On My Course Design for Theory/Culture Based Classes

By in acdemia, bodies, pedagogy, teaching on December 15, 2013

For all of the woe is me grad life things that happen to me and every grad student in the world, I can say there is one thing I am 100% grateful for in my department. They allow me to teach and give me enough freedom to ensure that I never have to bring a course into being that I wouldn’t want to take myself. This is important to me. Whenever I am planning a syllabus, I try to plan it around things I will be happy to grade, talk about, read about, write about, discuss, tear apart, and all those other fun things that happen in class. A few years ago I was in probably a classroom situation with Cathy Davidson and we were talking about grading. Something was said that made everything make sense to me. I can’t remember the direct quote, but the takeaway was what I now say when I explain my classes. You can either grade on retention and application or on learning outcomes. If you are grading on the latter, most people should be able to get an A. I do the latter. Rather than explain all of this I thought I would dissect components of a recent syllabus of mine for a Media & Popular Culture 400 level class with Cultural Studies bent.

Basics to help this make a bit more sense. It isn’t a secret that I am a black female, of unknown age, who lets the class know that I am both heterosexual and a mother because I think it is important to acknowledge that we all have unintentional biases. I am not the normal person they see at the front of the classroom so it is something that we confront very close to the beginning. The class was separated in the following sections:

Part 1: Current Media Landscape

Part 2: Gender and Sexuality

Part 3: Race and Racism

Part 4: Theory, Theory, Theory

I places Part 2 and 3 before Part 4 because I consider them to be the excesses of theory in that while theory can help us understand them, everyone in the class has a lived experience that means they confront gender and sexuality, race and racism etc on a daily basis at different levels of awareness. My body at the front of the room makes them more aware of that experience than if I were a cisgender white male… and that is fine. It leads to amazing discussions early in the class.

Objectives

Just so people know what they are getting into and what I hope will happen in the class, I have four standard objectives that get modified slightly depending on the course topic. They are generally the following though. And #4 will never go away!

Course Objectives

1. to read scholarly and popular texts critically; 2. to practice constructing and shaping arguments; 3. to find a voice in writing and presenting media; 4. to creatively experiment

Assignments

The class works through 100 points for Participation (in Class & Online), a Media Presentation, a Mid-Semester Check-In (aka a midterm with a less stressful name), and a Final Project.

1.1 In Class Participation

15

1.2 Online Participation

20

2.0 Media Presentation

15

3.0 Mid-Semester Check-In

15

4.0 Final Project*

35

TOTAL

100

 

1. Participation

1.1 In Class Participation

For a 400 level class I decided to not to do a grade for attendance, but there was an in class participation grade. This meant that while people were not required to be there, it was in their best interest to be as it was the easiest way to earn those points. Points then went up depending on how much the student engaged or help guide the class. Basically this was my way of saying this would be a discussion based class more than a lecture based class.

1.2 Online Participation (posts for points not grades)

Rather than having essays due throughout the course students were required to write blog posts throughout the semester on various weeks.  The idea behind how these posts were designed, and why they were grade for points and not necessarily content is because the class blog was a private space where students were allowed to be unsure, share things that might not be a “normal” thing to be shared in a classroom space, or, just a place to have a conversation. The timing of posts and limits on when they can be posted encourages students to plan ahead of time. Because they are due in separate weeks and at different times (in relation to the material the students are talking about), they serve as a tool for me to see how students are understanding and thinking about course material. The posts helped steer class discussion as well. I should not that this is the assignment the students had the hardest time committing to. Those who did all of their posts all ended up with really high grades overall, even on the objectively graded materials. There is a very clear link between grade outcomes on all assignments and completion of the blog posts.

1.2Online Participation: Blog Posts (8 Total, done in separate weeks) 

Media Object (2) For these posts you will find a popular media object and provide a brief commentary (150-300 words) linking it to concepts and discussion from the class. These posts should also include 1-2 discussion questions. Due anytime before Nov 22nd.

Reading Reflection/Reaction Posts (3) These posts need to be made BEFORE we discuss a reading in class and show an engagement with the text. The purpose of these posts is to highlight areas you find interesting, or confusing. These can be thought of as thought experiments in 200-400 words. Due no later than 11am the day reading is discussed.

 Discussion Reflection/Reaction Posts (3) These are due no later than 1 week after a class discussion. These posts should continue threads from the conversation in class, engaging the conversation in a larger cultural context. These posts can also address questions or concerns brought up in class that did not have an adequate answer, linking it to concepts from readings in 250-450 words. Due no later than 11am one week after a reading is initially discussed in class.

 INFORMATION KEEP IN MIND

You will need to make a blog post for 9 of 12 weeks. There will be no make up blog posts, and only 1 post/week will count towards your final grade. Nov. 22 is the last day to post to the blog for credit.

Potential Extra Credit (up to 5%)

If you regularly contribute to the blog over the semester, in the form of engaging comments/discussion on other people’s blog posts primarily, and/or additional posts you can earn extra credit. This requires engagement throughout the semester though. Bursts of activity at the end of the semester will not count towards these points.

Presentations

For this course students were required to put together media objects to share and discuss with the class. In all honesty, they over thought this assignment and had a very hard time sharing. Instead they more often than not tried to teach. I imagine this has a lot to do with not having a sharing presentation modeled well, and that is something I’ll continue to work on in my pedagogy. Because this was one of the competency assignments, a rubric was distributed to explain point distribution.

2.0 Media Presentation

Media Object/Cultural Artifact: Theoretical Engagement Presentation, and Discussion Leadership

In groups of 2-3, you will produce a 15-20 minute presentation that relates a popular culture artifact to the concepts examined in the lectures and readings. You might choose to screen a music video, online role-playing game, silent film, news report, or podcast. You might opt to circulate a print artifact or some other physical cultural object around the class, or address some current or past cultural trend through slides or a performance. This activity is designed to help us frame the week! At the beginning of the week your group will be responsible for bringing in a media object such as a television episodes, a series of songs (no fewer than 3, no more than 5), a music video, part of a film, a website, etc. that will help us frame the discussion for the week through a common cultural object.

Following a brief exposition of the artifact or phenomenon in question, you should be prepared to elaborate your perspective critically:

What are some of the forces underlying its production and consumption?

How do class concepts help us to understand its existence and circulation?

Public controversies surrounding the artifact are often useful here, to draw out its position in culture.

Presentation Grading Rubric

Points Item Details Point Breakdown
8 pts Follows general guidelines as outlined in the syllabus
  • Show engagement with the course and course readings, especially from the presentation week.
  • Successfully begin to frame the week.
  • Presentation fits within the time requirements.
4 pts Discussion questions/Leadership
  • Prepare two discussion questions, as a pair/group, directly related to the readings.
  • Meaningfully engage discussion questions with the class.
3 pts Creative engagement with Media Object/Cultural Artifact
  • Display of reflexivity in thoughtfulness in media object/cultural artifact
  • Successful use of object to aid in understanding of course material
  • General Preparedness.

 

TOTAL

 

Midterm (Boo!)

I was teaching an introduction to media history, theory and criticism course, and the students were super stressed out on the day of the midterm. We’d been going over semiotics and I asked if it would be better if I called it something else. We decided to rename it the mid-semester check in. It is a take home assignment with short, medium, and long answers. The students have to answer all the short answers, and one medium and one long answer. I try to come up with questions that allow the students to reflect on their thinking rather than showing a lot of citations.

3.0 Mid-Semester Check-In (Formerly know as “The Midterm”)

This will be a take home assignment designed for me to assess your level of understanding of core concepts in the class. It is a chance for you to show me what you’ve learned, and for me to make sure we are all on the same page, so to speak.  You will be provided with a document that has directions and a series of prompts to respond to on DUE DATE.

Here are two of the questions that produced some really wonderful responses.

Mid-Semester Check In Example Prompts

Short Answer (30 pts, 10 pts Each)
Understanding Media & Popular Culture
Respond to the following in half a page or less3. In this course “Gender & Sexuality”, and “Race, Racism, and Representation” were discussed as spaces that are beyond our theoretical frames as they are grounded in lived experience and reproduced as stereotypes in popular media. Identify another area of cultural excess and discuss how it is portrayed in media and how this reflects or highlights larger cultural attitudes or norms.

Medium Answer (20 pts)

Reading/Watching Media: Textual Analysis

Respond to one of the following prompts in 1-1.5 pages.

5. Read the lyrics to the song “I Don’t Need a Reason” by Dizzee Rascal http://rapgenius.com/Dizzee-rascal-i-dont-need-a-reason-lyrics

Watch the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlzgDVLtU6g

 

Explain difference in meaning that can be inferred from the lyrics and the video and place them in a larger cultural context (It is okay to write from a US perspective on this!) and/or the media ecology the song exists in.

Long Answer (50 pts)

Respond to one of the prompts below using theories, concepts, and discussions from the course, in a 1.5-3 page essay.

6. Gender and Sexuality

We all consume the same media, yet certain media are targeted towards certain genders. We’ve read and discussed romance novels and sports this semester. If the content of these items stayed the same,

Option A: how would targeting males instead of females as the intended audience of romance novels and erotica change our cultural understanding and discussion of these media objects?

OR

Option B: how would targeting females instead of males as the intended audience of prime time sports change about the ways these sports are culturally discussed, understood, and sold/commodified?

The long answer was graded on a rubric, but it is a bit long.  I might upload it later.   Students did well (some of them even said they really enjoyed answering the questions!). They were put in a strange position though that did require some discussion. A lot of them were convinced they didn’t have any biases and/or weren’t influenced by the media they were consuming. They found that when they had to do the switch they were falling into stereotypical thinking and that was surprising for them, but awesome for classroom discussion. The answers to the medium questions were beautiful. I loved seeing the connections my students were making. Just… really lovely. And the short answer was my way of saying “I know we’ve spent a lot of time on gender and race stuff, but there are more things that are treated similarly in media”. There were lots of great responses, like romantic relationships, citizenship, body size and shape, beauty, ability, etc. Which made me glad, because my biggest fear is that students feel locked in by what we have time to cover in the class and don’t feel they have the freedom to think outside the syllabus.

Final

I am required to have a final. i teach media classes though, and I think one of the better ways to make the theory part of the class make sense is to have students put theory into practice through creative engagement or media making.  To encourage experimentation the points for this are placed in to various components, some of which are Pass/Fail for full or no credit. I’ll mark those with a **

4.0 Final Project (35%)

Option 1: Traditional Project (Theory into practice) & Presentation Group work encouraged. Requirements to be determined by instructor and student.

Option 2: Traditional or Experimental Paper (Theoretical exploration) & Presentation 10-12pp, double spaced, times new roman, 12pt font. Must be done individually.

*Important Dates (and % of final grade):

Oct .14: Final Project Proposal Due (10%)**

Nov. 11: Final Project Workshop (5%)**

Dec. 04: Final Project Object Due (15%)

Dec. 06: Final Project Presentation (5%)**

Most of the project was points/no points to limit the stress. As long as students followed the directions (most of which were negotiated and agreed upon in class) for the assignments, they received the points. By taking out the qualitative measure, and reminding students that they were encouraged to experiment, students were able to propose things they hadn’t done before. It is always awesome to see the work of a first time DIY film maker or webmaker. Seriously. It makes it worth it. I’m ahead of myself though. Once I received the proposal and knew the type of projects students were thinking about doing, the ways they were considering executing them, and how they thought they were seeing them in relation to class content, I was able to make sure as we went through the theory section of the class I did my best to make it relevant to the topics proposed. I created a Final Project Guidelines (PDF) document. And distributed it to the students. The requirements were discussed in a class session after the first workshop before this was created and distributed.

Workshop days  are days where students get to talk to their audience members. One of the most important things for me with the final is that they know they have to present it to the class, and so they should get feedback to see how the class, their biggest audience is reacting and what input they might have. I usually create worksheets for them to fill out for these to turn in at the end of class so I can see where they are. The worksheets let me know if there are any red flags or project issues that are individual are universal that need to be addressed. The biggest universal issue is usually project scope.

The last part, the presentation, is what we do during the time slot our final is slated for. What I think is awesome about how this all comes together is, the diversity of the students and what they are interested in means that in the 2-3 hours we meet, have baked goods and soda together and listen to everyone talk about what hey worked on/thought about  for 4-6 weeks we end up with this really kick ass course review because people are interested in different things and make different connections and tend to bring them together in some really amazing and innovate ways.

——————–

So that’s that. A lot of the points are based on showing up and attempting the assignment. Grade breakdowns seem to indicate that students will end up with a grade I would have given them had I been grading on retention/knowledge acquisition based on their in class participation/attendance patterns, familiarity with the course literature, and effort put in to what they put out. I just shared bits of 1 class, but I’ve taught 8 classes now with this format I think. Inevitably every semester I have 1 disgruntled student that is used to doing minimal effort, no attendance and passing with an exam and a paper who ends up with a C or a D that tried to get points for the credit no credit assignment. Hardline though so it doesn’t happen. For that one student though, there are maybe 2 who apologize to me for not doing the work and getting a bad grade. They want me to know that it isn’t a reflection on me or my teaching and they can do better/be better students. So far I’ve had 4 of those students take another class with me. They all went up at least a letter grade. I’m proud of them.

One thought on “On My Course Design for Theory/Culture Based Classes

  1. 1

    Wonderful. I think I will include it in our workshops in January.

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