Author Archives: abbie


So, I realize this looks a little eager, but I wanted to blog while things were still fresh on my mind.

Going first was good for my presentation anxiety, but it did leave quite a few wild cards as far as expectations. Overall, I’m very happy with how my teaching presentation went. I think the discussion went well, and we touched on a lot of the things I had hoped to touch on.

When comparing myself to the other presenters today (which I know I shouldn’t necessarily do, but), I realize that I didn’t really contextualize my lesson in a greater classroom environment or teaching “unit” as some people were calling it (this from a non-teacher!). I’m not sure if you all missed this element and wished I had touched on it (let me know in the comments section if you feel so moved!), but the truth is, I was probably so nervous that I just wanted to get started!

I am glad, however, that essentially my entire period was taken up with activity (as opposed to formal presentation) — I would hope that you guys enjoyed that, too. It was a good thing for me in particular (as someone who’s never officially taught before) because it gave me some experience actually leading the discussion and activity of an entire class for longer than just a few minutes. I was actually surprised at how quickly the half hour went by — I guess you were all right about that 😉

I will admit that I was a little disappointed in myself for how I posed the discussion questions. I don’t think I was always very clear (though you guys were great and picked up the slack!), and I think my nerves got in the way of me being very articulate. I guess ease in front of a classroom of (often blank) faces is something that comes with time and practice, but I just wish I could’ve done a little better.

Also, I appreciated Kathryn’s idea about letting the students read “The Lowboy” with and without the first ‘graph or two about Richard and his “smallness” to see how it affected their understanding, and probably their prejudices — that was a good idea, and if anyone wants to leave additional ideas in the comments, I’m all ears!

Thank you guys for your excellent participation and your patience with me as such a teaching newbie!

Blood in the gutters… guts, too?

I will admit: I’ve been spending more time this week on my presentation than thinking about Nat Turner and graphic novels. However, in reading my classmates’ posts about teaching graphic novels, I’ve been inspired by their enthusiasm.

In answer to the specific question posed in class — How can we get students to slow down when reading graphic novels? — I have one answer that excites me most. I’m interested in McCloud’s concept of the gutter, as many of us are, and I think a great way to get students to move through what is basically a picture book at a slower pace is to ask them to fill in those gutters (in words). Choose a few scenes (/pages) and ask them to write the parts that are missing in between the frames. Then an interesting in-class activity might be to have some students share their “gutter text” — are they similar? are any wildly different? why might that be?

This would be a good way to show students that though graphic novels may seem too simple to some (and maybe less like literature), they actually leave themselves open to interpretation the same way a well-written story/novel/poem/play does. And isn’t this the crux of literature? An interpretable work of art that is specific, yet indirect; suggestive, yet subtle; and generally memorable? It seems to me that the guts of any literary work are often found in these “gutters.”

To bring things full circle, it might also be interesting to then show students some short stories, &c., with meaningful section breaks and talk about how we “fill in the gutters” in “regular” textual literature, too (as I think Susanna was saying). And I do not say this as though we should try to convince our students that graphic novels are Literature with a capital “L” — instead of fighting that battle, I think showing students the value in graphic novels, their intricacies and subtleties, would be far more more powerful and useful when introducing the genre.

Via the exercise I outlined above, students would also get real practice in quite literally rewriting a story, which we’ve learned this semester is a way of reading. Graphic novels seem to hold lots of teaching opportunities.

Am I supposed to recognize him?

In reading this graphic novel, I found myself engaging in a different kind of analysis — instead of analyzing what the story might mean, the symbols, etc., I found myself just trying to figure out the story, period (in some places).

I’m not sure of the parameters for graphic novels, but there was more text in this book than I was expecting, and often, it still wasn’t enough. I don’t know if I’m just dense, but at times, I was asking myself questions like, “Is that Nat or someone else?” or “Am I supposed to recognize that person?” It was a little frustrating, but in trying to overcome that confusion, I spent more time looking at the images, so maybe it wasn’t entirely a bad thing.

After finishing the book, I find myself wondering what the author hopes a reader takes away from a graphic novel. Obviously, K. Baker’s skills are in drawing, but they are also in storytelling. So is the aim the same as an author’s aim for any traditional novel, and Baker is just using his particular skill set to achieve that? I have to admit that I didn’t feel myself becoming as absorbed as I usually do when reading a traditional novel; like Nikki, I also love words, and part of my love for language and literature is appreciating how authors use words to make me feel a certain way. I missed that in reading Nat Turner.

But I try not to be a snob, and I did enjoy the book in other ways. The drawings were superb (I thought), and I thought, as some others have mentioned, that the characters’ facial expressions really did a lot of the talking — Baker did well there.

I also found it interesting to note what Baker chose to include as actual words, and what he chose to tell strictly through images. I think the meat of the story — the killings — was overpowered by the textual commentary — perhaps that shows the limitations of this genre.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of reading this book. I would be interested to read a couple of other graphic novels with radically different story lines to see how other kinds of stories are depicted in images, and also how other graphic novelists choose (or don’t choose) to include actual text.

A love/hate relationship with Text Book

First I want to say a couple of negative things: I don’t like the format of Text Book at all– the way the sections are broken up and presented to me as a reader is confusing — the headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings, &c., are all a bit too much. Not to mention that it must have been a real bear to edit! But that is minor. For content:

I liked the sections on metaphor, especially the one starting on page 94 — metaphor as a basis for thought. It was fascinating to read those lists (pgs 97-99) of concept metaphors that I knew, but never thought about or considered directly. I liked all of the different examples, but quite honestly, I found myself becoming so engrossed in the examples that I forgot what it was the authors wanted to teach me. Perhaps I was letting myself get away with this, but once I got to the section on parables, I became absorbed in the examples — I love Italo Calvino, and rereading two excerpts from him made me grab Invisible Cities off my bookshelf and reread some of my favorite parts.

However, I think that as a student, I would hate having this book as my “textbook” for a literature class. I would probably think it was too specialized, too narrowly focused, and maybe a little confusing. (I realize that I’m saying all of this without having read the entire thing yet, but hey.) I also feel that the book (these first two chapters, at least, and especially the second) pushes the reader so far into the metaphors that it becomes difficult to find your way out, to find your way back to metaphor itself as an object of study, to the construction of metaphor as an object of study.

But having said all of that, reading this book in the context of this class really made me think harder about language, words, and story telling, and about how metaphor really is present… almost everywhere! Which is kind of a fascinating thing to consider, and that pretty much makes the book a worthwhile read for me. I think there are a lot of valuable ideas here, and this book gives you the chance, as a teacher, to point out to your students that interpretation of literature is not that different from the other types of interpretation we do on a daily basis (I think I’ve noted this before, in blog posts or elsewhere). Finding ways to instill confidence in our students — to make them confident readers and interpreters — is really important, and I think there are some ways to do that via this book.

Reading and writing (not so much arithmetic)

In looking back through my blog posts so far this semester, I see that I’ve talked a lot about working through difficulty by writing, and about the connections between reading and writing in general. In Week 2, I talked about Difficulty Papers; in Week 3, I talked about the Oxford system and how I studied a work of literature by researching and writing a paper about it; in Week 4, I talked mostly about embracing difficulty and confusion in texts; in Week 5, I talked about understanding what you read by writing about it in reading logs or more casual writing assignments; and last week, I talked about Blau’s inventive ideas for student writing in a literature course, including non-thesis-based writing assignments and collections of thoughts or “noticings.”

I’m not very surprised by this since I just took 615 (the composition proseminar) last semester — student writing is fresh on my mind. I will admit, though, that my own writing is also on my mind. I’m not sure if I should be embarrassed to mention that I have learned a lot about my own reading and writing techniques and strategies in the first six weeks of this course. And I have learned ways to improve them. I may be learning how to teach others, but I am also definitely, definitely learning to improve my own interpretation skills.

I think I’ve also focused on learning through writing because I like what so many of the authors that we’ve read have had to say about working through difficulty this way. As a student who admits being intimidated in some undergraduate literature courses by the silence of the classroom after the professor says, “So, what did you think about Kafka?”, I was excited by many of the exploratory writing assignments discussed in some of the readings. “No-stakes” or “low-stakes” writing is very appealing to me, and I can see how it would be appealing to students of literature, especially high schoolers or undergraduates not specializing in English fields.

In general, I like the idea of writing as a process not only in and of itself (a writing process), but also as part of a process of learning about something else — literature. Personally, I love to read, and I love to write (I guess no big surprise since I’m in this classroom!), so I love seeing the two cross-pollinate and work together.

On cutting the knot of the double-bind (Blau p. 196)

I liked reading about Blau’s writing assignments for literature classes. Specifically in the second paper that Blau assigns (p.176), I like the idea of giving students the freedom to think honestly about what they read, but still also giving them the security of being able to “cross-check” their interpretation against the readings of more accomplished scholars. Allowing students to (1) come up with their own rough thoughts about the text and its meaning, then (2) having them read “professional” critiques of the text and see where their interpretation intersects with that of the “pros” is a good way, I think, to expose students to multiple interpretations and to illuminate their reading processes.

Then when comparing their interpretation to others’, perhaps they would be able to locate places where their thinking and/or their knowledge disallowed them to come to the same conclusions as the “pros” — that is, they could pinpoint what it is that they were missing as interpreters of literature (prior knowledge, cultural context, experience, &c.). Not that they could do anything about that right away. A person can only read and absorb so much at a time!

In the third paper Blau assigns (p. 180), he de-emphasizes the idea of a thesis, which I think is interesting. He says he does this to allow a kind of blooming of ideas — opening up to different ideas rather than closing them down (by narrowing to a thesis). I have a feeling that this would work well in a rough draft, but unless students were already strong writers, it would likely produce a paper that was hard to read and hard to follow (and maybe a bit incoherent). I think this is where the ideas of reading and writing (and lit. class and comp. class) really intersect in an interesting way. Blau’s assignments seem like they would be great to use in a literature class where the focus was on interpretation, identifying and exploring problems, difficulties, &c., understanding the reading process, and finding meaning in texts. But those same assignments would probably fail miserably in a composition classroom, where cohesion, coherence, and a stable foundation are valued.

So I wonder, does the kind of writing that produces knowledge and skills in a literature course clash with the kind of writing that produces knowledge and skills in a writing course? If so, then that sucks, because now we have another double-bind on our hands.

You don’t know it until you can teach it.

Blau pg. 151: “…the Deweyan notion that the only knowledge you truly possess is knowledge you have somehow made.”

(Perhaps also known as, roughly: You don’t know it until you can teach it.)

The connections Blau made in Chapter 7 between reading and writing really stuck out for me. I took 615 just last semester, so maybe that is coloring my experience here in 610, but I think the connections between reading and writing are so important, and each benefits the other equally. I love the idea of understanding what you read by writing about it. My first experience with reading logs (since high school anyway) was in 615, and I was surprised by how much I valued them — as tedious as it was, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten all I did out of the readings without being “forced” to write about them simultaneously. And I agree that logs can be a great place to store ideas, ideas that maybe the student will be able to come back to when asked to write a paper about the text with no prompt or direction.

I also like the idea of working through confusion by writing, something that students are usually not willing to do in “formal academic essays” for fear of bad grades, but that is possible, and even expected, in a more casual reading log or journal, which is often described as a place for questions and “but what abouts.” Blau says, “there is value in writing about and sharing confusion” (155). And as we have read elsewhere this semester, confusion = learning, questions = learning, and as Blau says on page 12, difficulty = success.

What I’ve been taking away from this class these first few weeks is how important it is to show students that difficulty, questions, misunderstandings, and disagreements are not the enemy when reading literature. The challenge is to make the English literature classroom a space where students feel confident expressing these reactions, where those things are welcomed, discussed, and built upon.

Gee & Difficulty. Sensing a Theme? ;)

Gee’s What Video Games have to Teach Us… contains a lot of interesting and helpful ideas about thinking and learning, but since I have to focus on something for this post, I’m picking the end of Chapter 6. It stood out to me because of the connections to Salvatori and Donahue re: difficulty in learning.

On pages 172-3, Gee talks about how moving “straightforwardly and efficiently toward the goal” was not the way to win (or succeed in/do well in) a video game. He uses words like “delay,” “sneak,” and “linger” to suggest that the best way to play (and win) is to be slow and patient about it, to be thorough. He suggests that “side trips” are often rewarding, and sometimes essential. If we read “player” as “student,” which of course Gee wants us to do, we see Gee suggesting that the students who look for the easiest path to an “A” grade (often our honors, AP, and gifted students) are missing out on a lot of the real learning. In actuality, the student who struggles, and perseveres, with information or new tasks learns more, and learns better.

Gee also talks about video games having “multiple solutions,” read: ambiguity. As most of our other readings have suggested, ambiguity is a huge part of reading literature, and it is one of the major concepts with which students struggle. Gee suggests that in an ideal classroom, students would explore texts like the virtual world of a video game, going down interesting side paths, lingering over confusing or contradictory sections, considering multiple answers to posed questions, and delaying resolution about meaning. Not only that, but students would fail, try again, fail again, and try once more. “How quickly you proceed,” he says on page 174, “is not a big value”; that is, reading a text once through and coming to a definite conclusion about meaning is not the goal of learning. “Hard is not bad, and easy is not good” (175).

Gee makes it quite clear that students (children, people, humans) do not necessarily shy away from difficulty. But I think the problem circles back to interest: Players of video games may embrace games’ difficulty because they value their accomplishments in that world. Video games are a social activity — for younger kids in particular. They provide common ground for kids, a way for them to judge and compete with each other, to feel proud, to feel challenged. Students may not embrace the difficulty of Jane Eyre because they don’t value knowledge of it — it does nothing for them (they think) other than make them seem “nerdy” or uncool. (I could start talking about peer pressure and its effects on student learning, but I see that I’m already at 451 words, and I’m trying not to get carried away this week!)

The bottom line is that I enjoyed reading Gee, even though I’m not a “gamer,” and even though his endless, endless parentheticals drove me up the WALL. I think he made some really good points, and the way he tied them to the act of playing video games was pretty fascinating to me as an outsider to that world.

Context, the Oxford System

I began with Sherry Linkon this week and paused mid-article to write down my thoughts. I pulled three quotes from Linkon’s “The Reader’s Apprentice: Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible” that inspired my blog post for this week:

  1. p. 248: “Great lectures and discussions work on many levels, but they do not provide students with sufficient guidance in how to read cultural texts critically and contextually.”
  2. p. 251-2: “Good critical readers are conscious of the difference between their own experience and worldview, the culture in which the text was created, and the world represented in the text.”
  3. p. 252: “Good readers draw on their existing knowledge of that cultural moment, and they seek out additional information about everything from the issues of the day or the artist’s biography to cultural practices about art and publication, everyday life, attitudes, and behavior.”

These ideas made me think about the University of Oxford’s tutorial system, and about the English Faculty Library at Oxford. You may be familiar with Oxford’s tutorial system, but if you’re not, the short-ish version: It’s basically founded on the idea that for whatever you choose to “read” (major in), you’ll have a certain number of tutorials per term paired with lectures in your discipline that you’ll attend. The tutorial sessions are literally an hour or so a week with an Oxford don (professor), usually one-on-one, but occasionally two students::one don.

So, when I studied abroad there, I had two tutorials: One on the 19th century British novel, and one on postmodernism. I met once a week with each of my two dons. I was basically reading a book per week and writing a paper on it for each session. The sessions consisted of my don tearing apart my paper, asking “Why this?” “What about that?” and “You didn’t support this idea with any evidence,” &c. My tutorials in particular were almost as much about writing as they were reading.

Now, one awesome thing about Oxford is the faculty libraries. There is essentially one for each major discipline, and the English Faculty Library is literally heaven on earth for any English major or book nerd. It’s organized by period and by author. So, when I was writing a paper on George Eliot, I could actually go to the George Eliot section and find tons of criticism on her (including historical/cultural context), information on her relations with contemporaries, biographies of her, her collected journals/letters, &c. It was amazingly easy to use and made so much sense. I wonder why we can’t create libraries like that here. How often have you gone to Fenwick for a research project and had to travel to three different floors to find books on the same idea?

Anyway, I bring up Oxford and these faculty libraries because I think the way they have their system set up is pretty ideal, especially for accessing cultural and historical contexts when reading. I distinctly remember getting a paper back in an English lit. class in undergrad (with John Foster here at Mason) with comments about how my paper would have been X% better if I’d considered the social/historical events going on at the time and how they influenced the writer/the text. Yes, he’d lectured a bit about these things in class, but relating them back to the text in an informed and intelligent way would have required a little extra reading, and honestly, as an undergrad, I wasn’t totally sure where to go to find that information.

As an eager little English major, I was actually willing to go the extra mile to include “extras” like this, but I suppose we must consider the general apathy of some students, esp. in high school, and the attitude of doing just enough to get by. Are high school/college students in the U.S. willing to be so self-motivated? Not sure. How can we make such information easily accessible to students without having to count on ourselves (as teachers) to “lecture it to them,” likely ensuring they won’t listen, will forget it, or won’t realize the connection between it and the text — or, by requiring “eight outside sources” without showing our students where to go find helpful sources and what tools to use to evaluate and engage with those sources?

As Linkon says in “Reader’s Apprentice,” “critical cultural reading emphasizes inquiry” (251), and, like we talked about in class Wednesday, what are the things we should be saying to students before/as they read texts to get them to (1) ask questions, and (2) seek answers through considering their own prior knowledge and looking for social/cultural/historical context in other places?

(added:) Now that I’ve finished the article, I want to comment on one thing that my experience with the Oxford tutorial system did not do: allow sufficient time to study any particular work in real, meaningful depth. I would argue that I enjoyed exploring those two particular genres in depth (and the works to some extent), but if I’m honest, as intense as each weekly study may have been, I may have gotten “inch-deep” kind of exposure. (One week is hardly long enough to study Middlemarch — it’s barely long enough to read it!) I loved reading about Linkon’s “inquiry project” — what a great way to achieve mile-deep knowledge, not to mention skill building! (I would like to elaborate on my opinion on the importance of skill-building (vs. simply “gaining knowledge”), but I think I’ve already doubled my word limit.)

(P.S. — I know this was really long, and I’m sorry!)

12th-Grade History, Difficulty Papers

Before I talk about Elements, I wanted to say something about the Experts/Novices article: The discussion about “knowing facts” vs. actually internalizing the information made me think about my high school American History class. I went to a small, private high school in Alabama (seriously, 43 seniors in my graduating class), and twelfth-grade history with Mr. Thagard had a reputation. We heard about it as freshmen and sophomores, dreaded it as juniors, and sweated through it as seniors. I’m talking 6:30 a.m. study sessions on test days (tests were two days, by the way: multiple choice on Day 1 and discussion questions on Day 2). Mr. Thagard specified how we were to take notes (right side of the page only; in pen, because it’s easier to read; and in the formal outline style: I., A., 1., a., i.), and he checked our notebooks the first week of class to make sure we were doing it correctly. Class consisted of 50 minutes of note-taking. I studied for these tests by pacing around the island in my kitchen repeating my notes to myself. I did well on the tests.

And? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell you one true thing about the Louisiana Purchase. Or name more than fifteen or so presidents. It’s pathetic.

I thought this article was a really interesting read. I recognized myself (esp. in high school) in some of the situations discussed. I like the idea of “expert” being kind of an untrue term — “we’re always learning,” etc.

So, Elements. There are several different ideas produced in this book that I liked and could talk about here, but I think I want to focus on the idea of Difficulty Papers in general, something that I found particularly intriguing.

I think I’d find a Difficulty Paper much more interesting to read than an “academic” paper in which the student fumbles around, talking about a text in a way he thinks he should (that he thinks the teacher expects), but isn’t comfortable doing. Such papers would allow for more interesting and useful classroom discussion — you could talk about the things the students are obviously interested in, intrigued by, confused by, excited about, etc.; students would be able to better relate to the text, and hopefully see it less as lofty English Literature (with a capital E, L).

Also, calling them “Difficulty Papers” is a way to get students to grapple with confusing or contradicting thoughts and ideas about texts without thinking that they will receive bad grades for their papers because they didn’t come to a conclusion about the text or put forth a polished and well-argued reading of it. It moves the pressure from writing a complete, reasoned reading of the text and puts it on truly understanding the text, appreciating its nuances, its contradictions, its strengths and weaknesses.

The reality is, though, that students need to know how to construct a compelling, well-reasoned argument about a text, because that is what other teachers will expect of them (teachers who aren’t familiar with Difficulty Papers). I think Difficulty Papers are a nice place to start, but they are certainly only a start. If I was teaching English to a class of high school students utilizing this strategy, maybe I would assign Difficulty Papers during the first semester and expect regular academic papers from them in the second semester, or perhaps each semester would be divided roughly in half, with students writing Difficulty Papers in the first half, and regular essays in the second. It might also be helpful to consider Difficulty Papers the first draft of a paper — if you have time/space/flexibility in your curriculum to assign several drafts of each paper, the evolution from Difficulty Paper to reasoned, argued academic essay would be an excellent learning tool, perhaps. I do think that Salvatori and Donahue show the usefulness of Difficulty Papers in Elements.