professional development

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Intellectual Acts and Social Practices

Our assignment for this seminar was to create an assignment and a rubric. These were then reviewed by our peers in the seminar, a process that was helpful in our understanding of what intellectual acts were actually going on in the classroom.

Assignment: Explication de Texte

Read the poem “Le dormeur du val” by Arthur Rimbaud and write a traditional “explication de texte” in French about it. The “explication de texte” is a common French assignment that has the student engage with the text in a quasi-scientific manner, explicating it terms of content, form, and rhetoric, in a structured essay that can be broken down as follows:

Introduction: In this part, the student situates the text, describes its main attributes, what happens in it, and its main themes. Details often mentioned in the introduction include (but are not limited to):

Primary information: author’s name, title, the date of publication, pertinent historical context
The form: genre, type of verses, rhyme scheme, fixed form poetry, variations
The subject: what is the topic of the passage? What is the function of the passage within the larger text (if an excerpt)?
Outline: Generally within an introduction to a French explication de texte, the student writes an outline at the end of the introduction, explaining the order of what will come next. Often, students will choose to analyze the text in order, with each major section of the text discussed in individual paragraphs; sometimes, students choose to write thematically.

Analysis: Here, the student describes the structure of the passage, the development, and the different parts of the text. The analysis depends on the text in question, and often deals with some of the following questions:

• Does the author move from a general idea to a specific one or vice versa?
• What is the tone?
• Who is speaking?
• What sort of language does the author use?
• What tense is the passage in, and what is the significance of the changing of tenses?
• Why does the author use this particular diction or syntax?
• What are the stylistic choices: images, metaphors, comparisons, paraphrasing, repetition of words or syntactical structures, historical or literary allusions, personification, etc.?
• What is the effect produced by such techniques?

Conclusion: Finally, the student should summarize the preceding study of the passage, with the main emphasis being on the main themes and their relationship to the form. Finally, he/she should give a personal evaluation of the text and your reactions. The purpose of an explication de texte is to deepen your understanding of the text and appreciation of the poetic and literary qualities of the author.

Rubric for Evaluation

Structure: ___ / 5

• Does the overall structure of the essay contain the introduction, analysis, and conclusion?
• Introduction: Does the introduction properly situate the text, give pertinent information about its historical/cultural context, the author, and the nature of the passage? Is there a clear thesis in the introduction? Does it include an outline?
• Analysis: Does the analysis follow the text in a logical manner? Is the text cited within the analysis section to support points made in the introduction? Does the analysis develop the claims made in the introduction? Does the structure of the analysis follow the outline presented in the introduction?
• Conclusion: Does the conclusion both summarize the preceding summary and provide a personal evaluation?
• Is the structure clearly defined throughout the essay and easy to recognize while reading?

Style: ___ / 5

• Is the essay well-written? Ex) Varied sentence structure, not too much repetition, precise word choice, consistent tense (explications de texte dealing with literature are always written in the present tense when describing the text, but past when describing the historical context), etc.
• Is the writing interesting? Does the introduction pull the reader in? Is the reader constantly engaged in the analysis?

Analysis: ___ / 5

• Language: Can student effectively identify types of literary language and explain how such language is important to the passage and its overall meaning?
• Theme: Can student expand the analysis of the language of the text to discuss the broader theme of the passage or novel? Perhaps even to other literature?
• Thesis: Can student maintain his thesis throughout the analysis?
• Examples: Does student give detailed examples from the text to substantiate his/her claims? Are examples presented logically and critically?
• Relationship to classroom discussions: Does the student expand beyond the classroom discussions in his/her analysis? Can he/she identify the text given the author and date of publication as well as situate it more profoundly within the larger literary history we have discussed?

French: ___ / 5

• Student is able to express him/herself in French with minimal comprehension errors.
• The grammatical points of the writing are representative of successful completion of required language prerequisite courses.
• The vocabulary the student uses in French is rich and varied.
• The spelling and accents are accurate with minimal errors.
• The student is able to maintain a formal, academic register of language throughout the essay.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Course Assessment and Grading

Learning Goals

For this new session of the McGraw Teaching Seminar, we had to refine the novice learning goals we had drafted in November and come up with some sort of an assessment that would allow us to see if students met those goals. Our novice learning goals were originally: “Learn to construct an argument about literary texts through contextualization (historical, cultural). Language is a main problematic in teaching both.” Reflecting, we decided that our learning goals could be divided into three specific aspects:

  1. Contextualization: the student should be able to contextualize the text within historical, cultural, linguistic frames
  2. Text: the student should sympathetically engage with the text and understand it on multiple levels
  3. Argument: the student should interpret, appreciate, and evaluate

With this in mind, we refined our novice learning goals to the following short sentence: “Students will contextualize, engage with, and interpret texts.”


For the evaluation half of the assignment, rather than discussing an essay or final exam, we decided to develop a general rubric for a post/short response in the LMS in three parts:

  1. Identify the main problems the text deals with, with possible recourse to the historical and cultural context.
  2. Focus on a section of the text, looking specifically at language and rhetoric and the tools the author uses to accomplish what was said in part 1.
  3. Analyze the implications for the time in which the text was written and today.

When discussing what success would look like, we decided that the student should be able to use textual evidence in combination with analysis, persuasively arguing these three points, making cases for significance and fostering connections.

Our conversation also touched upon the difficulty of having a final exam in classes such as these. We decided that having the students carry out short, structured thinking exercises like these would allow for greater discussion in seminar-style classes. Furthermore, with such preparation, it would be possible to give an exercise like this as a final exam in addition to a final essay.

Seminar Discussion

Unsurprisingly, the seminar was about rubrics. When I was in school, rubrics were the bane of my existence. While based on good intentions, they often seemed reductive ways to understand assignments. In college and beyond, I rarely had rubrics and when I did, found that they often turned my experience of the assignment into a dry, uninteresting exercise that was a basic formality of the course.

That is why I was skeptical of this particular meeting, for which the follow-up assignment would be to create our own assignments and rubrics, which would be evaluated by my peers using a rubric for rubrics. That said, designing my assignment and rubric did force me to think more critically about my course goals and the purpose of the assignment itself. However, once I had designed an assignment that I thought was consistent with my course goals, I found that the rubric itself was almost superfluous.

In the end, perhaps rubrics are a useful exercise for teachers, but I am still not convinced that they bring out the best in our students. In the seminar, we had a heated discussion on the use of rubrics and everyone else seemed about as divided as I was. The readings for that session took the form of pseudo-scientific studies that raised more questions than they answered, and left many unimpressed. While I might steer clear of rubrics when I design and teach my first course, it is true that I learned a lot writing one.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Course Goals

Humanities Course Goals

After participating in the breakout groups and reflecting individually on what it means to be a novice and an expert in our disciplines, our seminar meeting today dealt primarily with course goals. Rather than being grouped with people in different disciplines as we were for the previous assignment, in this seminar we sat with other participants from similar disciplines. I was paired with two classicists and together, we developed succinct course goals that we could write on a poster and hang on the board. This is what we came up with:


Once we had seen the course goals for each disciplinary group, we identified their strengths and weaknesses. At the core, every discipline wanted their students to learn critical reasoning and interpretation skills. Problem solving was also popular for science and engineering. In many cases, learning to speak properly about what is at stake in a discipline and communicate results was also important. In all disciplines, the subject was the student, and course goals best translated into strong, action verbs.

I appreciated the main takeaway from this seminar, which was that our goals as educators don’t differ too much from discipline to discipline. In each, we just want students to be able to think deeply about a particular topic and develop the skills and competencies necessary to understand the discipline. Specifically within the humanities, the goals are so similar that the division into departments seems almost redundant. Look for yourself. Below, you’ll find the course goals each group defined.


McGraw Teaching Seminar: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practices

The Preliminary Assignment

Our second meeting of the McGraw Teaching Seminar focused on disciplinary knowledge and practices. To prepare, we were assigned to groups composed of participants in drastically different disciplines. I was paired with a chemist, a political scientist, and a classicist. The assignment was to meet and discuss, learning about our own disciplines through the eyes of “novices.” Our assigned discussion questions were as follows:

  1. If you were to take an introductory course in my field, what would you expect to learn?
  2. What would you want to learn more about?
  3. What particular challenges do you think you would confront?

We then had to answer the following two main questions:

  1. Write a paragraph or two that reflects on the various novice responses toward your introductory course that you received from members of your breakout group.
  2. Write one course goal and a lesson for a class of novices in your field that addresses how you would respond to one of the perspectives you received from your breakout conversation. What would your goal be? And how would you design a class meeting around advancing students toward the goal?

My Responses

1. The first question that arose was: what is an introductory course in French? Language or literature or culture? In other words, is the focus teaching language as a tool or is it to help students read literature? There is an implicit answer to these questions in the way language and literature departments are structured: introductory courses tend to be language classes, with the goal to get students to more advanced courses in literature or culture. For the purposes of our discussion, we restricted talk to an introductory French language course.

We decided that a novice in an introductory language class would expect to attain basic competency in terms of communication. There was some discussion about which competencies were most important: oral or written. This conversation evolved into a more important one: how much of a language class consists of basic exercises in grammar and conversation? Language is a tool, determined by how students need to use it. This is true for any language: for instance, in academia, scientists speak a different “English” than that of a literary scholar or historian. In an introductory language course, how do you integrate how students will eventually use the language — elements of culture, literature, politics, history, etc.?

2. One course goal that should be necessary in an introductory French language class should be promoting a broad understanding of the history, culture, and literature of the French and francophone world. While spending class time on larger cultural discussions might seem antithetical to teaching a language or worse — a waste of precious class time — I believe that activities based on authentic cultural documents can promote discussion-based classes that leave a greater impression on students. Rather than isolating grammar points, such activities allow students to see grammar in action and participate in a culture that is not their own, promoting cultural understanding. There are two main dangers associated with this method: first, preparation takes much longer; second, these activities risk to discourage students if not properly scaffolded.

Activity based on Current Events

In light of recent events, an appropriate activity might take the form of discussion about last Friday’s terrorist attacks throughout Paris. This could involve “reading” some of the Twitter hashtags and images that have sprung up in support of Paris. Using Twitter hashtags as authentic documents is not only politically relevant, but is also a level-appropriate pedagogical tools since they consist of very few words and images linked to a specific context.

A hypothetical activity might have students look at the descriptions and images that people were posting to find their loved ones, have them discuss what they were doing at the time of the attack (this would be an excellent way to practice the two types of past tenses — the passé composé and the imparfait) and then to move it to a larger discussion of the greater significance of the attacks. To target the conditional tense, one could have students debate the French political response and its potential repercussions. Such an activity would also be a good moment to reflect on France’s colonial history and relationship with former colonies, many of which are Muslim-majority.

While some might criticize such an activity as impossible given the language level in an introductory class, as long as the objectives are clear and the activity is properly scaffolded, students will likely be more invested in current events than in a rudimentary discussion of how they got dressed in the morning. Indeed, French teachers have the obligation to discuss this tragic event at any level, as some of these students might hope to study abroad in France one day. Activities of this nature contribute not only to a more complete understanding of the French language (which is inseparable from the culture), but to the greater goals of a university education — to create well-rounded and engaged citizens.