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The Romantic Survival Project:
An Assignment Portfolio from English 330, 2004-2007

John Webster

(This page has three parts. The first is the Assignment Portfolio describing the design, teaching, and assessment of the Romantic Survival Project, the second is the Assignment as I gave it out, and the third is a summary of how I managed the Paper Load.


The Romantic Survival Project

Introduction: The Course and its Goals

English 330 is an upper division introduction to the literature and culture of the Romantic Age in England, the period running roughly from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 to the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. The course’s principal work is to introduce students to the history and the literature of the age, but two other more general learning goals also loom large. The first stems from the difficulty most students have reading the literature of earlier centuries, and especially its poetry. However many courses they have taken, even seasoned English majors rarely read poetry well on their own. Instead many respond to the difficulty of such readings simply by relying on their professors’ explanations. That's flattering, of course, to professors, but of little value to students once they've left the confines of the course. Beyond my obvious content goals for the course, then, in teaching English 330 I want to enable students to leave the course able to engage its literature actively and on their own.

My second general learning goal is connected to the first. Though students may find class sessions interesting, even exciting, it’s a surprising fact about literary study that quite often little of what we do in class stays with them once they leave. Instead students tend to see their course readings as no more than school learning, an esoteric enterprise distant from their real lives and concerns. Of course, they are right: in some respects this poetry IS remote. But because I believe that the best reason for students to be reading Wordsworth’s or Bronte’s work is that it still can have powerful connections to the way they live, in my most recent versions of the class I also wanted a project that could bridge the gap between students and the two-centuries old literature we were to be reading.

The Romantic Survival Project and its Rationale

I first developed the Romantic Survival Project (RSP) in the fall of 2003 for English 330, and re-designed it for the fall of 2004. It has kept its form in the iterations I have taught since then, most recently in 2007. The RSP depends upon a central fact about the Romantic age: that the profound shifts in political, educational and aesthetic culture that came with the age of romanticism are in many ways still with us. Some two hundred years later, the age survives throughout our culture, in surprising as well as obvious places. The RSP takes advantage of this fact by asking students to locate a recent cultural artifact—whether movie, novel or something less obvious—that they can link to a text read in the course. I described the assignment’s essential task as follows (see Appendix 1 for the full text):

The immediate goal of the Romantic Survival Project is to write a 5-6 page paper in which you explain to someone you know well, who is culturally literate but not an expert in the Romantic Age, any cultural artifact from the past few years that in your understanding either directly or ironically depends upon on one or more major Romantic themes or concepts.

The project will require your doing three things. First, you will need to locate a recent cultural artifact that in your view depends either directly or ironically on major Romantic themes or concepts; second, you will need to locate an appropriate analogue text—a Romantic Age poem or piece of prose we will read this quarter—that can supply a relevant Romantic Age context for your survival artifact; and third, you will need to explain exactly how your analogue text casts light on the hidden romanticism of your artifact. You should also keep in mind, however, that your artifact is not finally “romantic” in fact, and you will thus need to explain the ways in which it is not romantic as well as the ways in which it is.

Integrating Course and Project

Classwork: The RSP requires that students learn at least three things: a lot about the Romantic Age and its intellectual preoccupations; how to read Romantic poetry and prose actively; and how to extend the knowledge and skills learned within the course to at least one contemporary artifact. Taken together, those three required learnings make up the core of the entire course, and thus if students are able to complete the RSP successfully they will indeed show the progress on the course goals they have made over the course of the quarter.

My linking of course and project began on the first day of class when I played a five-minute clip from the movie Road Trip (2000) and led a discussion of the ways in which this movie invoked (albeit ironically) traditional romantic themes. I wanted students to see from the very first day both how culturally pervasive and durable romantic views of experience have been, and how an understanding of the Romantic Age could inform their own experience even with as simple a contemporary artifact as a minor college-life film. I hoped this would be intriguing—something of a hook for the course as a whole. At the same time I also wanted students to grasp both the complexity of what the RSP was asking of them, and that I had structured the course so as to enable them to build the skills necessary to its successful completion. I thus explained that we would spend the first weeks of the course developing knowledge of a wide range of Romantic Age themes and learning to read Romantic Age poetry with independence and sophistication, and we would then go on to examine exemplary artifacts like Road Trip to demonstrate how best to transfer their newly acquired reading skills to more recent works.

Learning about the Romantic Age itself came from readings in the assigned history text, from class discussion of that text, from material supplied in the course reading packet, and from background material included in the literature anthology used for the class. Learning to read actively was both the basic work of most days in class and the focus of week 5’s midterm exam. The close-reading exercise the exam offered then itself became the basis for in-class discussion, followed by an opportunity to rewrite.

We also modeled twice in class the process of completing the assignment by watching together two recent films, each a good example of a Romantic Age survival. The first was Pirates of the Caribbean, for which students wrote a two-page response paper which then became the basis for a project-based group exercise in the following class session. The second was Gods and Monsters, for which the same writing-then-discussion process followed. The object of these days was first to model for students how to transfer to contemporary texts the reading skills they were learning for the class’s traditional texts, and second, to give them help identifying romantic survivals and articulating exactly how and where those texts’ surviving elements arose.

Writing designed to support the RSP: Students in my classes write a great deal—between 40 and 50 pages by course end. Much of this writing consists of daily response papers aimed at building subskills for sophisticated reading. But students also completed assignments targeted explicitly towards the RSP. Thus by the time we had finished discussing the two films in class they had twice written papers asking them to read the films actively, and we’d twice shown how to connect readings of film back to Romantic Age texts (Wordsworth and Coleridge offered fine correlatives to Pirates, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was similarly relevant to Gods and Monsters). Beyond these two response papers, in week 7 students also had to submit a paper proposal describing the contemporary artifact they planned to use for the project, along with an explanation of how this artifact was indeed a Romantic Age Survival; this I returned with comments early in week 8. Finally, students submitted a full paper draft in week 9, worked with peer reviewers on those papers in class, and submitted a full revision ten days later.

Assessment of Students’ Progress on Course Learning Goals

How did students do with this assignment, and how well did the assignment achieve the course goals I had set for it? I based my assessment of the assignment on four factors:

• Office of Educational Assessment (OEA) course evaluation surveys.
• Grades for students’ RSP essays, compared to grades on students’ midterms and finals.
• Students’ course-final Self-Reflective Essays on their learning in the course as a whole.
• Students’ anonymously submitted in-class evaluation of the RSP and of each of the ways in which the course supported their writing of it.

The OEA survey was positive: 4.8 (adjusted median 5.0) / 5.0 for Items 1-4 combined. Students clearly liked the course. Of more interest from the point of view of the RSP as a capstone writing project for the course, however, were the scores on items 19 and 21 (I used UW Form X). The first of those showed 79% of students describing significantly more than average progress in developing “an ability to express yourself in writing and orally,” and the second showed 89 % ascribing to the course a significantly greater than average effect in “applying the course material to real world issues or other disciplines”—one of my major goals for their learning.

As for the Project grades, all students succeeded in terms of the grading criteria I had established for them (for criteria, see Appendix below). Moreover, grades on Week 11’s RSP showed significant improvement from those on Week 5’s midterm exam. Though the RSP offered students a far more complicated task than did the midterm, all but two of the class’s 34 students received grades equal to or (for 15 students) better than their grades on the midterm. Since the grades for both RSP and midterm included similar criteria (even if for tasks of very different difficulty), higher grades on the RSP indicate that students had made significant progress with active-reading sub-skills between weeks 5 and 11. Finally, as confirmation that the higher skill levels student showed on the RSP were not an aberration, a comparison with grades on the final exam showed similar improvement. There grades for all but two students were either equal to or better than their midterm grades.

To be sure, the RSP was but one of several strategies to enable better reading, but students’ Self-Reflective Essays (SRE) written to accompany their end-of-quarter writing portfolios strongly support the conclusion that high intellectual engagement with the course engendered by the RSP played a major role in the growth of students’ reading skills. Not every SRE mentions the RSP by name, but many do, and students’ responses describe either enthusiasm for the project or a sense of its having helped them become stronger readers and writers. One writes: “The RSP is ideal, and also insidious (in a good way)…. I spent the whole quarter watching every movie I saw, listening to every song, reading every book, viewing absolutely everything with just one thought in mind—‘does this contain elements of Romanticism?’” Another writes: “[The RSP] really piqued my interest…. What is it about the romantic era that later generations can’t let go of?” Still another: “[The RSP] has been a true challenge. I would never have thought about connecting many of today’s surviving themes with their roots during the romantic age. I loved the movie choices used as examples….” And yet another wrote that the RSP was her favorite part of the course “not only because it required me to write so much, but also because it allowed me to take a subject I feel passionate about, Women’s Rights, and develop a packaged piece about it.”

That positive response to the Project was paralleled in the anonymously submitted in-class questionnaire. In it I asked students about what they liked and disliked in the RSP, about difficulty, method, and intensity of engagement, and about what we did in class that most helped in their work. Responses were completed the same evening students turned in their final drafts. Of the 32 students taking the survey, 23 identified the way the RSP provided a connection to contemporary culture as what they liked most; another 4 cited the freedom it offered to make choices in the texts they wrote about. 28 of 32 students described their “degree of engagement” with the project as high or very high, and in response to the question: “How seriously, in fact, did you try to rewrite the paper?” 30 responded “seriously” or “very seriously,” while only 2 reported either average (1) or less than average (1) engagement. And to a question about how helpful the things we had done in class were to them in completing the project, students most frequently cited class discussions of romantic themes in contemporary movies (15), having to write a full draft and then having to revise (11); the Read-Around (15), and the in-class rewriting workshop (14).

Finally, there were suggestions for change. 5 students said they would have liked more time between draft and revision; the week I had provided wasn’t for them long enough. 3 of the 32 responding students also wished I’d been able to comment on more of their work, and when asked what they did NOT like about the project, 7 noted difficulties they had with one or another element (e.g., finding a good analogue text), 5 reported feeling cramped for time, and 3, again, asked for more feedback. 15 either declared that they had nothing they did not like about the project or simply left the question blank.


In as many ways as I could measure, the Romantic Survival Project was a success, and I have gone on to use it twice more. The biggest challenge has been to find ways to give students feedback on key elements of their writing without increasing the time it took me to manage the overall course paper load. I did offer them a workshop, and we did take time for peer review. At the same time, I’ve also learned from this project the value of not over-responding to student work. Yes, both in this class and in subsequent versions of the course a few students wished I’d been able to read more of what they wrote. But most students truly excelled, and truly grew as readers and as writers, not only in these very conditions, but I’d say because of these very conditions. Students do indeed often need help—and intelligent comment on drafts is one significant way to provide it. But there is a point at which students must also become independent as writers, and I think many of my students showed their capacity to work independently in this class. With relatively little direct comment from me, most students engaged in revising their papers with enthusiasm, diligence, and success. That’s a result well worth repeating.

Appendix 1

The Romantic Survival Project, Winter Quarter, 2007

The immediate goal of the Romantic Survival Project is to write a 5-6 page paper in which you explain to someone you know well, who is culturally literate but is not an expert in the Romantic Age, any cultural artifact from the past few years that in your understanding either directly or ironically depends upon on one or more major Romantic themes or concepts.

The project will require your doing three things. First, you will need to locate a recent cultural artifact that in your view depends either directly or ironically on major Romantic themes or concepts; second, you will need to locate an appropriate analogue text—a Romantic Age poem or piece of prose we will read this quarter—that can supply a relevant Romantic Age context for your survival artifact; and third, you will need to explain exactly how your analogue text casts light on the hidden romanticism of your artifact. You should also keep in mind, however, that your artifact is not finally “romantic” in fact, and you will thus need to explain the ways in which it is not romantic as well as the ways in which it is.

In evaluating the artifact you select it will matter to me less how perfect your example is than how well and how extensively you bring your understanding of romantic themes and conversations to bear in your discussion. We will work in class with one example: The Pirates of the Caribbean. Another example—highly ironic, to be sure—is Road Trip. Which makes another point: the artifact doesn’t have to be “great” art. Road Trip may be funny, but it’s also sexist at points, and really annoying at others. But though the film may not be great art, it certainly engages a whole range of romantic themes in very interesting ways, sometimes satirically, sometimes quite seriously, and almost always quite surprisingly.

Whatever artifact you pick, the task is essentially the same as what we will do together with Pirates: evaluate your artifact’s thematics in terms of the works you have studied this term, and then write a 5-6 page paper in which you either:

a) explain how the themes you have picked have survived in the work, and discuss 3-4 key moments at which they are developed (or, if the work is static, 3-4 elements), comparing and contrasting them with your selected Romantic Age analogue; or

b) pick a single 4-5 minute sequence of the film (or chapter-length segment story or novel) that seems to you to capture best the romantic themes you have encountered in this course, and do a reading of that scene in which you explain as fully as you can what survivals from the Romantic Age inform your scene, and compare and contrast it with your selected Romantic Age analogue.

[In the case that you pick something that is static—like an art object (an urn, say!) or a magazine layout—then instruction b) won’t work very well since it depends upon temporal sequence.]

General Goals

I hope you will see over the course of this project how vibrant, supple, and adaptable the themes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century have been and continue to be. At the same time I hope you will also see ways to take the knowledge you build in this course well beyond its bounds—this course finally should be about a great deal more than Wordsworth and Hemans and Keats and Byron.

Finally, I hope when you reread your own paper at quarter’s end you’ll see yourself reading the material fluently and with sophistication, thinking about the social and aesthetic functions of the works we read, and relating course readings to your ongoing experience in the world. In an important sense, doing this project well should demonstrate to you as well as to me your learning throughout the quarter.

Grading Criteria

As with everything else in this class, the 3 criteria (Conceptual Power/Integration, Specifics, Fullness/Exploration) will apply, but now enriched both by expectations appropriate to formal writing, and by the added requirements of comparison and contrast. (See RWRA, Section VI). That means I’ll actually be giving you 4 grid scores corresponding to the following criteria:

  • Conceptual Power/Integration: How strong and effectively argued is your claim throughout?
  • Artifact Treatment: How well do you summarize and work with your artifact?
  • Analog treatment: How well and fully do you make use of your analogue?
  • Presentation: (see “Four Criteria for Writing in English 330” for explanation).

As for Conceptual Power/Integration, the best projects will have an element of discovery to them—even (as with Road Trip, certainly, and Pirates, most likely) surprise. They will in effect be making what will seem counterintuitive claims even to your culturally literate readers, and the more substantial those claims, and the more fully explained and defended those claims are (via Specifics, of course, and their Exploration), the more successful the overall argument will be.

Due Dates

February 12, Full page nomination of a cultural artifact on which to work, along with a possible analogue work, and a description of the direction you expect to be going in your analysis.

February 21, Draft of full paper. Two copies ready for read-around.

March 7, 7:00 pm. Full paper, due at the start of class. (Detailed instructions for the formatting of copies and drafts will follow.)

Appendix 2:

Managing the Paper Load in a Fully Writing-integrated Course:
An Extreme Case

Adding writing to a class obviously increases the number of pages students write. That, in turn, can increase faculty workload. But it doesn’t have to do so. I recently tested this claim by teaching a class in which I asked an extraordinary amount of writing while at the same time restricting severely the time I spent handling the paper load. Even with this much writing I managed to keep my time commitment under control. The following describes what I assigned and how I managed the resulting paper load. Using similar strategies with less writing, others ought to find ways to do the same.

I assign a lot of writing in all of my classes, but even I had never assigned quite as much as I assigned in English 330 in the fall of 2004. Students each wrote 15 2-page response papers—one for almost every one of the 20 days the class met. They also wrote both an in-class midterm, a final, and a 5-7 page paper which was submitted twice, one in draft and again in a final form. At course end they wrote a 2-3 page reflective essay to accompany a course portfolio submitted with all of the writing they had done for the course. Finally, they also did five one-page in-class writes—three as reading quizzes to support their work with the history text, the other two as evaluations of the term project. Assuming the 34 students who finished the class wrote no more than what I required, each student wrote between 40 and 50 pages of prose, and I thus received in their course portfolios a total of about 1550 pages of writing. But though they wrote a lot, and though I supplied validation for every page they gave me, I did not in fact read anything like their every word. What follows is what I did along with my assessment of the results.

The15 sets of response papers were low stakes assignments, which means they were graded plus/check/minus or not at all. I read three sets in their entirety, giving written comments for two, and just checks for the third. For three other sets I selectively skimmed 8 to 10 papers to get a feel for how well students were doing, but instead of supplying written comments, I gave the class a response orally. All other response papers were turned in only as part of the students’ final course portfolios. As for the three quizzes, students self-graded these in class as part of post-quiz class discussions of the material.

For high stakes (graded) writing, I read carefully the midterm and final exams, giving comments on the midterm, but not on the final. I also supplied on all high stakes writing partial trait scores for key criteria. My comments on the midterm were the most extensive I gave anything all quarter—an average of 50 words each, focused through the criteria. I also conducted an in-class workshop on the midterms—another effective yet faculty-time efficient way of responding to student writing. Students with low grades on the midterm were encouraged to rewrite; I read the re-written midterms (about 8-10 of these were submitted), supplying a grade and minimal comments.

For the term project I read both drafts and final versions, but my comments on both were very limited. Indeed, I gave individual drafts only a single “revision index” score, and helped them generate ideas and energy for rewriting through a peer reading exercise and a one hour in-class workshop. All commenting on the drafts came from other student readers—my work in the in-class workshop included helping them interpret those comments effectively. I then commented lightly on the final version, returning those comments with the papers after the course had ended. Finally, I also read students’ two evaluations of the term project, and I read carefully and lightly commented on the course-final self-reflective essays.

In sum, then, by course end I had read or reviewed something under half of all the pages students wrote, and I had supplied light written comments on about a quarter of them all. This still represents a considerable investment of time (about 40 hours for the course—an average of 4 hours per week), with the bulk spent either with the midterms in week 5, with the project drafts in week 9, or with the final drafts of the project and the course’s final exam. But little of that time was extra time; I would have had to read midterms and finals in any event.

Did this level of comment on student writing work? Unequivocally yes. Student learning in this class as measured both by performance on the final exam and final project and by student course evaluations was as extensive and deep as I’ve ever managed to achieve. Further, all but two students described themselves as highly engaged in both the writing and the class itself, and just 3 of the 34 said they wished I’d been able to comment more. At the same time, 17 of 34 students explicitly described themselves as leaving the class with stronger writing skills, and on the Office of Educational Assessment end of quarter evaluation form, 79% rated their progress on “an ability to express yourself in writing and orally” as significantly more than average. In one self-reflective essay a student wrote: “I believe that I’ve learned more about the act of composition in this literature class than in any other class I’ve ever taken.”

Thinking of themselves as better writers was not in fact a result I was seeking, since this was nothing like a composition class. But I’m not surprised, since much that my upper division students need in order to be stronger writers isn’t instruction in “writing” anyway. Most are already fairly fluent when writing about things they know and in formats they understand. Rather, my students generally most need an understanding of how to deploy successfully and for disciplinarily-defined purposes the writing ability they already have.

Instead of “writing instruction” what this class really gave students, I think, was first, a set of low stakes occasions to practice a kind of thinking in a single format over and over again, and to do so on prompts that guided them step by step in the acquisition of the analytic thinking skills necessary to successful figurative reading, and second, three different high-stakes occasions to measure for themselves how far they had come in acquiring an operational understanding of those skills.

Last question: Given that I did not read at least half of what students wrote, why did they stay engaged in their writing? Why didn't they just go into time-serving mode?

I see at least two reasons. One was my use of a Course Portfolio as a way to give credit for low-stakes papers. Submitted at the end of the course, the Portfolio included all of their writing, and gave them points equal to 15% of the course grade for submitting that work along with a self-reflective essay about their experience in the course. Even on those days when I didn’t collect papers, students knew I would be giving them credit later on.

The second reason students remained engaged in course writing is that I made sure to supply other kinds of regular feedback throughout the course demonstrating that the writing they did made a difference to their progress in the course. Whether via discussion or in-class group work, I regularly asked students to use ideas developed in their daily writing.

Now. Do I wish I could have responded more? Yes and no. Students obviously need a great deal of help in the course of their learning, and it’s hard not to want to supply it. But at some point students must also become independent as writers. Given that these were upper division students, and that most had done a lot of writing in our major already, it is my sense that having to work in this course in a kind of “supported independence” was for many of my students precisely what they most needed to develop as stronger writers. For most of my students, less of me really did allow more for them.




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