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Composition Forum 48, Spring 2022

Review of William Banks and Susan Spangler’s English Studies Online: Programs, Practices, and Possibilities

Freddie Harris Ramsby

Banks, William. P and Susan Spangler, editors. English Studies Online: Programs, Practices, and Possibilities. Parlor Press, 2021. 335pp.

English Studies Online: Programs, Practices, and Possibilities is a must-read for English, writing, and indeed all humanities faculty and administrators who are required to, aspire to offer, or are in the process of offering their classes and programs online. Will Banks and Susan Spangler’s impeccably selected assortment of essays—deftly edited by their contributors before the book went to press after the COVID-19 pandemic to account for the mammoth move to learning management systems worldwide—succeeds in one tight volume to capture the myriad issues whirling around teaching English in digital venues. Banks, Spangler, and their contributors address a deficit in online pedagogy writ large by “asking how English studies practitioners are rethinking their teaching practices, course designs, and degree programs in ways that can deepen our understanding of what we may already know about online learning and effective digital pedagogies” (12). In other words, “work on digital contexts and pedagogies have not always engaged an English studies context specifically” (Banks and Spangler 19, emphasis mine). This book, however, speaks clearly to those of us in English, literary, and writing studies.

But that’s not only what makes this collection so timely and so readable. It’s also one of the most comforting texts I have read on online pedagogy, in the aftermath of the pandemic. Indeed, while faculty scrambled to learn “best practices” while glumly imagining administrative types rubbing their paws together, in glee, to the strains of, “Well, now we know we can do online programming!” English Studies Online is like a welcome salve.

First, despite the pandemic’s rude interruption, this collection should be read by the digital naysayers who, according to lore, have notoriously resisted the move to teach English online because, for them, being in front of a classroom is what teaching is all about. Banks and Spangler’s introduction suggests that some of their colleagues, who are resistant to moving online, lament the loss of something they feel is irreplaceable–those magic classroom sessions where the room buzzes and pops with conversation and ideas. Indeed, those moments are to some pedagogues irreplaceable. Additionally, English Studies Online should be read by administrators who insist that a one-size-fits-all approach to online pedagogy, peddled by corporate educators, will reduce budgets and attract more students. Teaching English, and indeed the humanities, online entails a more nuanced approach to pedagogy than task based learning, where students master a task and then move on to the next (Banks and Spangler 23). Certainly, English studies is the domain of inquiry and synthesis, and often the online platforms that offer ready-made courses don’t accommodate the processes that characterize this field (23).

Most importantly, this book is for those of us “who had been apprehensive before and who have not necessarily been reassured over the course of 2020, but who can see in their online courses new ways of doing things that simply had not occurred to them before or that they didn’t have the time to experiment with” (Banks and Spangler 36-37). This book is for those folks, like myself, who see the wonderful potential in teaching English studies online. This potential includes exciting pedagogical possibilities that open students’ worlds to the digital humanities and puts the humanities back on the playing field in higher educational contexts, which have, of late, been dominated by vocational disciplines in business and the sciences. Indeed, the collection infers an approach to teaching the humanities in ways that will secure our students’ futures in arenas beyond academia. In all, then, English Studies Online is for those of us who are worried about being left behind.

Perhaps I wax a little too lyrical, but this book is a balm to those of us in English studies dipping our toes in the waters of digital pedagogy. And it does so in a way that is so unthreatening. The authors soothe the wounds incurred by the pandemic on educators as we hop and skip on and offline, dancing between the opening and shutting of the campus gates as variants evolve.

One essay that sets the tone for the entire volume is Ashley Holmes’ comprehensive discussion of how to create assignment sheets using universal design principles in Chapter 8. She suggests that if we ask our students to create “multimodal and interactive digital compositions such as infographics, blogs, or digital stories,” then, we should practice what we preach by offering the most omnipresent genre in teaching, the assignment sheet, in similar modes (198). Nevertheless, she urges us to start small: “Starting small allowed me to pilot these changes and make adjustments before putting in the labor of revising an entire set of teaching materials” (Holmes 217, emphasis mine). It’s this sort of “small moves” approach, as well as the meticulously detailed accounts of how to make appropriate pedagogical moves in online English Studies, that pervades the entire collection—from the Coda, which addresses how the editors and contributors negotiated the onset of the pandemic, to the chapters, which offer workable strategies for creating online programming at the institutional and classroom level.

The book is divided into three sections: Programs, Practices, and Possibilities. Programs consists of 4 essays that detail case studies of program development from master’s programs, to minors in writing, to first-year composition sequences. For any English or writing studies department or program planning large-scale moves online amid post-pandemic pressure, this section generally offers experiential narratives from folks who have gone through the process and who have figured out what works to best serve their writing and literature students. Sadly, however, pervasive throughout these chapters is a distrust of administrators or learning management systems where:

Corporatized models of “training” often dominate as a key educational goal, which involves mastering discrete concepts or legal/professional policies that impact work on a daily basis. Training toward specific tasks or projects often asks not for a critical pedagogy centered on exploration, but for a model where mastery is the overriding outcome. (Banks and Spangler 23)

Nevertheless, the chapters in this section consistently resist these modes of online education by offering blueprints for robust English studies programs online. They discuss what worked, and what didn’t, how to innovate and administrate these programs, and how to train teachers, and partner with “other campus parties” such as libraries and tutoring centers to offer holistic programming to online students (27).

Perhaps the chapter that most holistically sums up effective approaches to programmatic development of online English studies is Chapter 3, Lessons Learned: Navigating Online Teaching and Learning in English Studies by Michele Griegel-McCord, Cynthia Nitz Ris, and Lisa Beckelhimer (62). In this chapter, the authors reiterate approaches to program development that are, frankly, good practices all round. They narrow their discussion down to three essential characteristics of program development:

  • To ensure transfer and relevance of content by scaffolding it from student learning outcomes (SLOs) first. For instance, faculty must define in their SLOs things like “critical thinking” and how that will be assessed through the writerly affordances and constraints of digital spaces (Griegel-McCord, Nitz Ris, and Beckelhimer 64).

  • Programs should encourage “Communities of Practice” (Griegel-McCord, Nitz Ris, and Beckelhimer 69)—support systems whereby expert faculty support and mentor those new to online teaching. These systems should become part of the program and disciplinary identity, where faculty can sustain and share fruitful discussions about teaching (Griegel-McCord, Nitz Ris, and Beckelhimer 73).

  • The writers also insist on administrative support. Administrative advocates, who are willing to understand and educate themselves about online programming, can ensure campus-wide understandings of what constitutes effective online teaching. To this characteristic, the authors note, “Such proactive steps are vital to informing college leaders who, like program and department heads, may not teach online and may not be aware of critical differences between online and face-to-face teaching and the need for a comprehensive approach toward solutions” (Griegel-McCord, Nitz Ris, and Beckelhimer 80).

The second section of the book, Practices, consists of six essays that offer practical and easily applicable suggestions for teaching English online. The editors have run the gamut--capturing all aspects of online pedagogy from the macro (Stephanie Hedge’s thorough breakdown of a teacher training course) to the micro, day-to-day materials and strategies needed for successful teaching online; Holmes’ advice (noted above) on creating multimodal assignment sheets informed by universal design can be translated to all kinds of pedagogical material—syllabi, assessment materials, and more. These discussions offer easily implemented strategies to foster best practices in online teaching. Indeed, these practices are imminently practical.

However, it is Bank’s Virtual Literature Circles: Re-Embodying Discussion in Online Literature Courses (178) and Spangler’s A Tale of Two Courses: Class Discussion Issues in English Studies Online (276) that adeptly tackle that mainstay of face-to-face classrooms that many English faculty are loathed to release in favor of teaching English online—the class discussion. Both Banks and Spangler acknowledge the class discussion as the sacred space of English studies, yet both put to rest fears that online spaces somehow diminish that space. Banks, in his delightful and lively style, discusses literature circles—virtual hangouts that foster class discussion in ways that promote equity and mitigate some of the challenges face-to-face discussions prompt: the student who dominates the discussion, for instance. Spangler, who also addresses those issues in detail, notes, for instance, the predominance in face-to-face classrooms of the “IRE” sequence: a method of eliciting discussion whereby teachers initiate the discussion, student’s respond, and the teacher evaluates the discussion (279). This does not, Spangler argues, live up to the myth of the preeminence of the face-to-face class discussion. Instead, Spangler proposes a threefold process that she insists fosters thoughtful and just discussions online. In this sequence (for which she offers both prompts and descriptions of processes), Spangler articulates discussion prompts based on “first impressions,” “second thoughts,” and “final answers.” These prompts promote rigorous engagement with the reading material and thoughtful student interaction (Spangler 276-301).

In the final section of the book, Possibilities, contributors, in the words of the editors, “reflect on critical theories that inform online teaching and learning in English studies courses at the programmatic, departmental, or college level. They explore key issues related to designing and implementing sustainable and scalable programs, courses, and pedagogical practices” (Banks and Spangler 30). The five essays in this section are clearly dedicated to theories of online learning, insistent on equity and inclusion. The essays in this section include discussions of inclusive syllabi, the importance of student backgrounds in online instruction, they revisit universal design, faculty identity, and resoundingly claim that online venues are sites for transgressive and progressive teaching of English studies. “Online platforms offer affordances that make re-examining our pedagogical orientations worthwhile.” states Erin Frost in the collection’s final chapter, Lessons from Journalism: Developing Online Programs for the Public Good (413). These essays certainly iterate exciting new visions for our disciplines.

One standout is Cecilia D. Shelton’s valuable complement to Holmes’ assignment sheets, in which Shelton examines through metaphor analysis that ubiquitous artifact, the syllabus. As such, she interrogates “the narratives that are constructed around and through the syllabus and how they point toward institutional cultures that can be reproduced or disrupted in our English studies programs and courses” (Shelton 303-304, emphasis mine). She asks, “How might we orient our syllabi toward more inclusive, anti-racist, justice-oriented practices in English studies courses?” (Shelton 302). Indeed, Shelton posits that a syllabus tells us much about the values and ideologies of its creators and their imaginings of audience (305). As a result, like the other chapters in this collection, she offers detailed notes that offer a “fresh perspective on the syllabus” based on key principles of technical and professional communication: content management, user experience, and document design (Shelton 307).

I am a faculty member at a small, liberal arts, predominantly Black and minority-serving institution of approximately 1500 students at a campus that is currently struggling to stay open. Considering that, my only criticism of this book is that many of the contributors appear to write from larger institutions than mine, where budgets present fewer obstacles than I and my colleagues currently face. The median family income of students at my college is approximately $32,000 and, at times, while reading English Studies Online, I envied what seemed like expansive resources and personnel from which to prompt administrative and faculty engagement in online programming. I understand that budget woes are relative, yet, once again I found comfort in this book when reading Catrina Mitchum, Marcela Hebbard, and Janine Morris’ Expanding Instructional Contexts: Why Student Backgrounds Matter to Online Teaching and Learning. This essay brought me sharply and explicitly back to the most important stakeholders in these discussions: the students who are being taught online. As other teachers and administrators might relate, budget envy can sometimes foreclose on who really matters. The authors advocate for early understanding of “key dimensions of student backgrounds and expectations for online education in the early stages of planning” online courses (Banks and Spangler 30). Using data collected from multiple “getting to know you” surveys, the authors “offer nine practical suggestions to address student expectations across three dimensions: (1) Linguistic backgrounds, (2) Educational backgrounds, and (3) Institutional support” (Mitchum, Hebbard, and Morris 317).

Spatial limits, of course, prevent me from examining the strengths of this book, of which there are many, in great detail, but I do feel compelled to mention that there are other organizations who are doing online pedagogical work comparable to the approaches this collection advocates. They are, thus, worthy and practical complements to Banks and Spangler’s book. For instance, I have taken several courses with the Association of University and College Educators (ACUE), which advocate for and promote similar practices as those considered in this collection. In addition, the Council of Independent Colleges has done rigorous research in faculty development and online programming in the humanities. Nevertheless, Banks and Spangler’s valuable and immediately useful collection will, undoubtedly, remain dog-eared and reread in my library for some time to come—an uplifting accompaniment to my own investment in online teaching.

Return to Composition Forum 48 table of contents.