making a graduate seminar pedagogy


For the first half of my career, I rarely taught graduate courses, but since I’ve come to UB, it’s become a central part of my job, especially teaching our Teaching Practicum.  In the last couple years I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with what I’m doing, so I am resolved to change it.

Basically I do what was done to me. Almost uniformly, my graduate courses were class-wide discussions, with 10-25 students in the class. The professor talked 30-70% of the time, depending on the prof, sometimes lecturing but rarely delivering anything specifically prepared in the sense we conventionally think of the lecture.  Mostly it was just speaking in response to students, who get more or less air time depending on the prof.  As for the student participation, it typically followed the 80/20 rule with 20% of the students doing 80% of the talking. The larger the class, in  my recollection, the more this percentage held true. Smaller sections tended to have a more equitable distribution of participation, or at least that was my experience.

So I do the same thing. There’s an assigned reading. I have some notes on things I want to discuss about it, but we generally go where the conversation takes us organically. My goal is to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. My success at that varies. However largely I imagine the student experience is the same as the one I described for myself.

Why do I want to change?

  • I’m not sure what it accomplishes.
  • Some students don’t get involved and I’m really not sure what they get out of it.
  • It doesn’t model the kind of pedagogy I’d like our TAs to practice in composition.
  • It’s dull. I mean the conversations can be interesting but it’s damned repetitive.

Without offering this as an excuse, the classrooms present a challenge. They are ideal for the kind of pedagogy I’ve just described, but quite limiting for other practices. The rooms have a large table surround by chairs: a meeting room essentially. The space is otherwise quite narrow. It’s really impossible for students to work in groups where they can face each other.  There’s very little board space.

Basically though, I can’t let that limit me.

So here I am thinking about loud.

  1. Redefining my role and making it transparent. For any class meeting there’s going to be some stuff I want to say to the students about the readings or topic. I could write something for them to read before or after class (or maybe both).  Then my role in class becomes organizing activities and answering questions.
  2. What do the students do? Well, what I encourage my TAs to do in their classes is a rough version of write/pair/share. That is, have them do some in-class writing, discussing it in small groups, and then report back to the class. Along with this basic template there needs to be some objective. So, for example, early on in our practicum, we talk about how to respond to student writing. We read some of the classic scholarship on the subject. So what should we do in class? (n.b. class is 160 minutes).
    • I give each student a part of the reading and ask them to spend 5-10 minutes writing about what that part tells them regarding the task of responding to student writing: what’s important here.
    • In groups of 3-4 students they cycle through a series of tasks, spending 15-20 minutes on each. The groups move around, so they can always see the work of the preceding groups if they want:
      • There’s a student essay with instructor comments. Their job is to read it, discuss it, and prepare a group evaluation of the instructor’s feedback. Just a paragraph that they write on a piece of paper and leave for the next group to see.
      • A shared google doc where their task is to write a document that explains to students what they should expect to see in their feedback and how to use it.
      • At the whiteboard, they brainstorm a list of follow-up research questions and look for some current scholarship that might address them.
      • A 2-pg student essay to which they have to respond as a group. They write the response and leave it for other groups to see.
    • A 5-minute break.
    • 20 minutes as a class discussion on the google doc and material on the whiteboard, with each group having someone speak for them.
    • That leaves 45 minutes to address what’s going on in their classes, planning for the next assignment, problems with students, etc. Before class I will ask each student to post a comment or question related to their teaching. Then we can organize small groups around the questions and discuss them. I can circulate and step in as needed.
  3. Undoubtedly this approach requires a different kind of lesson planning (maybe more attention to it as well). There will be a challenge of coming up with new activities without it seeming gimmicky. Also one is continually pushing up against cultural expectations that the classroom experience should be one way rather than another (even if that experience is not good). That said, the TAs face similar challenges in taking such approaches in their classrooms, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t step up as well.
  • Brian Brooks

    I’ve taken non-directive classes similar to the one you outline above, but without the in-class writing and the formalized sequence of events. In my experience, the non-directive approach was both freeing and constricting. It freed me to think in my own directions, to solve my own problems. But at the same time, I felt frequently as if I were supposed to “know” before learning from the expert in the room, the professor. The tension helped to develop a critical approach, for sure. I like that you incorporate a writing component, as that might expose the uncomfortable part of the non-directive approach. I’d suggest, however, that you always reserve some time to direct, to point, to explain, to, in short, be the expert. Ultimately, however uncomfortable I felt in such a class, that approach is far superior to a “traditional” literature seminar (in my experience) where the expert *tells* the class how to understand and approach the text.

    • Thanks for the feedback Brian. I think you’re right about the expected role of the professor and my obligation to meet or at least address that obligation. Understandably grad students can have uncertainty about whether or not they belong in grad school. I certainly felt that way in my first year. That expectation to “know” is part of that. Fortunately, at least with our Teaching Practicum, I think there’s less pressure to know about rhet/comp. No one is coming to UB to study rhet/comp, so there’s no expectation students know about it. Some do, mostly because they’ve taught as MA students and taken a practicum elsewhere, but no one’s identity seems caught up in that.

  • dtfranke

    This is a great plan. I could imagine students bringing in their own writing to have it responded to as well, a workshop, but not exactly in the creative writing mode: not to perfect the piece but to find things in it that prompt new writing. I’m thinking also that it really matters if the students know one another. This may sound nuts, but I’m in favor of field trips to various classes on campus to see how others teach. Thanks for sharing your plans!