‘Second Year-icity’

Sally Bushell

The aim of this paper is to explore the concept of ‘second year-icity’ in the teaching of English literature to undergraduates. We need to ask whether there is a fundamental difference in the abilities, skills and receptivity of second year students from those of the third year, and, consequently, whether there should be significant differences in the methods used to teach and assess them. Such an exploration implicitly raises a question of wider importance as to whether second and third year performance ought to be rewarded equally or whether there should be more weight given to third year performance. In the academic year 2002-2003 I was able to make direct comparison of second and third year students taking essentially the same course (British Romanticism 1770-1832).1 As convenor of both courses I designed and taught both simultaneously.

For the second year course, all students must have taken the first year course. It is a core course chosen from a limited range of period papers and attracts approximately 100 students. The third year course was run as an optional course for students in the final year of their degree scheme. It competed with popular half-unit short courses and attracted between 30 and 45 students. The second year course was taught through a one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar in each week.The third year course was taught through a two-hour combined lecture-seminar each week. This meant that I taught the entire course to the third year students, whilst the second years attended lectures given by other members of the department as well as myself. Another person was also teaching some of the seminars. Assessment for both courses was in the form of two coursework essays and a final examination.The two courses shared the same major objectives and learning outcomes but differed in the means by which those objectives were reached. To illustrate the ways in which differentiation can occur within the teaching of second and third year students I have chosen two specific examples. The first example is from teaching within the weekly seminar; the second is a comparison of the first coursework essay set for both year groups. In this way content, teaching and assessment methods can be evaluated and compared.

In the first week of the second term the opportunity is taken to jump out of the progression through various Romantic authors and texts and to think about methods and approaches to those texts. The aim is to make students more self-consciously aware of what they are doing, of how they are reading and of their own methodology. All second years take a compulsory course in Theory and Practice of Criticism. I wanted to make an explicit link to that course and help students to see the ways in which theory can be applied to, and connect with, other courses. The lecture was given by the convenor of the theory course who addressed this quite broadly by thinking about a number of core Romantic concerns: awareness of the limitations of language; the construction and deconstruction of identity and Romantic ideas of the self; familiarity and strangeness. In the seminar which followed, a single theory was then applied to a text.We read a piece from Freud discussing the concept of Screen Memory and ideas about how the mind works and as a warm up exercise I asked students to recount to each other (in pairs) their own earliest memory. We then turned to Wordsworth’s Spots of Time passages in the two-part Prelude. After hearing it read aloud, students worked in pairs on each of these passages, thinking about why the passage might have been memorable to the poet, the relationship between adult and child memory and between the present of the writer and the recreated past. We then finally returned to the Freud passage to reconsider it. Students raised issues such as anachronism – Wordsworth came first so could we apply Freud retrospectively? They decided that Wordsworth did not directly map onto Freud – that he often seemed self-consciously aware of his own ‘screens’, whereas in Freud’s model the memory only recalls the screen and not the deeper trauma which it hides. One student made the perceptive point that in the three passages we had looked at the first two occurred before Wordsworth was eight years old and the third when he was thirteen and that, according to Freud’s model, this would make a difference in the continuity of the memory.

In teaching the equivalent session to third year students I was able to use the full two-hour session to structure the teaching in more of a ‘workshop’ format which I felt would suit it. Where the second year students were encouraged to make connections to the theory course which was (for them) running alongside Romanticism, the third year students had completed this course the previous year. I could therefore assume some broad understanding of theory and come at it in a more sophisticated way. For the first forty-five minutes students were given an overview of critical shifts and trends in the twentieth century, explaining how these emerged in relation to Romanticism. I also provided students with samples from different critical texts illustrating these approaches which we read and discussed together.This was quite hard work for the first half of the session.

After a short break, students were divided into three groups and allowed to choose one of the approaches I had talked through to pursue. The three chosen were: psychoanalysis (Freud) applied to Wordsworth’s Spots of Time passages (the same material as that given to the second years, although with a second critical extract problematising Freud); reader-response applied to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner; new historicism applied to a Shelley sonnet and a Keats’ poem. For the next forty-five minutes or so students worked together. They had a secondary text, a second piece responding to or critiquing that text, and the primary material (the poem). Clear instructions were given on the sheet and each member of the group was required to feed back at the end and to share their findings with the class as a whole.

In the second year session there was a relatively simple objective in terms of connecting courses in the students’ minds and making them see how ideas in one course could be applied in the context of another. I felt that the session worked and that it had begun to challenge the students’ sense of what they were doing and to raise some questions for them. In the third year session I was able to assume a more established knowledge base and to use a more comparative approach. I felt that this was a far more comprehensive session on the whole than the second year one, and yet that it would not have worked with students at that level. This was a case then of a marked difference between second and third year levels, created by the context for learning. Third year students had a wider context that I could build upon.They enjoyed revisiting ideas with particular reference to this course. Second year students were still grappling with the very idea of theory and would not have had the skills or confidence to perform the tasks set for the third years.

My second example of ‘Second Year-icity’ concerns the design of course assessment. The aim of the first coursework essay for the second year students was to provide them with a fairly safe structure within which they nonetheless had to undertake independent work. Students were asked to make use of the course anthology (2) to consider one of three themes in Romanticism and then to choose two texts that they would consider under that theme and make their comparison. The purpose of the exercise was to show skills of close analysis and attention to elements such as form, tone, rhythm and metre, language, and these were skills which had been explicitly taught throughout the term. A ‘safety net’ was provided by the fact that the anthology they were using also provided thematic combinations of texts within it so that if they wanted to play safe, (by choosing two of the choices made by the editor), they could.

The aim of the first essay for the third year students was also to make independent use of the anthology but in a more sophisticated way.The basis for selection was thus not a core theme of Romanticism (as it was for the second years) but the concept of the canon, with students told to select one canonical and one non-canonical writer and to write an essay addressing issues of canonicity.They were required to choose at least one writer who had not been taught on the course, and for whom more independent research skills were likely to be needed.

Both of these tasks worked reasonably well, although on the whole the third year piece seemed to be more successful. Perhaps as a first assignment for the second years the exercise gave them too much freedom and, although it was a simpler task than that set for the third years, the skills required (in terms of selecting and pairing suitable texts and thinking about the basis for comparison) were much the same. Some difficulties occurred when marking the coursework where students had either chosen a piece which was too substantial for them to undertake close analysis upon or had become lost in the wide scope of the themes, so that their essays had no real structure and direction. The focus on two texts should have reduced this difficulty but did not always do so.The third years approached the question in a number of different ways. Some chose very interesting combinations (e.g. Blake and Joanna Southcott) or used texts not in the anthology. Some related quite broadly to the theme of the canon (e.g. looking at Wordsworth alongside his sister) whilst others made the focus quite strongly the issue of the canon itself, using poems mainly to illustrate particular attitudes or positions. There were no real problems with lack of focus. Again, however, although the third year task was more successful, it would have been much too challenging for the second years. Indeed the success of the exercise reflected the increased freedom and intellectual confidence of the third years, where the problems with the task for the second years reflected a correspondent lack of such confidence (and need for a more controlled and prescribed structure).

As these two examples show, the two courses cover similar ground, but do so in markedly different ways for the two year groups. The second year course was necessarily shaped by an awareness that students at this point in their academic careers still need quite a lot of support. They are not fully confident either in terms of responding to material within seminars or in assessment situations and so a much stronger support structure has to be in place here. By contrast, in both the teaching and assessments for the third year students they were able to be given far more ‘space’ and responsibility for their own learning.This also coloured work done within class, where they could be set up and left to organise themselves, and have their own independent debates. Third year students on the whole also seemed to need feedback far less, whereas second year seminar work had to be very closely tied to feedback to ensure that students kept focussed on the task and engaged fully, and with energy. Third year students seem to do this far more naturally.

What are the implications here for the teaching and learning of second and third year students of English literature? Various studies of education assert for us the importance of prior understanding for student responses to learning and of the context they bring to it. Brookfield reminds us that our own autobiographies affect our learning and teaching and that this is equally true for the students themselves.(3) In an article on autonomous learning, Joy Higgs stresses that “the learner’s attitudes and performances were strongly influenced by their experience of past independent learning activities”.(4) More worryingly, Prosser and Trigwell, in their discussion of student perception, point out that...

students with well-developed prior understanding are likely to be aware of those aspects of the context affording a deep approach, to adopt a deep approach and to have well-developed understanding at the end of the subject. On the other hand, students with less well-developed prior understanding are more likely to be aware of those aspects affording a surface approach, to adopt a surface approach and to have a poorly developed understanding.(5)

Prosser and Trigwell’s work suggests that within the same class given by the same teacher, two students may be having radically different learning experiences: one ‘deep’ – active, making connections, drawing conclusions – and one ‘surface’ – passive, relying on memory, minimising task.(6) It is not then, just a question of how well the teacher is teaching, but also of how ready the student is to receive that teaching.

When we consider such issues in terms of the difference between second and third year teaching it would seem that one of the major elements involved in the second year is that of raising the students’ awareness of their own learning activities. In my own experience, I have set up within a second year group a ‘deep’ learning task and watched them convert this back into ‘surface’ learning. In the third year, by contrast, the majority of students are activated, dynamic, and want to perform the deep learning task. They very rapidly perceive what is asked of them and set about this – in fact, at times they ‘go deep’ even when this is not required (for example by reading very closely and intensely a passage which I really want them to skim and comment upon more rapidly). The initial response of the lecturer is to feel frustrated at the resistance of the second years, but this is unfair to them. Instead, it is necessary to intervene to redefine the task and set them back to it again, pointing out why the students are being asked to work in this way and raising their awareness of their own participation.

It seems to me that studying English literature successfully demands a range of quite abstract skills which are, correspondingly, very difficult to ‘teach’. These might include qualities such as: perceptiveness; sensitivity to nuances of text (language, tone, mood); scepticism (the ability to hold more than one position simultaneously); openness in dialogue; assimilation of new ideas and a willingness to share them; readiness to engage. These qualities exist alongside more basic ‘skills’ required for understanding such as: being a good reader; being able to articulate ideas in speech and on paper; having a historical awareness and knowledge base; recognising poetic and literary devices; applying theoretical ideas.These two levels of skill, one more grounded and one more abstract, coexist and vitally interact. Perhaps primary to the learning process though, is the willingness to engage and a recognition of what engagement entails. In the second year, I would suggest, teaching is necessarily concerned with making students realise what the act of ‘interpretation’ fully involves, what the discipline is actually about, and what their function as ‘literary critic’ might be. In the third year students have, to varying degrees, grasped these essentials.Thus, although the same two levels of skill continue to be used and to develop across the two years, the students’ own awareness of this, and their ease with it by the third year, means that they can move far more rapidly into ‘deeper’ learning activities. It also means that teaching can become increasingly democratic and autonomous because there is a shared understanding of the aim of the session. In general, then it would seem that for English ‘second year-icity’ is an important factor within the classroom. It affects students in a number of ways, and it must feed into the kind of work undertaken with them. At a base level, students have developed simply by becoming one year older. But there is a lot more than this at work here.They are themselves building upon their own second year knowledge, skills, approaches and attitudes in a range of ways in the classroom. Above all they have become more confident of themselves and they know how they want to learn.

The implications in terms of assessment are clear. At Lancaster (where second and third year performance is currently equally rewarded) there is a strong argument in favour of rewarding ‘exit velocity’ within the university. The simplest solution would be to change the weighting of the Part I and Part II examination so that instead of being 50%/50% it was at least 40%/60%. This would I think provide a much more positive sense of continuing development for the students since the model of assessment would make it explicit that the department expects and believes in an improved third year performance.The degree scheme as a whole should allow for this development and should give students the chance to show, at the end of a course of study, how much they have gained from it.

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  1. This situation occurred because the third year course was re-located as a second year course. Thus, for the first year of introduction, it was necessary to teach it to both years.
  2. Duncan Wu, Romanticism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
  3. S. Brookfield, Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1995), 31-35.
  4. ‘Planning Learning Experiences to Promote Autonomous Learning’, in Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, edited by David Boud (London: Kogan Page, 1988), 43.
  5. Michael Prosser and Keith Trigwell, Understanding Learning and Teaching:The Experience in Higher Education (Open University
    Press, 1999), 74.
  6. Understanding Learning and Teaching, 36.

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Newsletter Issue 7 - February 2004

© English Subject Centre

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