Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course

PALS welcomes a return guest post by Jacinta Yanders. You can find Yanders’ first post here. In the following post, Yanders explores the assignment choices she made in an online summer course. Further writing from Yanders is available on her blog, Teach to Learn. Learn to Teach.

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Kristine Full

I recently had the opportunity to teach a summer online section of my department’s Introduction to Fiction course. As is the case with many introductory courses, most students were not English majors or minors. Instead, most were enrolled in the course to fulfill university requirements. The main goals assigned to the course are primarily geared toward enabling students with skills and experience necessary for evaluating and analyzing works of fiction. I wrote a post on my own blog about the broad strokes of teaching this class, which can be accessed here.

In face-to-face classes, I’ve incorporated a variety of culminating projects into my course construction. These projects have included traditional essays as well as somewhat unfamiliar assignments, such as the creation of a digital transmedia extension or making a short documentary. While each option is usually developed in such a way that students have a fair amount of flexibility in their approaches, I’ve generally always assigned them to do the same sort of thing.

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

Bearing that experience in mind as I began constructing my summer course, I thought about ways I could make space for students to assert their voices and exercise their agency. To an extent, the discussion board posts – a core component of most online courses I’ve ever seen – fulfilled part of this goal. In these posts, I asked students to share their reactions to the readings, a discussion question related to the readings, text-to-text/text-to-world/text-to-self connections with the readings, and connections between the readings and lectures I provided on critical lenses and literary terms. I made these requirements because even though I’ve never taken online classes myself, I’ve observed other people taking them. I’ve also been enrolled in face-to-face classes that have used discussion boards.

Via both, I’ve come to know that discussion board assignments can easily become stale and burdensome. And often, it seems that students don’t necessarily see the value in completing such posts beyond the simple fact that it’s part of the grade. In providing these specific guidelines, I wanted to explicitly show students how texts are relevant to culture and their lives beyond our class. I also wanted them to be able to articulate personal connections to (or distances from) what we were reading. Interestingly, inasmuch as this experience was a bit strange for me given that I’m the sort of person that generally thrives on getting to know my students via face-to-face interactions, I actually found that I knew more about how each individual students analyzed and understood the readings than I likely would have in a face-to-face class because they were writing about their individual experiences of reading. In their evaluations at the end of the semester, students often commented that they enjoyed being able to think more consciously about their reading and being able to see how their classmates interacted with texts differently.

Before the class started, I sent my students a survey to get to know them a bit. This was especially important for the online class, I believe, because I wouldn’t be interacting with them in person. On the survey, I asked them to respond regarding why they were taking the class, if they’d taken online classes previously, what types of things they like to read, etc. Importantly, I also asked them about other commitments they had during the summer. In doing so, I found that many of them were working multiple jobs, a fair amount were taking multiple classes, some were studying abroad, some were in internships, and some were taking care of family members. In short, they were quite busy. I don’t think this is particularly uncommon or unique to my students, and thinking about this more consciously influenced how I shaped the class and what I expected students to be able to contribute. I think that one difficulty with teaching online classes, especially condensed versions, is the expectation that they will be exactly the same as in-person classes except digital.

Setting aside the improbability of a 6-week summer course being equivalent to a 15-week semester course, it’s also just the case that different spaces afford and foreclose different options and opportunities. I believe there’s certainly elements that are transferable between both, but it’s also necessary to think specifically about the individual situations. What did I actually need students to demonstrate by the end of our six weeks working together? How could I get them to zero in on something specific that they could take with them as they moved on to their next classes?

Ultimately, all of this is how I came to the set up for their final project. For this assignment, I gave them three options to choose from: (1) a traditional analytical essay using one of the critical lenses we studied in class, (2) a creative writing remix in which they rewrote a portion of one of the novels from the perspective of a different character paying close attention to how such a shift would necessarily change the story, or (3) an analytical mixtape in which they identified a theme in one of the novels and developed a playlist that corresponds to that theme. The latter two options included explanatory portions in which students had to justify their choices and explain the significance. The assessment criteria for all three options were the same and were aligned with the aforementioned goals. The target word counts for each option were also the same.

I set the final project up in this way for a few different reasons. First, I ultimately decided that students did not need to demonstrate a full understanding of every single aspect of the class at the end. But if they could show a good grasp on how to read a text via a particular critical lens or how POV affects reader experience or how themes shape narratives, then they were taking something useful away from the class. I also wanted the students to consider their own interests as well as their own schedules and do something they were invested in. This particular class does not have an embedded essay requirement, but I imagine most students enrolled expecting to write traditional essays. I wanted to provide that option for students who really gravitated toward it, but I also wanted students to see that there are other valid and viable ways of engaging with and thinking about literature.

In truth, thinking about familiarity, I’d actually expected most students to choose the essay option. However, almost half chose the creative writing remix, and the remaining students were split almost evenly between the other two choices. As I was reviewing the projects at the end of the summer session, it became quite clear to me that many of the students who chose the creative writing remix relished the opportunity to try their hand at fiction writing. And they were also thinking carefully about how to enter a different character’s mind and how the POV shift would impact the narrative.

In addition to the comments about the discussion board posts, student evaluation comments also often reflected an appreciation for being able to choose what they wanted to do for the final project. And particularly, many students often noted that they appreciated having the chance to be creative, which suggests to me that students tend to not feel like they can be creative in their course work. For me, there’s at least a couple significant implications here. First, I’m thinking about ways to incorporate more explicitly creative options into my courses. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I’m also thinking about how to actually bridge the gap between the traditional and the creative. Rather than choosing one or the other, how do I also provide opportunities for students to do both simultaneously? These are questions that I will work with going forward as I continue to make spaces for student voices and choices in my classes.

Contributor Bio

jJacinta Yanders is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her primary areas of research are Television Studies, Film Studies, and Popular Culture. Jacinta is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes the impact on narrative construction and audience reception that occurs when television remakes change key elements of characters’ identities. Her previous work addresses topics such as the intertwining of television and social media, representations of the Black Lives Matter Movement and police brutality on television, and the reconfiguration of the Syfy network as a potential space for progressive representations.

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