ENG-L 495 / SPCH-S 400: Senior Seminar in English & Communication Arts

(Click here for the Fall 2019 Course Syllabus.)

This seminar asked students to reflect on their four years of coursework by exploring the closely-connected origins of their separate disciplines, English and Communication Arts/Speech Communication. The overall pedagogical goal of this admittedly rather ambitious Senior capstone course was to show students how academic disciplines and the knowledges, practices, and identities they produce are not “natural” or accidental, but constructed via complex processes of specialization, professionalization, socialization, and what scholars call “boundary work.” One of my primary research interests dating back to my grad school days has to do with the way modern academic disciplines work to produce knowledge via complex processes of boundary-setting and differentiation—a series of moves and techniques closely related to the circulation of disciplinary power, as has been discussed extensively in the work of Michel Foucault, Stephen Mailloux, Thomas Gieryn, David Russell, and others.

Traditionally, Senior Seminar courses for English and Communication Arts majors at IU Kokomo have been combined into a single section. This is done for several practical reasons: primarily to ensure that the course has enough students to “make” (i.e., meet enrollment requirements) and to save faculty labor and time, but also because English and Communication Arts faculty work closely in the same school and tend to collaborate on both pedagogical and scholarly projects. When I was asked to teach this course in Fall 2016, I was excited that I would have the opportunity to teach both sets of students, even though this meant attempting the (arguably) impossible: creating a seminar-like environment for some 30+ students. Still, I was encouraged in that I would be able to use both my research background and my training in rhetoric and composition studies to explore with students how their separate disciplines came to be separate disciplines in the first place. Given my liminal status as a “rhet-comp person”—a status that puts me on the boundary between literary studies/English and Speech Communication—I thought, as did my Chair and others, that I would be a good candidate to teach such a class.

My hope was that by discussing, reflecting on, and writing about their past two or three years of coursework in their respective majors, these students would come to see the constructed, historically-contingent nature of academic disciplines and thus be better able to engage complex problems and issues after graduation from multidisciplinary perspectives. The projects that students developed in this class were diverse and many were excellent. Some of the most effusively positive comments I received from students in 2016 were from this particular course (see below for full qualitative data).

However, the course also received some significant criticism—as did I. Many students were put off by the divided nature of the course and some felt that there was tension between English and Communication Arts majors. One of the first assignments I had students complete asked them to bring in copies of their unofficial transcripts or simply a list of all of the courses they had taken in their majors thus far. I then asked them to reflect on the skills and capacities (e.g., critical thinking, analysis, summary, public speaking, reading skills, etc.) that each course developed and write them down; the idea was that when we met to discuss our first set of readings, we could also talk about how the institutional and even curricular boundaries that exist between English and Communication Arts courses appear much more permeable when one considers the many similarities at the “root” of our disciplines. I developed a worksheet and set up a way to share these reflections anonymously in Canvas. I had high hopes that this would get the semester off to a good start, begin to build community between the students, and make a statement about the constructed—although no less “real”—boundaries between academic disciplines.

Two things happened. First, a destructive tornado touched down just blocks away from IU Kokomo at the same time that the semester was getting started and during that crucial early-semester period of “getting to know” each other and building trust. Chaos ensued in the days and even weeks that followed as several of my students lost their homes and the campus community in general worked hard to recover from the destruction.

Second, when we did re-start the semester a few days later, the dynamic that developed between students was tense and non-productive. Rather than exploring the “differences that unite us,” to put it in a somewhat corny way, some students apparently misread this exercise as an attempt to vaunt English over Communication Arts. (One irony here is that at the time we were reading Plato’s Phaedrus, a text that is about love and learning—all the more ironic is that this dialogue is probably assigned in far more Speech Communication theory and history courses across the US than in the typical 400-level English class. But I digress.)

There were two other significant structural problems with the course—both of which were my fault entirely. First, as many of the written comments attest, I tried to cram too much dense reading and too many time-consuming online discussions into a course in which students also had to complete a large-scale project with a faculty mentor. Students seemed to respond positively to the in-class discussions, even students who were otherwise quite critical of the course, so I should have made more time for in-class discussions while lessening the readings and homework. I think I was overly enthusiastic—and therefore overly ambitious—about how much we could get done, and I vastly underestimated the impact that 30+ students would have on the seminar atmosphere I was trying to develop.

One of the fundamental assumptions of a seminar course, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, is that the students in the class will have had similar curricular experiences and that they will be at roughly the same level in terms of their coursework and skills. Because this class was so large—and because it was made up of two sets of students from different programs—my insistence on making this a true seminar (rather than, say, a large workshop/lecture course) ultimately led to some of the semester-long problems that plagued the course. In short, I was trying to cram too much into one semester and develop a seminar vibe among a lecture-sized group of students. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure what I was thinking. But as usual, the students’ remarks were quite insightful, as in this particularly thoughtful critical response:

 The course was not what I expected. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the students’ bad reaction to the setup of the course was probably the worst part. For a while, the atmosphere was very stressful both for students and the professor. I simply think more thought should have been put into the course structure, and more consideration should have been taken for others on all parts. There was a lot of disrespect from disgruntled students, and obvious frustration from disgruntled prof. More organization and less class assignments and more focus on projects and after-college life.

And this student is correct. While I do think the atmosphere improved over the course of the semester, especially by the final third of the term when students were finishing up and sharing their Senior Seminar projects (many of which were stellar, by the way), the vibe that developed in the class from those first few weeks proved to be counter-productive in the long run.

I will be teaching this course again in the Fall of 2017, but this time, I will only be teaching English majors. Based on my experience teaching this course in Fall 2016, we decided as a department that attempting to “split” a single Senior Seminar course between both English and Communication Arts—while there are some obvious areas of conceptual and theoretical overlap—resulted in a much larger class than is typically warranted in a “seminar”-type setup. This new arrangement will also enable me to focus more energy and class time on the unique professionalization issues that affect English majors (applying for graduate school, developing a strong writing sample and resume/CV, and so forth). Finally, the course will include a weekend Writers’ Retreat to IU’s Bradford Woods near Bloomington, Indiana.

 Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

The highest possible score in each category is a 5.00 = “Strongly Agree”; the lowest possible score is 1.00 = “Strongly Disagree.” Because the course was composed of both English and Communication Arts majors, there were two sets of evaluations with slightly different evaluation items. I have rendered this distinction in the tables below.

ENG-L 495 and SPCH-S 400: Senior Seminar in English and Communication ArtsFall 2016 (English majors)
1.)   My instructor organized this course well.3.50
2.)   My instructor is well-prepared for class meetings.4.50
3.)   My instructor explains the materials clearly.3.90
4.)   My instructor stimulates my thinking.3.90
5.)   My instructor is knowledgeable on course topics.4.50
6.)   My instructor shows genuine interest in students.3.80
7.)     My instructor is regularly available for consultation.4.40
8.)     My instructor encourages me to participate in class discussions.4.30
9.)     Announced course objectives agree with what is taught.3.60
10.)  I am pleased with the text required for this course.3.10
11.)  Directions for course assignments were clear and specific.3.90
12.)  The instructor uses technology in ways that helped my learning of concepts and principles.4.40
13.)  Standards for student achievement are reasonable.4.00
14.)  My instructor collects enough evidence for valid grading.4.10
15.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained.4.10
16.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially.3.90
17.)  The instructor promotes an atmosphere conducive to learning.3.70
18.)  I kept up with the studying and work for this course.4.00
19.)  I actively participated in class activities and discussions.3.80
20.)  I learned a lot in this course.3.40
21.)  I developed skills in critical thinking in this course.3.90
22.)  This course increased my interest in the subject matter.3.56
ENG-L 495 and SPCH -S 400: Senior Seminar in English and Communication ArtsFall 2016

(Communication Arts majors)

1.) My instructor organized this course well.3.78
2.) My instructor is well-prepared for class meetings.4.22
3.) My instructor explains the material clearly.3.06
4.) My instructor is knowledgeable on course topics.4.44
5.) My instructor treats students with respect.3.22
6.) My instructor is regularly available for consultation.4.11
7.) The instructor uses technology in ways that help my learning of concepts and principles.3.56
8.) The instructor promotes an atmosphere conducive.3.53
9.) The instructor uses Oncourse or Canvas to post grades, syllabus and class materials in a timely fashion.3.78
10.) Faculty work to provide diverse examples in classroom discussion, readings and supporting materials that broaden the student’s exposure to other cultures, backgrounds, lifestyles, abilities, ways of thinking, and/or ideas.4.06
11.) The objectives of this course are clearly stated.3.22
12.) The grading system for the course was clearly explained.3.67
13.) Grades are assigned fairly and impartially.3.22
14.) The course improved my understanding of concepts in this field.3.00
15.) Course content covered through the semester reflects announced course objectives.3.17

 Course Evaluations (Qualitative)

Fall 2016 (English majors)

“I absolutely loved this course. The Phaedrus and textbooks on paradigms and research—just all the text [sic] for the class—were intriguing and taught me a lot about critical thinking, identity and academia.”

“Cook is a challenging professor. But, theoretically, we are here to LEARN. I love that he makes us give our all and be engaged students.”

“His lectures teach us not just ‘book knowledge’ but real-world knowledge.”

“Really a thoughtful capstone.”

“I enjoyed the actual project that I created for the class, however the lectures did not seem to lend much insight that was apparently applicable to my project besides one section on creating the research question.”

“I did not enjoy the set up of the course or the class environment. Even though the goal seemed to be to show how Comm[unication Arts] and English have a lot of overlapping skills and materials, too often it seemed like the discussion was pushed towards which major is ‘better’ than the other. Also, the beginning setup of the class until we got to the section on actually setting up a research project did not make sense in connection with our projects and the overall goal of a capstone. It was a frustrating course at the beginning of the semester and not because the readings were too difficult but because it didn’t seem to offer connection to our capstone goals.”

“I liked when this course pertained to Senior Projects and Paul made himself available to students during/after class to help or answer questions.”

“The course was not what I expected. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the students’ bad reaction to the setup of the course was probably the worst part. For a while, the atmosphere was very stressful both for students and the professor. I simply think more thought should have been put into the course structure, and more consideration should have been taken for others on all parts. There was a lot of disrespect from disgruntled students, and obvious frustration from disgruntled prof. More organization and less class assignments and more focus on projects and after-college life.”

“My project was pretty cool so…”

“It got intense at times. Dr. Cook is generally cool but there were times I thought the grading was kind of biased. I had a tough time because I thought it functioned more like a high-level English class which sucked for Comm[unication Arts] majors. I didn’t participate in the discussions a lot b/c the few times I did the professor got kind of snarky.”

“I really liked my project so that was fun.”

“Dr. Cook was very adaptable to a changing class environment. The class was very disagreeable with things being taught, and Dr. Cook handled the situation well.”

“[The most important thing I learned in this course was that] deadlines are important.”

“The instructor [was] always quick to help us if we had questions or concerns and we always had interesting discussions.”

“[The thing I liked least about the course was that] we don’t always get to all of the lesson plans”

“I learned a lot about rhetoric and how it applies to my field.”

“The instructor is knowledgeable on topics discussed.”

“The combo of two majors made it difficult to understand at times.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] disciplinarity.”

“The instructor is very knowledgeable.”

“The fact that the 2 majors were combined in the same class [was my least favorite aspect of the course].”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in the course was] skills I will (and have) used in my life. I am glad I had the opportunity to read Plato and Kuhn.”

Fall 2016 (Communication Arts majors)

“I don’t know that I have ever had a professor who made a greater effort to involve each student in intellectually stimulating conversation.”

“The course felt sporadic at best. While we followed a syllabus, coursework did not begin to feel connected or relevant to our discussions until we were halfway through the semester.”

“Instructor was knowledgeable.”

“[The instructor] seemed to favor English over Comm[unication Arts].”

“Instructor was decent. Treated us like adults.”

“I think he tried to do a little too much sometimes in combining English and Comm[unication] Arts.”

“I liked how organized the course was and enjoyed discussions.”

“I didn’t like some of the materials we covered because I wasn’t sure how it applied to what we were learning.”

“[What I liked the most about the course was] combining the beginning of writing/rhetoric with modern interpretation and understanding.”

“Wish we started our projects sooner due to amount of time it takes.”

“[What I liked most about the instructor was] everything, he is an awesome guy!”

“I loved it all.”

“The instructor helped to make the class interesting and he was always very helpful.”

“What I liked most about the course was the join with English and Comm[unication Arts].”

“Seemed off topic.”

“I liked that discussion most of the time boosted my learning.”

“I liked the discussion and freedom in the class.”

“I liked that he was knowledgeable.”

“The course forced me to increase my vocabulary. I now can be included in philosophy conversations. Dr. Cook is very intelligent and is generous in sharing his knowledge.”

“The worst part of this course was that ‘disciplinary identities’ textbook!! It raised my stress levels. [Frowny face.]”

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