Author Archives: Ben Bever

Learning from Micro-teaching

I have to admit to more than a mild degree of nervousness going into my micro-teaching lesson this evening. I am not a teacher by profession, and was worried that I wouldn’t know how to present the material, or that people wouldn’t engage the way I expected…
But this went really well. I feel like we got pretty deep into what Shakespeare was addressing in Sonnet 110, and I’m happy that the writing exercise was as useful as it was for everybody, and served my intended purpose of getting students to really think about the text on a more personal, interactive level.
We had a great discussion, and covered a lot of different ideas in a short amount of time. Ideally, I’d have loved to spend more time on all of them, but with only 15 minutes, I think (and hope you all agree) that we all improved our understanding of this poem in particular, and maybe made analyzing Shakespeare a little less daunting for those of you who worried about it.
The feedback that you gave me after the lesson was very useful; knowing that I was balancing my own comments with allowing the class to discuss and make discoveries for itself was good to hear. I’m never quite sure at what point my intervention is needed in these cases, so hearing that my gut instinct for it is more or less accurate was very reassuring for me as a novice teacher.

The SIx Facets of Understanding

I found it a very useful exercise to examine the different ways of “understanding”, especially when considering the readings/discussions of different learning styles from earlier in the course. The two concepts seem to have a good deal of overlap to them; in other words, I would expect different types of understanding to come easier to different types of learners.
I know, for instance, that the ‘have perspective’ and ’empathy’ facets of understanding usually come pretty naturally to me. I am also keenly aware of my own limits, and able to work through why I am having trouble with a given “text”, and hopefully find ways around my limitations and obstacles. Explaining and applying are weaker areas for me; I know something, but am not always able to translate that understanding effectively to someone who lacks it. A bit of the Expert’s Dilemma, I suppose.
My real question here is: are we supposed to try and apply all these ways of understanding simultaneously? That seems cumbersome and ill-suited to most situations. I find it almost absurd to think I’m supposed to have empathy for a mathematical equation, for instance.
I doubt this was the authors’ intent, but they did not (in this chapter at least) say so explicitly. While it seems intuitively obvious that these different “understandings” are to applied appropriately, it would be nice to have that “from the horse’s mouth” as it were, just to assure that no confusion on the matter is possible.

Sequential Art and Literature

I’ve been thinking about our discussion last week in regards to whether Baker’s graphic novel (and, more broadly, the medium in general) should be considered literature or not. And I think that’s the wrong question to ask. As teachers, our job is to teach, not to teach an appreciation and ability to read in a meaningful way, not to teach only what is considered “literature”. The graphic medium is not a collection of words, beautifully arranged to created meaning; there’s no arguing with that. But it is (ideally, at least) a collection of images arranged in such a way that the whole has greater meaning than any of its parts.
The root of the problem, as I see it, is that we can’t help but compare a graphic novel to a text novel. By the standards of pure prose, the graphic novel falls short, and always will. But this is holding it to the standards of a completely different medium. The same thing occurs any time a book gets adapted into a film: those of us (myself included) who loved the book, complain that the movie doesn’t do it justice, that such and such scene got left on the cutting room floor, that such and such actor was not the right choice for the role. Film cannot do the same things that text on the page can, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to.
The same goes for the graphic novel. It cannot do the same things that text alone can, and holding it to the same standards is unfair. But, just as film is capable of any number of things that are nearly impossible in a novel, the form of the graphic novel is capable of things that neither text alone nor film can accomplish. Inner monologue often gets lost in the move from page to screen, but the graphic novel is capable of conveying a character’s thoughts in a straightforward manner. Within a novel, keeping track of a massive cast can be difficult (thanks, Charles Dickens!), but in a more visual medium those distinctions can be made far more clearly.
Sequential art has its own intrinsic language; one that requires a different approach than the prose novel. On it’s own merits, Nat Turner presents a number of questions and issues that could also be raised by a prose narrative (but are not necessarily present in the Confessions), or by a film concerning the same events. But the way in which the story is told, the technique and convention of each of these forms brings with it a set of benefits and limitations. Was this the best form for the story of Nat Turner? I’m not sure it was, but Kyle Baker seems to have thought so, and has done a wonderful job of crafting the narrative in his chosen form.

I was excited to see that our syllabus included a graphic novel. Comic books were some of the first things I ever read as a child, and are something I’ve continued to read as an adult. While I’m the first to admit that they’re not all high literature, there are very real merits to the form that often get overlooked when the form is dismissed as “for kids”. Nat Turner is proof that not all comics are appropriate for children, and I can personally attest that it’s hardly an outlier in that respect. We think of any book with pictures as a ‘picture-book’, and picture-books are typically seen as appropriate for children. This always struck me as a strange way to think about books: at some point in a child’s life, books with pictures stop being seen as worthy of their attention. How did we get to that idea as a society? We love and appreciate art when it’s hung on the wall, but if it’s in a book with text, it’s not considered art anymore?
Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics honestly changed the way I read comics when I first encountered it more than ten years ago. While I already ‘knew’ how to read comics from growing up on them, I had never really thought about how to read them; it was a form of literacy that I had learned through exposure, the same way I had learned English. Nobody had to teach me how to read comics, so I had never really thought about the process. McCloud’s explanations of the mechanics of time and the complex interaction between image and text within the graphic novel format made me pay much closer attention to the way artists choose to lay out the series of images on a page with respect to the narrative process. I’m much more aware now when I come across a well-arranged or innovative layout of panels. Of course, the same is true of poor page layouts; sometimes it’s just not obvious what order the panels are meant to be read in, and that’s a failure of the artist to thoroughly consider the page as a whole and as a narrative/chronological space.

Video Games and Different kinds of Literacy

The most interesting idea that James Paul Gee mentions, for me, is the idea that ‘literacy’ extends beyond reading and writing; that there are different kinds of literacy. This is not a new idea to me, but one that I was happy to encounter here, as it is not an idea seen very often. Video games have their own kind of literacy, a system of operating and language unique to them as both a semiotic domain and as individual games.
On a broader level, we encounter any number of different ‘languages’ in our daily lives and manage them with very little trouble because we’ve learned to be literate in them: the ability to understand road signs is a great example. TO someone who’s used to driving (or just encountering on the road) American signage, the system of symbols is perfectly clear and requires very little thought because it’s become second nature. But put the same person in a foreign country (Japan, for instance), and the signs are different and confusing. Some look similar and mean the same thing, some are completely different, and some look the same but mean something else; you become functionally illiterate in an area you thought you understood.
We’ll probably encounter more on this as we get into Nat Turner but reading comics is an entire language in and of itself, requiring a completely different style of reading from, say, a novel. The way information is presented and processed works differently, and someone who had never encountered a comic before might not be able to follow the action from panel to panel.
Getting back to video games, I was literate in them maybe twenty years ago. I could do fairly well at games on the NES or Sega, or in an arcade. I now own an XBox and find myself struggling to master any of the games that I have for it. There are three times as many buttons on the controller, the games are all more complex and expansive than anything I played as a child, and the skills that I learned then have atrophied. These all become factors in my frustration with modern video games, but I continue to try because I value the entertainment they give me, and maybe I just might learn something else while I’m at it, too. Many of the games require complex problem-solving skills, something I’ve always been fairly good at and a skill that is nothing new to video games. Years of playing the various King’s Quest games on old desktop computers taught me the kinds of solutions that are often required in similar games, and that’s knowledge that does transport over to newer games. Similarly, those lateral thinking skills have also served me well in the real world, helping me to “think outside the box” and find creative solutions to problems that I face in more mundane circumstances.

“On the Possibility of Misreadings”

I have to say I was thrilled to finally see Blau (or anybody) address this issue. I always balk at the idea “there is no such thing as a correct or incorrect reading of a text” (189), and not because I believe the “expert’s” interpretation (or my own, for that matter) is superior in any way, but because, like Blau points out, there simply are wrong answers.
Again, his examples drawn from a long career are helpful in illustrating the point: lacking the knowledge of WWII fighter planes makes “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” a much more difficult poem, and a failure to grasp metaphor can lead to a number of misreadings in nearly any piece of literature. As he says, these mistakes are not made because of stupidity or illiteracy, but are made “out of ignorance, inattention, lack of experience, or…the vagaries of a momentarily mistaken perspective.” (190) We’ve all been there; I myself evinced this during the Think Aloud exercise a few weeks ago, confusing “carbide” for “carbine”, leading to much confusion on my part and my fellow readers. Without the context of a date, a student may be forgiven for reading Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as a metaphor for nuclear holocaust; I know it has happened before, and will happen again.
Relieved as I am to see somebody admit that yes, some readings are just plain wrong, I was slightly irked that he waited until his penultimate chapter to address it. It seems like an issue that, as a teacher, he’d want to get to sooner than that, but that may just be my own proclivities showing through. Such mistaken readings, if not swiftly corrected, can quickly derail an entire classroom of students, sending them down an unproductive path of inquiry, and discussing or arguing about something that has no useful bearings on the text itself. Such harmful tangents need to be avoided and correctly swiftly, especially in a class with a very limited amount of time for discussion in the first place.
That said, there is no need to be harsh about the corrections; the way one goes about correcting these misreadings is important for ensuring that students continue to feel comfortable making contributions to class, even if they are mistaken. Often, we learn more from making mistakes than from successes.

I found the chapters of Blau’s “The Literature Workshop” intriguing. The transcripts of workshops were of particular interest, because they immediately brought to mind my own experiences in similar literature classes both from undergraduate and here at GMU. As with any written piece, it is helpful to try and analyze as a group, because there will be dissenting opinions and other people who can add their pre-existing knowledge to that conversation to shed light on a subject that is perhaps needed to fully understand the text, as in “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”. And while he acknowledges that there will be times students simply claim they “don’t get it”, this is a failure not of their reading ability but of their ability to analyze the way they think about reading. As has been discussed by so many of the things we’ve read in class, difficulty is seen as a roadblock, a dead-end instead of an opportunity to learn and overcome.
But what of the willful refusal of students to even read something that challenges their way of thinking? I’m referring of course, to the example that Arlene Wilner gives at the beginning of her article: “The most troubling and disorienting moment came when most of the
male students in one of my sections refused to read, let alone write about, an assigned short story that charts the emotional growth of its homosexual protagonist.” (173) This seems like the kind of problem more likely to be encountered in a high school classroom than at a college level, but that may just be my naivete showing. I’m curious how Blau would handle that kind of disruptive incident in one of his “literature workshops”. While I find his method helpful for promoting and finding/making meaning, it is less useful when there is a simple refusal on the part of one or a group of students to even participate.
On a certain level, a workshop style class can allow some students to get by without ever really participating in the thinking process; to “coast” by mimicking what other students have said, or adding their voice to a discussion that’s already in progress without making up their own minds about why they agree/disagree or how they reached that conclusion. I have been in classrooms with students like this, and I’ve had friends who made it through most of their academic careers this way. They never really gained the cognitive skills they needed, but still managed to pass their classes and get good grades. At some point, I have to ask the question: whose failure is it? The student’s for trying to get by with the least amount of effort possible, or the teacher’s for allowing them to get by without being challenged?

I couldn’t help feeling slightly annoyed

I couldn’t help feeling slightly annoyed by the time I got to the end of Fish’s “How to Recognize a Poem”; the article really has very little to do with poetry, and a lot more to do with metacognition and thinking about how we think; not a topic without merit, just not what I was expecting given the title. I was all ready to challenge any conclusion he made and draw on my personal experience in both the reading and crafting of poetry. I admit to a tinge of disappointment that I never really got that chance.

Ultimately, his conclusion is that you know a poem when you see one, even when it’s actually a list of author assigned to the class that met before yours. The entire point of his long-winded, albeit enlightening anecdote was that context maters far more than we assume. Our cultural norms and assumptions, our previous knowledge or “cultural literacy”, to use Bean’s terminology from last week’s reading, influence how we view a given text.

I recall trying to explain to one of my friends in high school that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme; it was a concept he struggle to grasp. For him, rhyme was one of the defining qualities of a poem. He thought he knew how to recognize a poem. The truth of the matter is, a poem is a poem because we agree it’s a poem. I accept that W.S. Merwin’s book of prose poems, “Fables” are poems because I know his other works and accept that those are poems based on the conventions of what-a-poem-is that I’ve learned from years of reading, writing, and studying poetry.

While it’s an interesting exercise to think about what the conventions are that lead a given group to “create” a text and its meaning from their previous knowledge, I’m less clear on how helpful such an exercise is as a teaching tool. It forces students to consider what those pre-conceived “obvious facts” are, but I can’t help feeling like Fish manages to slyly avoid the premise he puts forth with his title: he has not actually shown us how to recognize a poem, only the complex cognitive process that students in-the-know use to identify one when they see it. This information isn’t very helpful to students who are struggling to grasp poetry, or to anybody trying to teach them. The “I know it when I see it” argument may be completely true, but isn’t an adequate answer to someone who doesn’t necessarily know it when they see it.

Ben Bever– Difficulty and Prior Knowledge in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Having read this story previously, it was interesting to look at it through the lens of learning. I had never considered it from that angle before, but there is a lot going on in terms of different ways people learn, as well as the obstacles to learning that people encounter.

The narrator  has a number of difficulties in dealing with the presence of “This blind man, an old friend of [his] wife’s” in his home. One of his largest difficulties is his prior knowledge of Robert’s relationship with his wife, and his lack of knowledge relating to blind people.

His “idea of blindness came from the movies”, and not from any real-lifer experience. He believes that this gives him the information he needs to know what to expect of Robert, and “A blind man in my house was not something [he] was looked forward to.” When Robert arrives, his preconceptions are all rendered invalid, and he is forced to reconsider what being blind actually means

Another aspect of prior knowledge that interferes with the narrator’s ability to confront his wife’s blind friend is the prior knowledge of their relationship. In short, he is jealous. His knowledge of the intimate emotional nature of his wife’s friendship with Robert leads him to see the blind man as a threat to his own relationship with his wife. When she offered to play one of the tapes Robert sent, and they are interrupted before he can hear Robert’s opinion of him, he concludes that “Maybe it was just as well. I’d heard all I wanted to ..” He makes a false assumption that this intimate friend of his wife’s automatically dislikes or disapproves of him. The fact that his wife was previously married may also be playing into his insecurities here, but there seems to be a deeper issue of his own sense of self-worth at play.

He is reticent to confront these difficulties throughout the story, struggling to maintain even the aura of hospitality. It is only after he asks Robert a direct question that the narrator begins to consider things from Robert’s point of view. He realizes that Robert has no conception of what a cathedral is, and in struggling to explain it to him, is forced to confront his own limited abilities of describing such a building without using visual language.

When Robert directs him to draw a cathedral while he follows along, the narrator makes a connection, both physically and emotionally with the blind man. His preconceived notions of the blind as helpless and slightly pathetic are shattered, and he sees Robert instead as a fellow human being. His faulty prior knowledge proves to be the greatest obstacle to his ability to learn. It is Robert’s ability to think and learn in a way outside the narrator’s experience that allows the narrator to finally be able to learn as well. In closing his eyes at the end of the story, he attempts to experience, if ever so briefly, what being blind is like. In doing so, he accepts that there are things to be learned from Robert, this blind man who he at first wanted nothing to do with.