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Emily Isaacson

Fashion and Literature

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Aug 31, 2015

This blog was originally posted on February 1, 2013.


I’ve written before about linking the material world with literature, because it’s something I’m interested in as a scholar.  But it’s also something that, I think, often helps students delineate time periods of literature.


I’ve used this idea when introducing students to different eras of British literature, especially when one of my course goals is to help students identify differences between those eras.  When I taught a survey of British literature after 1800, I spent time on the first day of each era showing students images of popular women’s fashions.  I simply pull up pictures (thank goodness for Google’s image search!), and together we examine the lines of the dresses and the accessories.


This becomes most effective when we’re  moving from one time period to the next.  For example, when we began the Victorian era, I pulled up a couple of pictures we’d look at for the earlier part of the 19th century (here are some Regency fashions) and then a large number of Victorian-style dresses and men’s fashions.  We were able to make some broad generalizations about some of the changes on mores, as suggested by the changes in styles of dress.  In addition to offering some general fun, the activity engaged the students visually and reminded them that as literature scholars, we can read all sorts of things—hats, vests, corsets, and bustles—as texts.

[[This blog post originally appeared on February 6, 2013.]]

Herman Melville, a few years before the 1953 publication of “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”


I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to approach the concept of character in my introduction to literature courses. I’ve traditionally begun each semester by talking about characters and introducing my students to some of the basic terms that are important in reading characters (i.e. protagonist, antagonist, flat, round, static, dynamic).  This semester, I’m not entirely satisfied with the approach, particularly because my intro to lit class is comprised entirely of non-majors. This has gotten me thinking about why and how we talk about characters. In my experience, students enjoy discussing characters —especially the ones they strongly identify with. But while my students may identify with a character, they don’t always know why they do. Even more importantly, they often don’t know what to do with characters they do not identify with:  Characters with backgrounds that are unfamiliar.  Characters who are different.  Characters who are, in all honesty, weird. I’ve also been thinking about how I introduce students to the careful analysis of literature.  So often, when talking about characters or plots, students want to speak in very broad and uncritical terms. To handle both of these tasks— dealing with strange characters and working on critical analysis—I decided that we would look at how characters in a text describe one another.


I recently tried this with my class in our discussion of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” because who is more remote from students’ experience than the morose 19th-century copyist? First, we needed to establish what we knew about everyone else who appears in the story.  We began class as I always do with “Bartleby”: We made lists of the details that we knew about the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.  I made sure that the description the narrator gives of himself, that he was “an eminently safe man,” was part of our discussion.  From there, we moved to Bartleby.  After talking about Bartleby’s initial appearance at the lawyer’s door, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn,” we spoke specifically about what each word means.Next, I put students in charge of careful analysis. To do this I had them form pairs, and I assigned each a different paragraph from the story where the characters (mostly the narrator) describe Bartleby or interact with him. I asked students to read their assigned passages carefully, alert to Melville’s choices, especially word choices, in his presentation of Bartleby. In their pairs, students then answered these questions:


  1. Where in the story does the passage appear? What is the context for it?
  2. What is said about Bartleby in this passage, and which character says it?
  3. At this point, how does this character perceive Bartleby?
  4. How do you know this? That is, what specific words in the passage suggest this to you?
  5. In the passage, how does the character’s description of Bartleby compare with descriptions of Bartleby elsewhere in the story?


After  I’d given students time to work on this— and they certainly worked on it— I went  through the story chronologically, having them report back to the class about the discussion they had in answering these questions.  This led us to talking about the language that the narrator uses in telling his story, the various descriptions of Bartleby, and, most importantly, the way that the narrator changes as he describes his perceptions of Bartleby.  Bartleby really does not change all that much, but the narrator does.  And the narrator’s response to him tells us everything. In truth, this approach is primarily a matter of reframing basic questions: Who is Bartleby and why does he matter? Rather than simply asking students to respond to Melville’s character and story, I’m offering them tools and a set of questions to apply.  By looking at Bartleby through the point of view of other characters and the story’s narrator, my students could step of their own responses and, potentially, see the humanity they share with Bartleby.

[[This blog post originally appeared on February 1, 2013.]]


Dramatic writers aim to capture the way that people speak:  Therefore, grammatical correctness is not necessarily important in the text of a play or script.  What is unacceptable in academic prose is often quite desirable in drama. Unfortunately, students sometimes take drama’s emphasis on performance and the spoken word as a license for sloppy writing.  Dramatic writing, though often non-grammatical, must never be haphazard.


Frequently, I encounter in beginning playwrights a lack of attention to punctuation.  Perhaps they believe that, because punctuation is for the eye, it is unnecessary to writing that addresses itself to the ear.  However, such a belief ignores punctuation’s significance as a means of suggesting vocal techniques of expression—specifically, the pause—which are readily understood to the listener but hard to convey to the reader.  Because punctuation captures the rhythms of spoken speech, it’s essential that playwrights employ punctuation to its fullest potential.


While everyone is familiar with basic punctuation marks—such as the period, comma, exclamation point, etc.—there are others that beginning playwrights tend to neglect.  Here are some of my favorites.  (Similar lists can be found in textbooks such as Buzz McLaughlin’s The Playwright’s Process.)


  1. The ellipsis (. . .) indicates a trailing off, whether within or at the end of a speech.  It suggests confusion or a wandering of the mind, rather than an abrupt change of thought.
  2. The dash (—) indicates an interruption, whether within or at the end of a speech.  Characters interrupt themselves as their thoughts change in quick succession or as they make hasty additions to their statements.  Dashes are used, also, when characters are interrupted by other characters.
  3. The semicolon (;) links related thoughts.
  4. The colon (:) links related thoughts more closely than the semi-colon.  The colon is used for assertions that hinge on one another, suggesting a stronger—perhaps causal—relationship.
  5. The question mark followed by the uncapitalized question—e.g., “What do you think I am? a dog?”  This form suggests a subsidiary question that continues the first, rather than a wholly new question asked in succession.  This punctuation device can greatly affect an actor’s inflection.


Consider working with punctuation in class.  For instance, you might have students come up with sample lines of dialogue in which they use these conventions.  Such exercises can help encourage greater precision in writing.


To commit speeches to paper, dramatic writers should take advantage of all devices at their disposal—including italics, all caps, and the formatting of text as verse.  After all, playwrights have the difficult task of converting a complex medium (the spoken word) to another medium (the written word) and of doing so in such a way as to suggest delivery to actors.


How do you teach punctuation in the scriptwriting classroom?  How do you discuss micro-concerns like the line, as opposed to larger concerns like plotting or character building?

William Bradley

Attack the Block

Posted by William Bradley Expert Aug 28, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 23, 2013.


The question took me by surprise.  We were about halfway through the semester, and I’d finally figured out the rhythm and patterns of my 10:10- 11:40 Techniques of Fiction class.  I’d come in just before class started to a roomful of students talking and joking with each other.  I’d try to say something pithy to get us started, then remind everyone what we had read for the day—typically, two student stories to workshop and one story by the likes of Faulkner or Cather or Baldwin.  I’d say, “Let’s start with the workshop—who’s dying to go first?”  The student authors would exchange glances, both shrug slightly, and then one would finally speak: “I’ll go.”  This was business-as-usual.


But on this day, I walked into the room and, before I could make any type of witty remark, a student said, “Can I ask a question?”


“Sure,” I replied, settling into my seat.


“What do you do when you have writer’s block?”


As I said, I wasn’t expecting this question.  This is an intro-level class.  Writer’s block, it seems to me, is something people develop when they’re further along in their writing careers, surely.  And what’s more, I wasn’t even sure writer’s block really existed—too often, I think writers use “writer’s block” as an excuse to do something—anything—other than writing.


So I led with that observation.  “I don’t really believe in writer’s block,” I said, noticing that the entire class had stopped their side conversations and were listening to me.  “I’ve found that when I have ‘writer’s block,’ it’s usually because there’s an article I want to read in The New Yorker, orRaging Bull is on TV, or there’s beer in the fridge, or I want to hang out with my wife.  In my experience, writers claim to be ‘blocked’ when they feel like being lazy.”


An honest answer, but an unsatisfactory one.  I could tell by my student’s expression that this wasn’t helpful.  Judging by the expressions on the faces of some of her classmates, I wasn’t helping them either.


“I assume you’re asking because you feel like you’re blocked?” I asked.


“I just don’t know how to get started on my next story,” she replied.  I noticed some other students nodding, heard a few “Yeahs” too.


I was actually relieved to hear this.  A sophomore’s anxiety about getting started, intimidation by the blank screen, is a different problem than “writer’s block,” it seems to me—or at least writer’s block as I understand the term.  The idea of writer’s block sort of affirms the belief that writing is all about inspiration, being touched by the muse.  That’s the sort of belief that I want to disabuse my students of—I don’t want them thinking that there’s something mystical about writing, that it’s something they either can do or can’t, depending on the whims of some supernatural force that may or may not anoint them.  I want them to understand that writing is hard work, and sitting around waiting for the story to present itself to you so that you can transcribe it is about the best way to not be a writer that I can think of.


Having trouble getting started, though, is a different matter, I think.  Particularly when we’re talking about student writers.  I rarely have trouble getting started these days, but I remember a time—not too very long ago—that I struggled to come up with something to write about.  These days, I have the opposite problem—I’ve got a ton of ideas, and not enough time to write about them.


How did I get to this point?  I wondered to myself.  What did I do that made it easier to get started, to face down the blank screen and create art?


I talked about sitting down at the computer, without distraction, and just pushing ahead.  Forcing yourself to get started and trusting that you’ll discover what the piece is about as you go along—even if that means eventually going back and seriously revising (or even completely trashing) those first few sentences (or paragraphs) after you’ve figured out what you’re doing.  I told them about a former classmate of mine, who always started with what he thought was the most interesting moment or idea in his story or essay, even if it belonged at the end of the piece, and who then would go back and write the beginning if he needed to.  I talked about my experience in screenwriting classes, which taught me the value of working from an outline sometimes—sometimes, it’s easier to begin a journey when you have a map in front of you.


Most importantly, I think the key to finding inspiration, I told my students, is in paying attention to the world we live in.  I don’t just mean go to the mall and people watch—although sometimes that works.  I mean taking the time to notice the stuff you frequently overlook in your day-to-day life.  Look at the trees that line the sidewalk you travel every day to get from your dorm to the dining hall.  Listen to the sounds that surround you—birds calling to each other from across the quad, laughter coming from someone’s open window, the faint sound of “All Along the Watchtower” coming from one of the fraternity houses down the street.


I like to regard much of my life as research for a hypothetical essay or story—that way, everything I do can be considered “productive” in some way, even if it’s just drinking a glass of wine with my wife in our porch swing—who’s to say I’m not going to write about this experience?  When you regard your actions and interactions as potential material, I told my students, it’s downright impossible to find yourself “blocked.”


This seemed to make sense to them, but I feel like this is something that I want to revisit with them as we get closer to the end of the semester.  I’d be interesting in hearing from readers of this blog: How you deal with the issue, either with your students or in your own writing?

[[This blog was originally posted on January 30, 2013]]


The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious,
and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.
–T S Eliot

Recently, I planned out my courses for spring. I wrote new syllabi for poetry and fiction workshops and revised my existing syllabi, too. And, this year I decided to include a new section.  After explaining to my students the Grades and Attendance and Formatting Your Work parts of my syllabus, I added a section called Creating Sacred Space.


This is new territory for me, and will be for most of my students, I think, and I’m curious to know what you think.


What I have noticed in the past couple of years is this. Students rarely take phone calls during class. Most of the time, they silence their phones, though a few times each semester (usually during an in class writing period, or when a student is reading an incredibly moving, incredibly personal poem aloud—aka The Worst Time), a phone will hum and buzz and there will be a frenzied patting down of a backpack or self, a litany of apologies, or, worst, weird silent ignoring while the buzzing or belling persists.  Once in a great while a student will take a call in class:  “I have to take this! It’s my mom!”




But last year, I noticed something truly deleterious, in my opinion, to the workshop itself. When we take our break halfway through the three hour workshop, many students get out their phones and text. Some of them text during the entire break. Often, I’ll see the little thumbs, the downward gaze, when we are in class, not on the break. Texting in class is okay, students believe, in a way that taking an actual phone call is not.  But, I think it’s very much NOT okay. So, this semester, I’m creating a new policy: Sacred Space.


We bring very personal work to class, and of course there has to be a boundary of reverence around our discussion. On Day One, we formally vow not to discuss the work of this class with outsiders, and not to share any drafts with others. I’m not worried that students’ text communications with those outside the workshop during the workshop is violating trust. Rather, I believe that texting during class, even during the break, is hurting our ability to be present with each other. I believe texting even on the break is hurting students’ ability to learn how to be connected with the depth of their inner lives, and the range of their imaginations. You might disagree.  But if you can’t disconnect from other people for three hours stretches, how are you going to write a poem or a short story?


When we are around a table, with work-in-progress spread out before us, there’s a lot that’s called for in terms of awareness, paying attention, thoughtfulness, and intuition. These skills are very similar to the ones we need when creating art.   For example, when we start break in class, I can look at Emily and see she is having a rough day. I can see how nervous she is—her story is up next. The break is not really a break from class; it’s a break from work, from concentration.  It’s a chance to stretch, to run to the restroom, to grab a snack. But we are still a class.  We’re still a group endeavoring to make meaning, give insightful feedback, hold and carry and nurture and tend to art and each other. If our attention is divided, if we are participating in conversations about dinner, about whatever, Mom found her car keys!—with folks who aren’t in our class, I feel we are not just missing out on opportunities to see each other with the full richness that is required for something as intimate and demanding as workshop, I think we are hurting our art. I think we’re damaging our process.


To make art, we have to be able to enter a complicated dance between knowing and not knowing, between what’s clear and what’s chaotic.  We have to be able to space out—slightly.   We have to capture those notions that come from the right brain.  A creative writing workshop is a complex system of interactions—we have to be off-line, here and deeply here.  We have to be paying attention to surprise, to nuance, to everything.


I am nervous about my new policy. I worry students will see it as draconian. Un-American. But you know what? Going to college means learning new ways to be in the world, honing one’s ability to work with others, and deepening one’s relationship with one’s inner self.  The ability to create sacred space—well, I think it might help my students create more productive, more rewarding writing practices.  And, I think it might be one tiny way to heal the world.

This blog was originally posted on January 18, 2013.


Recently, I did a webinar for Bedford/St. Martin’s (which you can find here). During my lecture (which I pretended was a kind of little TED talk—I did so many rehearsals!!), I talked about the top three concerns students have when it comes to revision:


1. It takes a ton of TIME

The most frustrating aspect of revision is the time it demands.  –Morgan

2. Losing my voice: AUTHENTICITY

I write from inspiration deep down, and pre-Junior year I believed that deviating from that inspiration was untrue to myself as a writer. Now I know: the stuff that spits out onto the page at 1 AM isn’t necessarily what should be published in a book.  –Becca


The most frustrating aspect of revision is having to do it and making stupid mistakes, not getting everything right the first time…. –Victoria


I started off my talk by naming and addressing these common student concerns.  The fear that we will spend forever revising and not really get anywhere, or, worse, revising but not knowing if we have improved (or destroyed) our vision.  The fear that trying to please readers and the teacher will ruin our original voice. And, the most important aspect of revision is right there inside of Victoria’s fear: you have to be okay with feeling dumb in order to be an artist.  You have to befriend mistakes!  You have to tend and befriend a very vulnerable part of your self.  It’s hard work!


I think we—writing teachers—also have similar concerns as writers! We worry so much about our failures and the time it takes to be a serious, committed writer.  As we progress in our professions, it gets harder and harder to let ourselves “feel dumb” and start again.

However, I’m very much wanting to keep my pedagogy crisply in line with what I actually do as a writer in my own studio.  So, I’ve been looking closely at how I talk about revision to my students.

In my opinion:


  • “Revision” is a problematic concept.
  • Revision is a vague and useless umbrella term: We say revision when we mean composing, editing, experimenting, planning, re-seeing.
  • Misleading concept: revision is actually writing; it’s not separate from writing.
  • Writing and revising are the same act of mind.


I have come up with my own New Goals for Teaching Revision. I want to create revision instruction that helps students:


  • Focus more deeply.
  • Spend more time on their writing because it becomes more likeplay (not necessarily light and fun but engaging—just hard enough).
  • See results: strategies produce better work.


If you like, check out my webinar on this topic and tell me what you think. I would love to hear about your experiences as a writer or as a teacher when it comes to revision.

[[This blog was original posted on January 23, 2013.]]


I’ve previously discussed on this blog ideas about the ambiguity and open-endedness of interpretation. Today I’m thinking specifically about how making connections across texts is central to the work of the literature classroom.


This is something, I think, that students often need to be given permission to do.  I’m not sure if it’s a matter of fear that they’ll have the “wrong” answer, or if it’s simply a matter of not remembering things, but I’ve found that my students  need some prodding to answer the question: “Does this text remind you of anything else we’ve read this semester?”  While I certainly include that question among their reading journal assignments, I’ve also found that a bit more direct intervention is important.


Certainly, we can do our own modeling of making connections, announcing when we see a connection with something else in the text.  (In fact, one of the things I love about teaching an intro to lit course is that I read things that are normally outside of my immediate area of expertise, and thus I begin to see connections I might otherwise have missed.)

But we can also create a situation where students are required to make those connections on their own.


I’ve found the following exercise to be helpful.

  • I have students read 5 to 6 poems before class, poems that fit within a theme. In our course, it’s poetry about death.
  • Prior to our class meeting, I print up a sheet of questions (see below), and print on separate strips of paper the titles of the poems.  Depending on the size of the class, I’ll make 3 or 4 copies of each poem title. In class, I divide the students into small groups and then go around and have one student in each group pick two of the slips of paper (think magicians asking you to pick a card).
  • Students then have the task of answering the questions about the poems and, more importantly, making connections among the poems, whether it’s through theme, the personas of the poems, or the figurative language that they see in the texts.  By having students select the texts for comparison at random, I am trying to encourage the students to think about the many complex ideas – and particularly the way that those complex ideas can appear across poems.

Sample questions (and these are drawn from various sources, including, most recently Judith Stanford’s Responding to Literature. I’ve been asking some of these questions for so long at this point, that I’ve lost track of which ones were inspired by what sources):


Directions for the group: Answer each question for each poem, keeping in mind where the poems have commonalities and where they have serious contrast:


  • What is the relationship of the speaker to the person who has died or is dying?  How might this influence the speaker’s feelings about death?
  • In depicting death itself, what sort of metaphors or figurative language do these speakers use?  How does this affect the way that they feel (or you as the reader feel) about death?
  • What other pieces of literature might be useful in a comparison here?  (These can be from any other day’s reading in the course.)  Why might they be useful?


Once my students have worked together — and after I’ve talked with each group — we come back together as a class to discuss individual poems and how each poet portrays death. When we deal with themes in literature such as mortality, love, learning, or any other big concept, we encourage students to deepen their understanding of the literature they read, and to connect these themes with their own lives and experiences.

Emily Isaacson

Embracing Ambiguity

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Aug 26, 2015

[[This blog was originally posted on January 1, 2013]]


I once had a delightful student who, despite her actual talent for interpretation, would get incredibly frustrated by the ambiguity of much of the literature that we would read for class.  I could always see the wheels turning and her brows furrowing when she would begin to explain her interpretation, particularly when she didn’t quite have an end in sight.  As a major in social sciences, she wanted unambiguous results and quantifiable answers.


And that’s just not what we do in literary studies.


From my perspective, it was actually delightful: when I see students struggle like that, I know that they’re developing intellectually.  I’ve always enjoyed the ambiguity of interpretation – or at least the possibility of multiple interpretations.  I’ve also generally been most interested in the many links that we can make across works of literature.


Most importantly, though, I think it’s important to emphasize with our students that this is a valuable skill: I’m reminded of Keats’ idea of negative capability or of James Baldwin’s idea in “Notes of a Native Son” of holding two apparently opposing ideas in his mind.  An ability to operate within that ambiguity, or to balance opposing ideas is necessary in our modern world: it allows us to deal with nuance and to sort out the complexities of our global lives.


So how do we do this?  How do we encourage students to feel comfortable with ambiguity?


One way would be to have students work through their own interpretations in small groups in the classroom, without the immediate intervention of the professor/authority figure. They could then report back to the class, offering possible readings and asking questions to spark discussion. It’s important, at the outset, to point out that there are some interpretations that will be more plausible than others, and that there’s no single correct interpretation. At the same time, each interpretation needs to be supported by evidence from the text. So students need to be able to make a claim and back it up with specific passages.


This approach would be most productive for students in introductory literature courses – it could work particularly well for non-majors – because it encourages interdisciplinarity in interpretations.  Asking students to talk about a text in terms of their own majors and areas of expertise will benefit the class discussion as a whole.


This approach does require a level of comfort on our part as instructors: We have to be willing to admit a lack of knowledge about something to our students (e.g., I’ve had students explain rules of football, the bone structure of birds, and music videos to me).  It also means linking literature to things in our own lives, or with our own interests.  It also means, I think, recognizing that our goal in the introduction to literature classroom is to develop the ideal reader, which is different from our goal in a graduate-level course on English.


And really, deep down, it’s about sharing our own love of reading and our own comfort with that ambiguity.

This blog was originally posted on January 16th, 2013.


In the student-centered literature classroom, one of the skills we try to teach is the ability to evaluate other people’s claims about a work of literature.  We can do this in a variety of ways, but one way I’m particularly fond of is based on an exercise that I found in Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Berkeley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major.  Their exercise is called “Send-a-Problem,” and it asks students to answer a series of open-ended questions about theme and character development, and then evaluate a set of answers. Their version of the exercise calls for the instructor to write each question on the outside of a manila envelope.  Students then work in small groups to answer the question, slide their answer into the envelope, and pass it along to the next group.  Eventually, groups will have answered all but one question; upon receipt of the final envelope, each group will evaluate all the answers to that last question, a question they have not yet themselves answered.


Conceptually, I like this exercise. Logistically, I hate it. So I’ve adjusted it to suit my needs. I simply create a list of questions, print each on a separate sheet, and give each group all but one of the questions.  Students take their time – often the bulk of a 50 minute class period – answering the questions as thoroughly as possible, then we redistribute and evaluate.

For example, I frequently use this exercise with James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  I’ve taught the story every year for the past 6 years, and I’ve taught it from a number of anthologies, including Ann Charter’s The Story and Its Writer and Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen’s Literature: The Human Experience and I’ve drawn some of my questions from those authors.  I also write my own questions, based on the themes that we’re talking about in class – essentially questions that ask students to define concepts based on the story.

Here’s how it works in my classroom:



  • I write (or select from the instructor’s guide to the text) 6 or so questions for the day’s reading.  Each question is designed to require significant thought on the part of the group – and requires students to find specific quotations to support their claims. Here are some questions that I’ve used for “Sonny’s Blues.”
    • How do you react to Baldwin’s change of prose style in describing the scene at the nightclub? How does his change in style contribute to his message? In what ways does it make his message harder to decipher?  What does it suggest about the narrator’s change as a character? (Charters)
    • How should we read the reference to the “cup of trembling” in the last paragraph of the story? Should we read it to mean that trembling and fury will be visited on whites (“them that afflict thee”)? Or pushers? Or is the full biblical passage not relevant? Explain. (Charters)
    • What function does the narrator’s encounter with Sonny’s friend at the beginning of the story serve? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • What effect does Baldwin achieve by rearranging the order of events? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • How does Baldwin this story define family in this story?  What does it mean to be a member of a family?  To have connections with family members?  Is this something culturally specific? (Mine)
    • Who is the protagonist of the story? How do we you know? What is the central conflict for the protagonist? (Mine)
    • I create a Word document that presents each question on a separate page, and number the questions 1 through 6.
    • I make enough copies of question sheets so that each group (students will be divided into 6 groups total) will have 5 of the 6 questions.
    • I sort the questions and provide each group with a set of will get all the questions except the one that corresponds with their group number (i.e. group 3 does not get question 3).
    • I label each stack with a big post-it note indicating with the group number.


In class:

  • Students self-select into 6 groups (in my classes, that’s typically 4 students per group).
  • I distribute the stacks to each group.
  • I circulate while students write out their answers (and I discourage students from writing their names on the sheets).
  • Once students have had a set amount of time with the sheets, we redistribute, so that every question 2 goes to group 2, etc.
  • Once each group has a complete set of answers to a single question, they evaluate the responses.
  • I encourage students to select the best answer, add where necessary, or combine more than one answer to make the most complete answer
  • Each group then reports to the full class.


I like this exercise because it puts a lot of responsibility on my students.  It also gives them time to wrestle with complex discussion questions without the pressure of having the whole class listen or while the impatient instructor (me!) stands waiting.  Finally, I think it’s useful for students to examine how other people try to answer questions – it’s good for discussion and for their own written work for the class.

[[This blog was originally posted on January 15, 2013]]


I’m sitting on the train from New York City to Boston, writing my talk for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association which I don’t have to give for a couple of days yet so please don’t judge, and I’m watching the trees and snow fly away from me, backward. I sat down facing the wrong way, but it seems the appropriate orientation for a year-end post.


The past year of teaching, looking back, was a lesson in the value of being unprepared. I say this with some trepidation, for the obvious reasons—as academics, former good students all growed up, we are conditioned to do all our homework and the extra credit—but due to circumstances both beyond and entirely under my control, the last two semesters were My Year of Winging It. In the spring I took a course over from an instructor a few weeks into the semester, inserting myself into a preexisting syllabus and telling the story of American Literature since 1865 that it was designed to tell. So my winging it here was not completely improvised; like the actors hurrying to learn their lines just offstage and receiving prompts from the wings, I had a script, I just didn’t write it.


This past semester I taught a new course on the rock novel (which I’ve already written about here). In the past, I’d occasionally included a novel in a course that I hadn’t read prior to putting it on a syllabus. Once or twice I’d not read it until the semester had already started. This time out, for reasons practical and pedagogical, I hadn’t read most of the books on the syllabus prior to putting together the syllabus, and chose not to read them until teaching them—that is, I taught  the novels blind, reading only the pages assigned to the students and reading them the night before.


Was this a little terrifying? In some cases, it was. Day to day, I couldn’t depend on the big picture, knowing where things were leading and what themes would emerge as major; I was unable to rely on having the whole novel under my belt in choosing where to direct discussion. The downsides to this are obvious. The upsides were not, always, so I got to discover them as I went, and foremost among them was this very process of discovery. Threads of ideas and form emerged for me as I read, at the same time as the class made their own discoveries. A central tactic of my pedagogy has always been (as I suspect it is for many teachers) the creation of an atmosphere for discussion in which discoveries can happen collaboratively, rather than the leading by the nose I too often fall back into (which I occasionally realize I’m doing mid-discussion and end the string of leading questions with “What number am I thinking of?”). Teaching unread novels did this work for me. The “we” in the question “So what did we learn last night?” was genuine.


Reading without knowing the plot—or without knowing the end—was quite instructive for me as, well, an instructor, and helped me see that this is what students are always doing. This seems an obvious point, and maybe it is, but I tend to forget from class to class that I usually have the benefit of hindsight when I teach fiction. Not knowing how things would turn out made me more cognizant of the construction of plot, of the narrative devices employed, and more aware of the existential fact that a plot can turn any way it wants to. We have the sense after we’ve read a narrative that it could only have gone the way it went (this is the moment of retrospection Peter Brooks describes), but as we read a story for the first time, we can only guess.


Another effect of reading without knowing where the plot is going is that it encourages something I value but don’t always practice as much as I’d like, which is close reading. Focusing only on the pages at hand makes it easier to focus on the pages at hand—that is, to pay sustained, slow attention to the words in front of us. As Jane Gallop has discussed so eloquently (here and elsewhere), the historicization of literary studies has tended to lead to a focus on the thematic to the exclusion of the kind of close attention to form that is one of literary studies’ chief joys and benefits. Whether we are arguing for the value of the English major or just the occasional English class from the instrumental side (employers value the skills associated with textual interpretation) or the humanist (citizenship of the world values the attention to ambiguity, irony, beauty, etc., that exposure to the literary affords), we can agree on the value of close reading.

One last effect of effect of Winging It in this way was, in one case, the assigning of a novel that wasn’t very good, one to which I’d been pointed by someone whose literary judgment is unimpeachable (though maybe should receive censure for this one offense). While I won’t be teaching this novel again, there was something positive to doing it. Practicing full disclosure, I had told the class at the beginning of the semester that I hadn’t read most of the books, so as we read this one and discovered that many of us didn’t love it, we were able to talk about our own tastes and what they consisted of and even about taste as a thing in itself and, without bringing in Bourdieu and taste as a social phenomenon, were able to get pretty far into what it means to like or not like artworks.


I’m not much for resolutions, and even if I were, a resolution to work harder to prepare less assiduously wouldn’t be one I would make. I am still one for working up pages of notes about career, context, theme, form, and divergent interpretations. I am hoping, looking back at the year flying away behind me, that I can find ways to remind myself of the value of not knowing the end of the story.

This blog was originally posted on January 14, 2013.


There’s a band called “Tallest Man on Earth” that for quite awhile I thought was called “Tallest Men on Earth.”  And I was disappointed to realize I was wrong (never mind that the band is just one guy and so the singular is appropriate), because Tallest Men on Earth just sounds so much more interesting than Tallest Man on Earth.  This to me is the perfect lesson on titles.  When you see something titled “The Tallest Man on Earth,” you know, or at least you assume you know, exactly what it’s about (he’s a Turk named Sultan Kosen, and he’s eight foot three).  But if you see something titled “The Tallest Men on Earth,” that sets a greater mystery—it raises a reader’s curiosity right away.


At the moment, in fiction, nobody is coming up with better titles than  Karen Russell.  Her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, establishes her sense of humor, the stories’ strangeness, and their originality.  But she topped that with her second book, Swamplandia!, a title that I sometimes call out just for the fun of it.  Never have I loved an exclamation point more.  It’s a title that actually gets stuck in my head.  Easy to remember when you’re in the library or the bookstore or recommending things to friends.  And like St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, it sets the reader up for what’s to come—a strange, atmospheric novel set largely in an alligator theme park.

Students often struggle with titles.  They use a lot of clichés.  Or puns.  Or abstractions. They often use words that appear in the very first sentence or line of the piece.  My advice to students is twofold:


1)     You want a title that will draw readers into the poem/story/essay before they read it.

2)     You want a title that helps readers see the poem/story/essay in a new light after they’ve read it.


Titles can raise curiosity and they can satisfy it, helping point readers toward an interpretation of a piece. Of course, there are many, many great books with only ordinary titles, or perfectly ordinary books with great titles… a scan of the books piled right in front of me includes this mixed bag: Game of Thrones (I like it!), Farewell, Escape, Sultana’s Dream,Joseph Anton, Water for Elephants and the for-sure winner, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.  If I judged a book only by its title I certainly wouldn’t be reading Farewell or Escape; given that these are not romance novels, the authors probably didn’t do themselves any favors there.  Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, and the brilliance of the title lies in the realization that Joseph Anton was the false identity Rushdie lived under during the Fatwa.  It’s a book about that other version of himself; the title points to a reading of the book.

For readers, a title is the beginning of the reading experience and it’s the thing that lingers longest in the end…


And one possible fun exercise for the last day of the semester—have students each brainstorm a title for an unwritten piece and then donate that title to another student as a parting gift—a piece to be written later.  It’s a way of getting students to think about titles as their own entity and of encouraging students to keep writing once the semester is done.