What Makes Gatsby Great to Me


High school American Literature, 5th period. I’m discussing The Great Gatsby with less-than-impressed eleventh graders when it dawns on me that the conversation doesn’t budge unless moved by me. So, I set my book—closed—down on my desk, strike a dramatic pose reminiscent of Dead Poets Society, stare reluctantly out upon a class silhouetted against a row of dusty blinds, and ask them to tell me—with full immunity—how many have completed the reading homework. No one raised a hand. Not one. And we were even in that beautiful section where Jay Gatsby is described as one who “sprang from his Platonic concept of himself.” The whole “son of God” passage. “If you build it, they will come”—doesn’t that principle work in education? Meh.


The experience was a flashpoint in my teaching career. Perhaps you have learned, as I did, that if I wanted students to do something, I had to incentivize them. I had to write behavioral objectives to reach our learning objectives. It’s not a weakness of the current generation, and certainly not one to reserve for millennials. I would imagine that the same man who wrote these lines knew the game all too well:

Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love toward school with heavy looks.

It’s human nature not to read “important” information if we don’t know what exactly we’ll get from it. Anyone who has simply been a messenger knows how frequently you’ll meet folks who haven’t read your messages. We all give our time to what we believe benefits us, myself included.


I had to write behavioral objectives to reach our learning objectives.


As with readings, assignment guides benefit from incentivizing students. This semester, I’m testing a number of pedagogical ideas that have required me to build extensive guides. The most successful tool for incentivizing students to read my assignment guides is our LMS Quizzes tool bar none. I write the assignment guide, build a bank of quiz questions that Quizzes randomly draws from, and let students earn a grade. Students can test themselves until they earn a grade of 100%, if they wish. If they’re using the open-book approach, all the better. I simply want them to know the information contained in the assignment guide itself. Students consistently show themselves willing to learn through testing when they know they’re earning a grade.


I can hear pushback to this idea: “Students aren’t like they used to be. They should simply do their homework.” That’s a red herring because I know too many great teachers who have admitted to me that they were terrible students. If we stop “shoulding” all over our students, they’ll stop shoulding on lessons. And here’s the thing: if I spend hours thinking through an assignment, writing the guide, and making the assignment a part of my grade scheme, why would I not take half an hour to create a quiz that incentivizes students? Students have to value their grades because their persistence in the university community is based on their grades. Using the Quizzes tool is any easy way to help students see the value of your assignment guide.


I think, if I may be so bold as to interpret the words of a fellow Iowan, what Ray Kinsella meant is “If you build [what they value], they will come.” What we as faculty value rarely translates to what students value. By identifying behavioral objectives, we’ll more readily reach our learning objectives.

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