RISING UP TO THE CHALLENGE: IS MAKING THINGS HARDER THE BEST WAY TOWARDS IMPROVEMENT?

I am now part of a team of UAB and UB Literature teachers grouped together in an ‘MQD’ project (‘Millora de la Qualitat Docent’ = Teaching Quality Improvement). Our aim is improving our methodology by focusing on the narrator when teaching Literature. This is the reason why we decided to ask students to write their critical papers for Victorian Literature (second year) either on the narrator in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, novels that I have already mentioned here.

The process of writing the paper has been quite hard, as we expected, for our students. Many had difficulties understanding what we meant by asking them to focus on the narrator, used as they are to focusing on textual and contextual aspects, from the characterisation of a particular figure to socio-historical issues. Luckily for us, even though we didn’t plan this beforehand, the two novels contrast nicely as regards the narrator, since Dickens’s is famous for its overbearing third person narrator, whereas Brontë’s –technically an epistolary novel– is a first person narrator that mixes a diary written by a woman with letters written by a man. This helped us, as we could always appeal to this contrast when explaining how each novel is, at heart, the result of a collection of choices made by the author about how to narrate it. I think we also got very lucky in that the academic articles selected to boost class discussion (Karín Lesnik-Obertsein’s on Dickens and Carol Senf’s on Brontë) were quite productive in content and as models for our students.

Students were asked to submit a proposal mid-term, with a title, an abstract and quotations from three sources. This they did, with many difficulties, as I say, particularly as regards formulating a thesis. To my surprise –and that of my colleague in this subject– there is not a direct correlation between the quality of the abstracts and that of the final paper. Mainly, in quite a few cases, bad proposals led to very good papers, which is mystifying enough… In the end, students submitted 48 papers, of which I asked for re-writings in 23 cases due to editing problems (the content was acceptable but presentation matters had been approached with quite a cavalier attitude). I have failed finally only 6 papers… though I believe I’m quite a demanding teacher (maybe I’m not?).

So, my conclusion is that when a teacher poses a challenge students feel compelled to rise up to it. Ergo: I need to make things not necessarily more difficult but indeed more demanding (first year students, be warned!). I must say I have worked very hard to help students progress but they have made an effort, in some cases an impressive one. This must be acknowledged. I even emailed all of them to congratulate them, ask them to please remember the lesson learned with the paper and wish them good luck in the third year.

What I simply can’t understand is why NOBODY has answered that message… Maybe that’s my next challenge…

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