In the past five years of teaching writing and literature courses, I have experienced what it is like to design courses for hundreds of undergraduate students. Each of these individual students come into my classroom with different lived experiences, with different academic expectations and goals, with different reasons for taking my courses. The time I’ve spent in the classroom has made clear that there is much that can be accomplished semester-to-semester, both as a student and as an instructor. Facilitating student success is not a simple matter, so I approach designing each of my courses with four ideals in mind: diversity, accessibility, agency, and multiliteracies.
As an English instructor, especially an instructor of print and multimodal/multimedia literary texts, I take quite seriously the need to provide my students with diverse representations of important identity markers—such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, (dis)ability, family-dynamic, and religion—as they read and watch the required novels, films, and television shows in my courses. Considering the importance of acknowledging and studying social, cultural, and historical contexts when studying literature and its many adaptations (in film, television, and fandom, in particular), I include a diverse required reading/watching list along with diversely-styled assignments. Like many children’s and young adult literature educators, I am inspired by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s article, “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors.” In this foundational article, Bishop coined the now often-used metaphor of children’s literature as a tool that can—in one interpretation of the metaphor—show students (1) lives of people different from themselves (windows), (2) lives of people similar to themselves (mirrors), and (3) lives of people with a mix of similarities and differences that make it easy to push aside boundaries and find connections between these characters and themselves (sliding glass doors). While I do work to include potential “mirror” literature and new media texts in my courses—texts in which students can easily identify with characters because they are so similar to themselves—I consider including “window” and “sliding glass door” texts to be more central to my course designs.
I also feel strongly that in every course I design, I must consider what accessibility concerns students might bring into my classroom. As such, I strive to create courses that account for different learning styles and disabilities. I approach making my courses accessible in three ways. First, I diversify the types of assignments and activities that take place in my courses by having students work on writing assignments, recall assignments (reading quizzes and such), individual and group projects, assignments with visual components, and presentations. I divide class time with activities such as lectures, small group activities, student-led discussions, and whole-class discussions. I believe diversifying the ways students receive and interact with coursework can help them not only better understand the class material, but also their own learning processes. I spend little time lecturing my students, as research and experience has shown me the pedagogical benefits of interactive teaching practices. For any required assignment, I welcome open dialogue with my students on ways to improve the assignment designs to make them more accessible. I often create additional print and digital resources to assist students struggling with course materials, and meet with students for one-on-one conferences where we can discuss any concerns privately.
As a second avenue of making my courses more accessible, I provide students with course resources on the class’ learning management system (LMS) website, including a weekly and daily breakdown of homework and class assignments, PowerPoint lectures, and supplementary readings/viewings. I believe students should always have access to vital information provided in-class, not only for those students who are unable to attend each class session, but also for those who need additional time outside of class to more fully understand the material. I work to insure that I am using the tools available via this digital resource to the best of my abilities and with improving my students’ learning experiences in mind. For example, the majority of my major assignments are submitted via the LMS class website. This insures not only a more eco-friendly course design, but it also provides students with a quick way to turn in their assignments even if they miss the class period in which an assignment is due.
In a final approach to making my courses more accessible, I provide digital class discussion forums so that students uncomfortable with speaking during in-class discussions have the opportunity to share their thoughts and insights via an indirect, but still valuable, form. These forums are usually optional, but I also open them to students absent for medical or personal reasons, so that they can take part in the discussion-heavy classroom community even when they are not physically present. On days when I myself am absent, I often record and post videos of any planned lecture material and assign digital activities for my students to complete via our LMS website. In this way, my students and I do not fall behind schedule and only need to reconsider the pacing of future class sessions if we run into an unexpected issue or current events interest.
In close relation to making my courses more accessible to students, I also believe that students should have the agency to choose how to complete required assignments. As such, I make sure that my assignment designs include either multiple options for completing the assignment or a freedom to choose which topics to study or approaches to take when composing their responses to the required primary texts and the assignment instructions. For example, in my literature courses, students choose which of the required texts to respond to via short literary analyses as well as how to design the group literary analysis activities that they are required to lead their classmates through. In my composition courses, students choose which topics to research for their annotated bibliographies, research articles, personal blogs, and other rhetorical genres. I believe that these forms of student agency help students engage more with the course material and motivate them to give more attention and effort when striving to achieve our course learning outcomes.
Finally, in regard to multiliteracies, while I require ample reading material in my literature classes, I believe that including popular culture new media texts (including fanworks) in my courses is also a vital element of the English classroom. These texts are often visual or multimodal in nature, providing avenues for teaching multiple forms of literacy. I believe discussing and analyzing movies, films, and video games can help students improve their ability to critically examine the multimodal texts that so heavily influence their 21st century lives, and doing the same with fanworks shows them that they have the agency to interact with the works they read and watch inside and outside the classroom. My hope is that students leave my courses with the knowledge that not only do literature and new media texts influence their lives and the lives of those around them, but that they can influence these works themselves and as such influence their lives and the lives of others.