Student-Driven Pedagogy in the Early American Survey Course

PALS Note: PALS welcomes guest contributor Christina Katopodis, who is an Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Katopodis writes about her experience engaging students in the early American literature survey. Allowing students choice in syllabus and class design, asking students to find nature in the New York City spaces, and introducing soundscapes into the classroom have all become integral parts of her student engagement. Katopodis elaborates on her ecocritical approach to the survey here

Crafting a syllabus for my “American Literature: Origins to the Civil War” survey course last fall, I felt the challenge of pairing down a long list of readings and covering centuries of literature in one semester.

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There were three unique hurdles to this course for me: making the survey student-driven, getting all 31 students to participate in discussions, and bringing the American wilderness into an urban classroom. This post will offer my strategies for approaching each through an ecocritical framework and offer some useful takeaways. In a second post, I will align community-building methods with an ecocritical approach to early American non-canonical texts, using a foundational experience in nature to combat despair in the classroom.

Empowering Students: Decolonizing the Syllabus & Classroom Environment
Empowering students and fostering a sense of community in the classroom has an enormous impact on achieving learning outcomes. You can start doing this before students meet you by incorpGoogle-Survey copyorating them into the construction of the syllabus. In a survey course, there are several canonical texts like Hawthorne’s
The Scarlet Letter that students have likely already read. To avoid repeats and expose students to as much as possible, I sent a survey out to the roster over the summer to find out what the majority had read, hadn’t read, and what they wanted to read most. None had read Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, which ended up being the class favorite. Several students had requested Moby-Dick, so it made it onto the syllabus instead of several other texts. Not all, but about a handful of students loved it cover to cover. It was special to our class because they—not all, but enough—had asked to embark on the voyage.

I also create opportunities for students come up with discussion questions. Giving up some of my authority, I tried to only step in to tie their points together or to arrive at what I wanted them to take away from the discussion. The most successful way I’ve found to do this is to ask students to write down a discussion question in the first five minutes of class. I collect the questions, and ask them in the flow of discussion, and that is how we spend the entire class. This method works better if you have already spent a previous class introducing a text. Often, it’s a great way to call on a student who hasn’t spoken up, to ask them their own question. Student-driven discussions often lead to multiple, unexpected and far more interesting takeaways than mine.

Sometimes I ask students to get into pairs to brainstorm questions, which gets everyone talking, as does most group work. Asking students to complete student-directed work may overwhelm them at first, but only at first. With a little planning in advance and given enough time, students thrive together as long as there are clearly outlined expectations. For example, on the day we covered Las Casas, Smith, and Bradford, I put students into groups of 4-5, and asked them to list 3 things we needed to know about an author. They had read the introductions to the texts in the Norton Anthology of American Literature (Vol. A) as part of their homework, so I told them to consult their notes or scan the introduction now, in class. Each group shared, minimizing my lecturing and allowing us to cover more ground. It not only reinforced personal accountability in a large class but also demonstrated the importance of reading introductions. For longer-term group projects, I outline what parts of the work will be graded, and give students a group member evaluation at the end. Embracing my inner nerd, I built group work for Moby-Dick to a naval theme, assigning each group a captain. Beyond empowering individual students, small groups are foundational to fostering a larger sense of community in a class.

Building Community: Blogging About Nature 

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Mt. Katahdin via jbarreiros

In order to construct the class as a student-driven whole, I needed to build trust between us, myself included. Instead of looking for a “right” answer, I wanted students to get comfortable with taking risks in discussion, and looking to each other instead of always looking at me when they speak. The class blog fostered a tremendous sense of solidarity and trust in the classroom, something I’ll talk about more in my next post. But if I had to pin it down to one activity that gave us all a common experience to build from, it was the 1-hour nature walk assignment and follow-up blog post.

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New York City via Andos_pics

I teach in Manhattan, often in a room without windows. I wasn’t sure how to teach New York City students about the American wilderness, which I felt was crucial to understanding what distinguished “Americans” from their ancestors in Europe. But where would city students find “nature”? Gretchen Reynolds wrote “Walking in Nature Changes the Brain” for The New York Times last July, noting that city dwellers have a higher risk of anxiety and depression most likely linked to a lack of green space. I wanted to transform the long cement sidewalks into rows of corn, give the sheep back to Central Park, and tune out the car horns so students could hear the birds, whispering trees, and footsteps of woodland animals. It seemed impossible at first, but I asked students to go into nature, leaving the definition deliberately open, with their phones turned off for at least one hour, and then to blog about the experience.

cadillac-mountain copyAfter letting my students define nature for themselves, I realized how limited my definition was. They found nature everywhere, from household pets to the Hudson River. Some went hiking, one student took the ferry, and another listened to the natural sounds in a video game. They reported hearing and seeing things they hadn’t noticed before: sounds were suddenly louder, colors more vivid, strangers more interesting. Most felt a sense of inner peace by the hour’s end.

I assigned the nature walk early in the semester before winter settled in, hoping it would inform their readings—and it did. I coupled this exercise with Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Thoreau’s “Walking” to demonstrate a critical, self-reflective approach to the environment’s role in identity formation. Students echolocated themselves in the process. Despite completing the task individually, the walk gave them a shared experience unique to such a large class. Students were more comfortable participating, responding to each other instead of directing all their comments to me.

Because they had to start their nature walks and other posts on a group blog, they also became better connected with each other. They were required to write a total of four blog posts and eight comments, but several wrote more. The blog offered a valuable space for nonverbal participation, and a low-stakes forum to test out ideas for papers and get feedback. Students became better neighbors to each other, cultivating an environment of solidarity and trust in the classroom.

Interdisciplinary Learning: Listening to the American Soundscape

The blog environment supplemented participation in class discussions, yet the classroom lacked the ambience of the blog, which quickly filled with pictures of green urban spaces. The classroom, instead, was flooded with florescent lights, angled awkwardly and cramped. To take a note from Thoreau, there wasn’t room enough to hear our thoughts.

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View from Hunter College via author

Sound is one way to bring the wilderness into the classroom, to focus a class, and to create an immediate shared listening experience ripe for analysis. Close listening is a skill that translates well into close reading. When introducing students to Las Casas, John Smith, and William Bradford, I played the opening of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which is perfect for an American origins course. The film begins with Wagner’s euphoric Prelude to Das Rheingold, and the magical vision of white sails appearing through the trees as the colonists float in to “settle” the land. The alert, listening Native Americans provide contrast to the bumbling, armored colonists, setting the stage for readings that take place in the wilderness.

The subtle sounds early Americans heard before the Industrial Revolution have been overpowered by a loud soundscape and earbud culture. We often seek out quiet spaces in order to “hear” ourselves “think.” This is what makes music and the act of listening such an excellent start to a class: it’s centering, like a meditation, and then the present task is given primary focus. In Listening to Noise and Silence (2010), Salome Voegelin writes that silence is “the beginning of listening as communication” (xv). When we listen together, our thoughts are more likely to harmonize, changing the environment of a classroom.

I often bring music into the classroom. I play Traubeck’s album Years when teaching Emerson’s “Circles” and ask students to think critically about tree rings. Rothenberg’s music from Why Birds Sing is useful for practicing deep listening in the classroom, and his book Bug Music prepares students for listening to a text like Thoreau’s Walden. Musical metaphors play a large role in Transcendentalist philosophy. Megan Marshall’s work on Fuller’s music criticism is a great pairing for Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

Music is like thinking in a classroom: we oscillate between dissonance and resonance, but both have a place in the score. Giving students more agency took us on some unexpected journeys, like discussing school shootings and the second amendment, and on less travelled tangents, like the fluidity of sexuality in the nineteenth century compared to later homophobia. Those were some of the most meaningful class discussions we had, and a flexible syllabus and student-driven classroom made room and opportunity for them. Some discussions, however, took a dark turn, especially when we focused on Indian Removal, slavery, and women’s oppression. In my next post, I’ll discuss an ecocritical framework to the American survey course as a way to combat despair in the classroom.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_4852088740534 copyChristina Katopodis is a 19th Century Americanist, Adjunct Lecturer at Hunter College, and an English PhD student at the Graduate Center CUNY. Christina’s dissertation brings together American Transcendentalism and Sound Studies, examining vibrational epistemology in the works of Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James. Her teaching philosophy balances backwards pedagogy with student-driven learning, aiming to empower individual students by providing flexible learning environments in the classroom and online. She draws from a variety of approaches to make texts accessible, allow individual students to progress at different paces, and encourages intellectual risk-taking in class discussions, collaborative group work, and using media platforms from blogs to Twitter. For further information, check out her website, where she also blogs about teaching.

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