Flipping Dickens

I’ve been wondering for some time what the “flipped classroom” might look like in English. The discussion-driven English classroom is already flipped by comparison with the lecture model. Instead of using class time to deliver “content,” the artful discussion leader treats the literary text itself as content, assumes that students have examined it on their own, and uses class time to put students to work solving problems that arise from that content — problems of contextualization, interpretation, analysis, etc.

What’s left to flip?

Here’s what: the authority to decide what problems to discuss, what contexts to explore, what interpretive paths to follow, what analytical tools to make use of.

Also: the work of discovering, assembling, and sharing information about a text’s or author’s contexts — work that the discussion-driven classroom can’t do without, work that the artful discussion leader traditionally tries to make more or less invisible by threading background information in here and there, dropping the occasional carefully researched historical fact (sometimes carefully researched the night before) or critical perspective as though he’d been familiar with it his whole life long.

There’s a lot to be said for the model in which the professor sets the agenda and provides the context — after all, she’s the expert. I don’t know whether flipping that authority and that work would represent an improvement.

But this semester, I’ve decided to give it a try and see what happens. Not for a lark, but because I can glimpse the possibility, at least, of certain gains: increased student engagement resulting from an increased sense of ownership; the opportunity to make agenda-setting an occasion for struggling, as a class, with the problem of how to frame a good interpretive question or which analytical tools best suit a given question; the opportunity to make their efforts at contextualization an occasion for struggling, as a class, with the problem of finding and evaluating the credibility of sources.

The class I’ve “flipped” in this way is ENGL 458, Major Authors: Dickens. As I’ve told the students on the main course page,

In this course, you’ll decide, as a class, which of these questions to ask — or whether it would be better to ask other questions altogether. And you’ll decide how best to answer the questions that you do ask.

Because this is your course on Dickens.

To see how I’ve tried to put this promise into practice, have a look at the syllabus.

Already, I’ve faced some interesting challenges. Twice in the last week or so, I went rogue, abandoning the carefully planned rotation of student reports and group discussion in favor of traditional, full-class discussion of issues I just wasn’t prepared to see us ignore. And the students’ research, which gets posted to the Nineteenth-Century Studies at SUNY Geneseo blog each week, hasn’t always been as thorough as I would have liked, or drawn from the caliber of sources I’ve encouraged them to find.

But, as expected, the research issues have led to conversations in class about credibility, credentials, and peer review. And I hope that my occasional hijacking of the discussion agenda has the advantage of highlighting my own passion about the issues I refuse to let go unaddressed.

I’ll see how it goes. And I’ll report back at the end of the semester.