Michael Clark, our guest blogger this week, is currently an MA student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University, having completed a BA in English and a minor in psychology while working as a hairstylist. His research focuses on the application of queer theory and gender analyses to film, literature, and popular culture. His thesis explores gay men’s spectatorship and identification with female protagonists in the “women’s film” genre, specifically focusing upon films directed by Todd Haynes, a self-identified gay man.
I asked Michael, who teaches in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, about how he teaches with writing. At first he didn’t think he taught with writing at all, but the more we talked the more he realized (and I learned) how writing works in a non-writing class. I asked him to write up something to share his insights.
Even though I’m currently teaching Introduction to Sexuality and Gender Studies, I often find written assignments useful to assess students’ understanding of course concepts. Without these assignments, I find it difficult to evaluate students based solely on exams since memorizing and identifying definitions, significant names, and important dates doesn’t give me a sense of a student’s growth in knowledge. I like using class reflections, current event reflections, and essays to reach these goals and to give me a better sense of how students are progressing in class.
Since half of the students’ final grades is determined by the midterm and final essays, the remaining assignments serve to assess both participation and critical thinking. For example, current event reflections are meant to allow students to find very real-world applications independently, demonstrating critical thinking.
I frequently use the last ten minutes of class to have students complete a quick response paper pertaining to the class discussions of the readings. These end-of-class reflections tell me a lot about the individual student (I can see if that student is following the discussion), the class as a whole (I can see if there are any concepts that many people still find confusing), and myself as an instructor (I can see if there’s something I just didn’t explain clearly in class). But the reflections aren’t meant to be just a summary of the class discussion or a test for a comprehension; they’re also meant to demonstrate the application of critical thinking.
These writing assessments can also help me see the difference between an individual that’s struggling and one that’s resistant to the material (given the sensitive nature of this particular course with its focus on sexuality). I can ask struggling students to meet with me to clarify terminology while opening a dialogue between myself and the student. For those that are resistant but understand the material, I often attempt to meet them halfway by finding readings where the author may have had beliefs similar to the student’s in the past but found ways to become more accepting or tolerant. I find resistant students are more open to such readings. For example when I see a response paper with a student struggling with course concepts because of religious beliefs, I bring in excerpts from Prayers for Bobby.
I also like the way these reflections show my effectiveness as an instructor immediately. When a majority of the class struggles with a reflection assignment, there’s obviously something more I need to clarify, which helps me in that class and also helps me figure out how to approach that topic more successfully next time I teach it.
These small writing assignments also allow me to provide students feedback on multiple occasions. I follow that with a proposal for the final paper, which gives me another opportunity to offer feedback. Each assignment throughout the course is structured to allow for incremental improvements based upon considerable feedback; in the end, I feel as though this is the best way to assess students’ growth.
At the course’s conclusion, students should ideally be able recognize and identify how the material covered within this course applies to real-world events and cultures; they should be able to arrive at their own informed opinions, and, no matter what their opinion is, they should be open to the idea that differing opinions exist, accepting that opinions differing from their own are not necessarily wrong, and willing to listen to others with an open mind. I find using writing in my class, even if it’s not a writing class, helps me to do that.
Our school also has a Writing Across the Curriculum program that uses writing assignments more extensively, but I find it interesting to think about how small writing assignments can serve multiple purposes in a non-writing class (while also reinforcing the connections between writing and critical thinking). Do you have a sense of where else writing happens at your school?