Author Archives: Liz MacLean

Questions about Questions

The aspect about my microteach that I most questioned going in was the fold-and-pass method for answering the questions about “Stories,” so I was pleasantly surprised that this aspect of the lesson was as big of a hit as it was.

Going in, my goal for the fold-and-pass was essentially just to “spice up” the usual small-group discussion format.  I needed to ask the questions one at a time in order for the folding part to work—I didn’t want students to work ahead and answer too many questions before I called for everyone to pass—but what I hadn’t considered is how pedagogically valuable it can be to ask questions one at a time.  Also, how impactful the ordering of the questions asked can be. Thoughtful ordering, I see now, can invite the questions to interact with each other—to invite students to really get at the distinctions as well as overlaps between “important” and “interesting,” for example, or feeling versus meaning.

So one take-away for me is that I need to start asking well-ordered questions one at a time more often.  In the ENGH101 course I teach, I keep getting frustrated with my students—bright, smart writers all, but shy to speak, even in small groups—and have tried many different things to try to get them to talk more in class, especially in group settings.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the semester pre-planning group assignments, with the aim of mixing up the groups so students were interacting with different people, but grew frustrated with this because student absences made my pre-planning feel like a waste of time.  I tried having students write things down in order to share what they wrote with a neighbor, but they would literally just exchange papers for each other to read!  I tried generating a dozen discussion questions and projecting them on the board, encouraging the groups to skip around in the questions to find the ones their group found most interesting to discuss, but they worked through the list robotically, like they were filling in some kind of worksheet (“So…what should we put for the third question?”).

Then I landed on the pass and fold idea.  Rather, was reminded of it; in a pedagogy course last year, a colleague came up with the pass and fold method as a way of workshopping thesis statements.  How it works in that context is that for homework, students are asked to come to class prepared with a thesis statement for the argumentative essay they are currently working on.  Then I passed out blank pre-folded papers, much as I did in the microteach.  Then the students, in groups of four, write their thesis statement at the top of their papers.  As the students pass and fold, the original thesis statement remains visible at all times.  The second writer re-writes the original thesis statement in his own words, then folds to conceal his work.  The third writer then re-writes the original thesis statement in her own words, folds, etc.  (So the folds are slightly different for this activity in order to keep the original thesis claim visible.)  By the end, the papers are returned to the original writer, who now can examine and consider three new, different ways of expressing his thesis statement.  Many of my students observed improvements to their original statements—re-writers either made the claim helpfully more concise or more thorough; more specific or more simply stated; etc.  Other students realized their original claim wasn’t well expressed, since the revisions missed what they thought the point of their claim was.  So this activity achieved a lot of goals:  Claim-making and idea clarification, but also drafting and revision.  AND THEY ACTUALLY TALKED TO EACH OTHER, so I felt pretty victorious that day.

When the time came to do the microteach, I was still thinking a lot about that pass-and-fold idea, but I wasn’t sure how to translate it from a composition classroom to a literature classroom.  What would I have the students write?  Did I want to do a sort of textual intervention kind of thing?  Should the first thing written remain visible the whole time, or not?   How can I get four different people to write things on passing papers about “Stories”?  That’s how I got to the idea of focusing on questions.  If I have four different questions, I thought, I could have everyone answering the same questions, but in different places.  That way, comparing answers would be even more intimate.  Rather than just exchanging papers, “hey, here’s what I put for the four questions,” they would have to look to the left and to the right and engage with those around them to track the progress of their answers around the circle, and compare how those answers differed from or were similar to their peers.

So, that leaves me with a second benefit (among many others), one that is especially reassuring to me, which is the realization that as I prepare to teach literature for the first time next fall, I’m not starting from scratch.  Rather, I’m already sitting on an arsenal of lesson plans and classroom activities from teaching composition that I can borrow from and modify to be appropriate for literature coursework.  Of course, I’m sure not everything will translate, but I bet a lot of it will.  And for me at least, knowing that I’ve got a starting point makes me more excited, and less daunted, by the task of dreaming up new things to try as well.  So while my summer’s still going to be pretty busy with all this lesson planning I’ve yet to do, the task seems less overwhelming (and even leaves some time for margaritas along the way).

Art for Art’s Sake Doesn’t Hook the Skeptical Student

Lindsey’s post gets at the problem of the skeptical student, an entity with which I never quite know what to do when I encounter it.  What I mean by the “skeptical student” is the student who is skeptical, not of a particular lesson or the course’s content, per se, but those students who seem skeptical, rather, about the whole learning thing.

On the one hand, I can rationalize myself into a state of not-caring: This student is a grown-up, not a minor child, and if he/she makes the choice for him/herself not to participate in what we’re doing in class, turn in the homework, etc., then fine, his/her loss.  As long as other students aren’t harmed by the skeptical student’s lumpishness in the back of the room, so be it.

On the other hand, sometimes that inner-city teacher movie with Hilary Swank will come on TV, and I’ll think maybe the line between teaching and mentoring should be blurrier than I’ve invited it to be.  Maybe I should worry more about helping my students to care about the content as much as I’m trying to teach them what the content is.

The truth is, I care an awful lot about my skeptical students, and they break my heart—but I really don’t know what to do with them!  And I especially don’t know what I’m going to do to get the value of taking a literature class across to them in a way that makes transparent application to the “real world” of whatever career they are going to go on to pursue (as our readings suggest is a worthwhile thing to do).

Simply put, I think readers of literature are better people because they have read literature.  I know the company line (as Alicia summarizes in her post) is to talk up all the great critical thinking and problem-solving skills that come out of the experience of having to read a text and then craft an essay about it.  But honestly, I think the true value of reading literature is how it invites me to experience parts of the world that I otherwise wouldn’t experience, how it challenges me to open my mind to new ideas, to consider perspectives and worldviews different from my own, to expose my heart to previously unfelt or unexplored emotions.  And, also, that it’s just beautiful, and to be appreciated for its aesthetics as much as for anything else.  That art for art’s sake is a valuable ideal…  What a cheeseball I must sound like to the skeptical student.

So I appreciated the inclusion, among the “six types of understanding,” of perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge alongside explain, interpret, and apply.  And the examples given—about the “rigid” girl who “just knows” she’s right; about the basketball coach screaming at his players—definitely corroborate with my gut instinct, which is that reading literature invites you to become a better person; it’s a form of character education, in a way.  But I’m still not sure I know how to get the skeptical student on board.  I find that skeptical students are not only reluctant to apply their minds in class, but they are also unlikely to apply their emotions and personal experiences.  I wish there were some sort of Hilary Swank-esque way I could raise the stakes for them, and I’m open to hearing any and all ideas others in this class might have about this.

One incredible success story I have heard, though, comes from my friends in the military, some of whom teach at a military academy.  This friend taught a junior seminar on poetry, and some of the students challenged the relevance of the course in the context of their military careers—they’d enrolled because they thought it would be an easy “freebie” that wouldn’t actually challenge them with any military rigor—and my friend was able to persuade these students that the study of poetry is just as important as the study of military tactics.  That military officers rely as much, if not more so, on their moral compasses as their navigational compasses, and that the study of ethics and human feeling provided by poetry is as relevant, if not more relevant, to success, humanity, and effectiveness in the on-the-spot decision-making the battlefield requires.

But I’m not a military instructor, and I’m not Hilary Swank.  Do I gotta getta gimmick?  Is it enough to teach to the students who care enough, or is there something I should be doing to try to reach the skeptical student, too?  And in trying to reach this skeptical student, how hard is trying hard enough?  I wish we talked about these more “squishy” aspects of teaching with a bit more frequency—unlike Blau and his perfect audience of engaged students, many of the students I see in GMU classrooms are just sort of along for the ride, and I feel like it’s my job to somehow get them behind the wheel.

Can Nat Turner Speak?

As a fiction writer, I was intrigued by Greenberg’s summary of Styron’s Nat Turner novel and the controversy it elicited upon its release.  The concern about Styron’s skin color relative to Nat Turner’s reminded me of the controversy, albeit slighter in scale and vehemence, that Dave Eggers faced when he released What is the What.  In that novel, Eggers (a white man) tells the true story of a Sudanese refugee in a fictionalized version of the refugee’s voice.  Some readers and critics expressed concern that perhaps Eggers had usurped this refugee’s voice, that perhaps Eggers should have just ghost-written/helped the refugee write his own story, that perhaps there is something that just “feels funny” about the idea of a white man presuming to tell a black man’s story from a black man’s perspective.

The controversies around these novels by Styron and Eggers bring to mind Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  In this essay, Spivak suggests that any time a westerner attempts to tell a story of another culture, or of an individual from another culture, his telling is held hostage by his own western-influenced motivations, assumptions, and economic interests.  Spivak charges that research is a fundamentally colonial enterprise that, intentionally or not, denies the subject’s voice because the western researcher is incapable of speaking in anything other than his own paradigm.

So, Spivak would likely say that Styron and Eggers are not, in fact, giving their subjects a voice.  Spivak would likely be more critical of Styron than Eggers, because Eggers at least had the consent and invitation of his subject to write What is the What (in Styron’s case, Turner hadn’t been available for consultation in more than a hundred years, and seemed to take that as a different sort of invitation to speculate and invent).  I must also conclude, then, that Spivak wouldn’t give Greenberg’s piece a pass, either.  Personally, I found Greenberg to be a writer who was consciously and dedicatedly attempting to be objective in his postulations, always considering multiple angles, multiple contexts, and offering multiple musings on any given aspect of his research on Nat Turner’s rebellion.  Greenburg especially does an excellent job of reminding the reader to read the Confessions critically, seeking out moments that are likely in Gray’s voice and moments that are more likely in Turner’s voice, as well as encouraging the reader to consider silences and omissions in the text as voices in their own right.  But who is really speaking in Confessions – and who is really speaking in Greenberg?  Whoever it is, in either case, it’s not Nat Turner.

To consider, now, Kyle Baker’s graphic novel, and its near wordlessness (save for the Confessions source material), is another opportunity to muse on the question of who is really speaking, and to listen for what is really going on in the silence that dominates this “reading” experience.  An author photo reveals that Baker is an African-American; so, can he give Nat Turner speech?  Maybe, though maybe not.  Baker’s choice to incorporate Turner’s Confessions, while really interesting and artfully suggestive, does seem to preserve the presence of Thomas Gray over the narrative events.  For example, Baker illustrates the scene where Nat attempts to kill his master but is unsuccessful (114-115).  While Baker does depict Turner’s rage, he is loyal to the narrative, in which Nat fails to “speak” through the violence of his rebellion, requiring often the aid of others to finish off his victims.

So, is it simply the case that Nat Turner could not, cannot, and will never speak?  I suppose so, if you buy into Spivak’s argument.  I’m not entirely sure if I do, though.  I’m not a scholar of Spivak or even of theory in general, so I’ve been working from my hazy recollections of undergrad coursework in this post (and hopefully not embarrassing myself in doing so).  But it seems to me that theorists like Spivak don’t do much to encourage westerners to study or even talk about racism (a relevant point, since I seem to recall someone mentioning in class last week a piece he/she’d seen about how uncomfortable white people are in talking about African-American history/texts/etc.).  Which is why Greenberg’s active call for a new retelling of Nat Turner’s story was so intriguing—and now that Baker has answered it, what do we make of it?  I wonder if Greenberg’s challenge is still on the table, for as artful and thought-provoking as Kyle Baker’s graphic narrative is, to what extent does a collection of wordless illustrations appended to Turner’s/Gray’s Confessions amount to a re-telling?  Perhaps, in a way, this question is related to our discussion about whether Baker’s narrative can be considered literature; to that, I say yes, but I do wonder about this question of re-telling, and what that might or should entail.  Or maybe the call has been answered, for, perhaps, as Greenberg suggests, the re-telling is in the not-telling; maybe the silence in Baker’s novel is the real narrative.


Should we ask questions about age-appropriateness when we consider comics and graphic novels?

I found Kyle Baker’s graphic novel to be “graphic” in more than one way: certainly graphic in the pictorial sense, but also graphic in its depictions of violence, anger/hate, and bloodshed.

Concurrently with this course, I’m taking a course on dystopic literature.  To round out the genre, we considered Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games because the instructor wanted our class discussion to dip into the implications of this genre for a young adult (YA) audience.  I couldn’t help but thinking about the textual and pictorial differences of reading vs. viewing The Hunger Games as I read/viewed Nat Turner.

In a newspaper article about the collaboration of Collins and Gary Ross, the director of film adaptation, Collins and Ross explain that it was important to them for the film to be viewable by Hunger Games fans as young as twelve years old.  A tall order, in some instances: the novel depicts scenes such as an arrow piercing a child’s throat, and the child drowning in his own blood as he attempts to dislodge the arrow.  I don’t recall if or how the film depicted this moment, but I do remember having a queasier feeling in general as I watched the film than I did as I read the novel.

So, what’s the difference between reading a scene like that and viewing it?  When I was growing up and testing the boundaries of PG-13 and R-rated films—as well as novels such as Stephen King’s—the world presented to me two “truths” that I’ve always thought are irreconcilable.  On the one hand, I was told that my imagination was more powerful than anything I might see depicted in a film.  On the other hand, I was told to be wary of scary films because those images would “never go away” and be “burned into my mind.”  Okay—but if my imagination is more powerful than my eyes, aren’t I better off watching The Exorcist than if I were to read it?

The answer, I think, has something to do with innocence lost, but that’s another essay entirely.  The interesting thing is that, with Nat Turner, we both see and read about these horrific murders.  For me, I’d say the images were harder to swallow than the text, though the text didn’t go down easily, either.  This graphic novel is PG-13 at best, though I’d be one of those overprotective parents slapping an R-rating onto it.  Part of what I’m reacting to is the violent imagery; but also, the themes and issues taken up by this text are really intense.  Asking someone younger than 13 to grapple with faith-based violence, slavery, and child-slayings is a bit much, I think.

And yet—as Baker points out in his preface—we ask children to face these issues all the time in history books, though we do so highly ineffectively (perhaps because the true story of Nat Turner’s rebellion is a bit mature in content for school-aged children).  So I wonder, then, who Kyle Baker imagined as his audience for this graphic novel—and how different his authorial audience is from his actual audience.

The reason I mention young adult literature at all in this post is that I think one of the things working against comics/graphic novels as texts/artworks worth incorporating in the classroom is that, stereotypically, these texts/artworks are consumed by young people.  And yet, (at least judging by the tweets/posts so far) I think we all got something out of reading Nat Turner.  Similarly, I think the dystopia course benefited from including the YA novel—though I nearly, I admit, dropped the course when I saw a YA novel on a reading list for a graduate-level literature class.  Oh, the blasphemy!  But the class actually ended up conducting a pretty academic, thoughtful discussion about the text (and that has not always been the case with some of the more “grown-up” texts we’ve looked at so far).

As far as our other readings for this week, I wish I’d read them first—particularly the McCloud, as I think it would have helped me “tweet” more thoughtfully/educatedly about Baker.  But, speaking of age-appropriateness and audience, there was this moment in the Nodelman that was perhaps the most bizarre moment in our course readings so far this semester.  Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but my jaw dropped at the appearance of the word “rape” in the middle of an essay about “the pleasures of children’s books.”  Not only am I not sure what that Langer quote even means—I get that there are three narratives and that three is less harmonious a number than two—but I think Nodelman does a crappy job of unpacking his quote to relate it to his own essay.  Three competing narratives equals rape how exactly?  Like, gang rape?  Like, what???  It’s so unproductive to trivialize the subject of rape, never mind how surprised I was to see Nodelman/Langer trying to use rape as the anchor of a metaphor about artistic communication in, erm, children’s books.  I agree with Joy’s critique of these essays in that, unlike the McCloud, these writers only bring in a select few images to accompany what they’re trying to express in text about images.  But as far as this moment in the text goes, all I can say is thank god it wasn’t rendered pictorially.

Learning and Identity (and Birds, which thankfully are not angry)

A number of posts so far have addressed the “now what?” factor of reading Gee’s text in the context of our course on teaching literature.  While I am also vexed by this, I wanted to take a stab at translating some of Gee’s ideas into a lesson plan of sorts.

In Gee’s third chapter on learning and identity, I think I could take his ideas about understanding video games as having “worlds” and ask students—already familiar with this idea of videogames as having worlds—to draw this same parallel with the novels we might read in class.  Gee challenges us to perceive that a video-game character has three different identities:  virtual identity, real-world identity, and projective identity.  Some of these are harder to transcribe than others, but I think all of them are adaptable/transferrable.

Let’s say I’m teaching the novel Jane Eyre.  This is a text that—like basically every text written before 1990, it seems, right?—a lot of students might complain is unapproachable to them because it’s so outdated, they can’t relate to it, the characters aren’t like them, the world in which the novel is set is unfamiliar, etc.

I could start by leading the class in a conversation about understanding the “setting” of the novel as a “world,” much the way we understand the world of, erm, Sonic the Hedgehog to be a “world.”  I could ask the students to describe Jane Eyre’s world.  What are the rules of this world?  What does this world look like?  How do you “play the game of life” in this world?  These would be questions that I hope would open up the “world” of the novel and get students engaged as readers of this “world.”

Then, I would ask students to consider again that in a video game’s “world,” you have access to that world through the lens of a certain character.  So in Tomb Raider, our lens into that world is the character Lara Croft.  But in Jane Eyre, our lens to that world is—no surprise in the title here—Jane Eyre.  (Similarly, a lot of video games are named simply for their main character.)  So, if we want to better understand Jane Eyre’s world, we should try to understand Jane Eyre herself.  And this is where the three identities would come in…

A discussion question about virtual identity might be:  What is Jane Eyre’s virtual identity?  That is to say, within the world of Jane Eyre, what role does she play?  How does she fit into the hierarchy of that world?  (Having already described/defined the world, now students are ready to place Jane Eyre within it.)

Real-world identity is harder to translate, because students aren’t actively engaged as “builders” of Bronte’s novel, but here’s what I came up with for a discussion question:  In what ways is Jane Eyre like or unlike you, the reader, who lives in the real world?  How do those differences and commonalities affect your response to the character Jane Eyre?

Projective identity (harder still to translate, for the same reasons), to me seems like an opportunity to ask students to “project” the character into the “real world” of the reader.  So this discussion might focus on questions like, What would a modern-day Jane Eyre be like?  What clique might Jane be in at school, or how might she dress?  What would her Facebook profile be like, what kinds of things would she “tweet”?  What sort of modern problems would she have?

These interpretations of “three identities” have less to do with building worlds (which is how Gee uses them) than with interpreting worlds, but I still think they could be useful.  And really, the most useful thing of all is just the overall metaphor—being able to take something students know a lot about (videogames) and using that something as a lens or way into something that they are unfamiliar with (Jane Eyre) and/or resistant to because they think it has no relevance to the “worlds” they already understand.  It’s a way to take a literacy they already have (playing video games) to show them how to develop their literacy as readers.

I’ll sign-off with a non-sequitur:  Did anyone else think the section on birding (pgs. 192-6) was completely bizarre? I suppose I get Gee’s point, that learning is a social activity and so on, but, wow…  Then again, I guess I can’t criticize, because I did get an idea about teaching out of that section (though it may not be quite what Gee had in mind).  It would require a lot of collaboration with another instructor, which may or may not be feasible, but what if I were able to coordinate with another lit class that was the same level as mine and running concurrently with mine, and what if I were able to coordinate with the instructor of that class so that my first text was his/her last text, and vice versa…then in the middle of the semester, we could bring our classes together for occasional “norming” sessions, whereby the “experienced” class that already encountered the text could coach the students encountering the text for the first time, and they could compare their reading/birding notes?  This would give the students a chance to mentor each other and learn from each other’s textual interpretations rather than just mine and their own.  And this wouldn’t necessarily be something they were graded on, and as peers, the stakes might feel lowered (or not? Social anxiety still prevails in undergrad…), and this might be a way to achieve the “psychosocial moratorium principle” Gee advocates.  Anyway, just an idea…

The Reading (B)log

I was one of those kids Blau mentions who always hated the “reading journal” or “reading log” assignment.  In fact, I had to do one just last semester, and I totally filled it in the night before it was due with a bunch of rambling thoughts just to get it done.  I admit it: I thought I was “above” the assignment.  I thought so in middle school, and I think it now.

So, I propose meeting Blau in the middle on this one.  I’m not willing to surrender my distaste for the reading journal assignment, but I am willing to throw him a bone by conceding that I do get the “point” of the exercise.  My compromise is to suggest that Blau’s reading log idea is simply outdated:  Throw a “b” in front of that “log” and you’ve got something that I not only enjoy doing, but that I think this class provides a successful example of.

My problem with a reading log is it always felt pointless.  Yeah, yeah, spot check all you want, I know you’re not really reading it.  I used to bartend and I know when you’re in the weeds and the guy is clearly 40, you’re not bothering to actually read the birthdate on the ID, the numerals just sort of scroll by in a haze.  And the idea of any teacher curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and my reading log – which, get real, is a diary by any other name – is fundamentally kind of creepy.

But blogging solves all these problems and more.  First of all, it expands the range of your audience widely enough that it’s not creepy anymore.  You’re not just sharing your thoughts/experiences/observations with one authority figure, but now you’re sharing them with your peers, too.  We write for instructors out of concern for our grades; the incentive to write thoughtfully and entertainingly for our peers can match or even exceed our concern for our grades.

Blogging, because it is internet-based, makes it easier to hold students accountable for their work.  On a blog, it’s easy to track a post that’s missing or late.  It’s also a genre of writing that students are probably exposed to regularly—Blau advises providing good examples of what we want students to model, and you  could easily link to well-done blog posts on a course page for student reference.  And blog posts don’t have to be physically collected, so no need for Blau to pack a bunch of papers in his suitcase—just put the laptop on airplane mode and voila. (And go for that cocktail, too – because blogging eschews the creepy factor, you’re in the clear!)

And now, because I’m feeling really generous, here’s a point I’ll leave in Blau’s column: There’s something to be said, I think, for writing by hand, and blogging does not afford that opportunity.  As a composition instructor here at GMU, I can see why the whole point of comp is to emphasize writing as process.  Students who learned to write on a laptop have no sense of the physical experience of crossing out one word in search of a better one, re-drafting, re-writing, revising.  Maybe they are doing some revising as they go, but they’re not conscious of it, because the Word document doesn’t keep a record of the changes they’ve made and the evolutions their writing has undergone.  Seeing and understanding those (r)evolutions, I believe, is a huge turning point in a student’s writing education.

Now, as an unrelated post-script, I’d like to steal Jacque’s method of bullet-pointing the other things that struck me but which I don’t have the word count to fully address here:

  • In his “we generally get the papers we deserve” comment (p. 153), Blau says it’s on us if we get a bunch of Engfish writing.  Okay, but…I WOULD LOVE SOME ENGFISH WRITING.  Some of my students write sentences that 8-year-olds could write.  Raise the bar, y’all!  Words with more than one syllable are FUN!
  • I’d like to meet the student who, given the choice, would write about “The Flea” instead of “Harrison Bergeron.”  If the whole idea of teaching poetry is to show students they shouldn’t be afraid of it, why give them an out?  It seems to me that writing assignments should be separated by genre if you really want students to have to grapple with poetry.
  • Blau’s point about avoiding page length requirements (p. 180) gave me pause.  If I say I want 4-6 pages, I’m happy with the 3.75 I often get.  I issue a grading rubric for my assignments, and I think of it as a contract I’m making with the students.  I feel I can’t accuse a student of failing to earn high marks if I haven’t made my expectations clear.  Not that page length is everything, but it probably means something to the kid who actually wrote 6 good, high-quality pages.  In general, I agree with other posters that Blau’s treatment of grading was more like a hit-and-run.  I’d love to hear more of everyone’s, anyone’s, thoughts on grading in lit classes.
  • I like Blau’s point about misinterpreting texts as something that just happens sometimes.  But I think he could have chosen a better example to illustrate this point than “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (p. 191).  If the poem were untitled, fine.  But we tell students part of reading is to look up words they don’t understand…and that titles matter.  So I think if I asked a student how the poem’s title reconciles with his (mis)understanding of the poem, it would clear things up pretty straightforwardly.  Or do others disagree?

Getting the Crickets to Talk about Reading

While I greatly enjoyed Blau’s stylistic decision to present transcripts of simulated classroom discussion, I found myself swooning over the productive and high-quality conversation Blau’s “T” was able to elicit from the various “S” participants in his mock lessons.  Certainly, Blau presents “T” as an effective—I’d say, “expert”—and engaging instructor who probably has already done the work to earn his students’ respect, and I can learn a lot from reading T’s script.  But I could use more advice about how to get the crickets in the classroom to stop chirping and start talking.  This semester in particular, I have a group of students I’m really struggling to graduate from blank-faced stares to spoken engagement—especially if what I’m trying to engage is discourse about a text.

Blau’s conception of the literary workshop gave me an awful lot to think about regarding the way I incorporate nonfiction readings in the composition course I teach here at GMU.  Blau’s insight in his introduction that what students often lack as readers is a sense of responsibility for what they are reading, knowing the teacher will do the job of “telling” (2), reminded me of an article I read in ENGH 615, about being aware of the balance between “overteaching” and “underteaching.”  I don’t want to leave student conversation about a text entirely unguided, but I also don’t want to tell them what to think about it, either.  I find this to be a challenging balance to strike, and conclude from these readings that I should do more with group work when it comes to reading, in the same way that I use group work as an approach to teaching writing.

When I assign a text, I usually require that students post a short, one to two paragraph reading reflection to our class wiki.  I can tell from what they write that they are doing the reading, and they write really insightful, thoughtful things.  But I cannot get them to share any of those things in class without resorting to cold-calling.  And even though I’ve been doing it all semester, they still stare at me like deer in headlights each time I call on someone to share what they wrote.  Because this is college, I’m not sure what to make of it: on the one hand, I do think it’s my responsibility to cold-call students who don’t seem engaged, or who just seem shy and in need of that invitation.  On the other hand, though, this is college—these kids are paying for the course, and at some point it’s their responsibility to put into it what they expect to get out of it (and I do believe the students who are voluntarily active participants get more out of it than the silent sulkers).

So, Blau’s exploration of the value of re-reading and his assessment that students not only don’t do this but also don’t know it’s something they should do seems like something I could model in my own classroom.  I hope it will shake things up.  I’m planning to project his Thoreau sentence on the board at the start of class tomorrow and try out his timed reading exercise.  We’ll see what happens.

Another takeaway for me is that maybe I should stop and comment on the crickets, the deer in headlights, when they occur.  Make a metacognitive moment out of it.  Present an imagining of a person’s thought process in response to a question I’ve posed, and encourage students to do more thinking out loud in response to my questions than feeling the need to present resolved answers.  I thought I was already achieving this by just saying, “There is no wrong answer to this question, I just wonder what you are thinking,” but maybe I should go even further than that to achieve an environment in my classroom that welcomes a metacognitive and heuristic approach to class discussion.  If I praise the confusion more, maybe—point out that, as Blau suggests, their confusion is a sign of their thinking and engagement (41)—this will boost enough confidences to get some metacognitive thinking about thinking voiced aloud more often by more students.

Just as I want students to feel responsible for what they read, I also want them to feel responsible for the class conversations we have.  For example, recently my students had to do a piece of in-class writing that we used to facilitate an activity.  At the end, students wanted to know if I would collect the writing samples, if they would get “points” for doing it.  I was surprised by the question because the value in the writing sample was contained in the value of the class activity, which I thought had gone really well.  Does my students’ fixation on “points earned” mean I’m doing something wrong in my syllabus, or that they aren’t getting enough value out of class activities?

Finally, I found Blau’s point that modern readers might be even better suited to understand a text than its original audience (10) to be in contrast with Bean’s suggestion that limited cultural knowledge can hinder a student’s reading experience.  Recently, my students read an article that I thought did a brilliant job of putting a complex scientific idea into layman’s terms, and this was something I wanted us to look at together to examine how the writer did that.  My students, however, claimed the article was incomprehensible and that they couldn’t understand it.  This made me concerned, as Bean suggested, that maybe basic astrophysics was beyond their grasp.  On the other end of the spectrum, I had one student suggest that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about and had gotten the physics all wrong.  To me, the article was perfectly clear and per my limited understanding of astrophysics (which, to my credit, I did take two quarters of in college) seemed accurate.  Flustered and doubting my wisdom in assigning the article, we moved on from our conversation about it to something else I had prepared.  But now, I wish I’d had Blau to turn to instead of Bean.  I wish I’d had Blau’s idea to do recursive reading and metacognitive exercises and that we’d pursued understanding of the article instead of setting it aside.

Is There a Literary Theory In This Class?

When I casually confessed, more or less in an aside, in my blog post last week to being a fan of New Criticism, I didn’t expect to spend so much of my time in this week’s readings thinking about New Criticism as a valid, or invalid, school of thought.

It’s not that I’m afraid of taking a stance when I have one, but, I feel compelled in this case to emphasize the casual nature of my affection for New Criticism.  I like a lot of things about it, and I think I got a lot out of learning how to interpret literature through its lens.  I also, though, would argue that I learned just as much from studying Historicism, and the psycho/sexual analyses of Freud and Lacan, and gender/queer theories and colonial/postcolonial contexts and Marxist interpretations and modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism and so on.  No one literary theory exists in a vacuum, and to my mind, that’s where a lot of the value in examining criticism lies.

Though, I’ve noticed that a lot of academic types like to pledge allegiance to a particular school of theory in a manner that resembles rooting for the home team.  “Why are you a Ravens fan?”  “My favorite color is purple! Also I live in Maryland.”  Okay, that’s mean – I trust academics who hold one school up above others have given their affinity much more thought than I’ve ever applied to picking out sports teams – but I think as educators, it’s important to caution ourselves against teaching one or two ideas at the exclusion of others (because if I were tell my students Freud is the only way to go, they just might walk out of my classroom believing me).

I tend to have a lukewarm opinion of survey classes—yeah, it’s great to be able to say I have “studied” 400 years of Western Literature across the span of 10 or 15 weeks, but, how intimately have I really gotten to know any one text?  I think a survey class does more to help you understand things about texts, and while that’s certainly valuable, it’s not the same as the ten weeks I spent in college picking apart Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.  For one thing, there was nowhere to hide in that class:  Miss a week’s readings in a survey course, and whatever, next week is a new novel; but missing a week’s readings in that class was a slippery slope of doom and, frankly, embarrassment.  In any case, the end result is that I can chat about Either/Or with a lot more confidence several years later than I can re-cap, in the right order, the major themes of the literature produced in the West in the past 400 years.

But literary theory is a realm in which I think the survey model is entirely appropriate, and even desirable.  Perhaps the best exposure to literary theory I’ve ever had – ever – was by one of my high school English teachers.  He laid out a sort of “fact sheet” about all the major literary schools he could come up with, and we learned to understand how each critical theory worked by applying it to the same text over and over.  In our case, Huckleberry Finn fell victim to all sorts of strange interpretations, each one as well supported as the interpretation of the assignment/”poem” described by Fish in his essay.

And so, I would hope that teaching literature would give me an opportunity to reproduce something similar to what my high school teacher did for me:  I’d like to lay all the schools of thought out there—including Fish’s own unique school of being anti-school—and let the students make their own minds up about whether or not there’s really a text in the class.  I think this approach would fulfill a lot of the objectives of this week’s readings, which address the importance of teaching critical readings skills in a way that enables students to engage their minds, engage with the texts, and transfer what they get out of the whole experience to other endeavors.  It would challenge them to make valuations—I like this theory because X, but I don’t buy this theory because Y—while also introducing them to some of the “vocabulary” they should acquire along the way as they study literature.  I also think it would help them see that there is no one right way to read a text, and that the point isn’t to arrive at what it is I think the poem means or the author thinks the poem means, but instead to arrive at that moment when neurons are firing and the text is something they simultaneously see and feel, know and question, wrestle with and embrace.  Which is to say, the act of reading, enjoyed.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Liz MacLean’s Blog Post:  The “Chicken-or-Egg” Question of which does or should come first: Understanding what a text says or understanding what a text does?


I hope we’ll spend a lot of time in class talking about the Pope chapter, because I have a lot of questions about it.  In addition to not being entirely sure I followed his meaning throughout (which is to say, metacognatively, I recognize I have a lot more work to do with this chapter), I’m also not clear who his intended audience is, in terms of to what level of students Pope prescribes  this mode of teaching.

I wonder about what kind of student Pope would apply these strategies to for several reasons.  Or another way to put that, at what point in the semester this type of teaching would occur.  Day one?  Midway?  Toward the end, after students have already grown and achieved a lot?  To put it a third way – what sort of “scaffolding,” if any, would Pope build into a curriculum that includes these teaching methods?

In Bean, we saw the idea of students being asked to differentiate between what a piece of writing says (“summarize this paragraph…”) and what a piece of writing does (“why does the author include this paragraph at this point in the essay?  What is this paragraph doing here?  What function is this paragraph serving?”).  Like Alicia, I, too, employ this strategy for my Eng 101 students, and we also spend a lot of time on an activity I call “Anatomy of an Essay,” which is sort of like reverse outlining and sorting says/does ideas at the same time.

When I teach students to separate what a text says from what it does, I always start with “says.”  I do this in part because, if I start with “does,” students reply with a “says” answer.  Other reasons include that it gives me an opportunity to positively reinforce class participation (“That’s a great summary, Bob”), and I think it helps students frame the next step, assessing the “does,” that I’m teaching them to take.  Through process of elimination, if content summary isn’t the “does” response, they are forced to examine the question more closely in order to answer it:  What is this text doing?  Some crickets in the room don’t always mean the lights are out upstairs – in this case, I’ve found it means many of them are having little “aha” moments in their chairs as they start to grasp that there’s more than one kind of thing to look for in a text.

Back to Pope, who says:  “The best way to understand how a text works, I argue, is to change it….”  As I read through Pope’s essay, I found it a bit startling that he spent very little time challenging students to think about what, say, the poem “My Last Duchess” actually says and seems to skip right to his strategies and approaches for “re-centering” and “changing” the text.  Maybe I’m misunderstanding his meaning, but as I take it, this seems to be a more complex form of the “does” question.  And so I wonder – is Pope offering these strategies to students who have already spent time figuring out at least a general gist of the poem, and this is how he pushes them to achieve deeper understanding of the poem’s content and the technical maneuverings of its creator?  Or does Pope encourage teachers to think of “change” as a starting point for engaging with a text?

I’m really hoping this exercise is meant as a “step two” rather than a “step one” – I need more convincing before I can embrace this as a “step one” teaching strategy.  The value I see in the exercises he suggests, to me, come after at least a general discussion with students about what they thought the poem was all about, whether they liked it, etcetera; this would be a method for helping them fill in those gaps, for re-examining, for digging deeper.  I also would worry that students would get so lost in the task of changing the text that they might make the mistake of conflating the poem with their “interventions” of the poem and walk away from the text with strange ideas about what it is actually about.  And finally, as a fan of New Criticism and as a creative writer, I can’t help cringing a bit at the thought of what this exercise does to works of art – what we are here calling “texts.”   I recall a high school course in literary theory where I had to write a paper about the Oedipus complex in Huckleberry Finn.  Oh, you missed that one, too?  I’m sure Mark Twain did as well.  In any case, were I to employ Pope’s strategies in my own classroom, it would be important to me to make sure the students were “re-re-centered” at the end, and brought back around to a conversation that deepens their appreciation of what the text is – its aesthetic, its ethics, its artfulness — with or without the context of what it is not.