Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Working with Interdisciplinary Resources and Research—Yajaira Padilla (2008)

map of Central AmericaOverview

For my teaching project, constituted by this Spanish 540 course, my goal was to provide students with a basic understanding of Central American and US Central American narratives while also introducing them to the necessary research skills for analyzing literature through a cultural studies lens. Students were also expected to further develop their interpretations of texts by reading and applying literary theory, as well as interdisciplinary secondary references. As a means of gauging student progress toward meeting these goals, students were required to produce a 15-page research paper that significantly incorporated outside references as part of their literary analyses.

Background

Spanish 540 is a Colloquium in Hispanic Studies designed to provide sophistication, focus, and analytical depth in literary and cultural study through the exploration of secondary sources, as well as theoretical materials. It provides students with research skills in the field of Latin American literary studies, serves as an introductory foundation for future graduate studies, and fulfills the general research requirements proposed by our department and the College. The course I designed had a central theme, “Love, Revolution, and its Aftermath,” and was limited to a particular region: Central America. The central focus of the course was to explore the intersections between love (understood broadly and in all its variants) and revolutionary struggle, which encompasses both the civil war and the migratory movements that resulted. The cultural studies approach to literature adopted for this course called for a variety of secondary sources and theoretical frameworks including sociology, politics, and anthropology, in addition to literary theory.

Implementation

Students were expected to complete three assignments throughout the course. The first two were skill-building activities meant to help students develop and/or strengthen their research skills, as well as their use and understanding of theory. I conceived of both of these assignments as building blocks or as foundational activities that would help students develop and write their final projects: a 15-page research paper including an annotated bibliography.

Student Work

Based on student’s performance on the final research paper (more than half the class achieved A or B grades) and their overall grades for the course, I feel that the majority of the students did understand the ideas that were central to the course. Students responded well to a cultural studies approach to this literature as was evident not only in the consistently strong class discussions we had throughout the semester, but also in their interest and development of the subject matter in their final papers which went beyond the ideas and examples discussed in class and revealed students’ ability to think outside of the basic parameters of traditional literary analysis (novel structure, plot, characters, etc.). It was one of my hopes that students would be able to make overarching connections and work across time periods and literary genres, and many did.

Reflections

In attempting to view literature through a cultural studies lens, in conjunction with other disciplinary discussions, I was able to appeal to students whose interest in Spanish is not entirely focused on literature. For those students who already had an affinity for literature and literary analysis, I learned that they welcomed and were excited by the opportunity to read texts in a more nuanced way and alongside ideas they originally did not think were connected.

While I was generally satisfied with student performance and the course, I believe that there are several areas of improvement, one of which is the students’ work with theory and use of interdisciplinary approaches. This is not an easy area to develop, especially for students writing in another language and who struggle with reading comprehension. One of the things that I think would be useful is to require students to turn in a first draft of their final assignment so that they could receive peer feedback on it and hopefully improve. I think that this would have made a significant difference in at least half of the C papers that were handed in, which could have been B papers given a set of revisions. This would also help students improve some of the other writing skills that they struggle with independent of language, such as thesis development and organization. I plan on integrating such an exercise in any future course I teach at the 500-level.


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cover of La Mujer HabitadaBackground

Spanish 540 is a Colloquium in Hispanic Studies designed to provide sophistication, focus, and analytical depth in literary and cultural study through the exploration of secondary sources, as well as theoretical materials. This course can be designed thematically, around a region, or around particular topics. It is meant to provide students with research skills in the field of Latin American literary studies, given that it is one of the last courses they take for the Spanish major. Moreover, this course serves as an introductory foundation for future graduate studies and fulfills the general research requirements proposed by our department and the College.

The course I designed had a central theme, “Love, Revolution, and its Aftermath,” and was limited to a particular region: Central America. The central focus of the course was to explore the intersections between love (understood broadly and in all its variants) and revolutionary struggle, which encompasses both the civil war and the migratory movements that resulted. Given the nature of the theme explored, class discussions also examined a variety of other important topics such as popular movements, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, etc. The cultural studies approach to literature adopted for this course, likewise, called for a variety of secondary sources and theoretical frameworks including sociology, politics, and anthropology, in addition to literary theory. The entire course was conducted in Spanish, including student participation and all required writing assignments. While not all of the reading materials (both primary and secondary sources) were in Spanish, a high percentage of them (about 80%) were.

I taught the course in Spring Semester 2008. I had a total of 19 students enrolled in the course, all of whom were seniors, except for one, who was a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. The make-up of students in the course was not surprising, since the course is a requirement that all graduating Spanish majors must take.

Objectives or goals

  1. Students would develop a basic knowledge of Central American political and migratory history in order to facilitate their understanding of the primary texts read in the course. It was my hope that students would understand the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for analyzing literature.
  2. Students would develop research skills, including finding and surveying secondary articles from a variety of disciplines (not just limited to literary studies) that would provide a base for their final research projects.
  3. Students would learn to understand and incorporate theoretical approaches in their literary analyses of texts and hone their research/writing skills.

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cover of The Tattooed SoldierImplementation

Students were expected to complete three assignments throughout the course. The first two were skill-building activities meant to help students develop and/or strengthen their research skills, as well as their use and understanding of theory. I conceived of both of these assignments as building blocks or as foundational activities that would help students develop and write their final projects: a 15-page research paper including an annotated bibliography.

Assignment #1 focused on Locating and Surveying Secondary Sources. Students needed to locate a literary-based article (not a book review) in either English or Spanish on a novel we read in class. In addition to providing all pertinent bibliographic information in a “Works Cited” page (following MLA guidelines), students were required to provide a brief summary of the main arguments made by the author in the article and comment on the usefulness of the article for their understanding of the texts. The expected length of the assignment was two pages since I wanted students to be able to identify and summarize succinctly the argument at hand. I also provided students with questions to guide them in their assessment of the article they had chosen.

Assignment #2 focused on Understanding Theory and its Use. For this assignment, I provided students with a specific text that would be useful to their comprehension of the novels we read: a chapter from Joan Wallach Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Students needed to: 1) provide a summary of the basic premise and supporting points outlined by Wallach Scott in the chapter “Gender as a Historical Category of Analysis”; and 2) apply Wallach Scott’s theory/theories to one of the texts read in class. The expected length of this assignment was two to three pages and, as with the previous assignment, I also provided students with a series of questions to guide them in developing their ideas regarding Wallach Scott’s work.

The Final Research Project was composed of two parts:

  1. The first part was an annotated and critical bibliography that needed to incorporate ten secondary sources. Three of the articles or books to be included in the bibliography had to be from a different discipline such as politics, history, anthropology, or sociology. The other sources needed to be literary-based articles that students had located in a library database such as MLA, HAPI, Latin American Database, JSTOR, etc. At least two of the articles needed to be in Spanish.
  2. For each citation provided, students needed to write a brief summary of the book or article’s main arguments and its possible applicability to their own papers. They also had to answer how exactly this secondary source informed and/or complicated the literary analysis they were developing for their final projects.
  3. Though an integral part and first step for this final research paper, the annotated bibliography was graded as a separate assignment worth 15% of the course grade.
  4. The second part of the assignment was the actual written research paper. This final project needed to be written entirely in Spanish, 15 pages in length and incorporate all the sources listed in their annotated bibliography. The paper needed to be formatted according to MLA standards. It was also expected that their analysis be as original as possible and move beyond the arguments and points discussed in class.

Rubric development
Students’ critical performance in this course was measured by how they scored on each of the three course assignments (with the most weight placed on the final research project), as well as the participation and comprehension skills demonstrated in class discussions. In this portfolio, I will focus on the final research project as the main instrument for assessing students’ critical performance.

While I did not develop a specific rubric for the annotated bibliography, the basic requirements outlined above functioned as a guiding principle for grading the assignment. Students who provided ten annotated references (three non-literature and seven literary-based articles), two of which also needed to be in Spanish, received a complete grade (100%). Students missing one or more of these elements had points deducted accordingly.

I did, however, develop a rubric for assessing the final research paper for Span 540 using the following questions and categories as a guideline:

  1. Did the student develop an original and nuanced analysis of the primary text(s) that moved beyond the ideas discussed in class?
  2. Did the student incorporate outside material according to the instructions given?
  3. Did the student provide adequate historical and political context for the primary text(s) he/she was analyzing?
  4. Was the student capable of engaging the main points/arguments of theoretical articles and applying them with a degree of success and coherence to his/her analysis?
  5. Did the student's analysis demonstrate a good use of both literary theory and other theoretical approaches from different disciplines?
  6. Was the organization of the paper clear and effective (transition sentences, easy to follow, etc.)?
  7. Was the paper clear and the grammar free of basic errors?
  8. Did the student follow MLA guidelines for both the paper and works cited page?

To create the rubric, each category was broken down further according to pertinent sub-categories and the possible points allotted to each.

Based on these guidelines, I developed a grading rubric for the final class assignment (a 15-page research paper that was worth 30% of the final grade), which consisted of five different categories:

  • Argument/Thesis (20 pts)
  • Organization/Analysis (20 pts)
  • Theoretical/Interdisciplinary Approaches (30 pts)
  • Grammar (20 pts)
  • Technical Format (following MLA style) (10 pts)

These categories (and the corresponding point distribution) were designed in keeping with the requirements and purpose of 500-level capstone course as stipulated by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, including student development of research skills and exposure to theoretical concepts. I also, however, selected these criteria based on the specific objectives I set for the course and stated on the syllabus, in particular, the development of the student’s ability to apply theoretical works and interdisciplinary approaches in their written analysis of literature. For this reason, the category on the rubric that was weighted the highest was the one pertaining to the student’s use and application of “Theoretical/Interdisciplinary Approaches.”


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Cover of Women, Guerillas, and LoveStudent Work

The grade distribution for the final paper was as follows: A = 5, B = 6, C= 8. It should also be noted that students were allowed an opportunity for extra credit (an additional 5 points), which resulted in a significant increase in the final grade for this assignment only. Out of 19 students, all but two took advantage of this opportunity.

Student papers that received an A grade generally achieved high scores in all five categories listed on the grading rubric. They scored especially high in the first three categories and were characterized by the development of an original and nuanced argument, an effectively organized and clear analysis, as well as the successful use of theory and application of interdisciplinary sources (in politics, sociology, anthropology, or history). The grammar component was also particularly strong which is noteworthy, since many student papers that would otherwise be strong suffer from poor Spanish grammar. (For examples of high-level student work, see Final Paper 1 (pdf) and Final Paper 2 (pdf).)

Student papers that received a B grade offered solid arguments, but had trouble organizing all of their ideas. They still revealed a good ability, however, to work with theory and interdisciplinary approaches. (For examples of mid-level student work, see Final Paper 3 (pdf) and Final Paper 4 (pdf).)

Finally, student papers that received a C grade did not provide an original and clearly developed argument. They had a surplus of grammatical errors and other technical inconsistencies. More importantly, they did not effectively incorporate theory or interdisciplinary approaches. Often these papers showed a minimal use of theoretical references, or an excess of historical or sociological context rather than literary analysis. (For examples of low-level student work, see Final Paper 5 (pdf) and Final Paper 6 (pdf).)

With regard to the students’ overall performance in the class, the grade distribution was as follows: A = 4, B = 13, C = 2. This final assessment of student performance was based on their remaining work throughout the semester and their participation.

Meeting course goals
Based on the student’s performance on the final research paper (more than half the class achieved A or B grades) and their overall grades for the course (including exams, other assignments, and class discussions), I feel that the majority of the students did understand the ideas that were central to the course, beginning with the subject matter: Central American and U.S. Central American Literatures from the 1980s to present day and the socio-historical contexts from which these literatures emerge. Students responded well to a cultural studies approach to this literature, as was evident not only in the consistently strong class discussions we had throughout the semester but also in their interest and development of the subject matter in their final papers. Among the topics explored were:

  • A focus on the “New Woman” in Nicaraguan literature
  • A discussion of Female Archetypes in Salvadoran literature before and after the civil war
  • Ethics and revolution in Gioconda Belli’s novel, The Inhabited Woman
  • A discussion of linguistic, metaphorical, and geographic borders in Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier
  • Revolutionary masculinities and sexualities
  • The Rigoberta Menchú controversy, explored from a journalistic angle

Many of these topics went beyond the ideas and examples discussed in class and revealed the students’ ability to think outside of the basic parameters of traditional literary analysis (novel structure, plot, characters, etc.). It was one of my hopes that students would be able to make overarching connections and work across time periods and literary genres, which many did.

This final assignment, as well as the rest of the student work for this class, revealed that students were able to develop and/or strengthen their research skills (using interdisciplinary sources). Student performance on the two written assignments for the course prior to the paper, Assignment #1: Locating and Surveying Secondary Sources and Assignment #2: Understanding Theory and its Use, was overall strong. The same follows for the annotated bibliography. Although some students struggled with these elements, especially the effective use of theoretical approaches in their final papers, given the overall class performance and grade breakdown, I do feel that most of the students’ work did meet the goals set for the course. In some cases (in the A and high B papers), it exceeded them.


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Professor Yajaira PadillaReflections

My analysis of student performance in this course taught me a number of things about student learning. For one, it reinforced a fact I already knew—that students learn best when they are able to relate somehow to the material or have a keen curiosity for it. Although I had set goals for the course, I was also aware (more so now) that in attempting to view literature through a cultural studies lens, in conjunction with other disciplinary discussions, I would be able to appeal to students whose interest in Spanish is not entirely focused on literature. This certainly was the case in this course, since some of the higher grades achieved were by students who made effective use of their other interests in journalism, history, or politics in the development of their final projects. For those students who already had an affinity for literature and literary analysis, I learned that they welcomed and were excited by the opportunity to read texts in a more nuanced way and alongside ideas they originally did not think were connected. It was great to see that by the end of the course, students were much more comfortable with interdisciplinary dialogues between texts.

As far as my own teaching, I learned that there are significant and effective means of improving student learning:

  1. Courses can be designed to not only develop specific skills (research, analysis, language, etc.), but also introduce students to a new subject of inquiry and a new way of thinking about that subject.
  2. Each course assignment can be construed as a “building block” to aid students in developing their skills and knowledge, as well as a final research paper or projects. In this course, I essentially broke down a research paper (the visible end result I wanted my students to achieve) into what I thought was all of its components. I designed a rubric to facilitate this process for me. From there, I worked backward and designed each assignment I would give students throughout the semester so that they would gradually “build” their way to the final project. Though I have employed a similar method in other classes, I haven’t done so with the same degree of conscientiousness and with such a specific design in mind.

While I was generally satisfied with student performance and the course, I believe that there are several areas of improvement, one of which is the students’ work with theory and use of interdisciplinary approaches. This is not an easy area to develop, especially for students writing in another language and who struggle with reading comprehension. However, in my class, several students were successful, and I believe that those who were slightly less so could be with more skill development and time. One of the things that I think would be useful is to require students to turn in a first draft of their final assignment so that they could receive peer feedback on it and hopefully improve. I think that this would have made a significant difference in at least half of the C papers that were handed in, which could have been B papers given a set of revisions. This would also help students improve some of the other writing skills that they struggle with independent of language, such as thesis development and organization. I plan on integrating such an exercise in any future course I teach at the 500-level.

Although this is a course that is not offered on a regular basis, I feel that my approach to teaching literature and to using interdisciplinary resources can be useful in many of my other courses. It is often difficult to teach literature (especially in another language), precisely because many students are often missing the necessary cultural codes to relate fully to the text or are not familiar with the socio-historical context in which the text was produced. Within the given time frame of a class it is also difficult to attempt to bridge all of this information and still lead students in a nuanced and thorough discussion of course materials. Providing students with interdisciplinary resources, and requiring that they integrate them in class discussions and/or into a final project, is an effective means of dealing with the cultural and knowledge gaps they may have. At the same time, this focus on interdisciplinary work helps students develop their research skills beyond the scope of the discipline one is teaching while also possibly giving them a new outlook and appealing to their individual scholarly interests.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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Year: 
2008

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