Building a Course Website for Future Use

I had two main objectives when I set out to design the companion website for my MA-level methods course. The first was pedagogical: I wanted to take advantage of the informality associated with blogging in order to approach assignments that might otherwise be perceived as daunting– like explicating Derrida, for example, or doing a close reading of a poem. (I write more about using blogging to scaffold writing assignments here).

The second objective for the site was more conceptual: I wanted to create a lasting resource for my students. The methods course was required of all students preparing to take the MA in English comprehensive exam. But since the exam wasn’t offered until the following spring, there would be several months between taking my course and sitting for the exam. I knew that my students would have to return to the materials in order to study for the exam. So I wanted to create a site that they could refer back to at a later date.

I say here that I wanted to create this site, but taking a page from the constructionist camp, what I really wanted to do was create a framework within which my students could create their own site for future use. To that end, I designed each assignment to include a structured, online component. Instead of asking students to write out definitions for the set of literary terms that they were required to learn for the exam, I directed them to the course website. I asked them to tag specific texts with any relevant terms, and then explain why they’d applied those particular terms to the text. (Ex: Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”). In this way, the students would end up with examples, as well as definitions, of the terms they’d need to know for the exam. The tagging also resulted in this great tag cloud (left) which could be used as an alternate form of navigation.

I also designed several assignments around applications of literary theory, since that was another skill they’d be required to demonstrate on their exam. I began each formal assignment with an informal, online complement. For an assignment in which students were required to apply certain critical lenses to examine a scene from The Turn of the Screw, I had them begin by posting a close reading of their chosen scene online. Then, I asked them to assign categories to their post, reflecting the authors of the theories they intended to apply in their essays. (Ex: Marx, Freud, and The Turn of the Screw). Navigating the site by critic, at a later date, would reveal several passages from several texts on which that particular theory could be applied.

I wasn’t sure how my students would respond to being exposed to the nitty-gritty of WordPress– tagging, categorizing, navigating, etc. But as it turned out, the students found the assignments– and the website– useful. When it came time for the exam, traffic to the website spiked. And I, for one, continue to refer to certain student postings in order to gather ideas for future classroom discussion.

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