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English TA allows students to pursue multiple ways to earn their As

Teaching assistant Jack Caughey said he allows his students to complete only the assignments that interest them. Caughey said he thinks when students choose their own paths in the course, their work is more creative. (Shelby Scoggins/Daily Bruin)

By Anjishnu Das

May 23, 2016 12:51 a.m.

Students in Jack Caughey’s class can turn in annotated McDonald’s menus and “interview” poems for class assignments.

Caughey, a teaching assistant for English 4W: “Critical Reading and Writing,” encourages students to build their own syllabi. He said he thinks students can learn analytical skills by close-reading everything from classical literature to fast-food advertisements.

“The fundamental idea of literary studies is if you look carefully at a text, you’ll make a discovery that could change how (you) think about a Happy Meal menu, (for example),” said Caughey, a doctoral student in the English department.

Instead of setting a fixed syllabus, Caughey said his class allows students to accumulate points through a range of assignments. As students complete assignments, their points add up to a cumulative score, representing their final grade. Although students need 1,450 points to get an A in the class, all the assignments amount to about 2,800 points.

Caughey said his work experience prior to teaching at UCLA motivated him to create a system of evaluation that reflected students’ interest in learning.

One of his first jobs was teaching underserved youth in Oakland, California, where he learned to personalize his teaching methods.

“I was their last chance at any kind of education,” Caughey said. “It was similar to my class – I would try to figure out what they were interested in and get them the resources they needed.”

He added he wanted to build a curriculum at UCLA that didn’t follow the conventional pattern.

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“For me, the three papers and presentation format just didn’t quite do it,” Caughey said. “The idea is to emphasize the chance for students to choose their own course of study.”

He said he thinks giving students a choice increases creativity and makes the class more enjoyable for both students and himself.

“For a lot of teachers, grading is the worst part of the job because a lot of (papers) say the same thing,” Caughey said. “I’d much rather read a range of different things because I’ll learn more that way.”

Alexei Christodoulides, a second-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student who took Caughey’s class in winter quarter, said he thinks the the range of writing assignments helped him improve his writing more than other courses have.

Christodoulides said for one assignment, he wrote a poem of a different form and topic every week.

“Being a science major, I never thought I’d be good at (writing),” Christodoulides said. “He really started liking (my poems), which (showed me) I was a better writer than I originally thought.”

Maxwell Zupke, a first-year English student, said one of the assignments he chose was to rewrite James Joyce’s “Araby” as a Hollywood satire.

“(The assignment) combined the critical and the creative,” Zupke said. “To be able to rewrite something you have to fully understand it, analyze themes and symbolism and also reinterpret it.”

Caughey said he tries to balance the point value of an assignment with the amount of time he expects students to spend on it. He added he encourages students to focus on the content instead of point values.

“I think the students who’ve done the best in the course were the ones who forgot how many points they had or weren’t paying attention to them,” Caughey said.

Christodoulides said he is accustomed to a competitive grading environment as a South Campus student. But because there were so many opportunities to make up lost points, he said he was less worried about performing poorly in the class and more focused on the assignments.

Chris Mott, the teaching assistant coordinator for the English department, said he encourages graduate students to experiment with teaching. He added he thinks Caughey’s teaching system allows him to evaluate students based on their intrinsic interest in learning.

“Jack’s got enough integrity that he’s not just imposing his idealism on his students,” Mott said. “He recognizes that there’s a world out there that very much depends on grades and comparative assessment of students.”

Caughey said he approaches teaching like research and often turns to the Internet for assignment ideas. He said he adapted many assignments from sources like the website Genius and the Epic Rap Battles of History series on YouTube.

Caughey said he takes risks in his teaching methods and expects his students to take risks with his assignments, which can determine their success in the class.

“It’s the risk you take when you’re (molding students’) intellectual work,” Caughey said. “What I try and do is connect people with their highest intellectual ambitions, which they might not know they have until they actually try to do some of the work.”

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Anjishnu Das | Alumnus
Das was the 2016-17 managing editor.
Das was the 2016-17 managing editor.
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