Erin Pearson noticed a pattern she hadn’t expected teaching a literature survey course, which caused her to ask: How should a professor pivot their pedagogy practices when they start to see a disciplinary course fill with non-majors to keep them engaged and interested in the topic? Read more about her SoTL project and collaboration with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL) below.
Each spring, the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL), the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL), and the Center for Research on Global Engagement (CRGE) join together to showcase research projects focused on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Follow along this week as we share Elon scholars’ research on innovative teaching practices through a series of Today at Elon articles.
Erin Pearson, assistant professor of English, noticed a pattern she hadn’t expected while teaching a literature survey course that caused her to ask: How should a professor pivot their pedagogy practices when they start to see a disciplinary course fill with non-majors to keep them engaged and interested in the topic?
During her early years teaching at Elon, Pearson had expected to teach mostly students who were majoring in literature and had designed traditional assignments that asked students to write literary analysis essays. However, she quickly discovered that her courses filled with non-major students, seeing only five students out of 30 within the major.
“It just didn’t seem to work right,” Pearson said about her initially prepared assignments. “I felt like the students weren’t interested in it. They weren’t producing things that felt particularly engaged or exciting. And I thought, ‘I need something different because this is a group of students who aren’t necessarily coming to the table passionate about studying literature,'” Pearson said. “So, how do I figure out an assignment that gets them engaged and interested but also gets them thinking about why we do literary studies in general?”
Getting students engaged and interested can be a challenge in any course, but perhaps particularly challenging when the amount of engagement on an assignment differs between major and non-major students. Pearson began searching for ways to alter her assignment to better fit the needs of the students in her class. She worked through the initial idea generation of her new assignment through several consultations with a CATL team member, which ended with an assignment asking students to pitch a literary work to Netflix. Excited about the prospects of this new assignment lining up with students’ interest, Pearson notes that the first try did not go as planned:
“The first iteration of the assignment in my project that I did was, frankly, a hot mess because I realized – only after I taught it – that I assigned it as a Netflix pitch, but I had all of these requirements in the assignment that were essentially ‘quote literary texts directly and then analyze the quotation’, which were all requirements that were basically still traditional literary analysis stuff.
I got these Frankenstein assignments, the poor students, where they were like ‘do you want us to be pitching to Netflix or do you want us to be doing a literary analysis?’. That was my fault – I was having trouble letting go of those expected disciplinary genres.
However, there were a couple of students who, through their own talent, got around my confusion about what I wanted and wrote these incredibly innovative essays…and I’m so grateful to those students. The handful of essays that managed to be something that felt new and different, not like a typical literary analysis but nonetheless were able to get to really smart insight about literary text, they are the ones that helped me see I needed to jettison all of the trappings of traditional literary analysis and embrace this more creative approach – like a letter to Netflix.”
Once she implemented the revised assignment in her class, she was surprised to learn that this non-traditional assignment not only allowed students to articulate the value of literary studies, but it also helped them develop skills that they could apply to a later more traditional literary analysis essay. She thought these findings would be helpful to other faculty and decided to pursue a SOTL project about the experience, which was recently published in the SoTL article: “So What? Teaching Disciplinary Skills and Purpose with Nontraditional Assignments” (2021).
Throughout Pearson’s project design process, she worked with several Elon colleagues. Early on, the Center for Writing Excellence and their Summer Writing Institute program helped her think about scaffolding an assignment. Then, a CATL team member was “instrumental in providing examples of other literary scholars who do work in SoTL and who talk about adapting the methodologies that we use in literary scholarship and applying them to SoTL”.
Pearson consulted with a CATL team member to further develop her SoTL project design and submitted a successful protocol to Elon’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to be able to collect data. This was followed by participating in CATL’s summer Writing Residency, which Pearson credits as providing her access to “different sets of eyes, particularly outside of my field” to review her initial drafts, allowing her to figure out if she was “orienting or pitching [her assignment] in a way that was going to make sense to a broader audience”.
Based on her experience, Pearson offers four pieces of advice for colleagues considering or starting a SoTL project to keep in mind:
- Don’t be scared to try SoTL. I had some preconceived ideas that the methodology would be close to social science work, so as a humanities person, I thought I might not have the methodological background needed for SoTL work. I had to expand my sense of what a SoTL project looked like and the way it could pull from my own expertise – it was really powerful.
- Then, actually try it! SoTL wasn’t something that I knew existed before I came to Elon – it just had not been on my radar at all, but, Elon is a place that values evidence-based teaching – so again, try it!
- Faculty at Elon have access to the resources needed to become better and more thoughtful teachers – take advantage of that. Even though SoTL is totally outside of all the other scholarship that I’ve done in my existing scholarly expertise, I was able to get the support I needed. And, there are a lot of really generous smart people who are willing to help you build and conceive of the project here at Elon.
- If you have a problem or issue in your class, it is likely other people are having it too, and you may need to expand what a SoTL project can look like – that problem/issue can be a powerful initial research question to figure out how to investigate this further.
If you are interested in reading Pearson’s full article, please follow the link below. If you are interested in learning more about the Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning’s programs or would like to talk with a CATL faculty member about designing, implementing, or deepening a SoTL project, you can visit their site online at https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/catl/ or email them at email@example.com with questions.
Recently published work by Erin Pearson cited in this article: