Class Time Reconsidered: Flipping the Literature Class

Flipped ClassroomYou know about the flipped classroom, right? That thing where you take what you used to do during class (say, lecture) and move it outside of class (videos!) and then take what the students used to do outside of class (say, problem sets) and do that during class (group work!). Makes a lot of sense for calculus or intro physics. For the humanities? Not so much. I used to joke that flipping a literature class would be a terrible idea. Students would read silently together in class, then discuss the reading online later. Who would do that?

My Vanderbilt colleague Helen Shin, that’s who. And she had great reasons for doing so.

Helen is an assistant professor of English, Asian Studies, and Cinema & Media Arts. (She keeps busy.) In one of her literature seminars, she had students perform a collaborative, close reading of Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science,” a 155-word short story. She wanted her students “to exercise the wonders of close reading in a more holistic and organic fashion” instead of the “piecemeal” approach to close reading that is often taken with longer texts. Helen and her students spent an entire fifty-minute class session reading that very short text. She wrote about the experience for the National Teaching & Learning Forum, and she titled her essay “Flipping the Flipped Classroom: The Beauty of Spontaneous and Instantaneous Close Reading.”

Here’s another example of an English professor asking students to do something unusual during class. Humberto Garcia, formerly of Vanderbilt and now at the University of California-Merced, once asked his students to blog about the reading before class, then, during class, read and comment on each other’s blog posts, usually with the instruction to add complexity to the given arguments through their comments. This involved a fair amount of silent reading and writing by the students, but it was followed by a robust class discussion fueled by that reading and writing.

Reading a text or commenting on a blog post are usually activities we ask students to do outside of class. But Helen and Humberto have flipped that idea by bringing those activities into the classroom, where they could be collaborative and communal. Why? Because close reading of a text and responding to another writer’s argument are both important skills in a literature course. Why not have students practice those skills during class, when they can receive feedback on that practice from both their instructor and their peers?

And that’s what the flipped classroom is actually all about. Never mind that bit about lecture videos and group work. The flipped classroom is about moving the hard parts of learning into the classroom, where they can benefit from what Helen Shin calls “shared temporal, spatial, and cognitive presence.” After all, most of us only have maybe 150 minutes a week with our students during class. Shouldn’t we spend that time engaging our students in the kind of practice and feedback that’s central to learning in our disciplines?

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