Considering Class Dynamics

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Today’s guest blogger is Erin Giberson, who received her M.A. in English at the University of Alaska Anchorage and who currently teaches literature and composition classes in New Jersey at Mercer County Community College.  She has also taught college composition at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Monmouth University.  Erin specializes in utopian studies and postmodern literature; she is currently researching perceptions and implications of motherhood in contemporary society and fiction.  For the past few semesters, I've taught only evening, weekend, and online classes.  These timeframes have recently worked the best with my schedule, especially because the evening and weekend classes meet once per week on campus.  But this semester is a change of pace: I am teaching a class that meets twice a week in the mornings.  This class is a 10 week session, so the meeting times are longer, but regardless, comparing non-traditional meeting times to traditional confirms my earlier opinions about the former: night classes really are more difficult to teach—because, generally speaking, most people in the class are pretty tired by the time they arrive.  This assessment isn't to say that I haven't had great students in evening classes, but it is to say that long evening classes in particular have unique pedagogical challenges: these challenges are what I want to discuss in order to explore the most effective approaches to class meetings that stretch, for example, from 7 p.m. - 9:45p.m. So let's start with the challenges, which are obvious.  When students show up for this type of class, they are spent.  Many are coming to campus following a day at a full-time job. Many of these same students are heading home to children and families who'll then need their time and attention.  Some of my past students even squeezed in a class between getting off of work and the 7 p.m. class.  Further, while my particular class would only meet once a week, a surprising number of students had more than one late night of classes worked into their schedule.  All of these factors come together to create a group of people who are tired and ready to zone out way before they've shown up to a class where they're expected to talk about academic writing and critical reading for almost three hours. Given this starting point, thinking about the dynamics of evening classes (or any nontraditional class) raises the issue of how to best approach and reach students, especially because non-traditional class times are such an asset for students balancing multiple responsibilities while pursuing a degree. Finding the best way to approach and engage a class is a complicated but important issue.  From my non-traditionally meeting classes, I've generally seen that larger groups are easier than smaller ones because the numbers alone provide better opportunities to engage dialogue, and I think that speaks to the importance of a sense of a community within a class dynamic.  Students really are hesitant to be only one speaking or to sound foolish.  It's amazing how much such fear silences people.  But feeling comfortable in a class does a lot to eradicate this fear and allow an interest in course material, and most importantly, conversations about the course material. For this reason, one thing I've tried is a potluck approach (anyone who wants to bring in food can but it's completely optional, and any food brought in is shared by all during the break).  It might sound simple, but the food recharges energies and the socializing fosters community.  This approach has worked really well with some groups and even turned into a weekly ritual. So, that's a starting point.  Encouraging community.  Challenging the tiredness of the night with carbohydrates, sugars, and more sweets (for the record, I brought a veggie platter only because it was easier, but some students impressively baked and none refused leftover cookies and chips at the end of the night) can't hurt (unless you're in a computer lab, so I relinquish my own and others' responsibility on that front).  But what else? What are other ways to rejuvenate the interests of the class dynamic in a nontraditional meeting time? Or even, what are examples of how you have responded to challenging class dynamics?  I guess, when it comes down to it, we can know what to do with the text, but, in a composition class, the text is flat without people talking about and in response to it.  So how do we best reach students so that they want to respond?  
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.