Re-rethinking the Survey Course: back to the commercial textbook

Spanish 316 is a panoramic survey of Peninsular Spanish literature of the premodern period (1100-1600). It is a mainstay of my teaching practice; I usually teach it about 3 times per year. It is a requirement for the Spanish major at the University of Oregon and satisfies the literature requirement for the Spanish minor. It is taught in two lectures weekly with a discussion section at the end of the week covering both lectures. In addition to the instructor of record there is a GTF (Graduate Teaching Fellow) who is responsible for the discussion sections. It is taught in Spanish and is a fairly large format for our department; enrollment is capped at 70 students.

Here are a few relevant documents: [course listing] [syllabus] [final exam rubric]

I’ve written about the survey course in a previous post (“Rethinking the Survey Course”) in which I argued for an issues-based approach mixing short selections from pedagogical editions and non-literary primary sources (treatises, chronicles, etc). In this iteration I am going back to a more conventional model and am basing my course on the popular textbook Voces de España. In line with our recent reorganization of our survey courses (texts and contexts), I am putting the emphasis on helping students make the connection between literary practice and historical context. That is, my mission is to help them understand why a given formal or thematic innovation is significant in its literary historical and broader historical context. As in a communicative language class, the emphasis is on demonstrating/articulating one’s readings of the primary texts through close textual analysis.

For this class I have reversed my position on avoiding commercial textbooks and adopted Voces de España as the text. After teaching Spanish 316 for many years using my own materials (almost all free of copyright) I decided that the overall coherence and quality of the materials was lacking, and that a commercial textbook, for its shortcomings (price, limited selection of readings), would solve many of the problems I had been facing in terms of editorial consistency, pagination, and in particular the consistency of textual glosses, introductory essays, and reading/thematic questions. Voces in my opinion is superior to the other choices in that it has a more diverse range of readings (female authors, essays, etc) and fairly well-thought out questions for prereading, comprehension, analysis, and extended writing assignments. It is still far from ideal in teaching multicultural Iberia in that it does not contain readings originally written in many of the literary languages of the Iberian Peninsula: Catalan, Aragonese, Galician-Portuguese, Arabic, Latin, or Hebrew. Details, details. I won’t address the question of the linguistic and/or cultural diversity of medieval Iberia and its implications for teaching in Castilian at the undergraduate level here, but it is definitely a conversation worth having.

In order to leverage the advantages of such a textbook, and in an effort to draw a very clear connection between content, class activities, and assessments, I decided to adopt the pedagogical materials in Voces outright. The daily quizzes are the preguntas de comprensión, the prereading discussion is based on the preguntas de prelectura, and the exam questions are the preguntas analíticas. There is no question whatsoever as to what will be on the quizzes, on the exams, or how what we are doing in class will relate to the midterm or final exam.

I’ve structured the lectures and discussion sections as follows: At the end of the prior lecture we will dedicate a few minutes to the preguntas de prelectura in anticipation of next class’s text. Students will bring a 3×5” index card to each class session and will write a short response to the pregunta de prelectura that will serve as a basis for small group discussion of the pregunta and then, once they hand it in, as a record of their attendance and participation for the class.

Before the start of the following lecture, students are required to log onto Blackboard and complete a quiz on the lecture’s reading that consists of 4 questions drawn randomly from the preguntas de comprensión associated with the reading. This way, students are able to prepare all of the questions in advance and answer the 4 questions based on their level preparation.

Lectures are devoted to explaining the historical context of the readings and attempting to draw connections between the primary text and the historical context. Lectures will be structured as follows:

  • introduction to historical context
  • close reading of key passages
  • explanation of relationship between context and text
  • broader significance of text
  • literary historical context: links to other texts in class
  • prereading for next text

Discussion section:

As outlined in the syllabus, discussion section should be spent reviewing students’ preliminary answers to the preguntas de análisis (which will serve as the questions for the midterm and the final exams) and doing exercises to help them develop their critical reading and writing skills so they will perform well on the midterm and final exams. All exercises conducted in section should be clearly related to improving their performance on the exams and should be based in the rubric for the final exam.

Some suggested activities and exercises for discussion section:

  • Spend a few moments discussing what you will be doing in the section and why; what is the purpose of the exercises and what do you hope to accomplish with them.
  • Practice critical reading strategies (focusing the question, what kind of evidence am I looking for, etc)
  • Identify key vocabulary in texts (verbs, adjectives, etc)
  • Identify key rhetorical figures in texts
  • Practice writing topic sentences that contextualize the evidence you are about to present
  • Practice writing sentences that incorporate textual evidence
  • Practice adapting grammar of citations to fit sentence grammar
  • Practice identifying key elements of historical contexts in introductory essays and identifying textual evidence that reflects these elements

What about you? How does this course compare with your experience teaching (or taking) a survey course in premodern Spanish literature? I look forward to your comments.