This semester, I’ve been having my students in both of my courses (Colonial America and Women in American History through 1869) reading full books over the course of several weeks and then devoting an entire class session to discussion. In my smaller Colonial course, this is pretty seamless, but the Women’s History class has thirty students. Keeping a good discussion going can be harder with that many people in the room, seated in rows and facing the front of the room instead of each other. One way that I’ve found very helpful to getting these groups to talk is by assigning response papers.
For each book, I give a (rather long) list of questions to help them as they read. These ask them to identify the central argument of the book, usually with some gentle leading about what that argument might be for those of them who aren’t used to identifying an argument in a book. They also draw out some of the themes that I think are central to the book, or that help to connect the book to what else we are doing in class. I tell the students that in their short responses, they can answer one, some, or none of these questions, so long as they show me that they’ve done the reading and are thinking about it in an analytical way. If they have questions, this is a place where they can ask me. If there’s something I didn’t mention in the questions that they think is really crucial, they can talk about that instead. The responses, I tell them, are all about helping me to structure our discussion of the book in class. They post them to the class website a few hours before class, and on discussion days I can be found in my office reading through them, scribbling notes on the notepad next to my laptop, and typing in my brief comments in response to their responses.
I like the response paper format for a few reasons. First of all, I like having some smaller writing assignments built into the syllabus. Each of them is worth something like 5% of their total grade, which strikes the balance of being not worth too much (and thus not a big deal or a cause of stress) while still being worth enough that if they don’t do them at all, they will effectively tank their grade. So students actually do them, which gives me a chance to check in on what they are thinking about before coming into the classroom. This is a low stakes way for me to get to know them as writers, and for them to get to know me as a grader, before the bigger papers come in. Here they can see me commenting on the importance of citing (I don’t make them footnote, but I do ask for page numbers on the responses), and I can point those who would benefit towards the writing center.
Checking in on what they are thinking, though, is probably the most important benefit of response papers. I make them due a few hours before class at the latest possible time that will allow me to read them before coming into the class when we are going to discuss the reading. I get to see the major themes that stuck out to them, and can catch points on which they might have gotten confused. This helps me to plan my outline for the day. For example, the responses to the first book we discussed in my women’s history class this fall, Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, got me six major themes or questions that came up in multiple responses. I was then able to divide the class into 6 groups of 5 students, have each group take one question for 20 minutes, and then all talk together for the last hour. It was a fantastic discussion, and some of the questions that most engaged them would not have occurred to me if I hadn’t been able to gauge their thoughts in advance.
One thing that the responses have revealed to me is the meaning of “bias” for students in history classes. The highest praises that a significant number of my students have been giving to some of their readings is that the authors are “unbiased.” I’ll be thinking about that more over the next month, and will be writing about bias in the classroom in my November post.