein

As promised, here’s a story from Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s 1942 book What the Moon Brought. I was planning on posting text, but I decided to record a read-aloud instead. I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat, which actually makes me sound better and more soothing, I think…

If you and/or your child listens to and enjoys this, please let me know in the comments! I would be delighted to hear about it.

Follow-Up: Labels for Laibel

At midnight today / last night, I posted some musings about Labels for Laibel. I knew frum people would not like my take, but I wasn’t quite expecting the pushback I got from some non-haredi friends. Still, I’m grateful for their comments because they helped me identify where my writing was not as clear as I wanted. So here’s a quick follow-up to address some of their concerns – for the record, I stand by what I wrote! This post is just to clarify some things I left unclear in that original post.

First, the concerns that friends had:

  1. “There might be a false dichotomy between authoritarian lessons (because Torah says so) and between learning negative consequences of selfishness.” 
  2. “How much of this is celebrating child abuse – and I agree with you that it is creepy as hell – as much as just a not very creative plot?”
  3. “It’s cut out of sending you to bed with no dinner a la Where the Wild Things Are, a hopefully archaic parenting practice…I’m reluctant to fully judge it out of the context of its own environment.”
  4. “I don’t remember how long they go without food. How long is it?”
  5. “It’s a spoof to show the kids how they themselves benefit from other people sharing, and how the world is a better place when we share… The parents used this as a quick teaching tool, not as an absolute principle.”

So, let’s start with point #1, because points #2-5 are actually all about the same thing.

I didn’t intend to imply that there is a “dichotomy between authoritarian lessons (because Torah says so) and between learning negative consequences of selfishness.” I will discuss this more when I focus on the Artscroll Middos Series, which quotes Torah. But the gist of that is – of course, the books demonstrate social interactions and the benefits of good social behavior.

In The Little Old Lady Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep, the children who are making noise and preventing their elderly neighbor from falling asleep learn that they need to be considerate of others through the very real, very personal example of their neighbor. But the book encapsulates the lesson with a Torah quote: ve-ahavta le-rei’acha kamocha, you should love your friend as yourself.

In the Hachai book Messes of Dresses, the protagonist learns to be happy with fewer dresses when she realizes that her obsession with fancy dresses has lost her all her friends – a very real, very personal lesson based on social interactions. But again, the book encapsulates the lesson with a quote from Mishnah: aizehu ashir, ha-same’ach be-chelko – who is rich, one who is happy with his lot.

Children reading these books will certainly get the idea that good middos are about social interactions. But they also get the message that good social interactions are based not only on what works with others, but on what the Torah says about these social interactions. The books help build the child’s ideology that the world functions correctly only when people follow the guidelines of Torah. And my purpose in pointing this out is not to decry this, not at all. It’s simply to note that Deborah Brandt’s idea of sponsors of literacy is clearly at work here – the literature that the child has access to caries the ideological freight of the literacy sponsor.

So, on to the next set of concerns, all of which center on my (admittedly provocative) use of the term “abuse” when referring to the parents’ ploy of pretending not to feed or take care of the children.

First of all, looking at Where the Wild Things Are in connection to this book is a good impulse. I left it out because I was going for brevity, but let’s take a look at it now.

Maurice Sendak published his award-winning, never-out-of-print book in 1963. That’s not quite of the same time as Labels for Laibel, which was published in 1990. Still, the practice of sending children to bed without dinner, as the mother in Where the Wild Things Are does, was still very common in the 1990s. 

But there are some key differences to what Where the Wild Things Are does and what Labels for Laibel does.

Max, dressed in his wolf suit and making “mischief of one kind and another,” is disrupting the household. The illustrations show him hammering a rope-sheet into the wall and chasing the terrified dog with a fork. When his mother calls him “WILD THING!” and sends him “to bed without eating anything,” the purpose is to confine him and “cure” him of his wildness.

It may not be best practice recommended by psychologists now, but there’s a clear action-consequence there: Max is running wild and terrorizing other family members, so he must be confined so as not to hurt others. (I think it’s also significant that the text doesn’t say his mother sent him to bed without eating anything, but that “he was sent to bed without eating anything.” There is a clear implication there that he brought this on himself, through the passive construction of his punishment.)

In Labels for Laibel, the “punishment” is not organic or borne of clear action-consequence. It’s a ploy, a manufactured situation, designed to teach the children a lesson. In all the picture books about sharing that I’ve surveyed, the child (or anthropomorphized animal) learns the benefits of sharing and the drawbacks of greediness orgnanically, emphasizing cause-and-effect, action-consequence.

My favorite of these is Robert Munsch’s We Share Everything.

On their first day in kindergarten, Amanda and Jeremiah argue and fight over all the toys, and the teacher tells them again and again: “Now, LOOK! This is kindergarten. In kindergarten we share. We share everything.” Amanda and Jeremiah always respond with “Okay, okay, okay, okay,” signalling exasperation with the saccharine teacher (pictured always with flowers and butterflies surrounding her as she floats over to the arguing kids).

By the end of the book, Amanda and Jeremiah decide to “share” their clothes, and – to the teacher’s fainting horror – all the other kids follow suit, yelling joyfully, “Now LOOK! This is kindergarten. In kindergarten we share… We share everything!” 

The book creates a dynamic where the children roll their eyes at the adult and find a way to subvert the lesson about sharing – yes, in kindergarten we share everything. But if the point of sharing everything is to make social interactions more enjoyable – well, so what if the children’s interpretation of enjoyable social interactions does not match the preachy adult’s?

Labels for Laibel does not actually teach the lesson “if you don’t share, social life will be less enjoyable.” It teaches “if you don’t share, someone else can retaliate and not share with you – and that someone can be your parent, and the things they choose not to share may be life-sustaining things like food.”

And it does so not by giving the children agency but by allowing the adults to manipulate the children into that realization. The adult-centered lesson is very much indicative of haredi ideology (the Artscroll Middos Series also often features adults imparting lessons to the children, but more on that in my next blog post – stick around!) The manipulation is unique to Labels for Laibel, as far as I can tell now – other books about social interactions from Artscroll, Feldheim, and Hachai heavily feature adults, but not with the manipulation of this “classic” book.

But, as a couple friends said in different ways – this is just a cute book! It’s not suggesting that parents actually do or should behave this way! It’s a spoof, a quick teaching tool, the result of a not very creative plot – but calling it abusive is going too far, isn’t it?

And okay, yes, calling it abusive was (deliberately?) provocative – or just lazy on my part that I didn’t fully explain what I meant. But let’s go back to Where the Wild Things Are.

One of the key features of Where the Wild Things Are, according to critics, is the ending: 

After Max has tired of the wild rumpus with the Wild Things, he sails back home “over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him… and it was still hot.”

Critics have pointed out that what this book does is allow the child reader the freedom to imagine going wild, all with the security of knowing that his mother will not actually let him go to bed “without eating anything.” When he’s done with his wildness, when he wants his Mommy, he can have her – and she will provide him with food.

Labels for Laibel doesn’t do that. To answer the question of how long the mother in Labels for Laibel withholds food – well, we don’t know. The book never shows us that the boys get to eat and play in the driveway. We assume that they do – but the child reader doesn’t get to see that.

Again, I want to reiterate that I am not claiming that this book is abusive. Scores of children have read and enjoyed this book without thinking “oh no, Mommy might not feed me if she’s feeling selfish.” But I am less interested in the actual child reader for now, and more interested in what the corpus of haredi children’s texts implies about haredi ideologies of childhood, parenthood, education, socialization, etc.

What this “spoof” or “quick teaching tool” or “not very creative plot” says about haredi ideology – I don’t know yet. I need to put this book in conversation with the other picture books from Artscroll, Feldheim, and Hachai. No conclusions yet. But as I said in my previous post, it is well worth analyzing the dynamics of the book and thinking about the rhetorical moves it makes – and the main thing I noticed upon close examination was the problematic way that the boys learn their lesson about sharing.

Children’s Book Week #4: Labels for Laibel

I skipped yesterday – or I took a day off yesterday, whichever way I want to see it. Because when I sat down to gather my notes and thoughts on Labels for Laibel, I remembered that my notes included reminders to read up on some theory and scholarship on various aspects of picture books in order to write this chapter. I spent a good few hours chasing down the sources I had bookmarked, skimming the abstracts, and planning to read more fully later, after dinner, or maybe before class today.

And then I remembered that the point of writing these posts is to force myself to just write up my thoughts, and leave the secondary sources for later. I can add them in later.

So this post is based on a close reading of the text, and I’m very likely missing some key points about picture books here – but I’ll get to that later, I’ll add that in later. Meanwhile, here are some preliminary observations.

Note: Follow-up post here.

Cover image of the book Labels for LaibelLabels for Laibel is, as many comment on Twitter whenever I tweet about the book, a classic. It was published in 1990, in the second year of Hachai Publishing’s existence. Hachai publishes only children’s books, as opposed to the other publishers who mainly publish books for adults, with children’s books making up only a small segment of their catalogs. Unlike the other major haredi publishers, which are unaffiliated with any particular sect, Hachai is affiliated with Lubavitch. It was founded and is still run by Lubavitcher hasidim (but Lubavitch / Chabad hasidism is very different from most other hasidic sects, and actually aligns far more with haredi ideology than with Satmar or Bobov or Belz etc). The children’s books published by Hachai are used widely in haredi schools and homes, and many of the earliest titles have never gone out of print from 1989 until today.

The author of Labels for Laibel, Dina Rosenfeld, is now also an editor at Hachai. In her Goodreads bio, she writes that “As a preschool Hebrew teacher, she simply could not find age-appropriate, full color picture books for her 4-year-old students and decided to create children’s stories of her own.” Of course, age-appropriate, full-color picture books did exist for 4-year-olds – but Rosenfeld is thinking specifically of an audience of haredi preschoolers. The books that Rosenfeld wrote – beginning with The Very Best Place for a Penny and A Tree Full of Mitzvos – were not just full-color and age-appropriate, they were also imbued with Jewish values of tzedakah and mitzvos.

I found it interesting that, unlike other haredi picture books like the ones from the Artscroll Middos Series (which I may post about later), Labels for Laibel does not include any Biblical or Talmudic phrases at the end. The Artscroll Middos Books all end with a verse from Torah or Gemara to encapsulate the lesson meant to be learned by the end of the book – midvar sheker tirchak (distance yourself from untruths), or v’ahavta le-rai’acha kamocha (love your friend as yourself). One of Hachai’s most popular books, Messes of Dresses, ends with the verse from Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), aizehu ashir, ha-same’ach be-chelko (who is rich, one who is happy with his lot). But Labels for Laibel ends simply with the line “sharing is something all people must do,” with no reference to Jewish texts.

The book follows two brothers, Yossi and Laibel. It is the first in a series where the pattern remains the same: Yossi is the brother with good and pure instincts, and Laibel is the brother who falls easily into temptation. In Yossi and Laibel Hot on the Trail, Laibel is lazy while Yossi wants to help others, and in Yossi and Laibel On the Ball, Laibel is judgmental while Yossi accepts everyone for who they are. But in the first book, Yossi falls prey to Laibel’s bad influence: Laibel refuses to share and decides to label all his belongings so everyone would know not to touch his stuff, and Yossi follows his example. When the mother and father follow suit and label all the stuff in the kitchen and driveway, denying the boys dinner and play space, the two brothers learn their lesson that “sharing is something all people must do.”

The lesson about sharing is one that can be found in many many mainstream picture books. After all, picture books are often used to teach children about social interactions. But the way the lesson appears in mainstream books differs slightly from the way it’s presented in Labels for Laibel.

This may be due in part to the fact that in most haredi picture books teaching character, the lesson is not actually about social interactions: the lessons, as I mentioned, are often presented via verses from Torah and Talmud. The format imparts the idea that these lessons are not about learning to get along well with others, but about being good Jews and following the lessons of the Torah.

So while most mainstream picture books about sharing take place in a setting where adults are peripheral figures – places like school, the playground, or on play dates – Labels for Laibel takes place in a family home. While mainstream picture books have the children learning to share because they miss their friends or discover that playing alone is no fun, Yossi and Laibel learn to share because their parents mimic their selfish behavior and deny them food and care.

In some ways, the role of the parents in this book is similar to the role of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in the books of that name: Extending normal childlike behavior to absurdity in an effort to make the child regret that behavior. After all, it is normal for children to stake claims of ownership and to refuse to share. But it is not normal for adults – who have grown past the inability to understand social interactions – to refuse to share basic necessities like food.

At the end of the book, the illustrations (by the legendary illustrator of haredi children’s texts as well as comics, Norman Nodel) show the parents peeking around the doorway of the boys’ bedroom as the brothers look at each other with wide smiles and their arms around each other’s shoulders, a wastebasket overflowing with discarded labels in the corner.

The parents have not preached about the benefits of sharing or the drawbacks of greediness (though, sidenote: I found it amusing that this Jewish Book Council review from 2011 calls the book “preachy” when in fact, it’s no more preachy than any other book trying to teach children about social interactions). The children have learned the lesson on their own.

And yet, there’s something disturbing about that lesson being taught when the children are denied basic food and care. After all, it is very different when children claim “their albums with pictures, their albums with stamps, the microscope, mirror, and two football lamps” (16), and when parents claim basic necessities like food and dishes. A child screaming “it’s mine, no one can touch it!” is learning boundaries and personal possession. A mother saying “Every night I share all of the food, but somehow, tonight I’m just not in the mood!” (22) is… child abuse, let’s face it.

The father’s denial of the car and driveway, and of “my clothes, my reclining chair, slippers, and new garden hose, my briefcase, shoe polish, my tools and umbrella” (27) has less of an impact on the children’s well-being. That points to the gendered roles of the parents which the books solidifies – the mother’s realm, her labeled belongings, are in the kitchen, while the father’s realm and labeled belongings are outside the home, in the toolbox, and in personal comfort.

Regardless of the gendered difference of impact on the children’s immediate well-being, the book (unintentionally) equates a child’s unwillingness to share chips, soda, books, etc., with a parent’s unwillingness to care for their children.

If you ask any haredi reader – myself included before I started doing a deep analysis of the book – that’s not the lesson at all. The lesson is about sharing! Seeing child abuse in a cute fun story is sick! So people might say.

And yet, there is value in noticing the forlorn looks on the brothers’ faces as they follow their mother, who carries her used dishes to the kitchen with a satisfied smile on her face. 

If Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s remedies are reminiscent of “bad trips” (Horn), the parents’ manipulation in Labels for Laibel is certainly emotionally abusive. Rather than allowing the children to learn their lessons on their own – as with books like Llama Llama Time to Share or The Squirrels Who Squabbled – this book requires a manufactured situation, one which takes all normal social interactions to their extreme.

And the parents never explain to the boys that their selfishness was a ploy, that the boys’ welfare was never at risk – though the reader gets to see that from the parents’ beaming smiles on the last page of the book.

I’m not prepared yet to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions that will make it into my dissertation beyond these initial musings. I need to brush up, do some more reading of my notes and of additional sources on picture books, character education, psychology, etc. So this is it for now…

Children’s Book Week #2: The Holocaust Diaries

Hans Robert Jauss says that “the more stereotypically a text repeats the generic, the more inferior is its artistic character and its degree of historicity” (89). Many haredi texts follow the format of a genre beyond just conforming to generic expectations. They become stereotypes of themselves, repeating the generic formula with no variation. According to Jauss, this makes their artistic character inferior.

And in fact, this is true. They are not feats of artistic success.

But that’s not their purpose. Haredi fiction, including children’s fiction, does not concern itself with artistic qualities. It’s difficult to say that haredi literature is artistically inferior, because creation of art is not one of its purposes. Its goal is almost always pedagogical, meant to teach lessons about life, about Judaism, about faith and community and family, etc. 

For example, the individual books of the Holocaust Diaries series, published by CIS, all follow the same format. The books in this series are intended for all ages, but most of them have been abridged and repackaged for adolescents. The books are easily abridged because they follow the same format: At the beginning of each book, for 3-5 chapters, the narrator tells us about their life in pre-war Europe. There’s a clear demarcation that sets off this idyllic pre-war life and the beginning of the Holocaust. The years of the Holocaust are narrated in detail, and this section ends with liberation, searching for any surviving family members, surveying the damage done, and resolving to build a new life. The final section details post-war life, usually in America or Palestine.

The abridged versions simply lift the clearly demarcated middle section for a self-contained story about the Holocaust. 

The repetition of the genre allows the lesson of the series to be laid out clearly in each book. The beginning emphasizes the innocence and beauty of pre-war life. Very rarely is there mention of conflict in these early sections. The middle emphasizes suffering, sacrifice, and saintliness; and the final section emphasizes survival and rebirth. Each book tells the story of suffering and survival, and as a whole, the series and the genre hammers home the lesson that the Jewish people lead a cyclical existence of suffering and survival, and that faith sustains them. 

Sisters in the Storm: Chanka’s Holocaust Story

Anna (or Chanka) is a young teenager at the beginning of the war. She alternately describes herself as a “teenager” and a “child,” in fact. When explaining why it was safer for her than for her father or brother to go out in the Nazi-filled streets, she says, “They were looking for men they could put to work, not teenage girls” (24). Just two pages later, describing the family’s reaction to their Polish neighbor’s sudden rage and attempted attack on their father, she says, “We children were shocked beyond comprehension” (26). She also paints herself as a child when she narrates her first encounter with marching German soldiers and her Polish neighbor: “I was too innocent to be frightened by the Germans, so I ran after the marchers so I could watch, too” (22). 

Throughout the book, including the opening chapters of the abridged version, Chanka is one of the strongest in her family. She gets things done. She is the one who goes to the agency to get a horse cart for Mammeshe when they’re forced to move into the ghetto. She is the one who wakes up in middle of the night to witness Mammeshe’s suffering, she is the one who tells her older brother that they must find a new place to live, and she goes with him. She is constantly unafraid – but rarely with “innocence” as she claims here. No, she understands exactly what is happening, and she is full of rage. So why does she call herself “innocent” here? Why does she call herself a child? Why not just call herself an aware and angry teenager consistently? 

The answer to that may lie in the conceit of the book. It is an autobiography, presumably. But there is a possibility that this was ghostwritten (I have been trying to contact CIS with no luck – if anyone has a lead and can put me in touch with them, I would be very grateful). Either way, though, this book was written decades after the events, and the voice is not of a teenager. Although the series is called “Holocaust Diaries,” the format of the books does not attempt to mimic diaries. It is, instead, a rather straightforward historical account. The narrative focuses on a main character, but very little character development happens.  

According to the publisher, Rabbi Yisroel Yosef Reinman (the same man who wrote the Ruach Ami series under the name Avner Gold), the purpose of the Holocaust Diaries series was “to assemble an organized body of holocaust literature written from the Orthodox perspective, a unified body of literature that would stand as an everlasting testament to the invincibility of the Jewish spirit nurtured on Torah, mitzvos and unstinting devotion to the Ribono Shel Olam” (17).

On the decision to present these stories as autobiographies, little rationale is given, other than that the collection would be limited to “distinguished autobiographical accounts by survivors, with as wide a variation of experience and locale as possible” (17).

Earlier on this same page, in discussing Sisters in the Storm specifically, the “wide variation” is somewhat negated: “Sisters in the Storm is a story that is remarkable in its typicality, a highly readable story that provides deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of all those who passed through the inhuman crucible of German fiendishness, of those who perished and those who survived” (17). 

The difference, I think, is where the variation occurs. Yes, the series provides wide variation of “experience and locale.” But precisely because the experience and locale vary so much, the uniformity of the “thoughts and feelings” is emphasized. There is, after all, a formula to these books.  

And that formula exists for a specific purpose – to provide a Torah-focused narrative, to combat the secular genre of Holocaust literature. As Rabbi Reinman writes in the introduction to Late Reflections, the first book in the Holocaust Diaries series: “It is accepted without question that we must record the awful events of the holocaust as an everlasting testimony for posterity…but somehow, when all is said and done, this secular holocaust literature falls short of the mark” (12).

The question Reinman asks of these secular texts is “after we have turned the last page and shed the last tear, what remains with us, what do we take back with us into our everyday existence?” He anticipates the answer of “never again,” and goes on to ask rhetorically “Are we to remember in order to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy? How? By appealing to the conscience of the gentile world? Bitter experience has taught us the futility of such hopes” (12).

Ultimately, after positing and rejecting a few more possible outcomes, Reinman concludes that “Judaica holocaust literature does give substance and meaning to the memories we must record for posterity” (13), and that

Judaica holocaust literature teaches us that the holocaust was a war between the Jewish people and the German Amalek-incarnate. It was a war of the carnal brute against the sublime spirit, the profane against the holy. And in the end, the Jewish people emerged victorious, because the Germans could only destroy their bodies but not their souls and spirits.

Late Reflections, 14

The point of The Holocaust Diaries series is clear: to show the sacred triumph of religious Judaism and to solidify the idea that all non-Jews are untrustworthy – that no matter how friendly they are, non-Jews by definition hate Jews, and especially religious Jews.

In Sisters in the Storm, Chanka’s Polish neighbor, once neighborly enough, chases her father with a wooden beam and informs on him to the Gestapo. When Chanka and her sister Sarah return to their home in Lodz after the end of the war, their non-Jewish landlord Karol is surprised to see them. After finding strangers living in their family home, the two sisters walk through the courtyard. Upon seeing them, Karol exclaims, “Why, I thought you had died long ago! But why are you here? What do you want here?” (176-177), proving (according to the text) that the war had brought to the fore all the anti-Semitism and hatred that always lies just below the surface.

Earlier, when Chanka and Sarah have been liberated and are being taken care of by a kind German benefactor, Chanka muses, “if only a few more gentiles would have been as kind as this one-eyed peasant woman, many more Jews would have managed to survive the war” (164).

The full book of Sisters in the Storm, as with all Holocaust Diaries books, follows Chanka and Sarah for years after the war. The sisters move to Israel and set up a new life, with a new family. But the abridged version, the text packaged specifically for adolescents, ends on the line, “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I became determined to find some way to leave Poland and to make my way to Eretz Yisrael” (189). The last few pages talk about attempts to rebuild life in Poland, with girls living in crowded apartments and trading horror stories from the past years, and with brief accounts of the dangers they faced in post-war Poland, at the mercy of their Polish landlords who (allegedly) killed at least one of their roommates.

Ending the book for teenagers on this note helps further the ideology of isolation, rejection of an outside world presumed to be hostile, and a focus on Israel as the only safe place for Jews.

Children’s Book Week #1: The Ruach Ami Series

Every Child a Reader hosts Children’s Book Week every year. I’ve decided to use this week (as much as I can) to push myself to write pieces of my dissertation by focusing on specific texts. I begin with a book for which I have notes but had not – until now! – written about formally. Hopefully, this week-long exercise will help me write – something I have not done in a long while now… Most of these posts (if I even make it through the week) will be under-developed and messy, random thoughts as I work through each text quickly.

The first text I’m looking at is The Promised Child by Avner Gold, the first book of the Ruach Ami Series.

The Promised Child, by Avner Gold (Book #1 of the Ruach Ami Series) First Edition
The Promised Child, by Avner Gold (Book #1 of the Ruach Ami Series) Second Edition

The Ruach Ami Series follows the Pulichever family, beginning with Mendel Pulichever, in seventeenth-century Poland. The family – and the town of Pulichev – is fictional. But the series traces real historical events, like the pogroms of 1648 and the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.

In the first book of the series, Reb Mendel and his wife are desperate to have a child. They despair of having someone to carry on the distinguished Pulichever dynasty, and they struggle with their motivations for even wanting a child. They admit wanting to “fill a void” (maternal) and to keep the rabbinic dynasty going (paternal). Both of these are confessed to as improper motivations. The correct motivation is the desire to bring more glory to god via a child, another life, another Jew who will serve god and obey his commandments. Eventually, they receive a blessing from the great rabbi in Krakow, who foresees that the child comes with a heavy price.

When their child, Shloimele, is born, everyone loves him. He is smart and bright and happy. Shloimele is a darling of the town and everyone feels entitled to “the extraordinary child” as one of their own – a sense of communal ownership. The conflict comes when the local priest, Zbiegnew Mzlateslavski, also feels entitled to the boy. He plots to kidnap the child when Reb Mendel and his wife are taking Shloimele back to Krakow for his third birthday.

Shloimele is then raised in a monastery, while Reb Mendel and his wife mourn but never give up hope.

When Shloimele – now Gregor Tal – is grown and has become a bishop, Mzlateslavski sets up an evil scheme where Gregor must debate Reb Mendel and if the Jews lose the theological debate, they will be expelled from Poland. Gregor decides to visit Pulichev to scope out his competition – he is an unwilling participant in the debate – and arrives just in time for Kol Nidrei. His soul is awakened, he and Reb Mendel discover that he is in fact Shloimele, and the family is reunited. Shloimele and Reb Mendel plot to expose Mzlateslavski at the debate, and Shloimele comes home to begin learning Torah and resume his life as a Jew.

The first edition of The Promised Child, published in 1983, includes a brief note from the publisher as a preface:

The Promised Child by Avner Gold is the inaugural volume of the Ruach Ami Series published by C.I.S./ Publications Division. This series will feature middle and full length works of fiction and anthologies of short stories whose themes are the unquenchable spirit and heroism of the Jewish people. The Editorial Staff of C.I.S./ Publications Division is carefully selecting material that is not only inspiring but also of high literary quality, both in style and structure. It is our hope that The Promised Child and future volumes will truly portray the ruach ami – “the spirit of my people” – of past and present.

Gold, Avner. The Promised Child, 1st edition. CIS: 1983 (p7).

As Malka Schaps points out, CIS was originally a fund-raising mailing service for yeshivas in Lakewood, N.J. (“The One-way Mirror: Israel and the Diaspora in Contemporary Orthodox Literature.” Shofar 16.2 (1998): 36). The Ruach Ami series was their first venture into publishing, and the series met with wild success. In 1985, CIS published a new edition of the book, this time with an introduction by the author.

Preface, The Promised Child, Second Edition (1985), page 11

According to Avner Gold, surreptitiously identified by his non-pseudonymous name in the signature by his initials “Y.Y.R.,” the purpose of historical Jewish fiction is to portray the ordinary man, full of faults. Biographies of great rabbis, the author claims, can’t show faults because that would be leshon hora – spreading gossip. But if all our accounts of the past are full of flawless, godlike men, readers won’t feel that these men have any connection or significance to their own lives. Historical fiction provides the opportunity to portray ordinary people of the past, struggling with their own flaws and temptations, so that readers can learn the lessons of history more easily. 

But Shloimele is named an extraordinary child from birth. The reason he is the object of the priest’s “evil” attention is his remarkability. For much of the first few chapters, when Shloimele is a child, he does not seem like an ordinary child at all. He is more accommodating to strangers, he is kind and selfless and understands things like leaving his father alone during Torah study. That’s not normal behavior for a toddler younger than three years old. In fact, the descriptions sound exactly like the hagiographic biographies of gedolim.

One of his few moments of “normal” childlike behavior is when he’s traveling with his parents to Krakow. As any child might be, he is drawn to the brightly-colored packet the priest has given to his parents, and he opens it up. In doing so, he reveals a stack of blank papers. His mother, the Rebetzin, first scolds him and says, “that’s not yours” – a typical statement to children, meant to teach them about ownership and respecting others’ property. Based on the previous descriptions of Shloimele, one would assume that he was already aware of this! 

This moment of “normal” childhood is crucial to the plot. If not for Shloimele’s revelation of the packet’s contents, Reb Mendel would not have known with certainty (or perhaps even suspected) the priest’s involvement in the kidnapping. The stack of blank papers puzzles Reb Mendel and his wife, and when Shloimele is snatched during a stop on the road, they conclude (correctly) that the brightly-colored packet was meant to help the kidnappers identify the child they were to snatch.

One of the things I’m interested in is this disconnect between claiming to represent “real” children, “real” people, and the actuality of near-perfect characters in fiction. The children in later books set in contemporary America, like The Baker’s Dozen, The B.Y. Times, and The Cheery Bim Band – contain flawed characters. But historical fiction is not afforded the same leniency. Even when the series author claims flaws as a purpose, it seems the nostalgia of the past is not easy to shrug off – even in fiction.

The other aspect of the series I’m interested in (but won’t write about at length here) is the way Jews are portrayed in relation to their Christian neighbors, and vice versa. The last few pages of The Promised Child are heavy-handed about the boundaries of Jewish identity, not feeling excluded from Christian society, Jewish solidarity, etc. There’s a lot of talk about changing darkness into light, about Gregor leaving the darkness of Christianity to come back to the light of Judaism – with no real explanation for why Christianity is darkness and Judaism is light. It’s assumed that this is accepted by the reader, as it almost certainly was. Christians throughout the book seem sincere in their belief (the text doesn’t imply that they “believe” only to be able to harm the Jews, but that they do deeply and sincerely believe in Christ). But their belief is mocked, even though it pretty much parallels Jewish belief (in divine guidance, etc). At the very end, the Cardinal who oversees the debate is mocked: he is described as a drooling old man, in sharp contrast to the usual portrayals of elderly Jewish rabbonim whose old age is venerated. But to hear what I think about all that, you’ll need to wait for my dissertation (and maybe nudge me to get writing).

Write What You Know: Lessons in Lesson-Planning for Distance-Learning

Image is not mine. Check out the full strip at http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1758.

A few hours ago, I taught a Zoom class on The Merchant of Venice. We hadn’t been scheduled to read this text now. But two weeks ago, before the originally-scheduled spring break, I looked at the upcoming weeks – Chaucer! Miller’s Tale! – and despaired. I was already feeling depressed about how all my carefully-crafted plans had gone to complete shit. Thinking about teaching students how to read Middle English, walking them through the plot of the Miller’s Tale, having them grasp the bawdiness – look, I know how to do it, I’ve done it before, but the idea of trying to do that via Slack and Zoom was overwhelming and I just. couldn’t. face it.

So I switched the texts for the next weeks.

We had two weeks between sessions instead of the usual one week, and I’ve been reading The Merchant of Venice with my high school Skype student, so I figured – why not just skip to that text now. To hell with the carefully-crafted schedule that goes by genre. Jump to a text I feel super-comfortable with, one I’m already teaching online (though in a different format) and can easily adapt to.

Over the two weeks while my student read the play, I continued teaching my other class, because technically we weren’t on spring break anymore (see: CUNY’s “recalibration” period) and that class was at the very beginning and very end of the originally-scheduled break anyway. I also participated in a Zoom faculty meeting.

And – more importantly – I rested and relaxed. I spent weekends away from email, unavailable to answer questions on Slack, not thinking about or planning for classes in any way shape or form. I read a whole book!! You know how long it’s been since I started a YA book for pleasure and finished it in less than 24 hours? (Incidentally, that book was Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor, a book which include 3 main characters, of whom 2 are lesbian and 1 asexual and aromantic!)

I decided to make one change before my class was scheduled to meet again: I offered students options. Their two options were 1) Zoom: continue as we’ve been doing, with reading the texts before class, participating on Slack, and coming to Zoom class sessions; or 2) Writing: read the text, participate on Slack as much or as little as you want, submit 2-4 short writing assignment per week to BlackBoard – and don’t come to Zoom classes (unless you have time and feel like it). Most students chose the Zoom option. A few opted in to the Writing option. That made me feel a little better, at least, in terms of managing my expectations for students. (In class earlier tonight, I asked them about what spurred their choices and got some feedback that will be useful for fall – because yeah, I’m totally operating under the assumption we’ll be online for the first month or two at least.)

And then tonight’s class.

I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about it. Like I said in my previous post, I had basically decided to give up. And that meant that for this class, I relied heavily on Stephen Greenblatt’s online course from Harvard – I had given my students the link and asked them to sign up with a free account. They wouldn’t be able to post to the course, but they would have access to all the videos and content. For the writing assignments (for students who opted in to the Writing choice) I copied over all the questions from that course, and I sorted them into a) questions I wanted students to focus on and b) some that were optional.

So I decided to use that in the Zoom class as well.

Now, here’s the thing. The questions that I used were definitely not mine (and students of course knew this). But I accidentally ended up structuring the class exactly the way I normally structure my face-to-face classes:

  1. Start with a free-write. In person, I usually put a prompt on the board, either via a PowerPoint slide or simply writing on the board. I used Zoom’s whiteboard function now: I typed out a prompt and asked students to write for ten minutes. I asked them to write in a Google doc, a Word doc, an email or text message draft, or a note app on their phones. After 10 minutes, I asked them to copy their free-writes into Slack as a reply to my prompt. The prompt was simple, and exactly the kind of prompt I usually give: choose a passage from the text, write about it, explain why that passage interests you. (In-person, this functions to settle conversations that have been happening before class, give latecomers a chance to slip in and get settled, and help set the focus on the text with the intent of encouraging students to always refer back to the text during discussion. Here, purpose #3 stayed the same, but there were no conversations to settle. It did allow latecomers to slip in and get settled, though – especially since, for some reason that I cannot figure out, students never seem to remember where the Zoom link is, despite my sharing it anew before every class…)
  2. Groupwork. My classes are always, always structured around groupwork. I didn’t know Zoom allowed that for the first couple weeks. When I discovered that (thanks Facebook-hivemind), I started using it more. But I wasn’t thinking about it as regular groupwork – I was trying to be all fancy with allowing students to share their screens or whatever, to make use of the tech we now had at our disposal. This time, I gave them the list of questions I had prepared for the Writing-option students by copying them from the Harvard course. I put the Zoom students into groups of 3-4, and I asked each group to choose any 2 questions from that list, discuss each question for 10 minutes, and have one person write up and post the 2 responses to Slack. Normally I would assign questions to each group, and normally I do that based on how the students sort themselves out (I’d give the more basic-comprehension questions to groups with mainly students who are struggling to keep up, and I’d give the more complex analytical questions to groups with mainly students who were capable of taking the discussion that far AND making sure no one is left behind in the group). I didn’t have that luxury here, but it worked out fine.
  3. Full-class discussion, go over the groupwork. I always pop in and out groups in person, and I can do the same on Zoom. So I knew which questions they all were discussing. I deleted all the others from the document I had open on my laptop. When they had all posted their responses and rejoined the main meeting, I shared my screen with them and we went over the questions one at a time. I responded to their written responses, and a decent conversation ensued, where students clarified things they had written or responded to my additional questions, or simply added their own thoughts.
  4. Clips from a performance. This part didn’t go so well, because there’s something wrong with the sound on my laptop, I think. But I had already explained to my students what I wanted to show them (clips from the Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t available freely). And they were amazingly patient with me as I tried to fix my sound, and then put up with the very low sound as they watched and read the subtitles. Organically, without my prompting, a little chat popped up in Zoom as they recognized one of the actors as being a Game of Thrones actor (no one pointed out that Lorenzo was the Christmas Prince, but ah well). I loved that they were text-chatting on the side. (I may have said “focus! :)” in response to their discussion, because the moment was super-serious and I wanted them to feel the chills of the scene [the added scene of Shylock’s conversion with Jessica weeping and wailing nearby] but I did actually love that that happened.)

Look, I know all the experts were telling us not to try to do things majorly differently, from the start they told us to aim low. I tried to keep things simple, but I was still thinking in terms of “online teaching.” But you know what? In aiming low, I was able to keep aiming high (forgive the cheesiness, it’s late, I had a celebratory drink, and I’m high on success). This class session went so. freaking. well. And it was in large part because I stopped trying so hard!! How do you like that.

And now we’re heading back to Chaucer for next week.

I sent a long, detailed email (knowing students will likely not read the whole thing, but that’s okay) with links to resources for reading Middle English and understanding Chaucer – but rather than thinking of this as an online class, I’m continuing to think of it as just the same as before. I usually try to teach a mini-lesson on reading Middle English the class before they need to read, but this is fine – they’ll read the text, probably not understand it (which I said in the email), we’ll work on understanding the plot next week, and the following week we can move to deeper discussion and analysis of the text.

So… yeah. Once I stopped thinking of this as the scary new way of teaching, once I went back to my tried-and-true in-person methods (with some variations, I’ll concede that) class went bee-yoo-tifully.

Teaching in the Time of Corona: Look, Ma! No Plans!

A week ago, I posted the instructions for moving online that I sent to my students. (Was it really only a week ago…?) It was so clear, so detailed, so hopeful, so… delusional.

Most of my students managed to get onto Slack and Zoom, the two digital tools I chose to use for my classes. Many filled out the Google Forms survey asking about their accessibility needs and preferences. Slowly, students started interacting on Slack. Then one class met on Zoom, and things were going well. We were settling into our new normal.

The next class didn’t meet until this past Tuesday, but we were interacting via email and Slack. There were glitches and hitches, and I began to rethink what I was expecting my students to do. By the time we Zoomed on Tuesday, I had decided to abandon the second and third papers of the semester. It was hard enough to communicate about the texts – some students are of an -ahem- older generation as returning students, and they were really struggling with the tech. Even students who were okay with it were obviously juggling multiple emails from multiple instructors, and as much as it would be great if everyone would have adopted my organization suggestions (charts for each class with times of video meeting and deadlines for written work etc), that… was not happening.

We met on Tuesday. It was a decent class. Our class was “normally” scheduled to meet for 2.5 hours once a week. We spent 1.5 hours on Zoom, despite my original plans to keep the meeting under an hour. Most of that time was spent on learning how to use Slack and going over the plans for the rest of the semester.

Then CUNY announced a “Recalibration” period, giving us another week off to give students more time to request and acquire laptops and iPads as needed. They also said that our spring break – always scheduled over Passover at CUNY – was to be cut short, now only April 8 – April 10. Yep, I got those dates right. Spring break is 2 days. In a way, that makes sense. We had a week “off” to move our classes online, and we have another week “off” now again. So we don’t need another break, right?

Well, look, I have given up on thinking I can plan more than a week ahead – if even that. I did update the reading schedule for both classes (thankfully, the YA class can remain the same since we had planned to spend two weeks reading our current book, each student at their own pace and when they can).

I cut a few texts: to my dismay, I cut an excerpt from Sometimes We Tell the Truth from my medieval and early modern survey. In the past, I’ve paired Reeve’s Tale from the YA retelling with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for a conversation about quyting and scholarship on Chaucer. And I was supposed to present a paper at the New Chaucer Society’s July conference in Durham about how I use YA texts in a medieval survey class, but of course, that’s not happening…

Today I met with my YA class for the second time. We’re still in middle of reading Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and my students are having some amazing conversations on Slack – better than they had in f2f classes, actually.

But our hour-long session today was spent on reviewing assignments, discussing anxieties over how the course will be graded now, learning and practicing how to post entries for their reading list (annotated bibliography) assignment – and then the whole thing broke down into a sharing circle as one student told us that their friend had died from apparent coronavirus yesterday, and another student shared that they had tested positive but that they’re feeling better now, and then students unmuted themselves one at a time and shared their anxieties, and I stopped responding and just sat back with tears in the corners of my eyes and let them talk to each other.

We didn’t discuss the book or their Slack conversations at all. I have given up.

No, I haven’t given up. I’ve shifted my priorities. Last week, I was saying that professors have to boil down their curricula to the absolute necessities and cut the rest. I wasn’t really taking my own advice, though I thought I was. It has become clear to me that the goals of my class can no longer be anything like what they were before.

Before, my goals were to have students survey the primary texts and understand the conversations in the respective scholarly fields.

Now, my goal is to have students talking to me and to each other, maintaining sanity, maintaining community. We do that through reading and talking about our books. We do that by escaping into the worlds of shapeshifter families and dancing plagues, of medieval trans heroes and sheep-thieves.

If they engage with the texts and keep their minds off whatever nonsense is happening in the world and in their lives, that’s good. If they learn something from my course goals, even better. But I will not be making lecture videos for them to watch anymore, I will not be giving them additional assignments to aid comprehension. I will be more active in Slack than I had planned to be.

And most of all, I will stop proclaiming what I will do in anything more than one week increments, if that.