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What's the Best Assignment You've Heard About this Year?

What's the Best Assignment You've Heard About this Year?

This is genius!  A way to transform any classroom from passive to active, productive, exciting, invested, engaged, involved learning. Really.  And very, very easy to adapt to any topic, any discipline, any classroom (I can even see doing a variation with math problems).

Collective Book Review Critical Assignment 

Pioneered by and Adopted from Constance Penley, Professor of Film & Media Studie Founding Director and Co-Director Emeritus of the Carsey-Wolf Cent

The other evening, Professor Constance Penley did me the honor of telling me all the ways she has adopted student-centered, active learning methods in her undergraduate and graduate classes and how much they have transformed those classes and her students.  She also returned the favor by telling me about an assignment that she has developed that I hope to use in my classes this year.  It's brilliant.  

I'm sure I don't have all the details exactly right but below is what I relayed to my co-teacher, Professor Shelly Eversley, with whom I'll be teaching this year.   You can adopt and adapt this in many ways.  Check it out!  It's really perfect. 


The only thing you need is some kind of online tool where students can post. Most people have access to Blackboard or another course management system.   If not, you can choose to use HASTAC.  Prof Eversley and I will be creating a "Group" for our class on (it's free; anyone can do this--hundreds of classes do).  On HASTAC, for every post, you must click a setting to say whether you want your post public or available only to your group.  HASTAC is free and we never, ever misuse our data or sell it to commercial interests.

Assignment (my adaptation):

1- Kick off the assignment by including a basic bibliography of the major works on the topic of your course.  This might be list of the 15 or 20 most important critical, theoretical, or historical scholarly articles, books, etc. on your course topic. NB: You could do this with anything else, from novels to Hip Hop artists to sociological studies, ethnogrpahic accounts, data studies, pretty much anything.

2. Put this list into an editable google doc and  invite students to add other entries, in correct alphabetic and bibliographic form

3.  Assignment: each student chooses a book or article.

4. The student reads the book/article and other reviews of the book /responses to work she can find, on line or anywhere.

5. Student then writes and publishes on the class blog a review of the book with the purpose of distilling something important, interesting, unique, unusual, unforgettable (etc) about the book for the other students in the class.

        (a) Book review includes: abstract of the book and its argument; summary of other responses to the book; the students’ responses (positive and negative) to the book; and then the

      (b) above part:  i.e. whether I like this book or not, I don’t want you to have wasted your time reading my review so here are three really interesting/important/funny etc insights you can take away from having read my review.  

       (c ) Whole thing:  1000 words or less.

6. Every student reads and makes a comment on every other students’ review. 

What this means:  No one has time to read every book but everyone, collectively, learns from this assignment about a whole constellation of books in the field and reads and grapples with one in an important way.  And because everyone reads and comments on everyone else’s review, everyone has exposure to however many books/students there are in the class plus at least three new, important, interesting insights per book.
Connie said she has never read better papers in her whole career.  

I can't wait to try this out. 



Last year, the course I taught with Professor Michael Gillespie, "Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom," we were teaching the section on visuality right when the Whitney Biennial controversy about a white artist painting an Emmet Til painting burst.  Our students handled this with a complexity and brilliance I am positive we could never have matched.  See:

Dr. Penley teaches courses on feminism and pornography, and invites people from the industry to her course.  When students take charge, they become experts on the arguments and serious, important cultural studies analysts of this single most popular form of mass culture. 



Constance Penley is Professor of Film and Media Studies and Founding Director and Co-Director Emeritus of the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and studied at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Her major areas of research interest are film history and theory, feminist theory, cultural studies, contemporary art, and science and technology studies. She is a founding editor of Camera Obscura: Feminism, Media, Cultural Studies and editor or co-editor of the influential collections Feminism and Film Theory, Male Trouble, Technoculture, The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Science and Gender, and The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure (with Tristan Taormino, Mireille Miller-Young, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu). Her books include The Future of an Illusion: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis, NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America, and the forthcoming Teaching Pornography. She is co-producer of Porn 101 with Katie Morgan for HBO Documentaries. Her collaborative art projects are “MELROSE SPACE: Primetime Art by the GALA Committee” and “Biospheria: An Environmental Opera,” on which she was co-librettist. Penley is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Award and the Kenneth Burke Society Prize in Rhetorical Criticism.



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