Discussion Boards and Memos in the Classroom

For my literature courses last spring, I tweaked a previous assignment and started a new practice that assisted students in learning the material throughout the semester. Today, I want to briefly cover the ways that I changed my discussion board and how I incorporated post-class memos into the course.

Over the past few semesters, I have had students post questions and respond to questions through a discussion board that I set up through my course management system. Students were required to participate in the discussion board every two weeks (about eight times in a semester). First, they must ask a question based on the reading we were going to cover for that day. For example, we may cover Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville in a two-week period. If we were covering Hawthorne on the first Tuesday, they must ask their question before class on that day. In this manner, I would know, partly, what students may be struggling with and what questions they had as they read the text. This assisted me in preparing for class because I could address these questions from the outset.

Along with asking questions, students are required to respond to another student’s question. So, one student may ask, “What does Mr. Hooper’s veil mean in Hawthorne’s ‘The Minister’s Black Veil?'” Another student, or multiple students, may respond to that specific question. In their responses, students must provide support for their answer from the text. If they see the black veil as a commentary on the sins that everyone holds, then they may respond by using the conclusion of the story as their support. If they view it as a commentary on race, then they may use the community’s repulsion of Hooper after he dons the veil. This practice is meant to help students work on writing and the use of support in their arguments as they work towards their essays and exams.

While some students would ask thoughtful questions geared directly towards the reading, I ultimately found that students had trouble formulating in-depth questions that delved into the text and approached it critically. I would get broad questions that either had nothing to do with the current reading or questions that would require more time than we had in class to address. The latter questions, while important, would take us in variant directions that did not necessarily correspond to the overall course trajectory. For the former, I may get a question like this: “What is Hawthorne’s best novel?” Again, this question is relevant, albeit subjective, but it would open up avenues for discussion. However, since we only cover one or two Hawthorne stories, such a question does not fit with the structure of the course.

To guide students towards more critical readings and examinations of the texts we are covering, I have tweaked the discussion some. Rather than have students construct questions, I am providing questions for each of the readings during a two-week period. Students must still answer the question before we cover the text in class, and they must still respond to another student’s answer. What I found is that the discussions are more in depth than when students ask their own questions.

The goal here is two fold. On one hand, I am asking the questions to model for students the types of analysis that I expect. After the first four discussions, I switched and had students ask their own questions for the last four discussions. Not all of the students asked in-depth questions, but they did limit the questions to the texts we were covering.  The other goal, again, is to help students work on using support for their positions. With this new format, students showed progress in this area.

The other tool I implemented last semester was class memos. This idea arose from a colleague. After each class, he posts what the class covered (typically in a paragraph or two). These are memos that he gives to his students to help them keep track of what they discussed. They are not necessarily notes; rather, they are a summary of main points. While providing students with a repository of summaries, the memos work to highlight for students the connections being drawn throughout the semester.

The new discussion format worked by getting students to think more critical about the readings and the memos ultimately assisted students in seeing the overall connections being made throughout the course. Below, you will find the first memo that I wrote. On this day, we covered Thomas Jefferson and David Walker. I decided to construct the memo around three points that kept arising during the session. I am not sure if this is how I will construct each memo, but as of right now, I think it will be. During the summer semester, I reused some of the memos and tweaked them when necessary.

Example Memo

January 18, 2018

Today, we talked about Thomas Jefferson and David Walker. We began by looking at Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here we referred to our previous discussions about de Crévecoeur and his metaphor of America as the “melting pot” and the land of endless opportunity for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. As we went over Tuesday, both de Crévecoeur and Jefferson limit the availability of opportunity based on gender and race.  From our conversations, there are four important points that I want you to take away as we move forward throughout the semester.

  • The transmission of ideas is powerful. We know that Jefferson was influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, both of who viewed people of African descent as a different species than those of European descent. As well, they argued that no individual of African descent had ever risen past his or her station to make something of themselves, an argument that numerous people we will look at, including Walker, counter. Remember as well that Jefferson notes the power of education and examples on young children and how those children will grow up to imitate their parents. Walker tackles this as well by telling his readers to look at Jefferson’s thoughts on Blacks in Notes on the State of Virginia, a text that appeared 45 years before Walker’s Appeal and still maintains power today.
  • We also noted the ways that history and knowledge gets created and passed down. Recall that the definition for “Negro” in the 1797 edition the Encyclopedia Britannica is a litany of stereotypes that still exist to this day. These are some of the same stereotypes that Jefferson perpetuates in Notes, and they continue to this day in some fashion. Why? This is a question to consider as we move forward. With this, we also talked about the historical record of Jefferson’s rape of Sally Hemmings and the children that resulted. Recall that I concluded by mentioning that it was only when scientific evidence appeared, by white scholars, that the “rumor” gained widespread acceptance. It was known to Blacks such as William Wells Brown and others even when Jefferson was alive. The key here is who creates he knowledge and how that knowledge gets transmitted.
  • Throughout the semester, you need to consider the interconnectedness of calls for an end to slavery, Native American rights, and women’s rights. Remember, Samuel Worcester and Eliza Butler were arrested in Georgia for going to Cherokee territory without the proper papers, and upon their arrest, their captors discovered copies of Walker’s Appeal. As well, we looked at the masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and discovered that amidst the images of slavery there are also torn papers that read “Indian Treaties” at the bottom of the image. These three causes were distinctly interrelated, and when we read William Apess next week, you will see flashes of David Walker. When we read Lydia Maria Child, you will see some of Apess. These authors did not write in solitude; they existed among one another.
  • Along with all of this, do not forget the American Colonization Society either. This society wanted to send free people of color to Africa, and it led to the creation of Liberia. Part of their reasoning was, as Jefferson argues, was that they though Blacks and Whites could not coexist. Along with this, they also feared that free Blacks would provide knowledge and examples to enslaved individuals, this leading to insurrection. Recall too that James A. Tait, a plantation owner whose papers you will see this semester, was a member of the ACS in the 1850s. Why?

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