By Amanda Barnett, Texas Christian University
Note: Amanda Barnett is a pedagogical development consultant for the WWP.
When I was assigned the Introduction to Women’s Writing course for Spring 2018 I was excited to create something new and, wanting to insert something of my own expertise, I decided that we would spend the semester discussing representations of professional women in literature of all kinds. Because this class is technically at the sophomore level, but is taken by non-majors at all levels, I was aware that I would need to balance various skill levels as well as the students’ varied interests. As I began browsing into texts which would allow students to get the wide range of voices I wanted them to be exposed to, I realized that there was so much out there that we could never cover in one semester. And that, as broad as my assigned texts may be, I could never touch on every special area of interest my students would have. I settled on three units (authors, scientists, business) with one fiction and one non-fiction piece in each, while continuing to search for a way to get more texts in without overwhelming the students. Around this time, a colleague shared the Women Writers in Review site with me and after some exploring I realized that creating something in the vein of WWiR and Women Writers in Context would allow me to assess multiple outcomes and would give students the ability to bring texts of their choosing into our classroom.
I had also been thinking about the efficacy of projects that extend across an entire semester and was eager to apply those ideas in my own course. So, I decided to scaffold the project across the semester and have the final website due at the end of the term.
I knew I wanted them to work in pairs to make my class of 35 more manageable in terms of working with the students and tracking their projects. At first, I envisioned each partnership creating their own website. As I wrote the assignment, however, I realized that we would not have a cohesive project at the end that way. So, I decided that instead I would narrow the students’ responsibility to one page and one post on a branch of the WordPress site that I already have. This way, they could view the work of other groups more easily, and at the end of the project we would come away with one site everyone had contributed to.
My goals for this project were:
- to allow students a choice in one of the texts they read
- to reinforce the course discussions about how professional women represent themselves/are represented
- to give them a stronger understanding of the connections between historical and current professional women
- to introduce them to basic website creation
When I created the pieces that the students were responsible for, I was focused on working toward the following course outcomes.
- Students will demonstrate an understanding of literature as it reflects society and/or the individual.
- Students will analyze the interrelationships of the individual, cultural milieu, and society in literary texts.
- Students will demonstrate an understanding of the interconnectedness of society, culture and individual identity.
- Students will examine how interaction between personal and social identities is manifested in everyday life.
As such, I required them to create:
- A summary of the text
- A biography of the author
- Historical context for the tex
- Reviews of the text
- Tags that linked the posts together
The full text of the assignment can be found here.
We looked at the WWRiC and WWiR sites during the semester as models. Before the students chose their texts, we looked closely at a handful of pages, including those on Aphra Behn, Isabella Whitney, and Jane Sharp, in order to discuss what was included there and how our pages would compare. Over the semester the students chose their texts, drafted their pieces, and spent time in class sharing their choices, triumphs, and struggles with other students. Because of the relatively small pieces, the project did not feel overwhelming for the students despite the amount of work it took them to research their texts, especially as they found their choices had few reviews, an author whose biography was not readily available, or other tricky pieces.
When it came time to move their work onto the website itself, the technology piece did throw some of them and a few were happy to have partners more versed in tech to help them with formatting etc. on the page. We looked at the WWiC site again at this point; we focused this time on the aesthetics of site overall as well as page by page and discussed what we wanted to emulate and shift on our own site. I had never worked in a WordPress site with many people at once, so that was a learning experience for me as well. We realized that although it does not update in real time (like Google docs etc.) many people can log in and work on separate pages at once, which went a long way to making this project successful in the end.
The students took ownership of their work in a variety of ways. Before they created their first drafts of their pages, we spent time in class brainstorming titles for the site. Some students got so involved in the process they spent the time before the vote campaigning for their choice. We took an anonymous vote on the top 4 names and since the first and second choices of the class were only separated by 2 votes I decided to use them both, as the title (Who Is She?) and subtitle (The Women Behind the Words) of the site. Each pair was responsible for the layout, images, and text on their page and post as well as for the tags they chose to link their post to others.
Overall, I am very happy with how the site turned out as well as the student learning throughout the project. Their text choices were thoughtful and fairly diverse; they were able to see connections to other texts we read in class as well as others in the project and beyond. The pieces were well-revised both in terms of editing/content and in terms of making their pages feel like webpages instead of essays written online.
If I was to teach this again, I probably wouldn’t change the project itself much except to require mini book reports from each of the students two weeks after they made their choice in order to cut down on students relying on their partner’s knowledge of the text. There were a few issues with group dynamics which could be lessened with more individual checkpoints along the way. I may, also, change the larger course to accommodate more time on the project. This semester the students did very short informal presentations about their projects to the class and talked one-on-one with other groups. However, if we had read 5 instead of 6 texts as a whole class I could have scheduled more formal times for them to report on progress. There would also have been space to start the website part a little earlier and to demonstrate some basic html so they could make more changes to the page. Other than this, I felt the sustained project tied the course together for the students, reinforced the conversations we were having in the classroom, and helped students to see connections across time.
This project would work, with slight changes, for many types of courses. I can imagine nearly any literature or history course using this template (shifting length and specificity of the pieces depending on the level and course content). I can see something similar being done outside of these disciplines as well. An introductory math or science course could have groups focus on theories or historical figures or canonical texts and health courses could look at diseases or body systems.
In general, the students enjoyed the project with some saying they cared more because they had the freedom to choose a text they wanted to delve into and others noting that hearing the ideas of other groups through peer review and informal presentations helped them to improve their own work. This project worked well to accomplish the goals I had set out in the beginning of the semester; it benefited from and supported our other readings and discussions and gave students the opportunity to demonstrate creativity and difference. In the process of completing this assignment, the students were able to see more clearly the shared history of women who fought/are fighting to make their way and write their lives as professional women.Tweet