My Theory Workbook

Or, a Brief Back-to-School Post on Retro Pedagogy

Undine had a useful post last week on tech tools for teachers. I read it, scratched my head over all the cool things I could and should be doing, then sat down to work on my syllabus — and ended up going in the opposite direction.

See that little quip over there in the sidebar about being a non-geek? Right under the pale imitation of an Alison Bechdel caricature? Quip, yes. Exaggeration, no. I blog, I tweet, I have a house and backpack full of Apple devices, but at heart I am a Luddite. And in the classroom, well, when I’m not teaching my blogging class, which I’m not this term, my instincts are strictly nineteenth century. I’ve dabbled in PowerPoint and been forced to make at least limited use of the odious Blackboard, but I’ve never been convinced any of these bells and whistles improved my teaching or, more importantly, my students’ learning. There, I said it.

Oh, boy. Why am I afraid that my good friends over at ProfHacker are never going to link to me again? George, Jason, love ya, dudes! Don’t give up on an old broad yet!

Here’s the thing. I’m teaching a new course this semester, a 400-level course called “Theories of Sexuality and Literature.” I’ve got 25 students, and I’m really, really committed to two important goals: 1. Getting the students to work together and take ownership of the course on a daily basis and 2. helping them overcome their anxieties about THEORY by having them write something about it for pretty much every class meeting. Thus was born the idea of “My Theory Workbook.”

I borrowed the idea from Kate Bornstein’s smart, funny, highly teachable My Gender Workbook, which I have found to be indispensable in helping students navigate the topsy-turviness of postmodern gender without losing their precious little minds. Bornstein is a popularizer, but she writes about complicated ideas in an accessible and often entertaining way without sacrificing all the nuance and complexity. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do in teaching this course, and it’s kind of what I hope my students will reach for, too. The “theory workbook” is a key strategy toward achieving those lofty goals. Here’s how I explained it on the syllabus:

Sex/Lit Theory Workbook: 25% of final grade, due daily and collected as scheduled. Get a file folder. Mark it, “My Sex/Lit Theory Workbook.” Bring it to class with you every day. You should have a new typed entry for each class, focused on the day’s reading. Sometimes I’ll give you a prompt to respond to. Sometimes I won’t. Your entry should focus on identifying key words, major concepts, and important moments in the argument. Identify points that confused you or excited you. Form a question you’d like to discuss in class. Come up with an example to which you think the concept might be usefully applied. We’ll begin class with small-group discussions of the day’s entries, which is why you need to print out your workbooks and bring them to class. I’ll collect them every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester.

The workbook, in addition to helping to frame and focus daily discussion, will also give students a space for launching ideas they might decide to develop into papers. It will also help them to prepare for the final exam, which will be an oral exercise focused on terms, concepts, and major figures. The class will generate a list of 25 terms. On the day of the exam, each student will pick a topic out of a hat and present on it for about 4 minutes. (A number of my colleagues, including the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, have been doing oral finals in the past few years, so students aren’t as terrified by this idea as you might suppose. Also, they truly will be preparing for it throughout the semester, as we build that assignment into our conversations all along the way.)

So, I thought about doing “My Theory Workbook” as a class blog or through discussion board, but I felt that the blog would be unwieldy with 25 students and that the discussion board probably wouldn’t work in the way I wanted it to. Perhaps it’s my lack of creativity or dedication, but in my experience discussion board feels like busy work. Students tend to post perfunctory comments to fulfill requirements, and the exercise usually doesn’t elevate class discussion or even get connected to it unless the instructor goes out of her way to bring it up. When I polled my students on their druthers, they unanimously preferred the idea of producing dead-tree workbooks and bringing them to class every day to posting to discussion board. They all said they were bored by discussion board. (OK, yeah, not a scientific poll, and it’s possible I predisposed them to answer that way with some snarky comment about discussion board, but still.)

Feel free to tell me I’ve forfeited my place in the Cool Kids Club. (Please, honey, I figured that out in the last century and am 100% over it!) Or, feel free to share with us the ten thousand ways in which you have successfully incorporated discussion board into your teaching. I would love for this gizmo to work in a way that made my life as a teacher easier and made my students brilliant, collaborative, and gainfully employable! I promise I am persuadable. In the meantime, I will let you know how my experiment in dead-tree pedagogy goes. My prediction is that the kids will do well with it and that I will have to be hospitalized by the tenth week of the semester from the ordeal of trying to keep up with what I’ve committed to do. Reading day, class! Teacher’s in the loony bin! Yippeeeee!

Peace out, pedagogues. May all your darlings be adorable and educable. And if all else fails, remember the Madwoman’s #1 Rule for Success in the Classroom: Wear Something Shiny!


  1. love the theory workbook! fab!


  2. Love it! Though be grateful I am not in your class. I think a daily journal about reading is an invitation to write to my heart’s content and I am sooooo 19th century I also think I get paid by the word. May your students be tweeters at heart and not Dickensian novelists.


  3. I love it too! And I want to be in your class.


  4. Goodness, all this love! You make a girl feel that perhaps she is Cool after all. 🙂


  5. I love the Theory Notebook and also the oral final ideas! Discussion boards feel like a duty and not a pleasure by comparison.


  6. This is yet more developed than what I do but I do something quite like this. I tried having them do it on blogs and talk to each other that way, tried discussion board, etc., but the actual workbook works much better.


  7. I haven’t the faintest fucken clue what “discussion board” is, but your class sounds awesome!!


  8. Ha! I knew you were going for an Alison Bechdel thing!
    And thanks a truckload for the fabulous ideas. As someone who not only prefers dead-tree technology herself, but who is also still convinced that students prefer it, I’m going to be stealing shamelessly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: