In the forthcoming semester, I will be embracing something NEW and teaching a module on children’s literature – a significant shift from my areas of specialism in eighteenth-century literature, American drama and cultural theory.
This is something I have been wanting to do for some time – before, indeed, I had the pleasure of becoming and parent and finding myself reading Maurice Sendak and Julia Donaldson so repetitively that at times I find myself reciting ‘a mouse took a walk through the deep dark wood’ to myself as I walk down the road, like a Gruffaholic zombie. It has always interested me largely because it seems to interest my students so much. Of all the dissertations I have supervised (and despite my best efforts to get people to write about Tristram Shandy) children’s literature has probably been one of the most recurring topics. Not surprising given the explosion of critical interest in the field, rather nicely demonstrated by this ngram chart:
Indeed, it is even less surprising given the rise of ‘cross-over’ literatures designed to appeal to both adults and children (Harry Potter being a prime example), and which have worked well to increase both the readerships and the broader impact of such texts.
Over the last ten years, courses and degrees focused on children’s literature have been popping up in Universities like mushrooms in a muddy lawn, and while I am certainly coming late to a party which is arguably down to the cheese platter and Blue Nun there is certainly still more folks milling around here than in my own wee eighteenth-century ceilidh.
If nothing else then, my venture into this territory could be described as simply an attempt to be more sociable.
Having decided some time ago to do something about my anti-social eighteenth-century habit, I began by developing a second-year module on children’s literature. This module contained only rough sketches – an outline of key topics, an indicative bibliography and an assessment design – and certainly not enough for me to deliver it straight away. Then the whole thing sat in the files collecting dust like a partially-completed but over-ambitious shelving unit.
The reasons it has taken so long to get this module off the ground are threefold. The first and most practical reason is the difficulties in finding the time to do the kind of reading and research which is the most basic requirement for teaching a module at this level. It is a rather intimidating reality of teaching in HE that the benchmarks are set so high: It is a perfectly justified student expectation that their tutors are experts in their subjects, and it is not unreasonable to measure this expertise by the number of books written, papers published, and years spent studying. By teaching a subject like eighteenth-century satire it is difficult not to be struck by the thought that just down the road the likes of Professor Alan Downie are teaching the same thing.
Of course, it is difficult to achieve this level of expertise even in your own specialist subject. Starting a new subject though, is like staring into a seemingly infinite chasm of knowledge which you somehow need to fill with libraries-worth of books, articles, resources and (quite simply) years of experience.
I have now been reading about children’s literature on and off for the last six years – but the bottom of this chasm seems as much an echoing void as ever. Maybe I should wait another ten years or so?
Except, when I look back over my teaching career some of the most successful modules I have taught have been fresh and new – and at least to some extent have been as much a process of discovery for me as they have been for my students. In contrast, when I have taught subjects which have been the focus of most of my post-graduate research the modules have often felt unfocused, unstructured and unclear.
A bit like when you were a child and trying to explain to your Mum or Dad why your limited edition Emperor Star Wars action figure is the greatest thing ever: Somehow you just never quite feel like you are getting an adequately enthusiastic response, and that somehow your powers of communication are perpetually falling short.
One of the reasons I am excited about this new module, is precisely because I do not feel I have the same level as expertise yet as I do in some other subjects. Precisely because my thoughts about the topic are not overwhelmed with the clutter of decades of research, and because I would feel less like an omnipotent tour-guide of learning, as I will a fellow traveler.
Coming to a new topic, and looking at a new module as a blank canvass, there is a chance to shape the delivery of your topic to fit – and the first stage in this process relates to the module design.
My reading of critical texts relating to children’s literature has gone into over-drive a little over the last few months. I have discovered many interesting approaches, some of which have changed my thinking in terms of what I want to do with my new module. One of the things which I have been concentrating on though, is on finding a clear focus.
When I began teaching, I thought about my modules in much the same way as I remembered modules being taught to me: A different novel or play every week, and each lecture was basically a bunch of background information followed by a wee chat (characterised by few words and long pauses) about it. After a whole series of these you write an essay about one of the books.
Which essentially means that your essay is based on one weeks lecture.
Actually this approach to module design is one which suits instructions where a different lecturer covers each topic, but in my own College we have the relative luxury of thinking more holistically about things. So the trick is to find a focus which enables you to progress through a series of topics which build on each other, and in which every week can address issues that relate directly to the assessment for the module. The focus, or key theme for your module, will act as the thread which links everything together, gives it all a sense of relevance and purpose.
This focus relates, as well, to the level of the module. As a degree course progresses, the level of critical depth students are expected to demonstrate increases. The type of focus which you choose for a module can support students in developing that depth: Choose a narrow focus, and you encourage depth. Choose a broad focus, and you encourage something more descriptive – like the kind of ‘introductory’ modules you get in your first year on a degree, where you generally tend to roll through a long sequence of foundational topics.
My children’s literature module is a second-year module. This means that students need to be exploring the topic in more depth than a year earlier, but not necessarily as much as they will in their final year. I could make my module about all children’s literature – but this would mean spanning across several distinct genres (in particular the ‘kidult’, or ‘crossover fiction’ genre, and the picturebook genre). This would be a rather broad approach. However, by choosing one of these genres as a focus (in this case, picturebooks), I can narrow the focus and encourage greater depth.
Of course within the genre of picturebooks there are a wide range of potential topic areas. I could focus for example on issues of child development, or the relationship between image and text. However, to narrow my focus to just one of these would perhaps be to narrow too far – to make expectations on the students which are perhaps more appropriate for a year 3 module, than for a year 2. So, instead, I have decided to compromise and to highlight four or five key issues relating to the study of children’s picturebooks – which at the moment seems to me to be both focused enough, but at the same time not too narrow.
Of course, the point of all this is to lead up to the assessment. Ultimately the success of a module is dependent on the success of students on assessment. It would be nice to teach a module where there was no assessment at all, merely the insatiable appetite for learning and discovering – but that kind of talk can get you into trouble these days. No – everything depends on student retention and achievement, and this means the assessment for any module needs to be thought about carefully.
One of the most commonly-cited reasons students give for poor performance in assessment is not understanding what they have to do. What should I be writing about? Do I need to include this? Or that? Certainly anyone who has been teaching Higher Education for a while will have doubtless experienced the week-12 tutorials with students staring desperately into your eyes as though they have just woken up naked in a supermarket. ‘How did I get here?!’ the eyes ask. ‘Where can hide?’, or just plain ‘???!!!’.
Designing assessment is all about trying to make the requirements of the task clear, and such that every week you can relate content to the assessment – so every week students are being given the answers to the kind of questions that they might otherwise not ask until it is too late.
There is another issue though. Assessment needs to be designed as far as possible to that it can engage students. It is difficult enough to complete your assessment for any study, but it is much harder if the assessment is simply not interesting.
Of course there are various ways in which you can go about attempting to address these issues. Over the years I have leaned towards trying to ensure that my assessment is as relevant to the module as possible, and that the assessment can draw on different strengths – trying not to think about criticality in a one-dimensional way, and enabling students to try out new skills at the same time. This has led to some complete disasters (group work – always group work), some difficult but ultimately ok experiments (assessed wikis or practical workshops), and some which probably seemed more successful to me than they did to the students I had traumatized (creating cartoon strips, discussions on posters, etc.).
For this new module, my assessment was already set for me.
An essay. Good grief. What numptie put that in the module definition?
Oh yes. It was me.
Ok, so my bed was made and I had to lie in it. The idea of ‘just another essay’ has the advantage that for many students there would be the comfort of familiarity, but in terms of a topic which has imaginative processes at its heart, it does lack a certain … erm, imagination?
In some ways tough, this mode of assessment highlights one of the ways in which criticality can be viewed in a more three-dimensional way. Why can’t an essay be imaginative? Why can’t it be reflective, or even (to some extent) practical?
This new module is about the ways in which children’s experiences are translated into an adult consciousness, and then re-converted into story, situation and character – often having passed through entrenched ideological filters. What better way to demonstrate an understanding of that process than to try and follow that process yourself? This does not have to mean producing a piece of creative writing (which would, let’s be honest, have been preferable but difficult to describe as an ‘essay’) – but it can mean that the focus of the essay is the relation of the students own imaginative thought process to different texts and theories. It is at once creative, reflective and critical. It means that every week’s content can be seen as providing material relevant to the assessment. It means that the mode of assessment is directly related to the topic being studied.
It all sounds wonderful. At least, to me it does. The next difficulty though, is in explaining it clearly enough to students so that they understand from the beginning what is required of them. You can see my attempt at providing this clarity here.
So there we go. Something new. Now we just have to wait and see...