25 May 2012

Evals: Ginsberg and Bernstein

Last quarter, I taught a freshman composition class that used poetry by Allen Ginsberg and Steven Jesse Bernstein to approach writing, culture, etcetera. These are poets whose work I absolutely love, and I felt like, overall, the class went pretty well; there was a lot of pushback from students during the quarter about the contents of the poems, about the style of the poems, and about the kinds of tasks I asked the students to do, which led to some great discussions (sometimes arguments) in class and in individual talks about their essays.


Today, after a series of misadventures, I finally got the student evaluations for the class back. I've got a somewhat ambivalent relationship to these documents - the question of whether students should be the ones evaluating the classes they take is pretty loaded - but they're still useful in terms of seeing what students thought, the ways they related to the course, and so on.

Takeaways from the statistics:

- The students thought the class was well-organized (92% said "sequential development of skills" was Very Good or Excellent, 70% said "opportunity for practicing what was learned" was Very Good or Excellent).

- The students thought that I was competent ("student confidence in instructor knowledge" was my single highest average score, at 4.8 out of 5) and available for them (nobody evaluated "availability of extra help when needed" below a Good)

-  There were two distinct groups of students in the class in terms of their relationships to the poetry: 54% of students said that "relevance and usefulness of course content" was Excellent, while 46% thought it was Fair or Poor. This tends to be the case with a lot of my classes, and was something I expected after the class discussions.

- My students exactly predicted the distribution and mean of grades for the class, which suggests that I did a good job of letting them know how they were doing.

- On a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being the highest and 4 being "average", 46% of students ranked "the amount of effort you put into this course" as a 5, 6, or 7; the other 54% ranked it as a 4. Nobody ranked it as less than that.

Student comments, in response to "What aspects of this class contributed most to your learning?"

- "Every part of it. If you invest a lot in the class, it becomes easier to write good piece of work." 

- "Lots of steps before I eventually write something big, which helped me a lot."

- "Writing."

- I had to learn to write in a way that wasn't so obviously organized. Since I've been using the Jane Schaffer method since 6th grade, it was hard for me to change."

- "The instructor was very smart and knew what he was talking about."

- "It made me read things I didn't agree with, which broadened my understanding."

Student comments, in response to "What aspects of this class detracted from your learning?"

- "The poetry, I didn't really understand it."

- "Being near at the computer. There are just too many distractions on the web."

- "Compared to chemistry, this class wasn't much of a challenge, and the grading scale was too vague."

- "I do not like English at all."

- "The poetry he chose for us to read... Not Good."

- "The HEAVY workload - less work, more instruction!"


What I'm picking up on, from the statistics and the comments, is that, generally, my students who thought about this as a composition class or a requirement found it effective on that level, but somewhat resented having to read and talk about poetry; my students who were treating it as a class where we talked about politics (which it's just about impossible not to do, if you're teaching and discussing Ginsberg or Bernstein) enjoyed the debates we had; and just about everybody thought that the reading and writing load was heavy, sometimes verging on too heavy. 

If I teach some version of this class again in the future - which, it was a hoot to teach, so I might - there are a few directions I might go with it. 

One option would be to focus the whole class on a single poet, thus giving us a little bit more time to work through individual poems. In this class, we wound up spending two days on Howl and two days on Kaddish, which isn't really enough time to deal with either piece and might have led to the feelings of frustration that some of the students had; we also got to Bernstein relatively late in the quarter (week 6), which resulted in, perhaps, a lack of contextualization and a lack of discussion about his poetry. Focusing on either Ginsberg's work (the day we spent on "America" was probably the best day of class we had all quarter) or Bernstein's work (students seemed fascinated by "Morning in the Sub-Basement of Hell," which is the poem embedded at the top of this page, and by the interplay between written and performed poetry that is such an essential factor of thinking about his poems) might offer up a chance to get into more depth, orient students a little bit better, and talk some more about context, history, politics, etcetera.

Another option would be to push the class further into composition, eliminating some poems in favor of more concrete work on writing skills. There were days during this class when we didn't talk about the poetry at all - when we just worked on revising essays, or practicing essay outlining / structuring skills, or note-taking / reading strategies - and the students usually seemed to appreciate those days. On the other hand, my own educational background isn't what you might call "standard," I don't have a lot in common with these kids, so I don't always have a good feel for the knowledge base that they're bringing in; a couple of times, the students either already knew the thing I was trying to teach them or were so far below where I'd expected them to be that I had to readjust my expectations and lesson plans on the fly to provide them with the scaffolding to start learning what I was trying to teach them. Pushing the class further in a straight (ha!) composition direction might mean that this kind of disjuncture happens more often, or that the poetry drops out as the guiding theme of the class - something I wouldn't want to happen at all.

Overall, then, these evals are good in that they give me a lot to think about, some directions to push in if I teach another composition class (I'm teaching something 200-level next year, which will probably be more content-based and less composition-based), and in that they give me some insight into the mind of that fascinating creature the university insists on continually throwing in front of my pedagogical train. 


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