Intro to Poetry Writing: The Flexible Course

This spring, I’ll have the opportunity to teach two introductory poetry writing classes, one at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.  I’ve taught this course five times now, and every time I’ve loved it.  But one thing I have always struggled with is the idea that while the course purports to teach students to write poems, the assessments for the course haven’t really borne that idea out.  I’ve been wary of assigning a grade to creative work.  It’s never seemed fully right that the grade a student would make would be contingent upon their poems somehow appealing to my taste.

Of course, my grading system ends up being pretty darn subjective, regardless.  I’ve assigned grades to written papers about the work of published authors, and I’ve assigned grades to the quality and thoughtfulness (and perceived preparation) of comments in class discussions and workshops.  These are outrageously subjective measures.  There just isn’t a ton of objectivity in a truly great humanities classroom.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I could write an assessment system for a poetry course that would include plenty of subjective assessments, but instead of requiring students to meet the same subjective criteria, I could let them choose where they want to aim their efforts.  And better yet, what if I could recruit other working poets to help me do some evaluation?  What if I could make their commitment to the course feasible, a service that I might provide for them if they taught an intro poetry writing course?

Once I started thinking about a number of criteria and ample student choice over which paths to take, I started thinking about gamification.  And once I realized that there may be some power in distributing the assessment, I realized that at a minimum, I’d have to open-source the syllabus and assessment system, and if this thing really evolved, I might be looking at a MOOC. (I’m committed to the minimum.  The MOOC stuff still seems a looooong way off.)

On gamification:

Here’s one thing that bothers me about traditional assessment systems: they start with the assumption that everyone has a 100 and they lose points from there.  I don’t know of anyone who grades a paper, starting with the assumption that the student has zero points and is going to earn their way up to a 100 by meeting criteria.  If a rubric is provided at all (more rare than it should be, and I’ll admit to being a part of that problem), it generally shows the students how deficiencies will detract from the perfect score of 100.  It seems to me that if we have a set of course objectives, we should be able to assign points when those objectives are met, and those points should add up to 100 if they’re all achieved.

I want to try that.

But an introduction to poetry writing course hardly seems the place to aim for a 100.  The course has a particularly broad set of criteria for “excellence” at the introductory level.  Students should have working knowledge of a number of concepts (easy to assess) but the students’ ability to put those concepts together in meaningful ways will manifest itself in vastly different ways.  The student who learns to write truly accomplished metaphors but has zero proficiency with meter could be said to be ahead of the student who is competent at both but distinguished at neither.

So my aim in the coming weeks is to develop and weight a system that allows students multiple opportunities at multiple assessment options to demonstrate some fluency with the elements of poetic craft.  I aim to develop (or appropriate from friends and readers), then share, as comprehensive a list of fully fleshed-out assessment activities for the intro to poetry writing student.  My thinking is that if I can make these assessment opportunities available as flexibly as possible (with certain limitations imposed by my ability to keep up, which is admittedly a weakness in this system), students will have multiple paths to an A in the course, rather than the single path I’ve provided in the past (10% completion of new work, 20% revision, 15% exams, 15% participation, 40% craft papers).  Students will be able to set a lot of their own goals, and when they show mastery in an area, they can move on.  Student X and Student Y might both get an A in the class but might have only done one or two of the same assignments.

I expect that this sounds cooler to people who’ve already passed this level of their schooing careers than it will to many of my students.  I’ve found that students at the introductory level want clear paths to the A (particularly because so much of schooling is based on the assumption that they’ve started with one and lost points along the way).  I don’t think they’ll love having so much choice, especially because a third of the way through the course, they’ll look at their grade and probably won’t be a third of the way to where they need to be to get the A.  That will drive some students absolutely nuts.

I think I can live with that.  The world doesn’t assume that you started rich and lost your retirement dollars to your mortgage and power bill along the way.

What if we start with the idea that students show up with zero points in the class, and a list of 50-100 possible assessments that they can choose to pursue?  Each assessment has a point value attached: because I’m an Xbox junkie, let’s call this the student’s achievement score.  If you total all the possible achievement scores together, you might get 7,5000 or even 10,000 achievement points.  That would represent mastering a pretty advanced curriculum– a body of work that would be well beyond the expectations of the introductory level. At some arbitrary number that represents a significant body of work, let’s say 2,500 achievement points for now, a student would get an A.  At some lesser number, say 2,200, the student earns a B.  And there are thresholds below that.

Certain achievements should be easy to get, but as in games, those should be worth fewer points.  Write one poem (with no other criteria in place): 5 achievement points.  A student could have points after two minutes.  Provide an original example of metonymy: 10 achievement points.  A student could do a ton of these and still not reach 2,500 achievement points.  But doing a lot of these could start to add up, and reduce the student’s obligation to go for the big stuff.  Some students won’t care: put the big stuff in front of them, and they’ll go for it.

So, what’s the big stuff?  Write a poem that’s juried by a working poet (not the instructor) and assigned a five-star rating: 100 achievement points; or, a three-star poem: 25 points.  Be voted “most helpful commenter” by your peers in an instant run-off election: 100 achievement points; or, rank second or third in that voting: 25 achievement points.  Have twelve craft papers on individual poems by published authors approved: 800 achievement points; or have six papers accepted: 250 achievement points.

Admittedly, I’ve pulled these point figures out of the air; I provide them now as examples rather than as actual values I aim to use.  I expect that the point values will need to be carefully balanced when the array of options is available and there are reasonable criteria for evaluating each established.  So they may be constantly shifting.  I also expect that without some controls, students will hand in whole volumes on the last day and the all-too-human instructors won’t be able to keep up.  Or, the last minute stuff won’t be any good, because students haven’t had reasonable feedback loops all along, and students will be disappointed because they felt like they never had a reasonable shot.

So a sample syllabus that accompanies the assessment system will be a product.  (The sample will become my live syllabus for spring 2013, if I can get it done in time.)  Some assessments will be open to students at any point in the semester, others time out.  If a student attempts the craft papers, they can’t submit more than one per week.  If the student attempts the “wrote five different forms” assessment (50 achievement points), they have to do so incrementally, because I only accept one new poem every two weeks.  If I get someone to agree to jury the poems independently, students can only submit two.  If a student attempts the recitation assessment (25 achievement points), it would have to be done on certain days when class time was available for it, and only a certain number of slots are available (on a first-come, first-served basis) for attempts on each of those days.

But students could conceivably submit one product for multiple purposes.  I don’t see why a student couldn’t turn in a pantoum towards the “five different forms” assessment that also includes personification, or an imitation of a famous poet that also includes inverted syntax and an extended metaphor.

On sharing:

This seems like a lot of work to design.  This seems like a lot of work to implement.

I still want to try it.

I’ve been the recipient of an enormous amount of good advice, a lot of materials, and no shortage of excellent models in my short teaching career.  I’ve begged, borrowed, and built a class that’s a lunatic amount of work for both the students and for me.  I like it that way.  Not everyone will.

But seriously, most of the poets I know think that teaching poetry to students is the bee’s knees, and few of them are making it as easy on themselves as possible.  They’ve got skin in the game because they’re passionate readers and they really do want to help young and developing poets get good quickly because it will make the reading and grading so much more pleasurable.  I’m hopeful that a lot of people will drop by after finals are done and offer ideas for potential assessments, or criticisms of the syllabus, and that we can sharpen it together.  Maybe we end up with a few divergent products, and share the results. People may change the point values to reflect their priorities and student learning goals, which won’t necessarily be the same as mine. Maybe a few will share those learning goals, which could become part of the product.  Maybe a few will volunteer to jury a small set of poems for my students, and I’ll do the same for theirs.

I just think there’s a lot of potential benefit that we could realize– and perhaps out students could realize– from sharing.  And if no one wants to share, that’s cool, too.  I still want to try this, and I’m willing to do it in public.

So, in the next couple weeks, this blog will probably have a couple entries, sometimes half-baked, about this process and about the product itself.  The product may end up elsewhere, like a wiki.  But wherever it is, you’ll have access to it.  I promise.