More or Less

For over a month now I've been avoiding my first-year Humanities course.  It will demand the most work this summer.  This isn't particularly hard work but it does involve some hard choices.  Okay, I had better back up.  Intro to Humanities looks at the Western Humanities from the Greeks to the Medieval era.   Years ago,, I decided to abandon the frog march through history approach.  It simply no longer made sense to me to cover content that was forgotten as quickly as I taught it.

I moved instead to a course organized around broad thematic units.  The first unit, for example, deals with the idea of heroism in Hellenistic culture, examining such figures as the warrior hero, the moral/intellectual hero and the tragic hero.  Unit two covers Roman virtue, vice and piety, and the last unit looks at hierarchy, heaven and hell in the medieval world.  My aim was that students leave Humanities 101 with a half a dozen big ideas that stick rather than a laundry list of names, dates and artworks that wouldn't stick.

Well, that's the course in general. 

But, given the students I serve, I also have to teach a lot of basic academic skills.  Indeed, a big breakthrough in my teaching happened about ten years ago when I figured out how to fuse teaching my subject with teaching good writing skills. By that I mean that my assignments are structured so that students must use a process approach to writing and they receive a lot peer and instructor feedback.  I also scaffold in more complex writing demands as the semester moves along.  The first four weeks they do nothing but summarize and cite.  Then I introduce and require higher-level demands: incorporating inter-textual connections, secondary sources, self-generated student research, etc.

Because my students are so needy where writing is concerned, I've tried to move as much of the composition process inside the classroom.  Assigning them to read and write something in response before class was not as effective as having them write the first draft in class.  So last spring I began scheduling in-class writing days for students to compose their initial drafts.  I gave over some 80 minute so they could have 40-50 minutes of writing time in response to a directed reading prompts.  Then they used the remaining time to share and discuss their drafts with each other.

So here's the dilemma.  Do I go all in on this method?  Do I let go of even more content to make room for more in-class writing?  The answer of course is yes.   Students will not engage the material deeply by writing about it before class, so I have to structure their engagement into the class. 

I just have to do less material but do it better.  You would think I would know this by now, but I still struggle with letting things go.


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