In my last post, I discussed Showalter’s resolution to the research/teaching conflict in which we experience friction between our research and teaching. Similarly, her chapter, “Methods of Teaching Literature,” extends the research/teaching tension by offering commentary on the pedagogical limits of lecturing, “an active form of thinking for the teacher, but a passive form [of learning] for the listener” (49). As researchers, we’re exposed to the tedious and lengthy structure of conference papers, and thus, run the risk of emulating this format in our own classrooms. Showalter explains,
we have all endured conference papers and public lectures that illustrate the worst aspects of lecturing – narrow readings of unfamiliar texts, pointless cultural expositions, narcissistic display. . .everything the lecturers supposedly know about teaching an audience vanishes under the pressures of intellectual competition or prevailing conference fashion. (49)
On the one hand, styling our lectures according to the conference paper format exposes our students to the disciplinary practices and conventions of our fields; on the other hand, exclusively adopting this method may not be conducive to student learning. Both Showalter and Lang state that various studies have shown that students’ attention span does not last longer than 15 minutes – with their attention at their peak in the beginning of the lecture session and lowest in the middle. Fifty-minute lectures are not only difficult for students but also for teachers. Lecturing from beginning to end without breaks or changes can be an intellectually exhaustive activity, especially for a novice.
Given this knowledge, I would like to diversify my teaching methods in an effort to foster the classroom environment as a community of thinkers and writers who practice a degree of control over their learning and education. One of the ways that we can give students an active role in the classroom is to implement collaborative learning. Discussions, as Showalter explains, not only place the task of learning back on students’ shoulders but they also “establish a learning community, one of trust, constructive response, and intellectual partnership” (54). Still, I think leading or facilitating a successful discussion, one in which some if not most of the students are actively contributing to the conversation and one that allows students to learn from one another in addition to the teacher, is a challenging task. Also, once you’ve found something that works well, whether it is lecturing or leading discussions, it is difficult to adopt a different method. Going out of your comfort zone can make you nervous because you are unaware of the outcome, but as Lang stresses, in order to ensure that all students are interacting with the content and each other, we need to diversify our teaching methods.
One strategy I found particularly useful in Lang is his suggestion to include low-stakes pre-writing activities in the classroom. Pre-writing has many benefits, one of which is to open a discussion without forcing one. It gives students time to think about what they will say, and in the interim, makes the task of saying things less intimidating. It also allows for scaffolding if you model the pre-writing activity like a high-stake assignment, letting them know that they will see this activity again and that they can work with someone in class, in a “Think-Pair-Share,” to achieve the assignment objective. Another tip I found useful in Lang was his section on how to balance contribution in a discussion by having students place Post-it notes on their desks each time they contribute (Something I would like to do as a student as I sometimes see myself dominating discussions. I know that having more than three or four Post-it notes on display will make me shut-up and give others a chance to talk).
Finally, I also found Lang’s chapter on collaborative learning helpful. Informal group assignments, I think, relieve the redundancy and monotony of the lecture-structured classroom while formal groups prepare students for careers that demand collaboration and teamwork. An aspect of group learning that Lang does not discuss in detail but one that I would like to further explore in class is the notion of forming the “heterogeneous” learning group, incorporating an academically strong student with weak one so that the weak student can benefit from the strong student and the later can benefit from the teaching they engage in while tutoring. I have experienced a similar problem to Lang’s when pairing strong students with weak ones. For instance, during peer reviews the weak student benefits from the strong student’s critique but not vice versa. Since many of us have already conducted some form of the peer review session in our composition classroom, I would talk about what type of grouping method (heterogeneous, homogeneous, or random, etc) works well during peer review sessions.