Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Price of Innovation

Commenting on the “Blogs and Wikis” thread below, Carrie Shanafelt wrote,

Every time I try to introduce innovative methods and texts that my English majors don't expect, it ends up benefitting those who work hard and are curious and penalizing those who are just trying to get a C. That is, I feel the more pedagogically sound my teaching is, the more my classes' grades split into As and Fs.

Do others attempting innovative teaching methods encounter this phenomenon? When we try to get students to interact with difficult course material in new ways, does it inevitably punish the students with lackluster academic skills and reward those who come to the class with better preparation for success?

I was struck by Carrie’s comment because her wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of “C” student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these “C” students bring to the course. It also seems like an entirely appropriate way to punish the other kind of “C” student—the ones who could do better but choose not to as they run down the clock on their degrees. The expectations and requirements for success are clearly spelled out, as are the consequences for not meeting them. It’s not the instructor’s responsibility to translate students’ willful mediocrity into precisely the mediocre grades they think they deserve. But perhaps in the context of a variety of writing assignments that go against the grain of lit-class practice, weaker students don’t perceive the distinctions between the skills that are being drawn on and just get generally discouraged?

I guess I’m wondering if the A/F bifurcation Carrie is observing just polarizes the range that would be there in a more traditional incarnation of this class, or if innovative methods rearrange the categories of excellence such that talented students who coast get punished more than they would by less innovative methods, and hardworking but intellectually limited students get rewarded more?

My own efforts at innovation in my Enlightenment class seem to have produced a different kind of dynamic. A higher percentage of the class than in the past seems to be engaged with the material and willing to make an effort to understand, interpret, and contextualize it, but the remainder that hasn’t been bought on board (though smaller) seems much more resistant and entrenched than in the past. It’s as if the more I make C18 material accessible and comprehensible to students, the more room I give the ones who dislike it to really hate it, and to assert their inability to shake the assumptions they came in with. It's gratifying that this semester this hostility seems focused on the material and not me, but otherwise I’m not sure if this phenomenon counts as progress or not.

Anyone else care to take a break from end-of-semester grading to reflect on the price of innovation?