Revisiting old ideas

I’ve never been content to reuse an old syllabus–I always end up making adjustments, often major ones, to my classes every time I teach them. This semester, I’m teaching a 300-level film course with a focus on anime, a course I’m teaching for the third time. This year I’m drastically changing the course in two ways: adjusting the writing assignments in the course to all center around a public or outward-facing course blog, and replacing the old point-based grading system with a grade contract.

I’ve used blogs in many classes in the past. In previous semesters, I’ve taught the anime course using a password-locked blog for discussion posts and to house the syllabus, readings, and assignments. Only students in the class could see it. Students have responded positively to using the blog for discussion, preferring it over the discussion board on our university’s learning management system. Since the last time I’ve taught the class, I’ve used blogs differently in other courses, including first-year composition and a senior-level composition theory course, where students have used blogs to eventually create outward-facing eportfolios. In those courses, students exhibited a much greater concern for audience and became more engaged with their essays and other writing. I wanted to capture that enthusiasm and bring it into the film class. At the same time, I’ve also been thinking about how important blogging has been to the popularization of anime and manga in America; I’ve been interested in group blogs, where several contributors work together to push out a lot of information and a diversity of opinions about the shows they’re watching, books they’re reading, and games they’re playing. Sharing information about popular culture is highly social, and I think some of the most interesting spaces for this are those that have a high degree of collaboration, with many contributors. So, I decided that I wanted to stick with the single blog for my film and anime course, but to have it be a site where the students generate all of the content, and write for an outside audience.

Supporting this move towards a public, collaborative blog, I’ve also shifted to using a grade contract. Again, the inspiration comes from earlier work in first year composition (ENG102), where Maggie and I developed a contract to support students as they worked on an eportfolio; the contract helps them to stay focused on their research, writing, and revisions and to worry less about individual assignment grades. I had great success with using a contract in my composition theory course last semester. The contract I developed for my film course was challenging to write, though. I’ve found that each course’s grade contract has to be very specific to the course, which means I’m not able to copy much (if anything!) from other courses. So each contract starts from scratch.

An interesting thing I found with this contract is that writing it became very recursive with designing the syllabus. Although I began by drafting out the assignment descriptions and learning outcomes for the syllabus, working on the contract helped me to refine what was in the syllabus–especially the weekly schedule. Since I no longer had grade percentages next to the assignment descriptions, it wasn’t until I was writing the contract that I was able to fully visualize how significant each project needed to be in terms of how much in-class time, assignment scaffolding, and related reading I should devote to each.

Here’s what the contract looks like; I’ve tried to be very specific about what differentiates each grade from the next.

Have you used grade contracts in your classes? What have your experiences been?

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