The Benefits of Semester-Long Study
December 24, 2018
At the end of a semester, I will sometimes ask my students to fill out an informal survey. The goal is to gauge their true feelings about my Composition II course—to learn what they liked, what they would change, and what they absolutely despised. Unlike the department-issued evaluations that they are also obligated to fill out, this assignment comes directly from me. Feedback is instrumental for rethinking and reshaping one’s pedagogy from year to year.
For several years in a row, these surveys tended to complain about one issue in particular: something I call “coverage.” Packed in to a fifteen-week timetable, the diversity of material that my students are asked to read and comprehend can frankly be overwhelming.
Taking this criticism to heart, I’ve revamped my methods. Instead of requiring a multitude of texts and outside reading material I’ve opted to focus on one or two primary texts for the entire length of the semester. In the past, I have used movies (the Oscar-winning Moonlight, in one case, and a horror film, The Babadook, in another) as the main material my students will spend their semester analyzing. Other semesters have lent themselves to more traditional material such as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. No matter the medium, my students spend a full fifteen weeks concentrating their efforts and time on a singular body of work —and the results have been rewarding beyond belief. They are still required to meet the requisite page count (as dictated by departmental standards) and fulfill the same learning outcomes; now, though, their attention isn’t diverted from topic to topic. Instead a concentrated course of study has focused and deepened the work of my classroom; it allows my students to assume a variety of perspectives and cultivate original thinking about a single academic source.
While this approach might lend itself best to the liberal arts or even business courses, there are a couple of factors to consider when looking to apply a semester-long, concentrated study approach to your course.
Choosing a Text:
Obviously, if you’re going to spend an entire semester with your students reading, researching, analyzing, and debating one or two texts or materials, it is critical that you select the right ones. While the medium can be whatever you like (novel, case study, film, journal article, play, album, art collection, etc.) the ideal selection will need to be:
- Accessible enough to maintain interest – Remember, choosing one text is meant to aid student comprehension. Don’t be afraid to select an entertaining or even controversial text that will hold their attention and lead to lively classroom discussions.
- Dense enough to warrant a semester-long dialogue – Though they’ll be focusing on one text, as opposed to several, students should expect to meet the same rigor and word count as their counterparts in more traditional versions of the course. At the same time, your choice ought to be something that you (as the instructor) feel capable of discussing for fifteen weeks.
- Hospitable to many interpretations – Before choosing a work, make sure that it can be “read” from a variety of perspectives and, thus, yield a multitude of original claims from students. For this reason, texts that employ heavy doses of metaphor or allegory may be of particular interest.
Supplementing the Text:
Even though the work of the semester will be focused on a single work, it may be useful to choose some supplemental material that can support or give context to the primary text. When looking for these supplementary materials make sure that they are:
- Suggestive of contemporary social issues – When it comes time to supplement your central text with articles and readings, you will have an easier time if the work relates in some way to current events or cultural preoccupations. For example, although Streetcar was first performed in 1947, it can be easily paired with modern articles about toxic masculinity, mental illness, and domestic abuse.
- The subject of criticism – As a means of engaging students with the “cultural conversation” that surrounds a text, try supplementing their learning with peer-reviewed journal articles (about the chosen work) and examples of scholarly criticism. This will both complicate their reading of the work and model effective academic writing for them.
- The subject of controversy – If your chosen text has courted controversy, (think a corporate responsibility case study or the censorship of Huckleberry Finn) you have a marvelous opportunity to reanimate the debate in your classroom. Bring in op-eds, journal articles, case studies, and essays that take opposing stances and allow students to position themselves as mediators between argument and counterargument.
Over the past few years, colleagues of mine have similarly stopped overcrowding their syllabi with numerous short texts, opting instead for deep-dives into works as wide-ranging as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Harvard Business School’s “Apple Inc., 2008” case study, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. In all cases, they tend to stress the benefits of concentrated study, insisting that:
- It deepens critical thinking – The most obvious advantage for students is sheerly mathematical: rather than devoting a few class sessions to the reading and discussion of a short text, concentrated study allows for an extended inquiry. It should come as no surprise that, after fifteen weeks, student writing demonstrates deeper comprehension and keener analysis.
- It promotes original thinking – As students grow increasingly comfortable throughout the semester, the diversity of their perspectives and interpretations should become plainer. Their contributions to in-class discussion—extensions of their cultural, ethnic, religious, and political experiences—will help to inform their original claim making on the page.
- It connects students to a cultural conversation – Once students settle the problem of comprehension and begin grappling with analysis, they are free to seek other avenues of exploration. Having “conquered” the course’s primary text, late-semester assignments might find them investigating the adaptations, homages, debates, and interpretations that spring up afterwards.
Implications for other disciplines:
Though this structure lends itself to Composition and Literature, it can be adapted—most obviously for other humanities courses, like Film, Music Appreciation, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. This approach can also be modified to suit some business courses, such as Marketing, Management, Advertisement, PR, Business Communication etc. No matter the course, a concentrated study approach can help enrich the classroom by having students dive more deeply in to their course material.More from McGraw-Hill Higher Education
Professor Ray Dademo
Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition."