Teaching Online & Authentic Final Essay Assignment

This winter break, I taught my first online course- EGL 260: World Mythology. In fact, I just finished grading final papers a few hours ago and thought now I don’t need to think about mythology or anything related to this course until I teach it again in the summer! Well, I couldn’t stay away very long at all.

I’ve spent the past few hours reflecting on the course. I’d been told ahead of time that it would feel very different than teaching face-to-face, but it was hard to understand that difference until I was fully immersed in the course. I won’t say that teaching online is better or worse than teaching face-to-face. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, and you can find tons of discussion about them across the internet and in the pedagogy journals, so I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list or a debate of any sort.

I’ll just say that teaching online made it absolutely necessary to consider different approaches to teaching content and leading a “classroom.” The course was run through BlackBoard, and I found myself extra conscious of scaffolding the posted discussion questions so that students weren’t suddenly slammed with complex questions requiring high levels of thinking. That’s important in a f2f class as well, but as an instructor in a f2f class it’s easy to monitor student levels of comprehension and engagement, and to warm up their minds at an appropriate pace. On a similar note, giving and receiving feedback was a different experience: neither my nor their verbal and kinesic communication was available as a tool (confused looks, “aha” looks, smiles, snoring, “I’m confused,” “That was interesting,” etc.) to help me gauge the success of each lesson or to help them gauge their own success and progress. Giving feedback in an online course is a much more deliberate act, and one that I believe is crucial to retaining student interest, building student confidence, and engaging students with the course materials/content at a higher level.  Now that I think about it, I think that I’ll incorporate regular surveys and progress/performance evaluations into the next rendition of this course

I’ll keep this post brief and conclude with a description of the final paper assignment, which I designed slightly differently than I have done in the past. I gave four topics to choose from: two were more traditional analytical options based on what I found to be issues that students most engaged with; one was a feminist analysis of the ancient myth of each student’s choosing; the fourth was a creative option in which the student would write a semi-autobiographical myth, with him/herself as the myth’s hero. In order to demonstrate their understanding of the stages of the hero’s quest (which was a major topic that we read about throughout the course alongside myths from across the world), the students were required to include each stage in their myth, mark it clearly, and (recommended) provide a metacognitive explanation of the myth- what they were thinking about when they wrote it, why they made the decisions they made, etc. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these essays…I knew there was a possibility that this could be a “cop-out” option for those who didn’t want to write a standard academic essay.

The results, however, were beyond what I could have wished for. About a third of the class chose this option, and each and every student demonstrated not just mastery of the concept of the hero’s journey, but an eagerness to bring the literature that we’d been studying into an even more personal realm. Some students whose other performances in class were “less than enthusiastic” turned in truly remarkable papers. I’ll point out that the instructions made it clear that students did not have to get any more personal than they were comfortable with, but after having read them, I can tell that they wanted to have a personal connection with their work…and the stories were powerful as a result. Students wrote about conquering deeply personal family issues, health issues, immigration issues, political issues, and social issues, and it was obvious in each paper that there was so much more investment in this assignment than would normally come in a standard analytical paper. And yet the essays weren’t simply a creative writing assignment- they were a valid way of assessing a student’s understanding of a critical theory of mythology. So they ended up being a great evaluative tool, an enjoyable and personally meaningful assignment for students, and an incredibly interesting and exciting set of essays to read and grade. I plan to use the assignment option again next time I teach mythology, but I can also see its application in a writing course for learning about how to write in a specific genre.

Most essays that we assign students won’t survive halfway through the next semester. I got the strong impression that these semi-autobiographical myth essays will be saved by each student for years to come.

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