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Jim Beggs
ENGL 876
Jim Cahalan

Videotaped Teaching Observation: Addressing the College Literature Classroom


Environment

From the classes that I observed, I want to isolate two major criteria as especially

important for how an individual classroom will function. The first criterion is management

of class time: both in each individual class and over the course of the semester. Class time

management will tie with individual student participation. The second criterion is classroom

discipline in general, which encompasses course policies, instructor expectations, and what

kind of classroom culture these elements engender. The two major elements cover expansive

ground and enable analysis of more minor factors.

Teaching an introductory level college literature course requires teachers to make a

substantial time commitment. First, there is the literal years of life and hundreds of

thousands of dollars spent on an education that prepares students to become advanced

teachers of literature at the university level. Once the student acquires the education and

hopefully some training, they must be present in a classroom for 150 minutes per week per

class. Add to that strict time requirement office hours, time before and after classes with

students, grading, service requirements, and the minutiae of teaching--I think we are above a

full-time job. In addition, there is the substantial personal contributions that teachers make.

They make themselves vulnerable to students by sharing themselves, which makes students

feel more comfortable. A student's comfort level with a teacher and classroom are major

factors in the knowledge and skills they acquire in a class.


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The videotaping of instructors of introductory level college literature courses for the

purposes of reflecting on pedagogy will force some change in thought to pedagogy. When a

potential future instructors hear that they will be expected to teach a class of forty

undergraduate students, they are most likely aware of some of the challenges such an

institutional constraint carries with it. When they observe an actual functioning classroom,

those challenges only become more stark. For English graduate students to advance

academically to the point where studying and teaching literature is what they want to do for

the rest of their careers, it would be difficult to imagine students who have not become

invested in some theory that professes egalitarianism. The question for such future teachers

is “how do I ensure all students gets their share of the classroom pie?” Even if the future

teachers were so cynical to declare humanism to be a flash in the pan of intellectual history,

surely they would share an administration's concern of ensuring customer satisfaction. Who

are the customers of the university? The students pay the tuition, the source of income that

administrators can control the most, so they are the customers. While private corporations,

alumni, and government also contribute substantially to university budgets, without some

degree of quality of education and student satisfaction, those funds will not flow as easily.

On the most selfish level, a lack of teachers' concern for each students' needs could imperil

the teachers' financial well-being.

The bottom line is that fifty minutes of class time is not enough time to address the

needs of forty students. The total time allotment over the course of a semester provides more

opportunities for students to share equally in the limited time of the class room and their

teachers. Additionally, teachers must look for opportunities outside of the classroom for
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student participation. Both of the instructors that I observed use Indiana University of

Pennsylvania's internet interface in order to encourage student interaction outside of class.

Due to a transition in technology, Instructor A used Moodle, which was a slightly more

developed version of WebCT, which Instructor B used in her class. Students with more

initiative inevitably will gain control of more classroom time, but teachers can plan a number

of structured activities, such as group presentations, to ensure that more students get to

control more class time. Letting students share in class time is crucial to helping them feel

invested in the class, which will lead to a higher level of comfort and interest for them and

aid them in learning.

For the purposes of quantitative analysis, I broke down both the timing of

participation in the observed classrooms in terms of “control of the classroom.” While power

relations in the classroom will always be asymmetrical, teachers can shift the balance of

power to students to varying degrees. Students would be able to exercise more power over

the two instructors I observed than tenured faculty. Instructor A and B are both temporary

faculty. Still, the instructors were the ones who assigned the grades. purposefully included

the gender of students and instructors. I personally believe that society invites men to

exercise authority more than females. Part of the pedagogical debate over student shares of

classroom time is whether women are getting an equal share of classroom time. Teachers

must critically consider whether they have their own unexamined gender biases, and whether

there are institutional factors that limit classroom participation along gender lines. If women

are discouraged from participating in the classroom due to teacher neglect or institutional

discouragement, they face the danger of becoming alienated in the classroom and not
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learning. They do not get the opportunity to set the class's discussion or learning agenda, and

everyone else loses out on unique insight. Such an omission hinders everyone's education.

The consideration of other criteria, such as race, would be useful in the consideration

of examining who gets what share of the classroom time. The limitations of my analysis of

the two classrooms is the main factor that precludes a racial evaluation of the classroom. A

visual assessment of an individual's race is not reliable. An interview with each student

would be more reliable, but frankly, I do not have the time. A visual assessment of gender

may be more reliable based on appearance and dress—sex not so much, and sexuality is

virtually invisible. I look forward to reading the studies of any colleagues who have the time

and institutional supports to make analysis according to these perhaps more occult criteria.

Instructor A

On the day that I visited Instructor A's classroom, a group of four students was

presenting the first group presentation of the semester. The group presented on Marxist

theory and Octavia Butler's “Bloodchild.” The group presentation meant that four students

controlled a large amount of class time. Instructor A spent very little time lecturing, and

some of her total time of “class control” was taken up in the administrative tasks of taking

roll and returning exams to students at the end of class. I adopted the idea of “control of

class time” in part to make my charts easier on the eye. The concept allowed me to

incorporate a few elements that took up a little space on the chart into other elements. For

instance, Male Student 2 only spent about 3 minutes of class time speaking, but he showed

two video clips that lasted about four and a half minutes. While the clips could have been a
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part of somebody else's agenda for the day, in my experience, people usually present the

aspects of a presentation that they were responsible for. If they took the time to develop that

portion of a presentation, they probably had some personal interest in it, as well as an interest

in sharing it with the class. The control of classroom time is a wonderful opportunity

because it provides the opportunity to present people with new ideas they might find

interesting. It is fundamentally a limiting activity because it means someone else cannot

speak or present, but everyone should at least have the opportunity to present something to

the whole class. The following chart shows each individual's control of classroom time as a

percentage of the total class time.

Control of class time


Instructor A

Female Instructor A Male Student 4


Male Student 1 Female Student 4
Male Student 2 (group Female student 5
member)
Female Student 1 (group Male Student 5
member)
Male Student 3 Female Student 6
Female Student 2 (group Male Student 6
member)
Female Student 3 (group Female Student 7
member)

Female student 3 spent nearly all her time speaking, a good deal of that time offering

her interpretations of the story. She did solicit feedback from the class once and engaged in

short dialogues with other students twice. A total of thirteen students participated in the

class. Seven of the student participants were female. Six of the student participants were
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male. Of course, this example is from one day of instruction and might be typical of a day

when students make presentations, but I have to wonder—what were the days like when

there were no group presentations? Would the instructor spend more time speaking and

lecturing?

As I mentioned earlier, having opportunities for participation outside of class is

crucial to such a large class. One way that Instructor A required students to interact outside

of class was to post responses to readings on Moodle. The students were divided into groups,

and they posted a response to the reading. Then they would respond to their other group

members. The Moodle posting requirement constituted 20% of each student's grade, which

carries the same weight as their second and final exams. Instructor A said that the primary

purpose of the Moodle requirement was so students could work through fundamental aspects

of a text's meaning and delve into more in-depth issues in class. I think it also provided

students with a formal opportunity to interact and become more familiar and comfortable

with one another. Instructor A also said she used the Moodle discussions to plan her lesson

plans for the class.

Instructor A also plays an active role in getting more students to participate during

class discussion. At one point, she asked a question to the class on the short story. The only

students who elected to actively participate were students that had already spoken in class. In

order to get other students into the discussion, she said, “How about some new voices? Let's

get some new voices into the discussion.” A different student that had not spoken yet took

the opportunity to participate. Additionally, later on, when Instructor A had posed a question,

a number of students attempted to answer simultaneously. Because they all spoke at nearly
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the same time, their answers were hard to hear. Some of the students had already spoken

before, but at least one of them had not. The instructor took the opportunity to allow the

“new voice” into the classroom discussion. The desks in the class were arranged so that

students sat in a “horseshoe” shape that allowed most of the students to look at one another

as they spoke. Two small banks of desks were on the left and right sides of the room while

the largest group of desks was toward the back.

Instructor A's syllabus also encourages each individual student to participate in the

classroom discussion. Participation helps a student's grade, but the instructor also

emphasized the importance of each student's participation to the learning that takes place in

the classroom. The assignment of a “team teaching” or group presentation project also

provides students with an opportunity to learn from one another and also gave them more

control over what happened in the classroom. On the day that I observed, the students

controlled only slightly less than half of the total class time. As I stated in the earlier notes

on my methodology for presenting the statistics, some of Instructor A's total time was taken

up in administrative tasks and not lecturing. The time breakdown of and her selection of
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activities that forced students to work out the interpretation of literature for themselves led

me to immediately recognize her class as mostly student-centered. The one day that I

observed might not be typical, but I think the syllabus provides further evidence of what kind

of classroom Instructor A ran. She also encouraged students to email her or visit her during

office hours to participate, in case they were uncomfortable speaking in class. I thought the

formal inclusion of this option on the syllabus was notable.

Most of Instructor A's speaking was posing questions to students, who usually offered

short replies of a few seconds, but a few ranged as long as fifteen seconds. The few extended

exchanges she had with some students were also relatively short--certainly under thirty

seconds. The basic lesson plan of the class was pretty easy to summarize in a few steps:

1. Instructor A took role.

2. Instructor A quickly summarized to the class of what they would be doing that day.

3. The group would present on Marxism and “Bloodchild.”

4. Instructor A added to the Marxist interpretation of “Bloodchild” and worked through

basic issues of interpretation, such as who the protagonist and antagonist were.

5. Instructor A returned exams to students.

The students were pretty eager to participate thanks to Instructor A's encouragement. They

seemed comfortable with her and each other. On Instructor A's syllabus, she had a section on

“classroom etiquette” that encouraged students to be respectful of one another despite

differences of opinion. She framed areas of disagreement as good opportunities to learn.

In demonstration of her total commitment to teaching, Instructor A also informally

took questions from students after class to clarify future assignments. She addressed a
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student's concern about what kinds of things to look at for a future presentation on African

American literature and whether to include critical race theory. She also took questions from

a pesky graduate student that was curious about certain aspects of her pedagogical practice.

Even though she had another class only fifteen minutes after her literature course ended, she

was willing to take the time to help these students.

Instructor B

The lesson plan for Instructor B's course was:

1. Informally engage students about homecoming.

2. Cover a handout that aided students' interpretations of Robert Frost's “Design.”

3. View a video clip that included biographical information on Langston Hughes and a

dramatization of his poetry.

4. Mark student's journals with a stamp so that they got credit for them.

5. Return quizzes.

Instructor B's dialogue with students about homecoming showed them that she was

interested in their lives and what kind of activities they engage in outside of class. Her

informal telling of personal anecdotes also helped her to seem less formal and lessened the

intimidation factor of the teacher-student power relationship. She also passed out candy at

the open of class, which she has done at least one other time in the semester.

Instructor B then passed out a handout that addressed different stylistic and thematic

elements of Robert Frost's poem “Design.” The handout contained the text of the poem and

addressed the basic nuts and bolts of literary interpretation, such as tone, irony, imagery,
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figures of speech, rhythm, and encouraged interpretation of the poem's symbols. The class

had done a portion of the handout during a previous class but had not finished it. The

instructions on the handout says: “work with your group members. Write short answers in

each question and share you answers in class.” The splitting of the handout over two classes

led to some confusion in the class, with one student asking “didn't we do this already.”

Instructor B indicated that they had not finished covering the handout. After a little more than

two minutes, the instructor began to cover the handout. Unfortunately, some students did not

have the handout they had completed in the earlier class, nor could they remember what they

had written, so they were somewhat lost when Instructor B called on them.

While teaching the Frost poem, Instructor B mostly posed questions to the students

while they offered short replies. Most of the replies were extremely short in duration—only

a few seconds--with the longest being about fifteen seconds. There were long periods of

silence after the teacher asked the question. Usually, she had to call on a student whose name

she knew in order to get them to participate. When offered the opportunity, one student

shrugged her shoulders and one other simply said “I don't know.” With students reluctant to

participate So Young did a number of other things to try to get students to participate. She

was interested in what they had to say and looked directly at them when they spoke. She

used gestures to encourage students. One student that Instructor B called on appeared

uncomfortable due to the way she said her response. As much as literary tapes hate saying

that an answer might be “wrong,” her interpretation of “froth” did not really seem to fit the

poem. Later the teacher said that her response was one connotation of “froth,” although

another seemed more appropriate given the context.


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The overall time breakdown of the class widely favored the instructor. As I

mentioned in the lesson plan, she did not speak the entire time and the video took up a large

portion of her total “class control time.” Even though she did not speak, she set the agenda

for the majority of the class. In terms of total talk time, she was way above even the student

who participated for the longest period of time. The time breakdown leads me to consider

Instructor B's class primarily an instructor-centered class. The day that I observed might not

be typical.
Control of class time
Instructor B
Instructor B
Female student 1
Male student 1
Female student 2
Female student 3
Female student 4
Female student 5
Male student 2
Female student 6
Female student 7
Female student 8
Female student 9
Male student 3

The students in Instructor B's class forced me to confront a pedagogical issue that I

had not considered much before: classroom discipline. A few minutes into class, Instructor B

reprimanded a student for having their cellphone out and using it to text message. Even

though she loudly clapped her hands and said “No texting!” to a second student, I later

observed another student texting during the movie clip, while the teacher was on the other

side of the classroom checking students' journals. The only reason the student got away with

it because even if Instructor B had looked up, she would not have seen the student holding
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the cellphone under her desk due to the classroom layout. As much as I personally detest

surveillance, I think a more circular “panopticon” design might more easily facilitate

monitoring students' behaviors. I do not think cellphones will necessarily destroy a

classroom, but they do not help trying to create an environment conducive to learning. It

might be distracting to other students, especially if the phone was not silenced and went off

in the middle of a student's comments. Instructor B's syllabus had a two strike rule for the

use of cellphones during class: “if you use it, you will get a warning. Two times warnings

will cause you to lose 2 points from your participant.” I wondered how seriously the students

took this threat, given that she had to yell at two people for texting during class and I saw

other students doing it at different times.

In addition to the class discussion that I witnessed, Instructor B assigned group work
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to students to help facilitate participation and allow students to get to know one another. She

also used group presentations, which I did not witness since Wednesdays were presentation

days. To encourage students to become active learners, she encouraged the marginal

annotation of texts. Taking the time to make notes in texts greatly helps when it comes time

for class discussion, and she linked annotation to student participation on the syllabus.

Instructor B also required students to keep reading journals. The only standardization

she required in them was to record the author and the title of the work. Beyond that, she

encouraged students to record their first impressions, and to “get personal.” After they type

up their journal entries, they post them onto WebCT so other students could read them. She

also required them to bring their journals to class to help them have something to say during

class discussion. The journal was an excellent medium for recording initial gut reactions

and impressions of the literary work. The teacher could then use those reactions to help

facilitate class discussion, encourage students to go further with their interpretations, and to

share with one another. The journal, an informal response that did not really get evaluated

beyond “did the student write and post the journal” were worth 20% of the student's total

grade.

Comparison/Contrast

The discussion in Instructor A's class seemed more lively to me. The students

generally responded to the teacher's questions after little hesitation and many students

volunteered so often that she had to call on other people to allow them to have some class

time. Instructor B went to great lengths to make students feel more comfortable in class in
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having an informal discussion. The students in Instructor B's class seemed more hesitant to

participate, with long pauses after she asked them questions and having to call on students

numerous times. I thought one cause of the student's discomfort might be that many students

seemed unprepared for the lesson on Robert Frost's poem. Before class, many of the students

seemed to think that they would only be watching the Langston Hughes video clip that day.

Additionally, Instructor A made student interaction on Moodle more formal by making it a

mandatory requirement of participation, while Instructor B only required students to post

their own journal entries. I think the extra formal interaction would help some students feel

more comfortable with one another. Homecoming weekend was even closer in Instructor

B's classroom, so some students' minds and bodies might have been elsewhere.

In addition, the discipline issues in Instructor B's class were disruptive. The students

totally got off task when the teacher had to reprimand a student and got caught up in the

spectacle of trying to see who was breaking the rules. In contrast to Instructor B's two strike

cell phone policy, Instructor A had a zero tolerance policy. “Texting during class is

unacceptable. I will silently mark you absent when I see you texting (and I always do.)” I

think the shape of Instructor A's classroom made it more likely that she could make good on

her threat. I feel like it is hard to argue with results when neither I nor the camera noticed

any students texting during her class. Also, the use of the “silent mark” ensured that there

was no disruption to the whole class if a student broke the rules. Such a stern warning could

only fail on the most obdurate of students.

The gender of the people who took up the most time in both of the classes somewhat

surprised me. Part of the basic explanation for the greater participation of females in both
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classes was that there were more females than males in both classes. In Instructor A's class,

women outnumbered men twenty to eighteen. The female students in Instructor B's class

outnumbered the men eighteen to ten, and that number could be further skewed due to it

being the Friday to homecoming. Instructor A's class was more student-centered due to the

“team teaching” that day and a few students who participated more extensively than others.

The group presentation gave a few students a high level of participation, and as is normal

with most classes, a few students generally participate more then most others. The total share

of student time in Instructor B's class was more evenly distributed among students, but was

more teacher-centered because the instructor talked more

Both instructors presented a clear vision for the skills and bodies of knowledge that

students should engage with to aid them in learning in the two classes. They both expected

students to improve their reading, writing, and speaking skills. Instructor A emphasized

thinking about relations to the body to make students think personally about texts, while

Instructor B used journals for the same purpose. On the days that I observed, both teachers

covered the basics of literary interpretation. Instructor A had students discuss who they

thought the protagonist and antagonist of “Bloodchild” were. Instructor B addressed the

imagery, tone, and figurative language of “Design.”

Conclusion

Overall, I noticed quite a few similarities between the two instructors that I conducted

videotaped observations for. They both balanced classroom time between learning more

formal and personal routes of literary interpretation, which are both integral to helping
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students to learn more about literature. The balance carefully negotiates the curricular

requirements as laid down by the department and the increased student interest from the

personal angle of interpretation helps bolster student comfort and satisfaction of the class.

The teacher plays a crucial role in fostering a safe environment where students can discuss

their personal impressions of literature, engage in dialogue with others who might disagree

with their point of view, and get their share of participation time with other students and the

teacher so that they do not feel alienated.

I have already commented at length on some of the smaller differences that made

large impacts on the classroom environments. Instructor A had a zero tolerance policy

toward cell phones, a classroom layout that more easily facilitated observation of students,

and marked students using cellphones as absent, causing them to lose credit for attendance.

According to her syllabus, repeated absences could result in an individual conference and

lead to her encouraging the student to drop the course to avoid a failing grade. Instructor B's

class had a different layout and cellphone policy. Her repeated warnings against students

were unsettling to students and worked against her purpose of fostering a learning

environment. When it comes time to teach my own classes, I hope to nip disciplinary and

behavioral issues in the bud before they become chronic problems that interfere with

student's learning.

The instructor is not the sole determiner of a classroom environment. It requires the

cooperation of students as well. Exactly why the students in Instructor B's class were

engaged in disruptive behavior was really difficult for me to pinpoint. The only real

speculation I could make was that they were not interested in the “Design” lesson because
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they had come into class expecting a different agenda for the day. Most of the students

seemed to ignore the camera, but some were preoccupied with it and from their body

language, I thought they were uncomfortable. Worst of all, I worried that Instructor B had

decided to insert the “Design” lesson into her class for the benefit of observation. I

understand that a department as a whole might be reluctant to make non-evaluative

videotaped observation an integral part of learning to teach. I think a more formal approach

to observations would result in a more natural environment for teaching and observation,

where we can truly learn from one another without feeling the anxiety to impress or show off.
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Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York: Seven Stories,

2005. 1-32.

Frost, Robert. “Design.” Robert Frost's Poems. New York: St. Martin's, 2002. 208.