Show Me Your Knowledge: An Interview with Rick Magee

Rick Magee is an associate professor of English at Sacred Heart. He won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015 and has a reputation for being one of the most effective and most popular instructors on campus. I wanted to see what he was up to, so I could steal some of his best ideas.

I’ve heard many students comment that your courses are remarkable for how much the students have a say in how they are run. How do you incorporate student feedback or choice into your course design?

Last Spring, I picked up an anthology—we stared off with one novel—and I had some secondary readings that we talked about to establish our theoretical framework for the class, to give them the vocabulary and all of that. Then I said: “Here’s the anthology. Every week you are going to pick out the reading and break up into groups. Every group was going to do two readings, based on how people there were in the class and how many weeks we had, and you’re going to teach the class that day”—so they did it.

I thought that worked surprisingly well. I also said: “How do you want to be assessed? How do you want me to find out what you’ve learned? Here are some things that I’d like to see. I want to see this and this and this. What would be the best way to be able to do that?”

One of my students who is an English major who had had me before said, “I really like the micro-essay,” which is a very focused, super short close reading of about 250-300 words, where, for example, they have to find one word in the essay and analyze it.

How are the micro-essays different from what might be called a standard essay? And what other kind of writing do you have them do?

I had students who still tried to write a 5-paragraph essay, but I told them to get rid of all the unnecessary introductory material because it’s all throat clearing. It’s all fine, but that’s the prewriting and you get rid of that in your final draft.

We had a couple of papers like that due, then I said: "I want to have you do something that shows me that you got something out of the class. Show me that I’m not wasting my time. I don’t know what we’ll call this. And one student said ‘Let’s call it “Show Me Your Knowledge,”’ and I said, “‘Ok, cool.’

“And it can be anything,” I said. “Play to your strengths. If you’re a short story writer, then write a short story. If you’re a painter, then paint me a picture. Just show me that you learned something—somehow.” And they were panicked about that. Complete panic. For the last class, they all had 5 minutes to show their projects, and everyone did really, really well.

I was really careful not to tell them “This is what I want you to do,” but I said, “Come to me with an idea because I’m not going to tell you what you should do.’”

This semester I collected all the readings from a lot of places, but they were in charge of whatever we talked about in class. Having them lead the discussion is less-pressure version where you ask a question and wait for someone to answer it. It put enough pressure on them or we’d sit around and stare at each other till someone said something.

Last semester, they lead everything. If they came to some big idea and I saw how I could insert something I would jump up and scribble on the board and we’d talk about it. And then some of the students would try it on their own in the essays and have fun with that.

Do you spend a great deal of time selecting materials? You certainly offer what I would call cool courses—the “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” on dystopian literature or the course on nature.

I have to go back to my own undergraduate courses. I loved reading trash, all through childhood and high school. I would read trashy spy novels by Robert Ludlum, and I was a huge Stephen King fan. Then I got to college and it was—Oh, you don’t talk about that stuff because it’s like some shameful secret that you read these guys. You don’t dare let anybody know. And that was a real turn off. Even in grad school, I remember there being other grad students who would play the sophisticated card, and I decided that was just a bunch of bullshit.

Reading is not supposed to be this onerous task. It’s fun, that’s what I have 10,000 books at home. So I try to exhibit that. Students have a very regimented, factory notion that if it isn’t in this fancy leather-bound volume, then we can’t talk about it.

I taught The Walking Dead, the graphic novel, and we watched most of the first, pilot episode in class. Both of my First-year Seminars were both on the quiet side, but toward the end I asked them to pick out one of the panels or images in the graphic novel, and we just talked about it. They were doing some really sophisticated reading of symbols—for example, what’s in the foreground versus the background and how things are shaded differently and how the art is conveying a message. They can do it; they just don’t think they can. Or they don’t think it’s something they need to know how to do.

What about technology? How do you incorporate that into your courses?

I’ve gone back and forth. I feel that I’m not using it as much as I should. I use Blackboard. I have them submit their papers electronically. I encourage them with the final projects to use it. I have students editing videos and things like that. Two of my current students put together an 18-minute video of their time in Vermont on the Appalachian Trail—it’s hilarious, it’s well done, it’s well edited.

I also put a great number of links to news stories and blogs and videos. Especially when I’m doing something like the apocalyptic class, there’s always a news story that uses the term “apocalypse” or something like that, and I’ll talk about it a little in class.

How do we develop an atmosphere where students feel free to express their opinions, even with or especially when they disagree with us?

I feel like you can over prepare. When I over prepare, when I think that I have everything figured out about a text, it doesn’t work. But if I go in and say, “Here’s what we’re going to talk about,” then it works. Once a few students start to say something, more often than not, it’s not something I was planning on saying, but it’s a cool idea. Then I’ll write it up on the board.

It’s not them disagreeing with me, but it opens up the space where they feel that they feel that their voice is being heard and that they can say something legitimate.

Closely related to that is the idea that a lot of students have that the line between literary analysis and BS is non-existent. I’ve had a lot of students say, “I just wrote a bunch of BS,” and I have to say, “No, this is actually really good analysis. You were looking at the text and asking ‘What does that mean?’ You were making it up, but you were basing it on the text, and that’s what literary analysis is.”

They’re taken aback by that because they think there is an actual answer. I think a lot of high school teachers teach literature as if it’s a puzzle to figure out—“What does this symbol mean?” and “What does this theme mean?” and that the text is some kind of lock that you have to pick.

In literature, readings are layered. If you peel it back, you get another reading. If you peel that back, you get something else. And they’re all added together, and that’s why literature is so rich. All of these readings work, and they can contradict each other.

All or mostly all of the students are capable of doing that, but many of them won’t realize that they can do it. They also don’t think that they’re allowed to express that they don’t like something. You don’t have to like everything you read, but you have to like it respectfully. Tell me why you don’t like it.

Could you give an example of something that you tried that didn’t work and what you learned from it?

I’ve tried to do debates. Maybe I don’t have enough training on how to set it up, but it’s tough to do with literature. What I’ve learned is that the debates are too binary, for one thing, and binaries just don’t work in literature. Sometimes they don’t want to disagree—it’s not polite.

One other thing that I’m contemplating, and not necessarily because it’s failed, and that’s the research essay. “Go to the library and find a bunch of sources and use them”—I don’t think that model works very well. What I end up doing in a lot of my classes is to do what I do as a professional, and I don’t think that necessarily helps them. The idea that they’re supposed to engage in the conversation, but that’s not what a research paper does.

I’m thinking I might explode that and have them do an annotation of once source. Then have them use the ideas that they learn from that source to write an essay about a work of literature.

How has your teaching changed since you first started?

I was a disaster. I started teaching as a grad student in 1993. Sometimes I feel like I should find all the students that were in my first classes and pay them back. I had the worst student evaluations I ever had. I had a letter of resignation ready to go, and I was ready to drop out of this writing program. I thought I would do it one more time, then everything changed.

I was very gung-ho, that we have to do this Big Thing. I realized that I wanted them to be way up here, and they’re coming in here. I’m not going to drag them up to that high level. And I learned to take myself a little less seriously, and I think that helped a lot. In the last ten years, I’ve started to feel like I kind of know what I’m doing.

I’ve also become less defensive about English. It’s easy to be really defensive about English because we get marginalized all over the place. I don’t worry about that as much any more. I know that it’s important. At the same time, it’s a safe place to stretch your intellect.