Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 17:09


In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.


Why am I being asked to blog?

You are being asked to blog because experience shows that blogging is a good way of collecting your thoughts on a topic, keeping track of your intellectual development, discovering things you want to talk and write about, and building a community with your classmates. Blogs are helpful because they uncover trends in the interests and thoughts of the community, provide reference to interesting resources, and maintain a record of problems and solutions encountered throughout the year.

They are also useful because they encourage you to read with a computer nearby. One of the most important advantages of the internet age is the ease with which we can look things up. Blogging can be a way of intellectually profiting from and passing on things you have looked up during your reading.

What should I blog about?

What you write about in your blog is up to you. Sometimes, you may want to write about something you looked up about a book or author. Other times, you might want to discuss things you didn’t understand or difficult passages you think you can help others with. It might be about emotional responses you had to something we read; or a reflection on things discussed in class or in the hallway. Or a funny anecdote about something to do with the class. The only requirement is that most blog entries should be recognisably connected in some way to something in the current unit of our syllabus class (you’re allowed the occasional one that is not).

How am I being graded?

You are being graded on a pass-fail basis solely on whether you appear to have made a good faith effort to participate. In weeks where you write nothing or write blog entries that do not show what looks like a good faith effort to participate, you will receive a grade of 0%; blog entries that look like you made at least some good faith effort to participate in the discussion, will receive a grade of 100%.

Can I get bonus marks or redo a missed blog?

Blogs need to be done by the deadline to receive credit. Missed blogs cannot be made up. Everybody is allowed to miss one blog entry in the semester without penalty. This means, for example, that if there are eight blogs assigned in the course, you will receive 100% if you submit seven blogs on time. If you submit eight, you will receive extra credit for the extra blog.

What if I write more blogs than required?

If you right extra blogs in a given week, you will receive 1/2 bonus mark for every extra blog posting, up to a maximum of 1 extra bonus mark per week. Because these are for bonus marks, the standard by which your effort will be judged is a little higher: your entry must show real evidence of effort to receive a bonus mark.

What about comments?

You are not required to comment on blogs. If you do, this will be considered as evidence of participation.

Can I use material from my blog in my essay/unessay?

Yes. Your essay or unessays can reuse material from your blog.


The unessay

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 28, 2018 12:09


The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic—works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning a trial), and almost always something personal.


Unfortunately, however, as the Wikipedia notes,

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks (for a vigorous defence of the flexible essay, see software developer Paul Graham’s blog). Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs: the compulsory figures of academia.

The unessay

The unessay is an assignment that attempts to undo the damage done by this approach to teaching writing. It works by throwing out all the rules you have learned about essay writing in the course of your primary, secondary, and post secondary education and asks you to focus instead solely on your intellectual interests and passions. In an unessay you choose your own topic, present it any way you please, and are evaluated on how compelling and effective you are.

Choose your own topic

The unessay allows you to write about anything you want provided you are able to associate your topic with the subject matter of the course and unit we are working on. You can take any approach; you can use as few or as many resources as you wish; you can cite the Wikipedia. The only requirements are that your treatment of the topic be compelling and effective: that is to say presented in a way that leaves the reader thinking that you are being accurate, interesting, and as complete and/or convincing as your subject allows.

Present it any way you please

There are also no formal requirements. Your essay can be written in five paragraphs, or three, or twenty-six. If you decide you need to cite something, you can do that anyway you want. If you want to use lists, use lists. If you want to write in the first person, write in the first person. If you prefer to present the whole thing as a video, present it as a video. Use slang. Or don’t. Sentence fragments if you think that would be effective. In other words, in an unessay you have complete freedom of form: you can use whatever style of writing, presentation, citation,… even media you want. What is important is that the format and presentation you do use helps rather than hinders your explanation of the topic.

Be evaluated on how compelling and effective you are

If unessays can be about anything and there are no restrictions on format and presentation, how are they graded?

The main criterion is how well it all fits together. That is to say, how compelling and effective your work is.

An unessay is compelling when it shows some combination of the following:

In terms of presentation, an unessay is effective when it shows some combination of these attributes:

Why unessays are not a waste of your time

The unessay may be quite different from what you are used to doing in English class. If so, a reasonable question might be whether I am wasting your time by assigning them. If you can write whatever you want and present it any way you wish, is this not going to be a lot easier to do than an “actual” essay (though remember, the compositions you usually are asked to do in class are actually far less “real” examples of the genre as it is used professionally than are your unessays)? And is it not leaving you unprepared for subsequent instructors who want you to write the “real” kind of essays?

The answer to both these questions is no. Unessays are not going to be easier than “real” essays. They have fewer rules to remember and worry about violating (actually there are none). But unessays are more challenging in that you need to make your own decisions about what you are going to discuss and how you are going to discuss it.

And you are not going to be left unprepared for instructors who assign “real” essays. Questions like how to format your page or prepare a works-cited list (i.e. the kind of thing many students obsess about in such classes) are actually quite trivial and easily learned. You can look them up when you need to know them (that’s what I do, anyway). Increasingly, you can get your software to handle these things for you (ditto). In our class, moreover, I will be giving you separate instruction on what English professors normally expect to see in the essays you submit to them.

But even more importantly, the things you will be doing in an unessay will help improve your “real” ones: excellent “real” essays also match form to topic and are about things you are interested in; if you learn how to write compelling and effective unessays, you’ll find it a lot easier to do well in your “real” essays. But more importantly, you might find yourself writing real “real” essays (i.e. essays that are true to the experimental and personal origins of the genre) instead.

Given a choice, most instructors would rather read those kinds of papers anyway.


Active Pedagogy and University English

Posted: Aug 17, 2010 16:08;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


For the last four or five years, I’ve been investigating ways of changing my teaching.

Like most faculty of my generation, I learned to teach largely by imitation and guesswork. I mimicked the teachers and classes I enjoyed as a student and otherwise experimented with techniques and ideas grabbed magpie-like from various sources.

Early on as a teaching assistant at Yale, for example, I learned that it was wrong to approach a discussion section with too much worked out in advance. I’d begun there by approaching sections much like an essay, with a developed thesis and arguments; even after dropping the thesis, I still found planning too much tended to squelch discussion. I soon ended up more-or-less self-consciously modelling my discussion sections on the panel discussion on the old McNeil-Lehrer Newshour (Now PBS Newshour): like the reporters who hosted those discussions, I saw my role as being largely facilitating the discussion by summarising points made by one person in the discussion and handing them off to others for comment.

This worked well at Yale, and, as I was recently reminded during a PhD seminar in Digital Anglo-Saxon studies at Memorial, is probably generally a good approach with highly motivated students who already have a sense of how literary scholarship works.

It works less well with students who don’t have a natural sense for what is interesting and appropriate in critical discussions or who have yet to develop experience in that kind of debate. While the “guided reflection” style does still work well for me in some situations, I’ve been really disturbed in recent years by how many students seem to have a difficult time understanding what the point of a literary discussion is or why discussion should be central to a literary class. Unfortunately, since most of my instructors seemed to assume we did have this innate knowledge or experience, the models I’d copied until now were of little use in overcoming this problem: as much as I loved and benefited from these approaches as a student, it is clear that for a lot of the students I now teach, the method is more of a help than a hindrance.

Addressing the problem is something that has occupied my thought (or at least the time I devote to thinking about teaching) for quite some time. An initial improvement came when I discovered constructivist pedagogical theory. While what I was doing was broadly (and naively) speaking constructivist in intent, reading formally constructivist guides to theory and practice allowed me to think about what I was doing meta-pedagogically and caused me to introduce some new ideas to my practice that I hadn’t seen in my own instructors’ practice. The most significant of these was realising the difference between formative and summative evaluation. I quickly introduced assignments and exercises into my classes that were intended to function in a primarily formative way—often with grading that allowed students to include only their best or favourite pieces of work in their final grades. I started allowing students access to their (on-line) exams to eliminate question bias and anxiety. I tried very hard to introduce opportunities for self-testing and self-directed exercises and practice material. And I worked very hard at explaining the purpose behind various assignments.

While some of these changes introduced improvements in the class, I still did not feel I was getting the results I wanted. In particular, I still found a pervasive lack of comprehension concerning the importance of class discussion, class presentations, and essays in a literary class. And I still got complaints on student evaluations asking me to lecture more.

In the last year, I’ve been reading more about “Active” learning and teaching—really a kind of approach to constructive teaching as far as I can see. This is a type of pedagogy that focusses on methods for getting students to engage in “deep” learning, or learning that involves the students’ own curiosity and active participation in developing an understanding of the material they are studying. This involves attempting to keep the class focus on formative evaluation rather than summative. Focus too much on summative evaluation and you find that students begin to engage in “Surface” learning—engaging in strategies designed to maximise their grades rather than their knowledge. But it also goes beyond that and attempts to find ways of encouraging students to learn by internalising the lessons—bringing their previous knowledge and experience to bear on the subject or problem and learning by modifying, supplementing, or replacing their previous knowledge of the subject. Active learning involves students wanting to learn and seeing their learning as something internal to their development as human beings rather than participants in a course.

This is of course what I hoped (largely unsuccessfully) that my students were doing in the methods that I imitated from my professors. The new things for me in reading about explicit approaches to actually carrying this off successfully with my own students were the range of techniques and exercises that have been explicitly developed for encouraging this kind of learning in students and, in more practical works, the understanding of what (many) students do and don’t know when they come into the University classroom (as the child of Physicist and a faculty member myself as an adult, I’ve lived my entire life in and around universities and at least viscerally as a participant in scholarly discussion and debate—the result is that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the kind of uncertainty how academia works many Active Learning researchers suggest is endemic in the first year classroom).

Two sites and one book in particular have been extremely helpful to me over the course of the last year in developing new teaching techniques:

The two websites in particular have a wealth of “recipe-like” proposals for exercises one can use in the classroom in order to promote the kind of reflexive and deep learning all faculty ultimately want to produce. They can seem a little “teachery” to somebody like myself who, I am realising, is very much a pedagogical conservative. And I’m not 100% sure I would have liked having them in classes taught by the professors who taught me, since one of the things I loved about University was that it involved getting away from “worksheets” and starting to learn directly at (what I at least thought was) the academic coal face itself. But since most students nowadays seem to want to be “taught by” rather than “study with” their professors, perhaps the problem thus far has been worrying too much about what I’d have liked if I were still a student ;)


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