Teaching on the Commons: An Experiment with Discussion across Three American Lit. Courses

Welcome fellow Commoners,

In this post I focus on a project Jason Nielsen and I have been working on this semester. Jason and I are both instructors at Queens College and between us, we’re teaching three sections of the same American Literature survey course at Queens College. Using a shared forum on a course page, we’re having our students discuss shared texts throughout the semester and collaborate on projects. Our primary goals are to invigorate class discussion with these additional voices and to make visible the approaches Jason and I take to these texts, too. You can take a look at the course site here: www.2018eng152.commons.gc.cuny.edu/

Inspiration and Planning

A few months ago Jason and I were talking about our classes at Queens College. We’re both nineteenth-century American literature specialists and it’s not uncommon for us to teach two sections of an American literature survey course in one semester. It didn’t take long for the discussion to turn to how different classes can feel, especially when you’re teaching the same material in each. The different mix of students and even our thoughts as instructors, when we read and reread each text, lead to unique insights, but also frustrations when the sparks of productive discussion fly in one class and not the other. The alchemy of classroom dynamics can indeed be strange.

Not long after this discussion we received our Spring 2018 teaching assignments and it turned out we were each assigned sections of English 152: Great Works of American Literature for non-majors. We decided to try an experiment and see what would happen if we encouraged the students to discuss their texts across the class sections. Both of us use course websites and have students routinely write responses based on readings and class discussion. But the audience for those responses rarely goes beyond us as instructors. What would happen, we wondered, if students shared those with each other? How would writing for an audience of other engaged students, not just the instructors, change their writing? Would students share the insights from one class with the others? How would the unique approaches each instructor has become evident in the discussion and even reveal the contested ground in American literature? This last point seemed especially interesting given that this is a class for non-majors. Assuming these students come to the classroom with less experience in the field of literature, would revealing how those approaches affect interpretation give our students more confidence to apply their own approaches.

Before the start of the course, we put together a course website that would serve all three sections. The sections meet on different days so it’s unlikely that they’ll ever see each other in person, but we wanted to emphasize the connection between the courses. This has helped us as well, ensuring we’re talking about the same documents in a similar time frame. When we share “Extras,” links related to class discussion, students from all three classes can explore them.

On the first day of class, we emphasized to our students that they were part of an experiment and have made talking about the course design part of every-day discussion. We also discussed issues of internet privacy (which I’ve written about on this blog before).

We set up a discussion forum using the Buddy Press forum plugin available on the Commons. This is a powerful plugin that allows a lot of control for us as administrators and that allows us to change up the format as we experiment. I’ve had students to post responses to prompts in the past, but I hadn’t used the discussion forum and we decided to use it because it allowed students to make nested threads. A student can post a question or brief response and other people can respond to not only to that post, but to other responders in the discussion without the threads getting too confusing. Its actually very similar to how Facebook comments work. The plugin also allows students to post rich content: gifs, still images, videos, links, formatted text, etc.

The way we’ve formatted the course, every two weeks one class will be responsible for posting threads. Each student will offer a topic for discussion, essentially. In the next few days, students from the other classes will browse these topics and then choose some to which they’ll respond. With three classes in the mix, each round of discussion includes as many as seventy-five voices! It was daunting to think about keeping track of all those students when we were planning, but its proven to be relatively easy.

The First Round of Discussion and What Happened

This past weekend was the first time students posted and the results have been incredibly interesting. To quickly summarize our take-aways from this first round:

  • Students wrote for their colleagues rather than the instructors. Yet this awareness also encouraged interpreting the threads that had the most discussion as the most “popular,” counting “voices” as “likes.”
  • Students were apprehensive about asking questions or appearing like they didn’t understand the material which may have limited discussion a bit.
  • Follow-up discussion in class lead to productive “meta-discussions” about how to certain posts attracted attention and why.
  • Discussion about the texts tended to gravitate towards polarized discussions in the culture more broadly. Since this assignment was about Columbus and early Spanish colonization of the Americas, the most active threads were about Columbus statues and if Columbus was a villain or a hero.

Each of these observations point to discussions Jason and I should have about the forum with our classes and suggest ways we can improve the prompts we give students in the future. I discuss these in more detail below.

For this first assignment, students were given a very wide prompt. Basically, it was to write about some aspect of the texts we’d read in the first weeks of class that grabbed your attention. It could be a close reading of a passage, or how some part of the texts connects to current discussions of what American literature IS, what is America, and who are Americans. In the week leading up to the post, we spent time teaching how to use the forum and how to craft titles and tags.

I was surprised at how easily the students adapted to the online format. They proved to be very savvy at using the plugin. It probably helped that many of the students in the class that posted first were computer science majors, so they were perhaps more technologically savvy than most, but in general there was a comfort with online communication that showed the medium was certainly not getting in the way of good discussion.

One of the biggest revelations from this first round, is how interested students were in the audience for which they were writing. I had cynically assumed that students would focus on getting the assignment “done,” writing what they thought would be appropriate for the instructor and then signing off and not looking at the discussion board. But students eagerly checked the board, looking to see how many responses they had. The “voices” column in the forum took on the meaning of “likes.” Who had the most “interesting” thread, they wondered.

In responses I had students write in class afterwards, students wrote about trying to choose topics they thought would provoke discussion, trying to find “controversial” topics (not hard, since our first readings were on early Spanish colonization of the Americas, with readings from Columbus’ letters, Las Casas’ description of the destruction of the Indies, and Sepulveda’s defense of Spanish colonization). Some even described trying to craft “click-bait” titles that would draw in their colleagues (they proved unsuccessful, perhaps because click-bait titles are often misleading).

Responses pointed to aspects of our assignment that might need to change as well. Many students wrote about trying to find something in the text they felt “confident” or “comfortable” discussing. That’s not surprising–people usually don’t like to talk when they don’t feel like they have control over the subject matter. It can be daunting for students to ask questions or “try out” a position in a class setting because they’re trying to prove competence. Actual inquiry, though, requires asking questions and identifying what you don’t yet know or haven’t considered. We’ve resolved to make that part of the discussion as we prepare for the next round of posts. We plan to ask our students questions about the topics that received the most “voices,” and why they think that’s the case. This reader-response analysis will hopefully help them craft better responses and hopefully carry into their future essays, as well (for which they can draw from the many responses on the discussion board).

We have new ideas about how to make use of this shared space and will hopefully scaffold a final project that links groups in each class writing papers on specific themes that run through the literature read in the course. They collaborative groups can share resources and respond to thesis statements, drafts, etc. Students will create the type of research collaboratives that more closely mimic how research is done in the real world, both in the academy and beyond.

That’s all for now, but I invite your suggestions and comments! Much like our forum, one of the ideas of this blog is to encourage sharing and collaboration. And, if you’d like to lend your voice to our discussion, contact me on Commons (you need to be a Commons user to post)!

All the best,


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