This week I taught Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston in my Advanced Topics in 19th Century Literature course, subtitled: "Gender in the American Renaissance." I've struggled with this 8 a.m. class, trying to avoid lecturing because I try very hard to make every class student-centered. I hand over half the syllabus and ask students to fill in the rest with books they want to read. I ask students to bring a discussion question to every class, and a passage they want to talk about in the text. I put them into discussion groups. We do listening dyad activities. But these students seemed to want me to lecture, and seemed to listen most carefully when I lectured. It puzzled me and frustrated me because I wanted them to have more agency in their own learning. So I found a compromise.
Start with What Students Know
In line with my goal to teach the basics of literary studies, I get up and write on the board: “Know,” “Kinda Know,” and “Don’t Know,” leaving plenty of space between each of the three columns. We start with what we know about the historical and biographical context. Then we drift into things we should probably look up: the Great Migration, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. And then we get to what we know we don’t know: the history of Eatonville, Florida, and the history of Haiti, where Hurston supposedly wrote the novel in seven weeks.
I broke students up into groups of 2 and 3, and assigned them several of the “Kinda Know” and “Don’t Know” things we’ve written on the board. Then I set a timer for five minutes for them to do research and find the salient points about those topics that they want to share with the class. Once time was up, we went around and shared, coming up with even more things we “Kinda Know,” such as words like “carpetbagger,” “scalawag,” and more. We took another five minutes to look those words up and find answers. Meanwhile, we debated what was applicable to the text and how much biography and history we should read into it, and how much of the book we should address independently.
Transitioning from Lecture to Discussion
Although student-centered pedagogy is always my goal, and it has been successful in many of my classes, I’ve found that these students, who are very advanced, wanted to hear me lecture more. I hate lecturing, so this was my compromise: we build a map of all the context we need to understand a text before we discuss and dissect it together. Student-centered pedagogy doesn’t work for all students, as Cathy N. Davidson reminds us in her HASTAC blog post, “How Student-Centered Learning Connects to Great Teaching.” But I think there’s a way to go about lecturing that keeps students engaged and shows them how much knowledge is at their fingertips with the internet as well as how much knowledge we have collectively, sitting in a room together and sharing ideas to fill the board.
Starting in a collaborative activity focused on research that announces–literally–with the writing on the wall that this is low stakes (e.g., “Kinda Know” and “Don’t Know”) helps ease students into a discussion of a text without the fear of being wrong. There are moments in between when I add in a little lecturing to fill in the gaps, but when I task them with looking things up, they often contribute more than what I know. This was especially helpful to me this week because it was my first time teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God. I had allowed my students a lot of control over the content of our syllabus and they picked this book. While I love doing this, it can sometimes leave me in a scramble to prepare if we do back-to-back texts I’ve never taught before. By researching together, they took the wheel in teaching their peers and self-teaching.
When we transitioned into class discussion, my students were warmed up and ready, already adjusted to talking with each other and working their way towards answers that satisfied them. I’ve gotten 100% participation both days this week, and while I’d like to say it’s because of this teaching method, I think the real reason is that Hurston’s writing is so compelling, beautiful, sincere, and thought-provoking.
This is part of a longer post, originally posted on my pedagogy blog. Read the full post here.