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.

4 thoughts on “Re-rethinking the Survey Course: back to the commercial textbook

  1. Our surveys usually have about 25 students and we have no graduate students to lead discussion sections, so I don’t divide my class time as you do. Each class has some lecture and some discussion. I usually do a midterm and a final with a section of literary terms, which they have to define, short quotes to identify and comment on and an essay. There is at least one paper and weekly or more frequent homework. I’ve thought about going to copy-right-free internet sources, but have stuck with textbooks (several different ones over the years) for the reasons you describe. And if the comprehension questions are not bad, I think it’s helpful to students to have all their materials (primary texts, historical background, comprehension questions, glossary) nearly bound in one book They can carry it around from home to class to library and at least feel its weight as a penance if they don’t study. As much as students complain about textbook prices, and I sympathize, the cost of tuition, housing, and their lost youth far outweigh the price of a book, if it is a good book.

    I think you can’t overdo vocabulary building in this class or others that are similar. I teach advanced grammar once a year or so and often have students who know can memorize the more esoteric rules of grammar but have no idea of what most of the words in a sentence mean.

  2. Thanks for the good info David. I run my class in a similar fashion and have used a textbook for years. I like the idea of the mini quizzes before each class since I have found over the years that students will not read if they are not held accountable to the material in a very “real” (read points/grade) way. I usually throw in one or two creative assignments and I end up with amazing results. One is a writing assignment that allows them to write a scene from an alternate perspective, re-write a scene, write an epic poem in the style of the Cid, etc. It is amazing what they come up with!

  3. Great ideas. My longstanding strategy has been to get students in survey courses and actually most advanced content (not grammar) courses to write their own exams. I supply a format and samples for 1) questions that can be answered in a single or two (no T/F), and 2) topics for short essays that can be answer in (say) 150 words. I demo about 5 each and they must e-mail me 20 short answers and 10 essay topics per student. It’s all in Spanish, ergo a real-life writing exercise for peers, not for me and counts as points earned on exam. They don’t put the answers with their test items, just their names in parentheses after each item. That way if an answer is debatable, or the question poorly framed, they turn to each other. Students e-mail me their contributions to the exam (tell them not to number their items or insert blanks to fill in: will drive you crazy) and I eliminate all items that are too hard, too easy or repetitions. Then I post the practice exam to their Blackboard or course web site, promising that 80% of the real exam will be from their own contributions; I fill in the last 20% to cover what they missed and from the last week before the test.
    Works great: they team up for study sessions, debate right/best answers, draft or outline sample essays, again all in Spanish. Also takes a lot of the scare factor out of the exam since it’s going to look really familiar. I can test more material and they answer more quickly, confidently and, why not, tend to score higher grades. And this keeps me from relying on prior exams which tend to include test questions on information I never mentioned this time around (embarrassing) or overlooking what we discovered together this term.
    Caution: sometimes students set up a Google Docs file with kids supplying what they think are the right answers which their classmates tend to accept as reliable, then everyone gets that item wrong. Easy to recognized on the finished exams, harder to convince them of the dangers of that as a study strategy.
    Samples available on request. Happy late summer & syllabi planning!

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