As an English professor at a small school, I teach a wide range of courses including, of course, composition. And like most places, my department expects regular conferences with students in those writing courses. I’ve always liked them, because they give me a chance to get to know my students better and because they allow for that individualized attention that’s so necessary in the teaching of writing.
For my literature courses, though, I’ve not always had this opportunity. For some courses—particularly upper division literature courses—I’ll require a conference while a student is working on a research paper, but that doesn’t have the same feel as the conference in a WRI 101 course. By the time students are writing a research paper in a junior/senior level course, they likely have taken other courses with me or— at the very least— have been in class with me for 10 or more weeks. I have always liked the idea of introductory “getting to know you” type conferences, but I’ve always found those to be awkward and a bit directionless.
Last year, though, I hit on a way to meet with students individually that involves meetings early in the semester, but also gives those meetings some direction.
One caveat, before I explain: this takes up an enormous amount of time in the weeks that I do this. But, as I hope I can show here, I think it’s worth it.
When I teach a survey course, I have students keep commonplace books as part of a larger assignment that helps them prepare for class, review for exams, and make some sense of the larger trends of literary eras. This assignment comes in three parts: the commonplace book, where students record at least one interesting quotation each class session; the individual conference with me; and a written response that works to define the style and interests of an era. Because we divide our British Literature survey courses at 1798, we quite easily fall in line with the traditional demarcation, so I’ve got three sections of each survey course.
For the commonplace books, I create a template in a word processing program that I share with the students. It simply includes the following things for each day of class (thus, if we have 42 class sessions, I give them 42 entries):
Students are certainly encouraged to use this, but I also like to encourage them, if they prefer, to handwrite their commonplace books in a notebook of their choosing. That latter option is what most students take up, with many even customizing and decorating their books (a practice I strongly encourage).
When it’s time for conferences, I have students sign up for a meeting during the last week or so before an exam. They come to my office and I ask them a simple set of questions: What stuck out for you? What patterns are you seeing? Who was your favorite author? From those questions, we’re able to have a conversation about the things that interest the student, following whatever path they start us down. At the end of the conversation, I encourage them to bring it all together, asking them to identify some major characteristics of the era in terms of prominent themes and style.
After this conference, students write a paper that explains what they see as the defining characteristics of the time period. In grading these, I’m simply looking for whether or not the students seriously engage the work and show some recognition of patterns across a particular era.
I’ve found that this has been incredibly useful in getting to know my literature students. More importantly, though, I found that in doing this my students have become much more fluent with the literature itself. They’ve begun quoting on exams where I’m not necessarily requiring them to do so (that is, they’re quoting when answering questions that don’t ask for quotations, but where quotations are ultimately useful); they’ve become more adept at recognizing quotations; and they’ve become better at expressing the larger trends across an era, pointing out places where non-canonical writers break the mold of elite literary practice.
It is a lot of work in terms of time, but because I’ve created it as a relatively low-stakes assignment (do the work, get the points), I hope that I’ve developed a situation where students are becoming increasingly confident in their ability to participate in a conversation about literature and about literary history.