How I Teach the Course

The students begin the semester by attending an orientation in which I show them how to join a specially-created course e-mail discussion list and how to access the course World Wide Web site. Their first assignment is to read a novel and, via the e-mail list, discuss various aspects of it (such as literary elements, social and historical implications, views of the novel through the "filters" of several 20th century literary theories) with their "virtual" classmates for about 3-4 weeks. They then collaborate on an annotated bibliography which is posted at the Web site. After all of this discussion, exploration, and collaboration, they each write a traditional literary research paper on a topic of their choice, and send rough drafts of the papers to the e-mail list. The students then read each other's papers and offer constructive criticism for revision. The papers are then revised and sent to me, and usually revised at least once more before the end of the semester.

In between all the writing and revising and commenting associated with the research paper, the students read other literary works and discuss them on the e-mail list. I assign weekly readings, asking the students to respond to an initial discussion prompt (they usually have a choice of several) about the readings, then to respond to at least three of their classmates' messages. Other than sending the original discussion prompts and answering an occasional question about due dates, etc., I rarely participate in the discussions.

I have attempted to structure the course in such a way as to (as completely as possible) eliminate my role as the "authority," and to preserve the anonymity of the students if they so desire. I give no lectures, few outside readings assignments, and give only minimal guidelines for their research papers. The students, for the most part, do not know each other, and typically see each other only once, at a required orientation session at the beginning of the semester.

My initial intent was to:
*allow a forum for discussion which was as "free" as possible
*watch a discourse community form and develop
*allow that community to determine its own standards of "acceptable/unacceptable" "discourse behavior"
*encourage, but not require, the use of pseudonyms
*see if what students could learn from each other was comparable to what they could have learned from a traditional, lecture-style course