Once More, with Feeling, Part I

Black and white photograph of tree branches in the sky

This fall, for the first time in three years, I’ll be teaching an undergraduate poetry writing seminar at my university.  Because it’s been some years, it’s time to rethink that class; it’s also time because, as in most institutions, class sizes are rising, and the good old standby of “on the following twelve dates we’ll workshop some poems” is growing steadily less feasible.  In the past, while I give feedback on as many poems as possible, a class of fifteen to eighteen can expect a formal group workshop of about two poems each, with even those two workshops taking up nearly half of all class meetings and requiring some logistical legerdemain in such matters as copies.  Unless we want to do nothing but workshop (I don’t), we’re going to have to workshop less, just to be sure everyone gets roughly the same amount of class attention and critique.

But while of class size and such are certainly obstacles, those hurdles are mostly tangential (at least for now) to the larger question of What This Seminar is For.  As you may remember, I’m not full-time creative faculty at my University; I’m the secondary English Education coordinator, and among the many pros and cons of that position is the fact that I’ve been known to consume potable beverages with people who specialize in education, not English.  When I started doing this, along about 2002, those people began asking me questions which were oddly new to me.  In the gentlest possible way, they’d make such inquiries as, “And what do you want students to know or be able to do at the end of your course?  What do you want them to know or be able to do at the end of this week?   How will you know when they’re able to do it?  How do you know your assessments are really testing what you taught?”  And so on, tactfully ignoring my consternation and increasingly wild-eyed stare.

These are questions which, at least in My Day (the Pleistocene), budding English profs weren’t always taught to ask.  My graduate school gave a course in teaching composition, but it was comprised largely of composition theory, and hardly at all of such trivia as “If you do X, Y may be expected to result” or “A valid assessment of Outcome Z might be…” or even “And what DO you hope to achieve with this class?”  That stuff was more for the education majors, and they had little or nothing to do with us more exalted Ph.D. types, whose more immediate raison d’etre was our scholarship (one of the many ways in which I’ve offered disappointment to my mentors.)  I don’t say my professors knew nothing of these questions—in general, their wish lists for their own courses could be excruciatingly clear and their assessments painfully rigorous—but I guess they thought either that grad students all knew that articulating our outcomes was a good thing, or that we’d figure it out in the fullness of time and anguish.

After 2002, though, it was a different story, one whose impact upon me might understatedly be rendered as “Eureka!”  Because the sad truth was that I hadn’t figured out these questions in the fullness of time (despite some mild anguish.)  I’d never thought formally about what my assessments tested (and when I did, there were surprises in store, few of them pleasant.)  If I’d had any truthful answer to questions about outcomes and assessments, it might have been “I present some stuff I think I know, and then I ask students to show some knowledge of it through products and examinations, and if they pass my test it’s proof enough that they know what they ought to.”  I’d seldom thought formally or articulately about what all this was for.

All my exams, for instance, included identification of quotations for a large percentage of credit.  Why?  I’d never seriously thought about why.  When I did, it became clear that a) I thought students ought to have some “ear” for the voices of the writers we’d read…even though I almost never discussed voice in class and b) I’m good at identifying voice, and I’m good at the stuff this course nominally covers, so if students are good at it too, then they ought to be able to do what I do.  If their strengths were my strengths, then they must have some mastery of course content.  In other words, A students, I will call you Mini-Me.

That was one of those ugly moments of illumination which leads directly to frenzied rewrites of syllabi and exams.  (Thanks, education colleagues…I think.)

So, to circle back just a bit, a primary concern in rewriting my poetry seminar syllabus and designing its appropriate assessments—and a bigger one even than budget cuts—is what it’s for.  What are we hoping to achieve when we take on a course like this?

It varies, of course, with author and clientele.  However, like any lazy efficient writer, I seek the first clues in former syllabi; maybe there’s something there I can steal cannibalize rework. The 2008 iteration read as follows:

At the end of this course, you should have developed or improved the following skills, which will be measured by your grades in class assignments: an understanding of rudimentary poetic meter and form, a critical vocabulary for analyzing original work, an ability to work functionally (not necessarily happily) in a range of structured and free forms, and a knowledge of current practices by contemporary American poets.  You will also gain resources for continuing to write, publish, and get support beyond the classroom.


That first one’s not terrible:  I can fairly easily assess “an understanding of rudimentary poetic meter and form,” though probably it would be better if I assessed a rudimentary understanding rather than an understanding of rudiments.  In fact, back in 2005, it occurred to me that there were quite a number of roads to this city, and that I could give a choice to students required to show knowledge of, let’s say, amphibrachic tetrameter:  they can do so by scanning a few lines I inflict on them, but they can also do it by writing a few lines themselves.  Choice in assessment is generally good, at least as long as the goal is to get students to show what they do know rather than to trip them up on what they don’t (and if the True and Secret Outcome is to trip students up and rub their noses in their own ignorance…why are we teaching?)

Ability to work functionally in a range of structured and free forms—that one’s a piece of black forest cake (mmm….cake…)  All prior iterations of this course included a portfolio collected near the end, which was required to contain a sampling of meters and forms.  Students had abundant choices, because choice is our friend; students had to provide X of the following Y requirements, and some of those requirements were as broad as “a poem in a widely accepted form,” “a formal poem altering the form in one particular to make it a nonce sonnet (or sestina or whatever,)” and “a poem in regular accentual meter.”

However, am I keeping the portfolio this time?  Maybe it just encourages students to do last-minute sloppy work, the famed all-night finals-week portfolio.  Maybe the grading and commenting will be too much for me, in a semester when my program will have twenty-two student teaching interns in the field.  Is it fair to ask less from the poets in order to support the teachers? I don’t know if it’s fair.  (I do know it’s likely to work out that way.  Even the teachers will be writing less for me this semester, unfortunately.)  Could I make the portfolio shorter?  Take it up in pieces?  I also want to see revision, though that’s not formally listed in the outcomes, and that was one rationale for the portfolio grading.  Are there other ways to really push students to revise and grade them on whether they do?

Critical vocabulary…maybe I’d like to put this a bit differently, since I don’t really want to find myself in the position of giving a vocabulary test of any stripe (though some of my daily reading quizzes amount to something similar.)  Perhaps I thought I could assess this through what they said in workshop and/or written feedback:  there’s a lot of difference between I’m not sure the cardinal’s really consistent with all those rats, and what are those three extra feet in line 12 getting you? and I think the poem’s good, it really flows, the poet shouldn’t change a thing. But can I produce even what another poet calls “the illusion of math” to measure this outcome?  Can I design even the fluffiest of rubrics to explain what I’m looking for?  Do I even know what I’m looking for?  Maybe I’d better reconsider that vocabulary test…and, by golly, this would be such a great time to go look at old exams and see just what I did do, wouldn’t it?  (Pause to do just that.)  Well, okay, maybe my aversion to vocabulary tests was a trifle overwrought, since my first question on a 2003 exam was “What is an objective correlative?”  Looks like I can do all right on critical vocabulary…if I really want to.  Should this remain an objective for the course?  Or should I think in other terms?

Resources for continuing to write, publish, and get support beyond the classroom… This used to be an easy one, because I required my victims to hie themselves to the library, forage around in the Poet’s Market, and submit a packet of work to a literary magazine.  They submitted a duplicate packet to me, graded almost purely on professionalism:  lack of typos, lack of clichés, ability to craft a cover letter; remembering to put a stamp on the SASE, taking the trouble to find out the poetry editor’s name.  Now, though…for one thing, more and more journals are using online submissions managers; the SASE is going the way of Bewick’s wren.  Some journals like cover letters, pasted into the requisite box; others no longer provide a space for them, though they can be forcefully appended to the document containing the work.  For another thing, there are still those twenty-two English education interns in the field, strewn over a hundred-mile radius in most directions from this desk.  I’ll personally supervise eleven of them (hello, audiobooks!) and I really will have to assign less work in all my classes just to keep up.  Few students, of course, really mind being assigned less; but student satisfaction is not necessarily a measure of rigor, or of the hands-on quality of good assessments.

So, just to revisit and reconsider…what I really want students to know or be able to do (SWBAT, as we acronym-crazed education faculty like to say, for Students Will Be Able To) at the end of the course is to write an unembarrassing poem and put it on the market, if they chose to do so, in an unembarrassing way:  negative goals, perhaps, but goals for which many an editor might thank me, if the students achieved them.  No clichés; no spelling or usage errors; no willful, deliberate, pretentious obscurity.  No death threats to the editor or lies about publication credits; no simultaneous submissions unless they’re consciously prepared to deal with the possible results.  No reinventing the Berryman or Plath or Countee Cullen wheel; no late homages to Simon and Garfunkel.  These, plus a few more no’s, equal unembarrassing, reasonably professional.  And I want them to revise anything that they think is good enough to put on the market—not just edit, but take on the process of serious, thoughtful revision in their individual ways.

Really, that’s all.  Really, you know, I think it’s enough, or would be, if we could achieve it.

Would I like students to write poems I think are “good”?  Absolutely!… but, one, defining “good” could take a few weeks, and, two, I’m not sure aesthetic virtue is legislate-able in context of a fourteen-week class, for students at an age when few of us are (what I call) “good.” Do I want their poems to be sincere, to “come from the heart?”  Well, that might be nice; but formally grading sincerity, which is to say feeling, is even less valid than grading aesthetic quality.  Who am I to judge the quality of someone’s feeling, or to reject a verse as insufficiently heartfelt, or even to insist that feeling is a prerequisite for poetry?  The world has seen some fairly formidable poetry of the intellect.  A for-credit course at an accredited university, with grades required, really ought to have some measurable goals and some clear instruction in how students can meet them (despite the troubling metaphorical implications of that word “credit,” borrowed intact from the sphere of finance.)  A course that tries to teach its students to become suitably “inspired” is heading for dangerous ground, in all kinds of ways.  So what I need are goals which make clear what I mean by “unembarrassing,” and assessments which show me whether and to what degrees students have achieved them.

I’ll pause here, because I’m already at 2300 words, and that’s without seriously considering the assessment structure.  Tune in next week, same bat-channel.  But the pause is also to give you time, if you’re feeling responsive.  Fellow teachers, what are your outcomes for a class like this, the kind that some engineers and business faculty like to deride as squishy, and what assessments tell you your students have achieved them (or not)?  To quote what I’ll be saying in Methods every Tuesday night this fall, what do you want?  And how will you know when you’ve got it?


This is Catherine’s thirteenth post as a Guest Blogger.

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