Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2015 > September
2015

This post originally appeared on July 22, 2015.

 

When students read and discuss a poem in class, they do not usually expect to analyze the poem’s grammatical construction. But quite often, grammar is the best place to start a close reading. Years ago, I read a fascinating article that changed the way I approach poems with students at all levels. In “Deformance and Interpretation” (originally published in New Literary History), but you can also find it here, Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann advocate for reading methods that can transform how readers engage with and contribute to a poem’s meaning. They suggest that we read poems backwards, from the last line to the first; isolate one part of speech at a time; and alter the layout of the poem in order to understand why the poet has chosen a particular typographical arrangement.

 

In what follows, I’ll focus on how reading for specific parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, can alert students to the preoccupations of the poet. Of course, one could begin class by asking students what each sentence of the poem “means,” and that could yield a great discussion. But if you focus first on parts of speech—especially nouns and verbs, which are the most powerful parts of any phrase or sentence—you’ll find that your most reticent students are able to form opinions on the poem even before they’ve fully analyzed it.

 

For my example, I’ve chosen Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”—certainly his most recognizable and frequently anthologized poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety, with an audio file of Kunitz reading the work. If you play the audio so that students can hear Kunitz’s brilliant, deeply moving delivery, they’ll understand the poem’s narrative right away: the speaker’s father has killed himself; the speaker’s mother cannot forgive him for doing this; and instead of telling her son what happened, she hits him when he tries to learn about who his father was. The poem is an incredible testament to the toll that such a trauma can take on a family.

 

First, ask your students to circle or highlight Kunitz’s nouns. The result should look like this:

 

Even before we’ve read the poem for its narrative, we can see that the poem’s first line features the mother and father; we know that the house plays a large role in the poem, with a focus on the attic (which is in fact the literal attic of the speaker’s childhood) and a reference to a cabinet (which is a metaphor for the mother’s heart); we see that Kunitz is attending to the time of year (spring) and time as a concept; and we can also see that Kunitz is concerned with the body—hand, moustache, eyes, cheek. From this reading of just the nouns, one can already sense that the story of the father’s suicide has deep, lasting effects that are attached to the memories of the house. We can also see that the child who wants to know something about his father learns that knowledge through the body—through the recognition of his father’s face and the slap on his own face that lingers in his mind for decades.

 

Next, ask your students to isolate the poem’s verbs:

 

By isolating the verbs, we can see the gothic terror at the heart of Kunitz’s poem. In this reading, Kunitz’s concern with forgiveness—his mother’s refusal to forgive the father—becomes the poem’s first action and tension. One sees, too, that the verbs are incredibly violent: killing, thumping, ripped, slapped, burning. Of course, there are three agents of action in the poem—mother, father, and son—and each of them performs one or more of these actions. In this reading, the poem is reduced to the physicality of its actions, and is already quite exciting. Kunitz wants this to be a hot poem, one that leaves us feeling singed by that “burning” in the final line. Memory, then, is not a cerebral or abstract entity, but one that is visceral, a mark that stays with us forever.

 

Not every poet will use such verbs of violence and assault; not every poet will use nouns that allude to the time of year or body parts. But that’s precisely the point of the exercise. By charting a poet’s obsessions with language, and with parts of speech specifically, students will be able to think more critically about how and why poets have stylistic differences that are deliberate, unique, and transformative.

This post first appeared on August 10, 2015.

 

Playwriting teachers occasionally encounter students interested in musical theatre writing.  Unfortunately, they may feel that they do not have the skills or time and may, unwittingly, discourage potential authors.  To combat this tendency, I have lately made a concerted effort to nurture students interested in writing musicals.  After all, one could argue that musical theatre is where theatre is healthiest.  Musicals represent a theatrical genre that does not need to justify its existence:  Broadway continues, thanks to the musical, and musical plays sell seats in high school and community theatres across the nation.  We should, therefore, not discourage those who want to write in this form.

 

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to musical theatre writing is that scripts require many separate skills that hardly ever reside in the same person.  They are usually written in teams—book writer (script writer), lyricist, and composer.  Whereas most playwrights would be perfectly happy writing the script—and, possibly, the lyrics—it is unusual that they would have the musical expertise to write all those darned notes.  Musical theatre writing then would best be taught as an interdisciplinary endeavor—music and creative writing—possibly with students taking different roles within the class.  While I believe that such team-taught courses exist in larger universities, I doubt that the average college would have the resources.  What to do then at a smaller school when faced with a musically-inclined student?

 

From a practical point of view, I do a few things.  First, I lay out the realities:  I am not qualified to teach music theory, but can help with words.  I make sure that the student knows that musicals are extremely time-consuming and usually written in teams.  Second, I urge students to become acquainted with musical theatre literature—especially the integrated book musical, as exemplified by Rodgers and Hammerstein, one of the U.S.A.’s most significant contributions to drama.  I also make a few general statements regarding musical numbers.  I discuss basic formatting:  song lyrics are written as verse, with line breaks, and in all caps.  I describe how songs are used in the integrated book musical:  the action of the play does not stop for the song; rather, the song comes at the height of drama.  An old adage states that what cannot be said in words must be said in song; and what cannot be said in song must be said in dance.  Songs, then, are for intense moments—climaxes and decisions.  Last, I suggest that the student have a melody in mind while writing lyrics:  the melody does not have to be good, but it will allow the student a stronger sense of structure as the lines are written.

 

Usually, with just these bits of advice, students can make forays into musical theatre writing.  Later, more advanced students continue in independent studies with me or with faculty from the Music Department.  Most important, though, is acknowledging that budding musical writers should be encouraged, not discouraged.

This blog was originally posted on June 5, 2015.

 

In a blog post titled, “We Need More Crappy Plays,” theatre scholar Scott Walters makes a claim that should be obvious:  healthy theatre requires a healthy dose of new plays.  Walters lauds the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for declaring that it will produce four world premieres as part of its 2015-16 season.  As he wistfully states:  “Imagine if every regional theatre in the country devoted half of its mainstage productions to new works . . . .  What would be the result?  An American Renaissance in the theatre as our stages became [sic] once again to be relevant and vibrant.”  Unfortunately, the field of theatre—especially professional theatre, which often makes conservative choices in the name of increased ticket sales—is not always eager to support new work.

 

As teachers of playwriting, we must realize that we and our students are part of a community of artists.  Whereas writers in other forms—poetry, for example—can imagine that they operate exclusively in a world of writers, playwrights have no such luxury.  Their work depends on a vast network of artists – actors, designers, stage hands, etc. – who are not primarily literary.  Whereas the decision makers for the printed genres (for example, editors of creative writing journals) can be presumed to have a literary background, decision makers for theatre (for example, artistic directors of professional theatres) may have found their way to the profession through any number of fields unrelated to writing.  For this reason, they do not always see playwriting as important.  It is up to us, then, to insist that it is.

 

Scott Walters points out that popular music does not rely on covers of past hits, nor does the motion picture industry confine itself to remakes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that our most vibrant contemporary art forms—popular music, stand-up comedy, video, and, to a lesser degree, movies—are predicated on originality.  Of the arts, only classical music shares theatre’s obsession with re-creating works of the past.  In contrast, visual artists must create afresh, and poetry and fiction become mere book-making without original contributions from today’s writers.  Puzzlingly, theatre is an unwitting oddball in its preference for works of the past.

 

What we have today is a karaoke theatre, where contemporary artists recreate yesterday’s hits.  While karaoke is entertaining, no one thinks of it as high art because it lacks the ability to further the field.  No one looks to karaoke singers to define what art and culture will become.    Regrettably, theatre today is largely karaoke theatre and satisfied to remain that way.  It excludes the contributions of today’s writers; paradoxically, amending this exclusion could be the solution to many of contemporary theatre’s problems.

 

Playwriting teachers must be aware of the issues facing the theatre community and must be prepared to make cases like I have made.  If teachers do not advocate for playwriting, there will be no need for the playwrights that we train.

This post first appeared on May 4, 2015.

 

When I was finishing my PhD in creative writing, my boyfriend was a rhetorician.  He was a bit older, and a professor (not mine). I was very influenced by him. He taught me how to close-read, how to make Stromboli, how to play tennis, and how to interact properly with a cat.  All new to me.  I was enthralled. Except for one thing. Instead of “grading papers” he always said “responding to student work.”

 

As we were both teaching full course loads, we talked about teaching every day, at every meal, and in the evenings on our walks. So, I said “grading” a lot and he said, all the time, “responding,” and it irritated me.  Obviously, by “grading” I meant reading, writing comments, reflecting, and then assigning a grade. His term seemed tedious, and perjorative, and complicating unnecessarily a simple thing. Grading.

 

Ultimately, we became collaborators instead of romantic partners, and ultimately, I stopped using the word “grading.” He’d written many articles and a terrific book on all the different ways teachers comment on student work—and when we began analyzing the comments creative writing teachers make on student work (with everyone’s permission), I slowly but profoundly came to see our collective endeavor as So Much More Than Grading.

 

Response.  The word means answer or reply and I found that when I wrote comments on my students’ writing, I was much more focused on a relational and empathic conversation with them than I was on an evaluation. I spent my comments playing back what they had written, and suggesting places where they could go further, write deeper, say more. I mentioned exactly what I wanted to know more about. I absolutely said what I felt the strengths were and listed the two or three areas they’d want to focus on. In revising that particular piece, yes, but more importantly, what to focus on as a developing writer.  These “assessments” required a lot of discernment and I liked that process, a lot.  It sure wasn’t “grading.” I was in conversation with my students; we were on the page together.

 

So, as I read more deeply into the pedagogical literature on teaching writing and response (Rick Straub, Wendy Bishop, Patrick Bizarro, Andrea Lunsford), and worked on the project analyzing what we say to our students in the creative writing classroom, I gradually changed my language.

 

“Do you have a lot of grading to do?” I’m asked frequently this time of year. Well, no. Kind of. The grading—figuring out which letter grade to assign the students based on how well their work displayed what we set out to learn this semester—isn’t what takes up my time. It’s reading and responding meaningfully to their pages. Maybe the distinction seems picayune. But what used to irritate me has become a profoundly important distinction.

 

In this age of STEM, with rapidly declining enrollments in the Humanities, it’s more important than ever that we articulate what it is we do, why it’s necessary, and exactly how it matters. (I highly recommend Peter Meinke’s article, “Double Major.”)

 

Our students will likely have jobs where giving and receiving responses to work in progress is a crucial part of success. Not grading. In fact, delaying evaluation and judgment in order to learn how to build rapport, work in a group, and think more creatively is essential. At the end of the term, we’re not grading. We’re discerning, with empathy, and I call that response.

This post originally appeared on July 9, 2015.

 

I’ve taught courses online during summer sessions for the past several years.  I find it a challenge, and I’m constantly retooling the courses to make sure that students are getting the most out of the experience — and particularly to make sure that I’m providing enough resources for the students who are in the course, beyond my responses to their exams and their written work.

 

So over the past few years, I’ve been slowly adding features to my online courses.  When I first began to do this, I simply used discussion boards, my personal blog (as opposed to lecturing), and exams with essay questions.  Last year, I began adding short video lectures to my courses — I simply use pre-loaded software on my MacBook to record, and then upload everything to my YouTube channel.  This year, along with those video lectures I added narrated PowerPoints about important literary terms, which were uploaded to my Google Drive and linked to through our Moodle page.  I also had students write daily journal responses (informal), weekly blog posts (a bit more formal), and interpretive papers (most formal of all).  And this summer I finally figured out how to create a timed exam in Moodle.

 

In previous summers, I’ve taught 200-level courses designed for and taken by English majors.  This summer was the first where I’ve taught the introduction to literature course as an online course.  In thinking about how it went, I’ve recognized a few things about the problems of online education, but I’ve also begun to think about how I can incorporate some of these features into my traditional classroom in the coming academic year.

 

First: the downside.  Having all the material online — and having students do the work asynchronously — means that students must be extremely motivated to get everything done, and that includes watching the videos.  While I tried to keep most of the videos brief (fewer than 10 minutes), I admit that some of them went longer than that.  Because I use YouTube to store all the videos, I can also see how often they were viewed, and in some cases, it was rarely or not at all.  This definitely constitutes a problem, particularly for students who are unused to textual analysis of literature.  I realized in reading the journals and blog posts that students were simply not getting some things.  Even though I make it a point to avoid complaining about my students publically (only praising them for their awesome work), I actually reached a point where I complained on Twitter something to the effect of  “Anyone who thinks online education is the way to go has never taught Yeats online.”

 

So, teaching introduction to literature, when the students don’t make use of all the materials available, has the possibility of being disappointing.  Nevertheless the experience of teaching online — and trying out the different tools at my disposal — does give me some ideas about how to more effectively use our Learning Management System during the regular academic year.

 

One thing that I’m considering is moving the exams online, rather than taking up time in the classroom for them.  This would be particularly useful in my survey course (British Literature before 1798), because I typically run an exam after every major time period — and we lose two class days to those.  I could reclaim those days for more readings, or those could be days of workshopping student papers.  It’s a matter of mashing those 1,000 years of literature into 15 weeks.

 

Another thing that might be useful is to create short (5 minute) videos about some of the literature, highlighting the most essential ideas that we’ve covered in class, or talking about things that are essential for students to understand.  For example, when talking about Chaucer, I talk to the students about what Middle English sounds like — but what if I were to have a short video (or audio) linked to the Moodle page so that students could go back to it?  Or what if I were to have narrated PowerPoints talking about important literary or historical terms for that survey course?  While I certainly want students to continue to develop their note taking skills, I’m probably most concerned with making sure they know the material and can use it in the classroom.

 

While I don’t know which of these things I’m going to incorporate into my courses — particularly that survey course — in the fall, I think it’s important to be open to better ways to connect the students with the ideas.  I certainly don’t want the tech to obscure the teaching — but rather I want to let it be a tool towards a better educational experience for my students.

This post first appeared on January 28, 2015.

 

One of the great challenges for many of us is getting students to really engage with the readings. Students may read before class, but don’t annotate. Student may not read at all. And many students don’t necessarily think on their feet about the readings at hand. One of my challenges in the classroom is getting students to go back to the text itself, rather than simply talking in abstract terms about what happened in a story or a play.

 

As a member of my university’s faculty development committee, I’ve found myself in charge of a workshop on this very topic: getting students to engage with the reading. Given that’s it’s time for a new semester, I thought it might be useful to share a list of activities to use in the classroom to help foster thoughtful engagement with the text itself. Some of these are things I’ve written about before, some are ideas from other people that I’ve found helpful.

 

In-class discussion questions

Everyone approaches classroom discussion differently, and every class dynamic requires some different approaches to the way we present the questions to the students.

  • I’m a frequent user of small groups in my classrooms, and I’ve developed a number of ways to get the groups working on ideas. This particular exercise is one that encourages students to consider their own answers — but then to also evaluate the quality of other people’s answers.
  • This semester I tried something new with students who were reluctant to jump into full-class discussions. I projected 4-5 discussion questions (usually culled from the instructor’s manual to the textbook) and gave students the first 5-10 minutes of class to find information that would help answer those questions. I wish I could tell you where I ran across this idea, but it worked wonders with a class that was reluctant to join in discussions.
  • I’ve long used student-generated discussion questions in my upper division classes.
  • This guest post by Ben Bunting has some nice ideas about literature and contexts as discussion openers.

 

Writing as Discussion

Many of my courses are writing intensive courses, so I try to integrate written analysis of the literature into classroom participation.

  • I’ve found success with having students write analytical paragraphs as part of their approach to the texts, which can work in any classroom where analyzing information is central.
  • Barclay Barrios suggests having students write argument haikus about complex informational texts, which could certainly be translated into discussion-openers in a literature classroom. I will be doing this next semester, most assuredly. (Barrios has also suggested a way to do this with Vine.

 

In class reading

Actually having students read in the classroom can be useful, particularly early in the semester when they’re just figuring out how to do the work of the literature classroom.

  • Critical Reading , as exemplified here, is a technique I picked up from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It can be useful when students are approaching a really challenging work. It helps students recognize the need to slow down as they read, and can build confidence in the idea that they can actually do the difficult reading.
  • I also like to have students make use of contexts sections in anthologies.
  • Having students view characters through the eyes of other characters in the text can be a useful way to understand character motivation.

 

Multi-modal approaches

Encouraging students to have fun with the literature, while still looking carefully into the text itself can be a useful way to engage students who are not English majors.

  • I recently had students create comics about Charles Dickens.
  • In teaching “The Things They Carried,” I’ve had students create categories of the items in the book — and I think this is something that could be adapted for a wide variety of stories and poems.
  • Barclay Barrios has written both about drawing the argument (which I’ve adapted as drawing the poem)
  • Joanne Diaz also has her students use the Woodberry Poetry Room to teach students about active listening.

 

I think that all of these are adaptable for different levels and for different texts, which is generally how most of my teaching goes: I see what others are doing, and I adapt it to what works with my particular groups of students. I’m looking forward to another semester of teaching — and I certainly plan to adapt some of these activities in new ways for my classrooms.

This post originally appeared on May 18, 2015.

 

This was the year that I embraced creative projects in my literature courses.  My department chair has been doing them for ages, and he’s been very encouraging.  His only stipulation is that English majors must write a long seminar-style paper at some point in an upper-division course- but we leave the choice of when to write that paper to the students.  Additionally we’ve got lots of non-majors taking our courses, and we want them to see connections across disciplines, so working on something other than pure literary criticism is useful to them. So this year in addition to the traditional term paper, I’ve given students the option to put together creative projects or write papers based on their own majors, using the literature. For example, several psychology majors have described the pathology of characters.

 

In the fall, I had the students put together an exhibition of their work. This spring, I coordinated with my department chair, who taught the other upper-division literature course, to have the students put on a mini conference where students gave brief presentations about their work.

 

Students who take the creative option must still write a researched introduction, but they’re otherwise given free rein to do what they want.  Letting them explore literature in this way not only gives them the opportunity to make connections between the material and their own interests, but also gives them the opportunity to really shine.

 

And shine they did.

 

One student used social media to explore Katherine Mansfield’s stories, another created a board game based on Northanger Abbey; someone created a commonplace book of tips for how to get by in Bath (also based on research about Jane Austen), while another wrote and performed songs based on Wide Sargasso Sea.  Students in both semesters developed thoughtful lesson plans using the works that we read; both semesters, students reworked pieces of literature as film scripts. And the students who opted for traditional papers wrote some incredibly thoughtful and thorough scholarship.

 

Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I don’t know how to teach students to be creative.  This semester in particular, I was reminded that they already are — and that I just need to give them room to be so.

Emily Isaacson

Thinking with Analogies

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 24, 2015

This post first appeared on March 24, 2015.

 

In preparation for our university’s re-accreditation process, my department has been reviewing the goals and objectives for our majors.  One of the things that we want to make sure our literature majors understand is the distinction between the major eras of British and American literature. Our upper division courses are broadly defined — Students in British Literature, Studies in American Literature, Studies in the Novel, and so on — which allows us to break out of the periodization paradigm. However, we run four survey courses that all literature majors,  and most writing majors, take: the standard issue Brit Lit before and after 1798, and American Lit before and after 1860.

 

Thus, our goal is for students at the freshman/sophomore levels to form an idea of what constitutes each major era of literature — in their junior and senior year, they may engage in a more intensive study of a single time period (I’ve taught early modern drama) or a study of a theme across time (in the fall, we’re exploring concepts of trauma and disability through an examination of monsters and monstrosity in British Literature).

 

But how to get students to remember the differences between the eras in order to help them gain a sense of literary history?  At this point, my own understanding of literary history is intuitive — and sometimes I forget that it’s not as obvious to students why Tennyson is a Victorian or why Swift is clearly a product of the eighteenth century.  I may lecture at the beginning of each new era on what the essential components and hallmarks are (and I’ve written previously about using fashion as a way into each era), but that doesn’t mean students are putting the pieces together as we read through the literature.

 

To deal with this, I tried something new when finishing up my last survey course.  To help students review for the final exam and to help them get a sense of the shifts from Romanticism to Victorianism to Modernism/Postmodernism, I decided to have them work out analogies from pop culture to explain the differences.  My example was from Friends: Phoebe is Romanticism, Monica is Victorianism, and Ross, with all his overwhelming anxieties about the world, is Modernism.  And then I set students to the task of coming up with their own analogies and explanations of their choices.

 

When students shared their ideas, we had a range of things — Twilight, zombies, superheroes — that made sense to them, and looking over the comprehensive essays on their final exams, I think that the exercise helped students delineate the time periods.  I plan to try this again in the fall with the pre-1798 course, and I’m looking forward to whatever weird analogies my students determine.

This post originally appeared on March 10, 2015.

 

About four weeks into the semester, I write these words on the board, inside a pyramid:

 

Proofing and Grammar

Editing

Revision

 

Then, I explain the pyramid to my students, but in a very careful way.

 

I learned a lot about how to teach from being a step-parent and in the classroom, as on the step-homefront, I don’t tell them what to do, I share what I do. I teach from the side. I even act slightly puzzled, just slightly disinterested—probably this wouldn’t work for you slides my tone. Nothing to see here. But I’m also very engaged—with my own process: I act like I’m sharing a secret, too—step inside my studio, if you want to. I don’t let everyone in. This is not the standard curriculum. This is a writing class. We are co-alchemists and my job as teacher is to be sly and stealthy.

 

Here’s what I want to get across to my students in my revision lesson sneak attack. Revision is writing.  But I don’t want to say that sentence. Not ever. Because I have a feeling this sentence makes little sense to a new writer, a young writer, a college student/writer. “Revision is writing” certainly made no sense to me as a student: it sounded to my nineteen year old ears as something teachers say to sound teachery when they are trying to make something boring and time-wasting sound helpful, like broccoli. But the truth is every single working writer I know creates a draft, a piece, and then she begins to work. And it’s the act of “revision”—re-seeing—on which we spend most of our time as writers.  I don’t think students are lazy; I really believe they want to improve as writers. I think students simply don’t know how to spend the time on a piece of writing. They don’t know what to sit down and do for hours, all the hours it takes to craft something potentially substantial and significant.

 

So, I show them exactly what I do.

 

I draw the pyramid. I tell the truth: about 80% of my time is spent doing what I call re-seeing the piece.  After I writing out the images and scenes, I read the piece aloud and see what I have. I read to stabilize the narrative in place and time, layer in the dialogue, and clarify confusion. I print, read the piece it aloud again, and adjust, cutting and adding, sharpening and tuning, over and over. I will do this for as long as I have time (depending on the deadline). For a poem to take to my writing group, I will do ten or twenty rounds of this seeing and re-seeing on the page, in the course of a week. I read the work aloud to my writing partner, aloud to myself, aloud to a close friend who happens to be an editor, catching, each time, parts that aren’t clear, parts I need to see more fully.

 

Editing—making the sentences more artful, fact-checking, formatting, etc., takes about 15% perfect of my writing time for any given piece and proofreading for typos, spell checking and grammar checking—5%.

 

When I gave this lesson last week in my introductory poetry class, Aaron sat up, took his feet off his skateboard-cum-footstool, and he said, “This is the most helpful thing so far.”   “Like ever.” Natalie took a cell phone photograph of the board, and several others followed suit. Yuni got out a Hello Kitty notebook for the first time this semester, and drew the pyramid, which now had the percentages written by it and she said, “Could you say this one more time?”

 

“Why does no one tell us these things?” Danica said.

 

“Do other people do this?” Chantelle asked, holding her hand in the air as she spoke.

 

I nodded solemnly. My friends who are writers, they do this. We have talked about it, I say. And I make sure to always say each one of us has to find the way that works best, our own way. It’s very individual.

 

Then, I pull out from a folder one of my poems in progress—a thick packet of pages. I  make it seem like I just happen to have this with me. I say I don’t usually share my work in progress or talk about my process with my students. In this case, I pulled out a poem about meeting my 80 year old aunt in St. Augustine, very near the Fountain of Youth, as it happened.  I held up the first draft, which was written on the inside cover of an issue of Poetry while I was in the car. I hold up the printed out typed versions with all my many notations, all my re-seeing. I show them the drawing I did after struggling to get the opening of this poem clear, a quick sketch of the fountain at Columbia House with my aunt and her partner and my friend and his hat. Then I show them the copies my writing partners have written on, and I hold up the printouts of the emails I got back with notes on various versions of the from Dylan, Elaine, Norman, and Stephanie. Elaine’s—with track changes and many, many more words of commentary than are in the poem—draws a gasp.

 

“How freaking long does this take?” Joe asks. I’m dying for Joe to spend more than five minutes on anything, ever. I look him dead in the eye and say “The whole thing? From start to finish?” I hold all the pages in my palms as though I’m weighing time itself. Long dramatic pause. “Probably 25 hours?”

 

“For one poem?” Ken says. “Shit.”

 

I nod.

 

“Shit,” Coral says. “I need to spend more time.”

 

“I’m editing,” Danica says. “I thought I was a great reviser. I’m editing.”

 

“You’re a great editor.”

 

I don’t ask the students to track their time or do anything with the revision pyramid. Most semesters they ask about it again, later in the course. I see their work improve, week by week. I think learning how to spend more time on a piece of writing takes time.  For my introductory courses, presenting the pyramid and a cold hard sausage-being-made look into one writer’s folder of drafts is enough.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Form vs Formula

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 23, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 6, 2015.

 

This semester I’m teaching a graduate workshop called Forms of Prose.  If you are a nonfiction writer, this suggests things like the lyric essay, narrative journalism, and the personal essay.  If you’re a fiction writer, it probably suggests only short story vs novel. But I am teaching the class as an examination of any of the implied or stated rules imposed on a work of prose.  Some might be arbitrary rules about rhythm, rhyme and repetition (as in much formal poetry), and others might be the unspoken rules of reader expectations.  For example, we will look at how the workshop story bemoaned by the world at large (or just the anti-MFAers) might actually be a consequence of an abuse of form.  That when form is poorly executed it becomes formula.

 

By way of example, let’s take the fad of six word stories and essays.  I’m generally not a fan. Especially not of the possibly apocryphal Hemingway version: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”  Supposedly Hemingway said this is all the story you need to tell.  But I suspect one of my finest teaching moments may have been when I said to a totally-disturbed class: that story is only interesting if that baby has no feet.

 

Listen, I get it.  It’s heartbreaking; that story can make me cry, because anything suggesting the mortality of babies can make me cry.  But a reliance on abstract emotional manipulation is not the same thing as great storytelling.  Which is not to say a six word story couldn’t be great.  Because herein lies the difference between form and formula.  Form forces a writer to rise above restrictions to reach originality; formula allows a writer to rely on restrictions to be relieved of the burden of originality.  Formula works on some readers, of course (including me: hello, Sophie Kinsella, I love you), but it isn’t what anybody enters an MFA program aspiring to, so my class is going to set all kinds of rules, just to show how well writers can surprise readers when we follow them.

This blog was originally posted on December 9, 2014.

 

With two weeks left in the semester, my students are busy revising creative nonfiction essays for inclusion in their final portfolios.  I admit, this is a very relaxing time for me.  While many of my colleagues are frantically grading papers and writing exams, I’m showing up to school to listen to students give presentations on their favorite authors and to answer questions during office hours.  I’m thinking about getting a hammock for the office, actually.

 

Of course, portfolios will come in and the days leading up to Christmas will be filled with frantic grading.  But I’m enjoying the peace right now, and am reflecting on all of the good work I have read from my students this semester.

 

Back in August, the students entered the classroom for the first time unsure of what to expect.  Everyone knows what fiction and poetry is, but the idea of a “creative nonfiction” workshop is foreign to most of them.  Some of these students are in my class because someone recommended me to them.  Others are majors who need the course in order to move on to more advanced classes.  Others just need to get an arts elective out of the way.  Most, though, aren’t taking the class because they already have a deep and abiding love for the essay or literary journalism.

 

I hope that, over the course of the year, they have grown to love these forms.  Not just because I love these forms myself, but because I have seen this group of students come together and understand each other better as a result of sharing their own personal narratives.  These 18 and 19 year olds began the semester a little nervous, sometimes reluctant to allow themselves to be too exposed in their writing.  But at this point, I think that we have all become friends—or, if not friends, then very supportive colleagues.  We have shared family secrets, discussed our private anxieties, and revealed truths that we usually keep hidden when we’re in the dorms, at the bar, or in a department meeting.  We’ve established a sense of trust with each other, even though—or, perhaps, because?—we didn’t know each other 14 weeks ago.

 

Some of these students will go on to study English and creative writing.  Some will go on to publish their work.  Most will not.  But I hope that these students will look back on the experience of taking this class fondly, and I hope they feel like they learned useful things during our time together.  Of course, if they find that they’re able to express themselves through writing more effectively, that’s great.  But more importantly, I hope that, through reading and writing creative nonfiction, they’ve come to understand that they’re not alone in the universe.  I hope they realize that their friends, their classmates, and even their professors struggle with private stresses and anxieties.  I hope they have learned that, sometimes, we all feel isolated, or freakish, or terrified.  And I hope that they’re able to take this knowledge with them after they leave my classroom, better equipped to try to understand someone else’s point-of-view.  This, I think, is the most important reason to study creative nonfiction.

This post first appeared on January 13, 2015.

 

 

This year, in teaching my Shakespeare course, I used the 450th birthday as an excuse to get students to bring Shakespeare awareness to campus. To that end, I created an assignment that I called “Pop-up Shakespeare,” which I described like this:

 

You will be developing some sort of experience for your fellow Heidelberg students, whether it’s through chalking Shakespearean sonnets onto the sidewalks, developing a Shakespeare film festival, performing flash mob scenes, or creating a Shakespeare-related volunteer project (just to suggest some ideas). For this assignment you can work with a group or alone. You must document the event through pictures; you will also write a brief analysis of your work, explaining why you chose to do what you did.

 

The object of the assignment was to encourage students to have some fun with Shakespeare and to exercise some creativity in doing so. It was ultimately a small part of the final grade, but I wanted something that would make Shakespeare just a bit less intimidating and would make literature a bit more visible on campus.

 

The results were fun — and I heard from a number of colleagues in other departments how much they were enjoying the different things that students were posting around campus. We had some sidewalk chalk, we had a movie night in one of the residence halls, and mostly we had a lot of great signs.

This post originally appeared on December 23, 2014.

 

Recently, a colleague in the social sciences asked me how I was getting my students to put together creative presentations for class.

 

My first response? I genuinely don’t know. Not all of my students do things that are out of the ordinary, but sometimes they really do put together presentations that challenge themselves and challenge conventional ways of presenting interpretations of literature.  The best examples from this semester were in my post-1798 survey of British Literature course.  One group, after presenting a bit of background on the work of Lewis Carroll, acted out “The Jabberwocky.”  Another group turned the epistolary juvenalia of Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan” into a play, based on everyone texting each other and using hashtags to indicate themes.

 

Not everyone, of course, does such things. I had plenty of student presentations that stuck to a fairly standard formula of background information, overview of the text, then interpretation of the text. These are fine. They do the work of the assignment.  And for the most part, even though they weren’t quite as exciting as watching a student use a toy lightsaber as the vorpal sword to slay the jabberwocky, they made good use of visual aids and were thoughtful in their commentary. (I suppose it helps that I have a list of pretty specific expectations for what not to do with PowerPoint — most importantly, I insist that students cannot just read from the slides.)

 

But to get back to that question: How do I get students to be creative? How do I get them, ultimately, to have fun with what they’re doing?

 

I don’t have a complete answer for those questions, but I think that there are some ways that we can foster creativity in our classrooms and encourage our students to not take themselves too seriously, even as we take the study of literature (or any subject, really) seriously.

 

The first is that I do not take myself particularly seriously, even though I consider literary analysis to be serious work. Some of this has to do with teaching students about audience — and making sure that students begin to recognize the difference between the (relatively) casual conversation about the text in the classroom and the more formal analysis of the text in their written work.

 

But it really isn’t about me.  It’s really about getting students to engage with the texts in front of them, and getting them to work on the texts in a variety of ways. I’ve written before about my own adherence to multimodal methods in the classroom, and I think that this helps foster that creativity.  We draw things in my classroom.  We write group paragraphs that analyze quotations in class. We use analogies to explain major concepts. We do dramatic readings of the literature. Most importantly, and what takes up a lot of my prep time, is the fact that I try to only use each technique once or twice — so whenever we’re doing some sort of group work, it’s different from the  activity that we’ve done before. This is especially true in my 100- and 200-level literature courses, where I’m trying to teach students about the many different ways that we can talk and think about literature.

 

It does, unfortunately, take time to foster this creativity — many of my most creative projects this semester came from students who have taken multiple classes with me, and so know that my classroom is a fairly safe space to try something new and weird. The study of literature is all about ambiguity and the many ways that we can consider a work — and once students become comfortable with that idea, their creativity can really shine through.

Heather Sellers

Grading Vows

Posted by Heather Sellers Expert Sep 21, 2015

This blog was originally posted on November 25, 2014.

 

I have many writing students, and I assign each one of them writing—a lot of writing, both critical and creative pieces—for each class. So, I read a lot of student work.  And this time of the semester all my vows are tested. My vow to keep my daily writing practice going. My vow to sleep and eat well and exercise daily—that’s pretty much over now that it’s late November. My vow to be present for my students, to be a good colleague. My vow to live a life centered around kindness, awareness, and meaning.

 

I have three strategies—which may or may not work for you—to keep from feeling overly stressed about reading so much student work, especially towards the end of the term, when getting behind, getting off track with other projects and neglecting the fun and fulfilling parts of life is most likely.

 

Strategy 1

 

I read 1/3 of the papers that come in the day they come in.  I stay in my office after each class period and spend at least an hour reading for each class. I get home late, but I get home free. I don’t carry student work around with me. I feel like a pile of student writing, left untended, mushrooms into something larger. [Full disclosure: I am teaching creative writing. I feel very, very lucky to have the job I have. I get to choose the assignments, their length, and schedule the due dates. Most people aren’t in that position, so I want to be careful here.  However, I taught comp for many, many years and always I try to associate, deeply, reading student work with pleasurable things.] I read in my office, and I have made that space beautiful by making sure I always have in my space

 

  1. Fresh flowers
  2. A diffuser spewing lavender oil molecules into the air
  3. Soft light
  4. Soft music.
  5. Access to hot tea.

 

Strategy 2

 

I schedule, in my calendar, blocks of time for doing the rest of the reading and then I don’t talk about grading papers before, during, or after those scheduled blocks of time. Ever. Not one word. Not ever. I simply refuse to talk about this part of my life.  I talk about what my students are up to that’s surprising to me. I talk about what we are reading in class, and what I am learning as a writer from the readings, or from my students. If I talk about grading, I feel like I’m complaining and then I also feel like I am spending time in a negative place—like I’m stretching out the task to be a huge part of my life.  It’s time consuming, and important, but it’s not the center of my life. I like to hear other people’s creative strategies for improving teaching so I try to steer conversations about the tedious parts of teaching toward interesting elements, creative solutions, and, hopefully, humor.

 

Strategy 3

 

I made friends outside of academia and I hang out with them during my social time. People outside of academia have great strategies for managing workload, increasing efficiency, and approaching the parts of the job that are most challenging and I love to listen to how they talk about work. They are so not interested in my grading woes that, once again, I’m not spending my time in that slough.  I learned a different way of relating to work conversations by listening to those in other fields and it gave me a fresh perspective that I really needed.

 

At first, when I made my vow to not talk about grading papers, I felt a little weird and lonely. I worried my colleagues would think I was lazy or unfocused. When there’d be a gripe session in the halls  and I didn’t join in, at first I felt like I wasn’t really being part of the team.

 

It seems like it would be super annoying to enter the conversation, rubrics in hand, smiling, papers all graded and scores neatly entered in the gradebook.  So, I restrain myself.  But if you want to talk about teaching, and response strategies to creative writing, and what we’re learning from researchers about what happens in peer response groups, my door is open. Please come in. Even during this busy time of year, I’d love to talk!

 

My office is pretty. I did yoga this morning.  End of the semester, and hanging in!  Do come by.

This post first appeared on December 2, 2014.

 

 

I’ve been a slow adopter of using Google Drive, despite many years of having Google-supported email at the different universities where I’ve worked.

 

But in my late adoption of it, I’ve come to realize how useful it can be in the classroom, particularly when it comes to facilitating a lot of the work that I do to create a student-centered discussion.

I realized over the summer that I could use Google Drive for a couple of things. The first was to create journal templates for my students in my 100- and 200-level courses.  In those courses, my students keep daily reading journals — and by having students write in a journal that I can see, I can immediately tell who is doing the work. More importantly, I can draw ideas into the classroom that students write about in their journals. It took some work to set everything up (I created a template, then made copies for all of the students), but it’s been a useful way to keep an eye on what interests the students in what they read.

 

My other major use of Google Drive is to create what are essentially collaborative documents of discussion questions.  I did this initially because I’ve got an assignment that’s always been a bit clunky for me in terms of organization. In my 300- and 400-level courses, I’ve always taught students how to write open-ended discussion questions, and then I’ve had them submit questions daily (in lieu of a quiz).  We use those questions in class to guide our conversation.

 

Previously, I’ve tried having the students just hand the questions to me in class (which really made me work on the fly) or email me either the night before or the hour before class.  With the email, I wound up spend a lot of time collating the work, which also meant the potential for missing some of the questions in the overflowing email inbox.  As I was preparing for my courses over the summer, I remembered an admonition from my student teaching days — if you can let the students do the work for you, have them do the work for you.  Thus, for this, I’ve got the students in my upper division courses writing and collating their discussion questions in Google docs. Here, I simply created forms for each day of class — titled with the name of the text we’re reading and the assigned chapters of acts — and shared an entire folder with the class.  Students submit questions until 30 minutes before class — then I print the entire thing off and use it as we work through the literature. I’ve found that students’ questions are less repetitive when they see what’s been asked before — and I’m even noticing that students will sometimes reference other students’ questions in their own (in which case, I know we have to discuss a certain topic).

 

I went into the semester thinking that this would be all we use shared documents for.

 

Then I decided that the students in my novels course really needed to take a careful look at the chronology of events in Dracula.  I realized that this was not something we could really just do on the blackboard. We’ve been doing chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of plots at the beginning of class, but there are simply too many days and too many different narrators in Dracula for that to be effective.

 

So I created a shared document that simply lists all of the dates in Dracula when a character writes in a diary, sends a letter, or receives a message from a solicitor’s office. On the first day of class, I shared it with all of the students in the class, projected it from the overhead, and set students to the task of sorting things out.  Students worked in groups of two or three, huddled (admittedly) around their phones, laptops, tablets, and the classroom computer, adding to the chronology together.

 

Screen Grab of Google Doc.jpg

Once we spend the first chunk of class doing that, we take a look at the story in order — and it’s really helped the students find the details of Dracula’s movements (“Oh, wait! That’s what the dog on the ship was!” “Oh, that’s why there was the detail about the escaped wolf!”).  I also color code the document, according to the different characters narrating (i.e. John Seward’s diary is in green, Mina Murray/Harker’s journal is in purple), which allows us to see how the narrative bounces from one character to another, and how the characters themselves have to piece information together over time.

 

In doing this we’ve been able to have an effective discussion of the structure of the novel, which has shown the students that they can, indeed, break down the narrative into its parts and look inside the inner workings of the novel.

This blog was originally posted on November 4, 2014.

 

It had long been my contention that playwriting is more practical than screenwriting because it leads more directly to a finished product.  In other words, whereas an ambitious playwright could organize his or her friends and stage a piece on a weekend, the screenwriter was dependent on the whims of Hollywood producers to obtain the resources to get their films made.  This assessment of practicality, though, seems to apply less and less to today’s world in which there are so many opportunities through the internet.  If a screenwriter uses the production and distribution means available through the web—for example, if a writer creates scripts for short Youtube films—then screenwriting can be every bit as practical as playwriting.

 

Besides screenwriting, the internet has enhanced the practicality of another field—radio drama.  The format, which dwindled in the U.S. with the rise of television, is now reemerging under the aegis of podcasting and audiobooks.  Teachers of dramatic writing are wise to embrace audio theatre for the following reasons:

 

  1. It stands to become more and more important in our Internet Age.
  2. It provides easy production opportunities for emerging writers—requiring no sets, costumes, or even line memorization, as required by film and the stage.
  3. Digital recordings, the product of audio theatre endeavors, are easy to disseminate to a wide audience.

 

My university, Arkansas Tech, has been leading the way in audio theatre ventures for seven years now.  Through an organization called the Arkansas Radio Theatre, we have created more than forty broadcasts which play on the local radio station, are made available to the visually impaired throughout the state, and are available on-line  (click Public, then Radio Theatre).  The Arkansas Radio Theatre is dedicated to new plays and adaptations of classic literature.  An audio theatre company like the Arkansas Radio Theatre is easy to establish because free recording software is easily available.  An interested instructor simply needs some microphones in order to record voices.  Apart from that, an audio theatre company simply requires a means for broadcast—or some server space, which is readily available at most universities.

 

However, just because a production opportunity exists, that does not mean that student writers are prepared to take advantage of it.  Because audio theatre is a unique form, writers must be trained with relevant coursework.  In order to build the Radio Theatre into the curricular structures of my university, I am teaching (in Fall 2014) an upper-division topics course focusing on Radio Theatre Writing.  Some of the assignments explore audio theatre as a genre:  for example, listening to broadcasts from the Golden Age of Radio and comparing them to the audio drama available today.  Students will eventually work toward hour-long original scripts.  Hopefully, the insights learned in teaching this class will help others who attempt to engage in audio theatre projects.  I will report on the progress of the course in later posts.

Emily Isaacson

Making Comics

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 18, 2015

I’m a big fan of multi-modal approaches to reading comprehension — I’ve written before about having students draw a poem, and I’ve adapted Barclay Barrios’s idea about IKEA directions for my freshman orientation group. Most recently, I borrowed an idea from my colleague — a Germanist who teaches a course on fairy tales — for my day on Charles Dickens in my survey course: create a comic highlighting the main points of the story.

 

On this particular day, my students read “The Story of Little Dombey” and “Sikes and Nancy,” which are Dickens’ own adaptations of his work for his public speaking tour — essentially, they are selections from two novels that he performed for his audience, giving only the central parts of these two particular episodes.

 

So, to prep my students, I showed them a few examples from Hark, a vagrant. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the artist takes literature and history as a subject matter for 6 or 9 paneled comics.  They’re funny, they’re spot on, and they can show students how it’s important — even in making jokes — that we have something to hang on to from the literature. (My favorite is “Dude Watching With the Brontes”.)  For me it established a tone for the class — we’re serious here in our study of literature, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is supposed to be fun — but reflective of the text in front of us.

 

From here, I provided groups of three a sheet with six panels on it, and had students select one of the two stories. The directions from this point on were to pick the 6 most important moments, and illustrate them as best as they could. This work got students talking about the plots, and particularly identifying the plots that didn’t quite work out of the context of their respective novels. But they also talked a great deal about the central themes of the stories.

 

What the students came up with was amazing. In general, students approached the topic differently. We had lol-speak. We had serious attempts at illustrating the important moments. We had references to contemporary pop-culture — and one group even explained that the last moment of “Sikes and Nancy” would be saved for the post-credit sequence.

 

After students worked on their comics, I had the groups explain their choices, which allowed us to look at what they saw as not only central moments in the stories, but also the themes of the stories. What was remarkable about the effort was that students gravitated towards similar moments in the two stories. For example, the groups that chose “Little Dombey” all focused on the little boy’s complaint that money (his father’s highest concern) could not bring back his dead mother.

 

Student Cartoon Panel

In all, the students were able to sort out the plot, the characters, the themes without my intervention — and that goal is certainly a huge part of working on their ability to read literature.

Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale.  At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet).  The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc.  For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale.  I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again.  And could they please forget the Originality Scale.

 

Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale.  The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.

I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough.  But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it.  To be conscious of it.

 

Originality matters.

 

So how can we teach it?

 

For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar.  And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing.  Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own.  And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.

 

Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!).  And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect.  Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird.  What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see.  But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.

 

During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).

And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.

 

The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great.  And sometimes students just need to know that.

Emily Isaacson

Performing as Professor

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 14, 2015

This post originally appeared on October 7, 2014.

 

When I talk to my students about writing papers, I discuss the idea of audience — most often, we discuss how things are different when speaking to our friends at another college about our weekend and speaking to our parents about it. From there I have the students think about what they’d tell the Dean of Students. That’s the one that typically gets students thinking about what they’d leave out of a discussion, and the different tone that they’d likely use.

 

What we’re really talking about, ultimately, is the aspect of performance for our audience. And that performative aspect is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my presence in the classroom: I perform differently on Twitter than I do in person; I perform differently around my friends than I do in the classroom; in fact, I perform differently in front of my colleagues than I do in front of my students.

 

This is not to say that the shifts in my personality are huge — the same basic “me” is there — but rather that I’ve recently become very conscious of that performance aspect of my teaching. In the classroom, my goal is to be approachable, but authoritative. I want my classroom to be a fairly laid-back space, where students are comfortable grappling with the complexities of the texts in front of them. I also want them to have fun with the literature, and this is where I’m most conscious of the way that I become performative — and, in fact, have become so increasingly over my years of experience.

 

What I’ve noticed in teaching over the past several years is that I’ve become much more conscious of the space that I take up in the classroom — particularly the way that I take up that space.  I’ve always been one to pace across the front of the room, or even move into the rows of students.  While this has the potential drawback of being distracting for some students, I also think it’s important for keeping students engaged and showing that I’m paying attention to them.

 

But that’s not quite what I’m talking about either.

 

What I’m really talking about is becoming, in some ways, much bigger, more physically expressive than I normally am in day-to-day conversation.

 

Perhaps the easiest way for me to explain this is to talk about what happens when I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Students — particularly Intro to Lit students — don’t always quite visualize how very terrifying it is when the narrator is creeping about the smooch above the mopboard in that final section. What’s particularly frightening in that scene is when she looks over her shoulder at John and he faints. It always strikes me as a little bit like some scenes from The Grudge (a movie I’ve only seen trailers for, by the way), but I think that even just suggesting that to the students doesn’t quite do it. So, I show them where the mopboard would be, then I lean over — almost getting down on the ground — and begin creeping, turning my head abruptly back in to explain how terrifying this might be.

 

It’s very physical, and it’s something that I find that I do more and more as I teach. The performance usually doesn’t wind up being quite this undignified (it is probably a sight when I’m wearing high heels and doing this), but as I continue to teach I’ve found much more hand waving, much more exaggerated movement on my part. It’s not really the sage on the stage — most of the courses I teach are almost entirely discussion-driven — but it is an acknowledgement that we’re onstage when we’re teaching, no matter what.

This post originally appeared on September 23, 2014.

 

Tomorrow is the first day of the new semester.

 

My syllabi are printed on bright shiny goldenrod paper. Stapled. Neatly stacked. Books are by the door, and my water bottle, glasses, glasses lanyard, and power bars are in my satchel.  My nerves are jangly, in a good way. I’ve got new periwinkle blue notebooks for my classes. I’ve examined the rosters, and am happy to see names that are familiar to me. Qaadir. Renee. Sarah D.

 

Faces pop up now in our online course management tool but their faces will never be familiar: I suffer from profound prosopagnosia or face blindness.  And I’ll open class with that news, asking my students to help me identify them each time we encounter each other.

 

The first time I did this in front of a class of puzzled undergraduates, years ago, I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through my spiel.  But I saw the looks on the students’ faces that day: awe, curiosity, kindness, compassion.  I was stunned.  They leaned in—literally. Before leaning in was a metaphor, they physically leaned in, and peppered me with questions for 45 minutes. It was one of the most moving, meaningful hours I spent in a classroom.

 

And I quickly learned how to boundary that conversation so the first hour wasn’t “Heather’s Medical Mystery Hour.”  But I start every single class with this request: will you help me? And they do. I allow ten minutes for questions (what do you see? can you recognize your own face? how will you know if someone slips in and takes our place?) (what you see, no, and I won’t.)  And then it’s their turn to tell me who they are.

 

I’ve found that this necessary but deeply personal intimate disclosure on my part engenders an authenticity in our introductory conversation.  I always hated those dry, canned “Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, what you are majoring in” openers. I hated them because they’re all surface and no news, no depth. And, worse, students unconsciously match their answers to fit what’s come before. It’s an exercise in conformity, not creativity.  Since I’m teaching creative writing, and asking my students to learn how to go in deep to find valuable, complex, interesting stories to tell, I want to set up a first-day introductory activity that pre-figures the work we will do during the course of the semester.  I don’t want un-boundaried self-disclosure—“tell us something no one knows about you.” That may or may not be the best route to a good introduction or a good piece of writing.

 

Tomorrow I’m going to try a new prompt for the introductions.  Tell us your name, what you want to be called, and what you are fired up about.  I got the prompt from a friend’s luncheon this past summer; she got it from a life coach who runs “Women on Fire.” I will have them write down their response so they have a better shot at staying true to their own internal wisdom.

 

I will use the introduction process as a way to launch my first lecture: how to engage the reader.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Meanwhile, I ‘d love to hear how you structure introductions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and why.

This blog was originally posted on September 2, 2014.

 

Recently, I got into a conversation on Twitter with a number of other early modernists about survey courses, a discussion that stemmed from another English professor’s frustration with her anthology’s options for The Faerie Queene. While we discussed different anthology choices that we make for our surveys, we ultimately wound up in conversation about what we include in our British Literature surveys, and what we’re forced to leave out. Some of it simply has to do with what our anthologies give us; some of it has to do with our philosophy towards the course; and a lot of it has to do with the other options our departments provide for our students.

 

My friend with the initial complaint admitted that she tends not to teach much Chaucer in the survey, because she’s at an institution with a great course on Chaucer — and as an early modernist rather than a medievalist, she feels she can’t do The Canterbury Tales the justice it deserves. Instead she teaches other Middle English texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes excerpts of Piers Plowman.  Other people in the conversation admitted to leaving out The Faerie Queene altogether, giving them more time to focus on 17th century works. And others admitted — like most of us — that one of the eras covered by our surveys always gets short shrift. For many of us, it winds up being late 18th century work.

 

What I found most interesting was the conversation about how people chose the texts that they did, with many opting for relatively thematic courses (focusing, for example, on gender or the construction of the English national identity or on a particular literary pattern). Others — myself included — tend towards a more traditional style of survey course, which means trying to teach students a sense of literary history through the survey.

 

I’m in an odd position in that I teach both parts of the British Literature survey.  While different schools divide the course differently, I’ve generally taught in places that use 1798 as the dividing line — so I run into the problem of trying to teach everything pre-1798 in 15 weeks, then everything post-1798 in the next 15.  Oddly (or not) it’s really difficult to pick literature for both of them. Because of my department’s size, I’m also the only person currently in the department to teach all of the British Literature courses (we simply run a course called “Studies in British Literature,” which I will develop each time to cover a different era or topic; I’m also making my “Studies in the Novel” course a British novels course). So basically: I’m responsible for making sure my students have some sense of British Literature from Old English up to contemporary works.

 

This feels like a lot of pressure some days and my instinct is to look at lesser known writers, to focus on interesting issues of labor and gender through the time periods. But I also feel a responsibility to introduce my students to the traditionally canonical authors. I’m grateful that most anthologies include a wide variety of materials to work with — and I particularly like anthologies that include sections giving context, whether it’s the context of poetic traditions in the 16th century or the context of the laboring classes in the 19th century. Still it’s a tough balancing act, particularly given the span of time and the number of authors I always feel like we ought to be covering.

 

For me, I think that it boils down to the idea that these are called “surveys” rather than “studies in.” The purpose behind this really is to give the overview of how the literary landscape is shaped.  And the choices that I make are certainly informed by that.

 

But those choices — and my choice to include a lot of cultural context as well as less canonical authors — is also related to this idea of surveying everything. Alexander Pope (who I teach, most certainly) may have had major influence over the formation of the canon, but I cannot teach him without acknowledging — and having my students read — Mary Wortley Montagu’s work as well. They’re both part of the same landscape.

 

As I prepared my list of readings for my post-1798 class for the fall, I was reminded of how much I rely on poetry to get me through these courses. We can read multiple authors on these occasions, if the goal is primarily one of exposure to the names and the major movements.  It does lead to some weird mash-up days (we’re reading Derek Wolcott and Seamus Heaney on the same day), but it also allows for students to get a sense of the entire field. For additional coverage, I have students give presentations on texts we’re not reading in class, but which are represented in the textbook — and the explicit goal there is simply to have the exposure to the names.

 

Perhaps, most importantly, my course outcomes — beyond the sort of standard language about exposure to major figures of major movements — focus on the idea of students being able to articulate the relationship between the author, the text, and the world. I especially want them to do this through working on close reading and analysis.  And perhaps that is why, when it comes down to the moment of guilt about not including this author or that text, I am able to assuage some of my concern.  The real goal, then, is to teach students about the way we can read the work. Once they’re capable of that, they can go out and explore beyond our courses on their own.

Samuel Cohen

It Says Here

Posted by Samuel Cohen Expert Sep 14, 2015

This post originally appeared on September 11, 2014.

 

The world these days is full of competing stories. I can’t turn on my computer without being inundated by them (unless I don’t look at any social media, but then what’s a computer for? Writing?). Everything that is happening, it seems, is represented by not one but at least two differing narratives. The recent retraction of a hiring offer at a major Midwestern university over a controversial Twitter feed is either an affront to faculty governance and intellectual freedom or it is a reasonable decision based on the evidence. Relatedly, (since this is what the tweets were about), recent events in Gaza are reason to condemn the Israeli government for war crimes or are reason to support it in defending itself. Unrelatedly, publicly airing a video of a football player assaulting his then-girlfriend, now-wife, in an elevator was the right move as it led to his suspension from professional football or it was a violation of the couple’s privacy.

 

I bring these examples up not to talk about them in themselves but to make the point that the controversies over these events can be seen not as made up entirely of logical argument (or, for that matter, unreflecting passion), but as consisting largely of competing narratives. That is, the positions people hold on these things may come from aspects of their identities—national origin, gender, some kind of identification with a relevant group—but even if they do, they are informed and supported by a story. The stories may be about the past that led to the current state of affairs or about assumptions regarding human nature or the nature of the relationship between states and citizens or employers and employees.

 

I’m thinking today about the importance of stories to the way we see the world (not a new insight, I know) in part because the anniversary of 9/11 is two days from the moment I am writing this. In this morning’s online reading I saw an article about still-classified portions of documents pertaining to the events of that day, documents that might or might not change our understanding of what happened. One congressman is quoted as saying these pages “tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report.” The 9/11 Report is the official account of what happened, but it is one story among many, and it is a story informed by other stories about American history, global history, and the nature of armed conflict, just as competing accounts are informed by other, larger stories and smaller personal ones.

 

This got me thinking about other stories we tell ourselves about those events, stories that are as much about ourselves as anything else. A scheduled event on my campus, an email from my chancellor informs me, will celebrate “Patriot Day,” the term some are using for the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a wealth of narrative behind that labeling choice.

 

I am also thinking about stories now because I am always thinking about stories. It is one of the chief job hazards of teaching and studying fiction. This job has taught me to see narrative everywhere. As Hayden White has argued even history, which at first glance seems about the facts of past events, is shaped by the same tropes and story-forms that shape novels.  It has taught me that the arguments we have about the world around us are at bottom just stories, and that, as Billy Bragg sings in “It Says Here,” “…there are two sides to every story.” Maybe most importantly, it has taught me that there actually more than two sides—that is, that we too often fall into the trap of thinking there are only two choices, two ways to understand a particular event or phenomenon, while the best fiction can show us that the options are never-ending.  It can do this, as Bakhtin argued in his reading of Dostoevsky when a writer embodies opposing viewpoints in different characters and doesn’t pick a winner. It can also do this when it shows how difficult it is to understand the world at all, when it presents characters or narrators with points of view that do not seem to be endorsed by the author but to which the author seems to oppose no “correct” view (which Lukacs claimed is the definition of the modern novel).

 

My ultimate point here could be seen as another answer to the question answered in a previous entry, “Why I Teach Literature.” Another reason I teach fiction is to offer my students the opportunity to see the competing narratives in the books I assign and in the world around them, to see how these stories are built on other stories, and to see how there are more than two sides to every story. There are ways to teach that encourage these lessons, which any teacher can easily enough apply in their classroom, methods that highlight the opposition, nuance, and ambiguity in fiction and in the stories we tell outside of the pages in books. Helping students to look at things in this way can, in a hoary old humanist formulation I still believe in, help them to better appreciate and understand not only literature but also life, which, to borrow an old concept, is stories all the way down.

This post originally appeared on August 19, 2014.

 

Throughout the last decade-plus of college teaching, I’ve been called upon to do a lot of teaching outside my immediate area of expertise. A great deal of this began when I working off the tenure track at Florida Atlantic University, where I began teaching a course called “Interpretation of Fiction.” This is a course that primarily covers short stories (though we also read a novel) – and the short story was the one form that I felt, as a student of early modern drama, that I was unqualified to teach. Of course I’d studied short stories in classes – I’ve got three English degrees, after all – but I still felt like I didn’t understand the form, or know the types of stories to bring to the classroom, given that this form simply isn’t something we think about much when we read Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton.

 

So it was a crash course in the short story, provided by Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer. But because of that experience, I began reading much more world literature in earnest. I’d studied some Kafka as an undergrad; I’d read some Chekhov in my teen years, but never really thought much of it; and certainly I was aware of the weirdness of Borges’ works. But much of what I was doing in the first semester of teaching that course was learning alongside my students.

 

Because of that initial experience after graduate school, and because I’ve since worked exclusively at small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1500 students (and with very small English departments), I’ve spent a lot of time teaching outside of my immediate specialties. And this will continue for the foreseeable future.

 

In my current position, I’m teaching the courses of a woman who taught at the school for more than 40 years (I am not replacing her. She is an institution unto herself, and I certainly am not trying to fill those shoes. I’ve got my own.). The courses I teach range from Shakespeare and the British Literature survey courses to the survey of modern world literature and the novels course. I’m also in the process of creating a 100-level course on literature about nature, because we’re an institution with a large number of environmental science majors – and this seems like a topic that will interest a large portion of our student population. On top of this, I’m already carving out a niche for directing honors projects that cover, in essence, nerd culture.

 

Some days, it’s overwhelming. And I miss the comfort of being able to speak extensively on a topic without a whole lot of preparation when students have particular questions. But at the same time, there’s something extraordinary to me about being, ultimately, a generalist. I’m pushed to learn more and more every time I teach, and I’m pushed to expand my own literary experiences.

 

And that probably explains why I don’t feel bad that my summer reading has been classical Japanese literature, and not the scholarly articles about non-Shakespearean dramatists that I know I should be reading instead. At the same time, I have these moments of guilt about relying primarily on my Twitter feed for news of what’s happening in my primary field (there are lots of great early modernists on Twitter, incidentally). I wonder if I’m doing this wrong.

 

But those moments are ultimately pretty fleeting, because I’m coming to accept that I can still do my research in the field, and then turn my attention to the Tale of Genji the rest of the time.

Emily Isaacson

The Value of Silence

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 14, 2015

This post originally appeared on April 16, 2014.

 

Lately, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for wait time—those moments of silence during a classroom discussion– is getting bad.  Really bad.  And perhaps, more importantly, my conviction that class is going horribly if my students aren’t talking nonstop has gotten stronger.  I want my students to be talking, and I want them talking now.

 

But that doesn’t work. That’s why I’ve been trying to be more conscious of (and patient with) wait time, which is something that has always been part of my struggle in the classroom.  And I’ve recently discovered that giving students time to look for answers before expecting a response has actually done wonders.

 

Take a class where I taught Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi.”  The story is a quest narrative where the narrator, in search of fulfillment and a transcendent experience, seeks out a mystic.  Critics argue that below the surface of Mahfouz’s tale lies a great deal of political critique.  To get to that, I wanted students to talk about the various characters that the narrator meets in his search – and particularly how, in the story, different members of Egyptian society treat the seeker along his quest.

 

I realized that if I wanted students to respond meaningfully to Mahfouz’s story, I needed to pose clear questions and give them a chance to process them. I needed to give my students time to look at the story for the answers and (most importantly) to point to direct quotations that would illustrate and support their answers.  I gave students 5 minutes and 3 questions:

1. Who is the character?

2. What profession is he in?

3. How does her respond to the narrator’s quest?

By doing so, I provided students with a way in to the text and an opportunity for them to process their ideas before responding.

 

I simply stopped in the middle of class and asked students to look at the text and apply the above questions to the characters they encountered. When we resumed discussion we were able to chart out on the board the various characters – and point to Mahfouz’s criticism of the figures of social authority in the text (for example, the saintly Zaabalawi is mostly like to be found with the drunkard, and not with the lawyer).

 

It’s so simple, and yet so hard sometimes to remember that in our classrooms, our students need time to process our questions and to re-read literary texts with our questions in mind. They need us to take off the pressure of answering questions immediately. To let this happen, I’ve learned that it’s a good practice to wait out a long silence.

Emily Isaacson

When Organization Fails

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 11, 2015

This post originally appeared on March 25, 2014.

 

I am both very organized and a complete organizational nightmare.  I am thankful that computers can easily and quickly search documents for key words.  I would never find old teaching material otherwise, because I am both a hoarder of the old stuff and a person who dallies with organizing systems, then tosses them aside.  (I did finally purge a large portion of my paper files last year, but I’ve still got a box of teaching files that I want to keep on hand.)

 

Now that I have about a decade’s worth of teaching files – some paper, but mostly now digital – I am terrified by this fact.  While I don’t want to be that straw man version of a professor pulling out the yellowed old lecture notes, I also know that I like to refer to my old notes as I plan to re-teach texts.  I want to look back at what I’ve done before and figure out what worked well, or even what didn’t work the last time I taught a particular work of literature.

 

This came back to me with some force as I’ve been preparing to teach Tartuffe to my world lit students.  I’ve taught the play a few times, but it’s been more than 5 years since I’ve done so.  I realized that I wanted to look at what I did last time I taught the course, even though I really won’t use many of those ideas.  I mostly just wanted to see what types of discussion questions I had asked last time around, to see if anything inspired me this time around.  Fortunately, I could find these by that search function, because I surely wouldn’t have found them just looking through the files on my laptop or my external hard drive.

 

But that really doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, which is that as college professors we tend to acquire a lot of stuff.  And we have to do something with that stuff.  I’ve got decent organizational patterns in place for my own scholarship and for any campus service that I do, but that’s mostly because I don’t repeat the same things over and over again – and because those files don’t serve the multiple purposes that my teaching files have to serve.  So I’ve been thinking about how to manage the files this semester from the get-go, something especially important to me because I’ve got four separate preps this semester (3 literature courses, 1 composition course).

 

As I’ve been thinking about organizing the materials, I’ve realized that I need to think about the multiple purposes of keeping teaching files and planning charts.  The first purpose is the more immediate one: I need to know what I’m doing class-to-class, and what I’ve done in previous classes.  The second purpose is to hang on to records over the long term, mostly for the possibility of future reference (something that digital storage makes much more possible, as I seem to occasionally move across the country for work).

 

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to just name things for the date that I did them in class, with the hope that I’ll go back and resort them later.  This means that I have a lot of files titled things like “February 20” – but with no reference to the course or to the material in them.  There’s also the problem of working on both my home computer and my office computer.  I use Dropbox for a lot of things, but that requires installation on a computer not my own, so this semester I’m trying Google Drive, which allows me to work at home and in the office on documents.  I’m also trying to keep titles descriptive, or at least numeric – a document titled 206Sept5 is the plan I’ve made for my world literature course for September 5, and I’m trying to do the same with titling any presentations (so a presentation titled 206Sept5 is a presentation relevant to that particular class period).  This doesn’t solve the long-term storage problem, but it does at least start me with a consistent system for titling things, something that has become a problem in the past with mini-lessons that I’ve used in PowerPoint or other presentation software.

 

On top of that, before the semester began, I spent a good chunk of time creating charts for each class that included the reading assignment, the relevant writing assignment, the relevant course objectives, and/or potential lecture topics (it totally depends on the course, but you get the general idea).  It’s something that I think will help me keep on track, and, perhaps most importantly, help me stay in control as I undertake this complex semester of learning the ropes of a new institution, teaching 4 preps (2 completely new, one  a course I’ve taught before with a textbook I taught in a very, very early version).

 

This is, I suppose, the lament of every person who teaches.  So I suppose I’d like to hear from you, dear readers: How do you keep yourself organized when it comes to teaching materials?  And should I just give up on the old stuff and simply create things anew and hope for the best?

This post originally appeared on April 23, 2014.

 

 

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a freelance editor and adjunct instructor in the Boston area, piecing together paychecks from one job to the next. As any freelancer knows, there’s always a point in the late afternoon when you lose your steam and wonder what to do with yourself in the hours before everyone else gets home from their office jobs. One place where I spent some of those lonely afternoon hours was the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) at Harvard University. I would show my reader’s pass to the security guard (anyone, even someone without any connection to the university, could apply for a reader’s card to access this special room), slip on some old chunky headphones, and listen to cassette tapes of my favorite poets reading their best lines.

 

Now, thanks to the WRP’s online “Listening Booth,” anyone can listen to a selection of these poems from anywhere on the planet. This digitized collection includes over 5,000 audio recordings of great American poets from the past one hundred years, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, as well as newer voices such as Terrance Hayes, Julianna Spahr, Jeffrey Yang, and Jen Bervin. The WPR offers these recordings as part of a huge initiative to preserve their entire collection, which is a kind of scrapbook of all the great poets who have read their poems at Harvard over the years.

 

Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of recitation to students as they learn to appreciate poetry’s provocations. The Woodberry Poetry Room’s Listening Booth can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Here are a couple of examples:

 

  1. In a literature course, the students might discuss how to read Ezra Pound’s wonderfully Anglo-Saxon inflected lines in “The Seafarer.” Once students have considered Pound’s cues—his lineation, the stresses in his lines, his diction, the dramatic situation of the speaker, and so on—you might share his reading of the poem from the WPR, which is full of the song-like inflections of many poets from the early twenty-first century. Students will be surprised by Pound’s gradual crescendo, and even the way he raises the pitch of his voice, which might spur an interesting discussion.
  2. In a poetry workshop, have students listen to a more contemporary poet read his or her work. Students might be surprised to hear Sharon Olds read “The Woman: First Night” in a low-key, matter-of-fact tone. Students might discuss the juxtaposition between Olds’s visceral imagery and this quiet delivery of the lines, and why she uses that strategy.

 

These conversations reinforce poetry’s value as a spoken as well as written art, and they energize students to listen more actively to the hills and dales of any given poetic line. Who knows? Maybe they’ll enjoy the WPR enough to wile away a few afternoons of their own on this wonderful site.

 

You can follow the WPR on Twitter at @WPRHarvard to get updates on additions to the Listening Booth and related news.

This post first appeared on March 31, 2014.

 

Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down.  My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner.  One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories.  Or twins.  Or rain.  Naturally, one of my friends wrote a story about twin clowns in the rain.  Once I banned a student from using colons.  What had started out as a unique grammatical touch had spread throughout her work and then throughout her classmates’ work like head-lice in the second grade.

 

Over the years I’ve noticed that beginning writers gravitate toward certain things—things I would call writing mistakes (melodrama, sentimentality, clichéd descriptions, familiar language)—and sometimes as a teacher, you want so much not to read another story in which a single tear drop runs down the face of the heartbroken that you put your foot down.  But is this teaching?  I have often said about beginning writers that you have to let them make their mistakes.  But do I believe it?  And even if I believe it, do I practice it?

 

As an undergraduate I wrote a story that was all a dream, I wrote a story about an abused woman who was keeping her pregnancy secret, I wrote a story about not being able to get my homework done.  And my teachers were Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates.  Can you imagine?  Joyce Carol Oates could probably have written a whole ‘nother novel in the time she had to read the dreck I was writing.  Russell Banks was writing Cloudsplitter, one of my favorite novels of all time, at the time.  Certain of my stories must have been an agony to them.  And yet neither of them banned me from doing anything.  I wouldn’t say they praised me either, but they did let me make my mistakes.  And one of the best stories I wrote as an undergraduate—which became the first story I ever published—was about a couple with a dying baby.  Exactly the kind of story I might now discourage an intro student from writing for fear of sentimentality and melodrama.

 

Those of us who teach creative writing often get asked if creative writing can be taught.  And one of the common responses is: a good teacher can get you further faster.  Things you’d have to determine on your own, you learn more speedily in class.  But what happens if you don’t make your own mistakes?  I feel sometimes like I am asking my intro students to learn from the mistakes of intro students past—and that runs the risk of their writing a certain way because I have told them to, as opposed to deciding for themselves what is good writing. And that might well discourage innovation.

 

MFA programs get accused of this a lot—an absence of innovation, a wealth of mediocrity.  But MFA students in this day and age have often been through several years of workshops by the time they get to graduate school.  A fear of taking risks can be taught or encouraged very early on.

 

I’m about to start a new semester of Introduction to Creative Writing.  It’s my tenth year at my university.  And all this time I’ve stated as one of my goals, on every creative writing syllabus that I’ve ever created, that I want students “to start developing your own aesthetic as a reader and a writer.” I try to encourage this by choosing a range of readings from writers of different backgrounds, writing in different styles.  But like many faculty, I’ve fallen into teaching the same stories year after year—especially in the intro class.  The ten-year mark seems like a good time to take stock of my own aesthetic, and how I might be over-selling it to students.  I know some of my prejudices—I’m wary of overly large plot points, I’m a sucker for a little magic, I worship at the altar of voice—so I think as I finalize my syllabus for the semester, I better look for a story with a big plot, a realist tone, and a near absence of style.  Maybe I’ll even try to write a story like that—after all, it’s been awhile since I allowed myself to make such a mistake.

When I teach introduction to literature, I almost always teach Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  And when I teach that I have traditionally begun the class period by writing a list of objects from the story as students call them out.  We then talk about what the objects mean and what they say about the characters, and we’ve generally attempted some work at categorizing them.  As I kept going back to this way of teaching the story semester after semester, I realized that I was doing the bulk of the intellectual work — I was leading the students to an answer I wanted them to reach, rather than pushing them to explore the items and think about the way that they all fit together to make up the whole of the story.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Categories of objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Tools; apparel/gear; emotional items; weapons; and food.

 

So the most recent time I taught the story, I tried an experiment – and while I admit it needs a bit of fine-tuning, I think this is something that can work well.

For this lesson, I needed index cards, markers, and lots of masking tape.

1. First, I had students work in pairs to come up with a list of items from the story.  I encouraged them to identify items from different sections of the story –not just from one paragraph or one page.

2.  Students then wrote the items on the index cards.  On the front, they wrote the item, and noted the page number and the weight (if it was listed).  On the back, they wrote the category that O’Brien gives the item (i.e. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”) and the person who carried the item.  Each pair had to complete 25 cards.  (Note: I think 25 cards was too many for the particular class session that I tried this, though I’m not sure if that’s a function of my overestimation of what students could get done or if it’s a function of my overestimation of how many students had done the reading.  I’m also not sure that the information on the back was entirely necessary.  I’m still mulling that over.)

3. Next, each pair joined another pair to form a group of four.  I then directed the students to swap cards with other groups: 25 cards went to one group, 25 to another.  The end result was that each group had 50 cards written by other groups.  The groups eliminated any repeats and then worked to sort and categorize the items, according to what they saw as commonalities among the items.

4. We then worked as a class, listing the categories and  narrowing them down – for example, one group listed apparel and another listed gear so we folded the into a single category.  I wrote the major categories on index cards, taped them to the wall and then the students worked to put their cards under the appropriate classification.

 

One of the things that we noticed while doing this is that students had different ideas about some of the objects – are those objects that hold superstitious value really necessary items? Is Kiowa’s hatchet a weapon or is it more of an item with emotional significance?

 

This assignment also gave us the opportunity to really visualize the number of objects that the characters in the story carry (and that’s why I’m not sure that the problem was really that I gave the students pairs too many cards).

 

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Recreational items; tools/utilities; and apparel/gear.

 

Ultimately, this exercise was designed to help students slow down and pay attention to details, to read carefully what the O’Brien’s characters “think” they’re doing, and to take note of what the narrator actually presents to us about the actions of the characters.  We were able to focus on the material as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the characters, and the students’ physical interaction (even if through the place-holder of index cards) drove home the importance of those details in the story.  Even if we could not feel the weight of the objects, we could more firmly visualize their impact in our analysis.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Weapons.

This post originally appeared March 19, 2014.

 

I was a little nervous to tell my father my plans to major in English with a creative writing emphasis.  Though my parents had always emphasized the importance of literature—my mom was a high school English teacher, and my dad would read us Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when we were kids—I felt like my choice would strike him as being completely impractical. My dad was a newspaper publisher—essentially, he oversaw all aspects of the business, from the newsroom to the pressroom.  And he was a pretty conservative guy, too—education was important to him, but he also made sure I knew that success and financial security were the results of hard work and smart decisions.  And deciding to focus my academic career on writing screenplays and personal essays would, I feared, strike him as frivolous, a less-than-smart decision.

 

If I knew then what I know now, I imagine I might have gone into the conversation with more confidence.  Contrary to common misperceptions, English majors do not tend to spend their careers toiling away in coffee houses or bars, serving espresso or martinis to the former business majors who are actually using their more “practical” degrees to make money.  Some do, I suppose, but not the majority.  Most surveys that measure salary by college major indicate that English majors tend to make comfortable middle-class salaries—not as much as some, but considerably more than others.  Furthermore, English majors, on average, tend to report a high degree of job satisfaction.  This is important, I think.  I realize that I might have chosen a different career (or major) that might have resulted in more money in my checking account, but would I love that career as much as I love the one I have, teaching creative writing and literature?  And if not, would I love my life as much as I do?  I suspect the answer is no.

 

So, in hindsight, I’m glad I made the decisions I made.  Still, back then—sophomore year, 1995, I was a little nervous about what my dad would say.  It turns out I needn’t have worried.

 

My dad was responsible for hiring people in all sorts of capacities—reporters, editors, advertising sales representatives, circulation managers, press foremen, accountants… you name it.  He had been doing this for quite a long time, and he told me that as long as I was majoring in a discipline considered part of the traditional liberal arts, he was confident I was going to be fine.

 

“As an employer, I can teach an employee the job,” he said.  “What I can’t do is teach someone how to learn.”

 

That’s what we do, in the liberal arts—we learn how to learn.  We analyze texts.  We hone our communication skills.  We learn about cause and effect—whether it’s how the Treaty of Versailles ended the first World War but unintentionally laid the groundwork for World War II, or the role sunlight plays in a plant’s ability to survive, or how a myopic sense of materialism ultimately leads to Ivan Ilych’s death.  The liberal arts demand that the student think both carefully and deeply about any given subject, and these habits that become second-nature to the English or History major turn out to be the very skills that employers are looking for.

 

I’ve focused my argument supporting a liberal arts major (and an English major, specifically) on the utility of the degree on the job market, because I feel like in 2014, as students are still feeling the burden of the Great Recession, this is a huge concern.  But let’s be clear—the goal of an education isn’t just to land the perfect job (my high school U.S. History teacher once lamented to my class, “Why is it we never argue that education is worthwhile because it’s neat to know stuff?”).  My education in literature and creative writing has made me a more thoughtful, reflective person, which makes me a more responsible citizen (I’m not going to vote for a candidate whose public statements are entirely vapid or meaningless, like “Freedom isn’t free” or “We can do better” or “If [x] happens, the terrorists win”).  This education has compelled me to make sure I waste as little of my time on earth as possible (I defy you to study literature for a few years and not walk away with a knowledge of your own mortality and the ever-forward march of time).  Perhaps most importantly, I feel like my background in English has helped me become a better husband and friend.  Studying literature prevents solipsism—you can’t read “Sonny’s Blues” or “Diving into the Wreck” without considering the unique consciousness and point-of-view of another person.  I am convinced that this ability to see through someone else’s eyes, inhabit some else’s shoes, is a vital skill to have if you want to enjoy a happy life.  If I couldn’t understand where my wife is coming from in those rare moments when I do something to frustrate or anger her… well, I’d be divorced by now.

 

The most important thing is to make sure that you study a variety of subjects, and that you pick the subject that interests and excites you most for your major.  Some people speak of college and the “real world” as if they were entirely separate things—as if college students inhabit some strange parallel dimension where they are completely shielded from responsibility and repercussions from their decisions.  This is nonsense, and it’s harmful nonsense at that.  College is, in fact, the traditional student’s entry into the real world—the decisions one makes as a student will have ramifications for the rest of her life.  She may choose the road less travelled by, or she may choose the road that others have trod before her.  It’s the act of deciding that makes all the difference.

This post originally appeared on February 25, 2014.

 

One of the great challenges in teaching a survey course full of non-majors is making sure everyone knows how to write about literature.  This past semester, I faced that challenge in my world literature course – I had a room full of students, ranging from high school students taking college-level courses to senior English majors working on their capstone papers.  I didn’t want to lose my seniors, but I also know that when a sophomore psychology major sits down to write an interpretive paper in my class, that student might feel lost.

 

I decided that a bit of group writing in class might help.  I built the following exercise around the analysis of symbol and setting in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but you could easily adapt it to work with any narrative text.

1. First I divided the class into 8 groups – 2 groups for each act of the play – and gave students topics to work on for their particular act.  Some groups analyzed Chekhov’s use of setting; others worked on the symbols within their given act. (So, basically, the questions were:  “How does setting operate in Act 1?” or “What do the symbols of Act 1 tell the audience about the theme of the play?” and so on for each act).

 

2. Once the groups had gathered their information – and by this, I mean direct quotations from Chekhov’s play that supported students’ claims– I had them work together to write paragraphs, using in part a model (PIE or Point, Illustrate, Explain) that I learned when I worked for Barclay Barrios at Florida Atlantic University. Basically, my directions were this:

  • Make a claim about the topic (i.e. write a topic sentence that explains your main idea about setting or symbols in the play; in the model I learned from Barclay, this is the “Point” part).
  • Introduce the context for the quotation.
  • Give the quotation (this is the “Illustrate” part).
  • Explain the meaning of the quotation.
  • Explain how all of this works together to support your topic sentence (this is the “Explain” part).

3. Next, students swapped paragraphs with another group for review.  After they looked at each others' work, making notes for what needed clarification and elaboration, groups went back to work to revise their paragraphs.

4. When they finished revising, groups read their paragraphs aloud to the whole class.

This exercise succeeded in helping my students with their analytical skills – both in terms of reading a literary text and in reading and responding to their peers’ writing.  While not every student quite got the message that the exercise provided a model for how to write an analytical or interpretive paper, it did give me something to refer back to as I encouraged them to rethink and revise.

Samuel Cohen

Why I Teach Literature

Posted by Samuel Cohen Expert Sep 9, 2015

This post originally appeared on March 4, 2014.

 

For the epigraph to the preface of the latest edition of Literature: The Human Experience, I chose a few sentences from an interview given by David Foster Wallace: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

 

It might just be that simple, but I’m not sure that it is. I do think it’s possible to feel less alone inside by living for a while inside someone else’s head; even better, it’s possible that this identification can help readers of literature not only to feel better but to act better, to treat others more empathetically, and to do so because they know not only how others feel but also how they live. Teaching literature, then, could be a way to help people learn from literature how to be better humans.

 

But of course some historically awful humans are said to have read a lot of literature. And there is writing out there that one would be hard-pressed to describe as empathy-expanding (see Ayn Rand), yet it gets read and even taught. So it’s not that simple. What else? Helping students to appreciate beauty is a good reason to teach literature. So is teaching them to appreciate complexity, and ambiguity, and even contradiction. So is teaching them to communicate their own thoughts better in writing.

 

There are many good reasons to teach literature. The one I reject is the one that those inside and outside of higher education who question the value of the humanities are most ready to hear: that it prepares students to join the workforce, maybe even better than the business degrees to which so many are inclined these days. I think it’s great if studying literature helps get my students jobs—saying otherwise in this economy would be outrageous—but it’s no reason to teach literature. As important as the economic and the political are, and as much as literature can say about them, maybe the greatest value of literature is that it stands apart from these things. It gets produced and consumed, and emerges out of a world where money and power shape everything, but I teach it as art, as something that can resist those forces. So, in a much shorter formulation, why teach literature? Because in some saving measure, literature stands apart from the world of getting and spending, a world that is way, way too much with us. Time spent reading it and thinking about it and talking about it and writing about it is time well-spent, period.

Emily Isaacson

Starting Fresh

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 9, 2015

This post originally appeared on February 14, 2014.

 

I always enjoy the beginning of the semester: new students, new classes, and new school supplies (I still love those, all these many years past grade school).  This year, starting fresh, for me, also means a new university: I’ve recently started teaching at Heidelberg University in Ohio.  It means a change in student population, a change in curricular expectations, and a change in the number of freshmen that I teach.

 

It also means that I’m able to take what I learned in my last job – including the critical thinking program that I coordinated for two years – and apply them in this new setting.  And I’ve been thinking a great deal about the critical thinking part of the work that I was doing, in the context of this new job.  My previous experience with critical thinking was in a program with a relatively set curriculum, or with at least a set paradigm of critical thinking that was to be applied to all disciplines.  Here, however, I am freed from those constraints: I can pick what works and discard what hasn’t worked for my own teaching.  And I think that my teaching is the stronger for it all, both from working within a particular program that forced me to reconsider my course objectives and the objectives of the various assignments in my classes, and from now having a bit more room to play around with other frameworks of critical thinking.

 

What I’ve noticed in my classes so far (and there have only been a few meetings up to this point) is how much of the critical thinking vocabulary has become normal for me.  And more importantly, how many of the techniques I began to practice while working within – and eventually running – that critical thinking program emerged as I spoke with students this week.  In running a brief class discussion, I found myself asking students to clarify their thoughts with more precise language (clarity and precision were two standards for evaluating thought that we worked with a great deal in our program); I found myself asking students to paraphrase what other students had said, to ensure engaged listening – and engaged thinking, another technique that I began to practice in earnest under the past program.

 

(Also, I should note that it’s always pleasing, at the beginning of a semester and the end of a long summer of writing and relaxing, to realize that you actually remember how to do the thing that pays the bills.)

 

All of this – the critical thinking experience, the new students, the movement out of a specific critical thinking curriculum – is enabling me to develop a more specific paradigm of critical thinking for my literature students, particularly the students in my survey courses.  This semester, I’m teaching a survey of world literature, and I’m going to try to implement some of the ideas I’m working on in terms of deliberately cultivating critical thinking skills in a literature class.

 

It’s all a big adventure.  I hope to continue to chronicle it here and elsewhere, and I hope you’ll follow along.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Why I Teach

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 8, 2015

This post originally appeared on February 11, 2014.

 

The final assignment I give my MFA students is one they often hate, to write a “Why I Write” essay.  Lately it seems the “Why I Write” has become a genre onto itself, a rite of passage for amateur and professional alike. And even a cursory reading in the genre suggests many of us write for many of the same reasons:

 

  1. To learn
  2. To leave the world better than we found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because we can (a variation of which is Flannery O’Connor’s famous retort, “Because I’m good at it”)

 

It may seem like I’m criticizing the form, but I love these essays, including versions by Jim Harrison, Orhan Pamuk, Susan Orlean , Barry Hannah, Rick Moody; the most famous examples, by George Orwell and Joan Didion; and my personal favorite, by my former student, Kathrine Wright.

 

I love how these essays share the process of creation with readers, and I think at least once in their writing life, every writer should consider the question. But I suspect the reason my students are so against the assignment is they are afraid they won’t come up with a good answer.  They get defensive.  And this, it seems, is how I feel upon being asked, “Why do I teach writing.”

 

Why?

 

Why shouldn’t I!

 

Sometimes my students get famous! (see: “Teacher’s Pet” ). Sometimes my students get jobs! (see: “From Grad Student to Assistant Professor”). Sometimes they give much unto others! (see: “How to Make a Planet”) .

 

And yet periodically there is a lot of hate aimed at those of us who teach creative writing (see: “Get a Real Degree”), like we are the snake oil salesfolk of the post-modern age. And I suppose if we actually promised our students fame and riches, we would be.  But the truth is I teach writing for the same reasons I write:

 

  1. To learn
  2. To leave the world better than I found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because I can (and because I’m good at it)

 

The creative writing classroom is a place where students learn to give and receive critical feedback, to think past the first thought, to find language for emotion, to communicate their thoughts and beliefs and ideas to others, to really reach each other.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

This post originally appeared on February 5, 2014.

 

In my world literature course, I’m using The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, which has – among other features – some nice chapters on context.  For my class today, I had students read the section called “Society and its Discontents,” which includes selections from Zola, Nietzsche, Maupassant and Nitobe.  We’ve also recently read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” and selections of Baudelaire’s poetry (and if you’ve never read “Carrion,” you really ought to. Just probably not while eating).

 

We’ve been at this for a while now, and I’ve been the one making connections across the pieces of literature (primarily, I’ve been letting the students off the hook and not allowing for quite enough wait time during class discussion, something I’ve addressed in a separate post).  It occurred to me that my students might see connections that I don’t see – or at least that they’d reach their own conclusions about the ennui and general discomfort with the Industrial Revolution and scientific materialism of the nineteenth century.

 

To do this, I had students divide into groups to discuss the readings and make connections.

1. Each group selected three readings: one of the contextual readings; one of Baudelaire’s poems; and either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s short story.  The major question that students worked towards answering was “How does the selection you’ve chosen from today’s reading illuminate the Baudelaire poem and the Russian short story?”  It’s a purposefully broad question, in part because I wanted to see what students might do with it.

2. Each group also considered a handful of questions about the contextual selection from “Society and its Discontents”:

  • What does this reading say about modern society? About the middle class? About urbanization/industrialization?
  • What does the reading have in common with the poem and the short story?
  • How does the reading differ?

Really, these are simple questions. They focus on the themes that we’ve been covering (and some fundamental concepts for the working definition of “modernity” that we’ve been using), and they simply ask the students to compare and contrast.

 

As a result of this structure and degree of freedom, students chose and discussed the pieces that they felt worked best together – and they came up with a varied list, of course.  Students were able to discuss the literature in conversation with contextual materials, and identify, for example, the theme of the oppressiveness of middle class life expressed in all of these works.

And so it also happened, perhaps most sneakily on my part, that I got my students to review a pretty good chunk of material for the midterm exam which is next week.

This post originally appeared on August 19, 2013.

 

I want to encourage my students to find something in literature that resonates with them— and so I encourage them to make connections between their reading and their lived experiences. But I’ve been thinking a great deal about the limits of identifying with characters, particularly where that identification leads to a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of the text at hand.

 

My experience of late has been that a number of my students will latch onto some aspect of a character or the character’s story that is recognizable to their own experiences. They make a personal connection, but often ignore other details of the work—even the ones that negate that identification—which of course gets in the way of thoughtful interpretation.

http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/litbits/files/2013/08/Issacson_6.5.13.jpg

[Photo Credit: Langston  Hughes, 1942. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress]

 

I run into this quite frequently when I teach Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” because I teach a lot of students from Protestant denominations that engage in revival services.  This is a useful opener: We can start with a discussion of what a revival service involves—and students can invoke their own experiences as children trying to understand the figurative language of adults.  However, for many of my students who are born again Christians, this becomes the stopping point: they bring their own experience of giving themselves to Jesus to the discussion, project that onto the text, and totally miss Langston’s own crisis in faith.

 

I was surprised, recently, when I ran into this problem when discussing Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in class.  While talking about the motivation of artists—and their need to create—I worked to draw my artistic students into the conversation.  Several of them spoke of the urge or the need to draw, to paint, to play an instrument, to write, but one student pointed out (quite rightly, actually), that we can’t entirely know why artists are artists.  And I suspect that she took exception to my suggestion of the artist’s alienation.  It simply doesn’t match her own feelings or experience.

 

On the one hand, I want to say that Kafka is profoundly correct about the alienation of the artist.  But on the other, I need to remember that this is not necessarily an experience that all19-year-olds can identify with or articulate.  Especially 19-year-olds who haven’t dyed their hair weird colors and painted their fingernails black.  (Ahem, guilty.)

 

What both of these instances—discussing the work of Hughes and Kafka—remind me is that while it’s useful to allow a certain degree of personal identification with a text—it’s a way in, no doubt—we have to continually work to refocus the attention of the class back onto the text itself.

 

As I discussed in my earlier post about Melville’s “Bartleby,” part of our work in teaching literature is about reframing the conversation. There’s a constant need to remind ourselves and our students that we have to go back to the text itself to support our interpretations.  When we look for the themes of a literary work or try to define the concepts at its center, we need to look solely at what the author presents to us.

 

We might agree with what the author presents, or not. Either way, it’s still the author’s point of view—or at least the point of view put forth in the text that matters.

 

Connecting with a text should not get in the way of interpreting it. In the end, then, it’s all about the words. And we have to help our students remember to go back to them.

This post originally appeared on August 14, 2013.

 

A few weeks ago, students in my creative nonfiction workshop were discussing a classmate’s essay about her rather eccentric grandmother.  It was a good piece of writing, a solid first draft, and I wanted to get my students talking about what made the piece so successful. It seemed to me that the student had done a good job of blending sensory detail with her reflection, developing scenes and then extrapolating from those scenes her own mixed emotions about loving someone who can be, at times, rather exasperating.

“Why do you like this essay?” I asked one student pointedly.

“Well,” he replied, “I could… relate to it.”

“Why?”

“Because… well… we all have grandmothers.”

This is true for most of us, I suppose, but I tried to encourage my class to reflect more deeply.  While it’s true we all have grandmothers, it’s not true that we’re all this particular 20-year-old woman writing the essay, with her particular relationship with this particular grandmother.  I had an eccentric grandmother myself, but my Nana’s eccentricity manifested itself in the casual use of racial slurs and sudden angry outbursts that no one could see coming, whereas the grandmother in the essay was inclined to hoard food and drive recklessly.

 

The notion that a successful piece of writing (or film, or probably any art form) should be something we can “relate” to is a little problematic for me.  I agree that I want to be able to find something that I can recognize and understand as “true” when I’m experiencing art, and for that reason I enjoy reading essays that explore the world as I have known it.  But my inability to personally relate to an author or experience described in a piece of nonfiction is not necessarily the author’s fault; nor is it a “flaw” in the writing itself.  I have never suffered through a migraine, but Joan Didion’s description of her own affliction in the essay “In Bed” is still powerful and vivid.  I don’t have the experience of being a southern African American in the middle of the twentieth century, but I can still feel empathetic when Maya Angelou describes the shame and anger she felt when the white politician insulted and degraded his audience when he spoke at her 8th grade graduation in the chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that is frequently anthologized as either “Graduation” or “Graduation in Stamps.” I’m not a lesbian, I’ve never seen an analyst, and I don’t really have much tension in my relationship with my mother, but Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was still probably the most riveting works of nonfiction I read last year.

 

This is writing that I don’t relate to, but it still resonates with me, largely because these authors provide such vivid details, metaphors, scenes, and reflections.  I don’t personally know how it feels to be Didion, Angelou, or Bechdel, but because of the way they render their essays, I come to know a bit more about how they experience the world.  I walk in their shoes and see through their eyes, at least for a little bit.

 

That, I want my students to understand, is the power of nonfiction.  It makes another person’s experiences and perceptions vividly real to us—so real that, while we’re reading, they begin to feel like our own.  We fool ourselves—or allow ourselves to be fooled—into believing that this point of view is our own.  So this semester, and maybe from now on, I think I’m going to correct students who praise an essay for being “relatable”—and  ask them to think more carefully about how the choices an author makes can allow a total stranger’s personal experience to resonate so deeply within us.

This blog was originally posted on April 9, 2013.

 

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), author of “A Hunger Artist.” Photo by Atelier Jacobi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), author of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

 

I had an epiphany while grading some Intro to Lit papers recently: Students do not trust their ability to make connections.

This is by no means an original observation.  But while grading those papers – and thinking about this post – I finally understood my undergraduate advisor’s admonition that I needed to learn to trust my intuition more. I always took it to mean a distrust of reason, a distrust of analysis.  And I was totally unfair to my advisor, because that’s not at all what she meant.

 

What she meant was that I wasn’t trusting myself when I saw connections.

 

I recognize this problem in my own students’ writing.  For the current paper my students are working on, I’ve instructed them to write about the importance of setting in two pieces that we’ve read so far in class.  One piece of advice that I give on the assignment sheet is that students be deliberate in their choice of texts: They shouldn’t simply select pieces because they like them. The pieces need to connect somehow.

 

As I read a number of their draft papers, I saw that my students had picked short stories that work together – but that many were not quite sure of why and how the stories connect.  A number admitted in their introductions that they simply picked two pieces that they liked – or two pieces that “spoke to them” somehow.

 

From my point of view, I could see the connections.  I found them obvious.  For example, one student wrote about “A Hunger Artist” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  She wasn’t quite sure why she paired these stories, and couldn’t say more beyond: “I found them interesting.”  I see the connection between the trapped artists.  It’s there – though it’s not necessarily a connection I would have made immediately or without that student’s impulse to pair the two.

 

This student isn’t yet seeing that connection, or at least isn’t quite able to articulate the connection.

 

In my comments on the drafts I asked a lot of questions, as I always do, most notably about the relationship between the chosen pieces; I wanted students to get beyond: “I like these.”  I made suggestions in my final note to the student writing about the Kafka and Gilman stories—suggesting the idea of cages and the idea of the artist as a possible connection.  And I made similar notes on a number of other papers, where students seemed to have some intuition about connections but weren’t quite articulating them.

 

In the end, this gets me thinking that what we’re doing in Intro to Lit, inherently, is dealing with creative thinking – and not just critical thinking or analytical writing.  Pushing students to see the connections that they already sense helps them build on their own creative abilities.  And part of that is a willingness to trust instinct.

 

This is not to suggest that any intuitive connection that someone sees is going to be right.  That’s part of the critical and analytical work we do in class.  We look for what’s most plausible, what’s most persuasive.

 

This sort of ambiguity, this creative thinking, is essential in any field.  My friends who are scientists are creative people – they make observations and see connections.  My friends who are musicians do the same thing.  It’s a matter of knowing what we’re actually looking at.

 

That, if nothing else, is what I want to convey to my students in my Intro to Lit class.  That’s what the class is good for.

This post first appeared May 25, 2013.

 

I confess that I spend far too much time on social media.  I like Facebook to connect with far-flung friends and family members.  I use Twitter to interact with other early modern scholars (and I’ve developed a number of professional contacts because of my use of the site).  Last fall, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, I began to use Pinterest to start collecting (“pinning”) items that interested me – especially, like a huge number of users, crafts that I’ll never actually attempt and recipes I might try when I’m feeling particularly ambitious.  I joined tumblr over my winter break, mostly to figure out what it’s all about – and I’ve discovered it’s both a place to aggregate things that inspire me and a place to post some of my own creative work,in particular, my photography.


From my tumblr for my Renaissance Literature course.

I’ve also been looking at these as opportunities to connect with my students.  I’m really not trying to be a hip professor (I’m pretty far from that). I’m just trying to encourage my students to engage with materials outside of class – and beyond our textbook.

 

For a number of years, I’ve kept a Facebook page for the English majors at my institution.  And I’ve also made a half-hearted attempt to engage my students on twitter by including a suggested hashtag in the syllabus.  But that’s something that I’ve not really been able to keep up – by the second week of the semester, I’m struggling to come up with appropriate things to say about the readings or about the classes.

 

But I’ve found a different use in tumblr and pinterest.  If you’re not familiar with either site, you might take some time to just look around at the blogs (tumblr) and the boards (pinterest) – and one of the advantages is that you can look at things without necessarily having a membership to the site.

 

I’ve found them useful because both can serve as aggregators of information.  Both are visually oriented – and both make it very easy to link to off-site material.  Tumblr pages look and behave primarily like the blogs we’re all familiar with, though it is more visual than textual, typically.  Pinterest boards act like virtual bulletin boards, where we can simply collect information to sort through later.  I think the metaphor of pinterest appeals to me more as I collect information.

 

From my Pinterest board for my Renaissance Literature course.

 

I don’t know how much my students have made use of the boards, but I’ve encouraged them to look at them repeatedly.  I link from our Blackboard site.  I use them in class to pull up specific, relevant information.

 

What’s most important, though, is that maintaining these sites has not been particularly time consuming: I have buttons on my bookmarks bar on my browser that allow me to quickly add something.  And I’m looking at quite a lot of the same things anyway, so why not take the moment to share it with my students?

Samuel Cohen

The Lost Weekend

Posted by Samuel Cohen Expert Sep 2, 2015

This post originally appeared on March 26, 2013.

 

I spent last weekend watching documentaries. This may not sound at first hearing like the most exciting weekend a person could have, but every year at this time I spend all of my money and time to go see more documentary films than a person should see in four days at True/False, a documentary film festival in its tenth year that is a highlight of the year for me and my little town. Directors and producers and writers and fans descend on the city and turn it into temporary mecca for (mostly) nonfiction narrative cinema (and for hoodies, which for some reason go with documentaries like Botox goes with Hollywood), and normal residents like me get to forget our day jobs and immerse ourselves in a vibrant and inventive art form.

 

Emerging bleary-eyed and wrung out (maybe that explains the hoodies) on the other end of my sixteen-film weekend, I’ve been thinking about documentaries, especially in light of what I do, which is study and teach fiction. This isn’t so paradoxical—nonfictional and fictional narrative share more than most people think, and have a lot to teach us about each other.

 

The most important thing they share, of course, is that they’re narrative. While I am more in the theory of the novel camp than the narrative theory camp because the latter looks for the keys to all narrative while the former keeps its eye on genre, it is important to recognize the specific shared goals and forms of nonfictional and fictional films and prose. In plainer words, it is correct to say that one genre is true and the other is false, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t both used to tell stories (and that both are not both true and false). Through these genres, writers and filmmakers tell stories with certain effects in mind, using a toolbox of techniques to achieve those effects.

 

One film I saw, Dirty Wars, follows reporter Jeremy Scahill’s investigation of covert military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The structure of the film is dictated by Scahill’s activity—the filmmakers follow the trail of the reporter’s story, watching over his shoulder as he tracks the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command through small villages and along the banks of the Potomac. As they do so, they mix genres, using the tricks of straightforward investigative journalism alongside those of the diary, the personal essay, and the travelogue, taking advantage of the power of identification to tell a haunting story and make a strong argument.

 

The Act of Killing, my favorite of the weekend, looks back at Indonesian death squads active after the 1965 military coup. It is a strange and powerful film (the presence on the Executive Producers roster of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two masters of strange and powerful films, is unsurprising in this regard) in which former members of one such squad proudly recreate scenes of torture and murder from the past. These scenes become part of the film, are presented as they are made, and are accompanied by interviews of the players.  The filmmakers follow the squad members as they confront (and fail to confront) their memories, and show the reactions of the rest of the nation—the victims and those who still celebrate the nominally anti-communist purge. It is an incredibly inventive and even (to use an overused word) surreal film, one that rides the line between nonfiction and fiction in the service of an unfortunately true story. It is an excellent example of the ways in which narratives can bend themselves to accommodate experiences so traumatic that straightforward storytelling forms seem unable to capture.

 

On a lighter note (these documentary festivals can be murder), I saw a film, Village at the End of the World, that visits a tiny fishing village in Greenland as it faces change. It is not formally radical, nor does anyone but some fish and a polar bear die in it. However, in the way it takes viewers to a remote, foreign, frozen place— accessible only by helicopter and storytelling— it is a model for what narrative can do. Telling the story of the village as it deals with historical change and the individual stories of a few of its residents, including that of a teenage boy as he figures out and steps into his future, the documentarians invoke old generic standbys such as the wilderness story and the bildungsroman to make viewers experience a way of life that is very different from their own.

 

I am unsure just how all this will translate into the classroom. I want to help students studying fiction to better see how fiction works by looking at its techniques at work in nonfiction (and to see nonfiction’s techniques at work in it). And I want them to think about the shared goals of fiction and nonfiction—to move an audience, to make people think, to show them something about the world. That may mean bringing some examples into class, or assigning these films as they reach wider distribution (if they do). I welcome suggestions. It just seems that the examples of what narrative can do are so powerful and plentiful in documentary film that it would be a shame if I can’t use them somehow.

 

 

This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2013.

 

I don’t know about anyone of you out there, but at a certain point in the semester I feel an exhausted relief when I look at the scheduled readings and see that I’ve been smart enough to assign texts that I’ve read before, that I’ve taught before.  I have that moment when I think, “I don’t necessarily have to re-read this – I’ve done this before.  I’ll just do what I did last time.”

 

It’s not a good habit, but it’s an understandable one, I think.  And I suspect that most of us give in to the temptation from time to time.

 

But last week, I was reminded once again why it is that I need to re-read for class – and not just because I need to be sure that I’m completely prepared.

 

I was preparing to teach “A Rose for Emily” (and Faulkner happens to be one of my favorite authors) – and it’s something that I’ve taught at least once a year since 2006.  So I’m pretty familiar with the story.  But I re-read it anyway.

 

Because we’re focusing on setting in my course right now, I tried to pay particular attention to the details of setting, as described by the narrators.  Many are the details  I’ve always paid attention to in class (Miss Emily’s house as “an eyesore among eyesores” and the dust and stagnant air throughout the story); but this time, one small detail jumped out at me at the very beginning of the story.

 

As the narrators describe Miss Emily, they say that she “had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery.”

 

The cedar-bemused cemetery.

 

What an extraordinary description – and one that I’ve probably read (and perhaps even noted) in the past.  But this time, I was reading a clean copy (we just switched editions, so my book has no annotations yet) – and so this simply struck me.

 

And that’s the point.  While it is important to re-read in order to prepare for class, it’s also important to re-read to simply recharge.  I know that I get caught up in the frustrations of the semester and the general exhaustions of life, but I also know that when it comes down to it, I actually love the stuff that we do in literary studies.  Cheesy? Sure.  But honest? Absolutely.

 

And that energy and enjoyment is infectious – and students will notice it.

This post first appeared on March 19, 2013.

 

Textbook discussions of figurative language tend to insist that similes and metaphors deepen a reader’s understanding of what they are describing.  But if you look at how most writers employ similes and metaphors, they don’t so much deepen the meaning of what is being described as they change it.  Much like you wouldn’t use an adjective or an adverb unless it changed the meaning of a given noun or verb, you wouldn’t use figurative language to say the same thing your literal language is saying.

 

Instead, figurative language is one of the best tools for writers who want to add emotional connotations, tone, and atmosphere, to a thing that might not otherwise have these features. Take Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Sweet Like a Crow.

 

We understand that his niece’s voice does not literally sound “like a scorpion being pushed through a glass tube” or “like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle”.  But this long list of humorous and horrific imaginary sounds sets the tone for the poem, a comedy right up until the pay-off of the lovely final simile “like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.”  If readers took similes literally, the poem couldn’t work—this list of contradictory sounds could not all illustrate the same sound.  But in this case, the figurative language sets a tone for the poem and then skillfully changes it, so that the reader understands the literal image (his eight-year-old niece Hetti Corea’s voice) differently by the end of the poem.

 

Likewise, in “The Staying Freight,” the amazing opening story to his collection, Volt, Alan Heathcock employs figurative language to describe a young boy’s dead body–not because it creates a better picture of what the boy literally looks like, but because it changes how the reader sees his death:

 

          “Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.

 

          “Winslow simply didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.

 

          “Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.”

(You can read more of Heathcock’s story at The Nervous Breakdown. )

 

Try to imagine writing that moment with literal language—a man looking at the body of his son, who he has just accidentally killed.  It’s hard to figure how one could do it without melodrama or sentimentality.  Or simply too much gore.  And so Heathcock turns to simile, and while the simile in no way gives the reader a clear picture of what the boy’s body looks like, it attaches an emotion to the sight, it changes the tone of the event entirely. Winslow’s son becomes a fallen bird, a tragic and yet somehow beautiful sight.  With, inevitably, a dose of Icarus thrown in.

 

This is a useful trick in creative nonfiction as well.  The nonfiction writer is tied to the truth of what has really happened, and yet often the truth of what has happened doesn’t adequately convey the emotional truth of what happened. Being able to employ figurative language that moves beyond describing the literal to applying an emotional atmosphere can go a long way toward achieving greater truth.

 

When student writers first start using figurative language they tend to make one of two mistakes: they apply metaphors and similes too randomly or they use clichés.  Pointing out that figurative language is often more an act of point of view than an act of description—that it is grounded in the language and world of the narrator and brings in the feelings of that narrator—can lead them away from those mistakes.

This post originally appeared on February 22, 2013.

 

Yesterday I wrote a course description for next semester. It was due only a week ago, so I’m feeling pretty good about getting it done. I’m thinking about the course today, which I’ve titled “1968” and which will be on that historic year in arts and letters, in part because I haven’t chosen the texts yet (use comments section to suggest texts! There’s too much to choose from!). I have some idea of other texts I want to include, but kicking around ideas for possible fiction has gotten me thinking about the criteria I’m using for choosing course material. I’ve been looking for fiction that has characters that feel real, through whom my students can feel what it was like to be alive in 1968. I’ve been looking for fiction that paints a realistic picture, that captures 1968 in amber. And I’ve been looking for fiction that has something meaningful to say about 1968.

 

What I’m realizing is that these preferences express a set of assumptions about fiction that I often work against in my students. Further, they’re a set of assumptions nobody made me reflect on when I was an undergraduate (not successfully, anyway).  Over the years I’ve done a lot of this reflection myself, with the help of critics who have  convinced me of  some pretty basic truths about fiction, and I’ve internalized them over the years. In retrospect though, I wish somebody had told me these basic truths early in my undergraduate career.

 

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #1: Characters Aren’t People.

If you read writers talking about writing, you will come across someone saying that she listens to her characters and lets them determine what they do in her stories. I know what writers mean when they say this, and it may feel this way to them, but it’s not quite true: writers try to create characters who act in a way that is consistent with whatever personality they have tried to give them: they try not to have them do things that seem “out of character” (the fact that people often act “out of character” is a subject for another day). Likewise, if you listen to your students (and I hope you do), you will hear them talking about characters as if they were real people. Often they use a word that has become a bête noir of mine and say that characters are “relatable.” They will talk about whether or not they like characters, they will psychoanalyze them, they will confuse them with their authors.

 

Why is this important? Because the constant battle is to get students to look at form—to get them to understand how literature is constructed through a series of authorial choices, choices that have calculated effects on readers. That’s why it’s important not to ask students, Why does Character X do this? but rather, Why does Author X choose to have Character X do this? While students aren’t wrong to have feelings about characters, they need to be able to recognize and think about how and why authors make their characters act the way they do.  Students need to remember that characters are made of words.

 

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #2: Realism Is a Trick.

Related to Thing #1, this basic fact is something that everybody knows deep down, but its ramifications are often not realized.  While undergraduates don’t necessarily need to watch you diagram structuralist insights about signification on the board to get this (though I think it’s a great idea), they might benefit from you talking early on about what Barthes called the referential illusion—the false idea that works of literature can actually represent the world faithfully. What writers do—and if you press the point, no student will persist in maintaining that the black squiggles on the page “are” the world—is paint a picture of an idea of the world, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, detailed description, and, in Barthes’ great insight from “The Reality Effect,” the inclusion of insignificant details, which makes the picture seem more real. (A bit of instruction on the history of realism as an ideal in the Western novel—on the way in which it wasn’t the centrally important thing in the prehistory or early life of the novel and only became the default mode in the late nineteenth century—can help too.)

 

Reading novels and stories with the unexamined assumption that they are representations of the real can keep students from appreciating the artistry writers practice—the way they do things with words that create reading experiences that have effects on readers, that make them feel things and see things. Reading for realism can also make it harder for students to consider the factors that influence a writer’s picture of the world—things such as political beliefs, historical moment, any of the things that make us perceive the world as we do.

 

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #3: Stories Don’t Mean Anything.

If I’ve said any one thing in a classroom more than “No, tell me what you think” (or possibly “Please don’t use the word ‘relatable’ in your papers because it causes me physical pain”), it may be “Good fiction doesn’t have a moral.” It’s one of those things that is generally true but will admit exceptions, at least for some people; while Milan Kundera has said that there was nothing George Orwell wrote in his novels that he couldn’t have just as easily said in a pamphlet, most readers will admit that there are a few powerful works whose main aim is to drive home only a single message. Still, the larger point is that part of fiction’s power lies in its ambiguity; it can show us things about the world we may not have seen before, it can push us to consider ideas we’ve not thought much about before, but it doesn’t generally have what less sophisticated forms—fairy tales, parables—have: a moral.

 

It’s also true that even if writers want to drive home a single point about something, even if they are skilled at their craft, things will get away from them. Whether they are trying to keep two ideas in dialogue without picking a winner, as Bakhtin said is what makes great novels great, or are trying to display a Single Great Truth about the world, language and culture—meaning—is too complicated, too rich, to play along. This is the great frustration of so many students—what do you mean there’s no right answer?—and of many teachers who want to confine a novel to its “theme.”

 

So I’m going to continue planning this course, and maybe I’ll talk some more here someday soon about the process of text selection—about how I want to be wary of looking for texts with characters like people that capture 1968 in amber and have something to say about what happened then; about how to pick texts that challenge these assumptions about fiction; maybe even about how certain kinds of courses and critical approaches lead to the privileging of these assumptions. For now, I’ll just try to remember to pass on these three Things to undergraduates, who sometimes just Need to Be Told.

This post originally appeared on February 19, 2013.

 

I’m always looking for ways to explain to students how reading and writing about literature is relevant to what they’re doing in their other classes—while I might think it’s obvious that reading carefully and writing clearly about a poem is of enormous benefit, many of my students need a bit more persuasion. I need to be more direct about what it is that we’re actually doing.  My thoughts on this come in part because the longer that I’ve taught and the more students I’ve encountered, I’ve found myself persuaded by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s argument in They Say, I Say: while good students will intuit the moves the academic writers make, most students will not.

 

And I think that’s true of much of what we’re doing in the classroom. My students need to know why they’re writing the types of things that they’re writing, and why reading literature can help them in other courses. (A side note: I absolutely think appreciation and refinement of taste is important: however, that doesn’t exactly fly with first-year students who view my class as a school subject to suffer through. I think it’s worthwhile to try to persuade students of all of the values of what we do.)

 

Over time I’ve come to look for metaphors for reading literature and writing about their interpretations that might help put the intellectual work we do in some context. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

 

Writing and reading is like practicing for a game: Athletes have to practice certain moves over and over again. We’re doing the same thing in the literature and writing classrooms. Whether it’s practicing how to write a thesis statement or how to pick apart a poem, we need to practice it alongside someone who has more experience and who can help us improve our technique. (Of course, that’s simply the teacher-as-coach metaphor favored by some educators.)

 

Writing about literature is like writing a lab report: Analysis is taking something apart.  In science, we work in the lab to take things apart and to figure out how they work together (whether it’s a chemical reaction or the internal organs of the frog), then we figure out what it all means in our lab report. When studying literature, we’re doing much the same thing: dissecting the work in front of us. The words on the page are like the data we collect. The work that we do in interpreting those words – and in writing that essay about our interpretation – is like the lab report, because we’re explaining our thought process in a way that is clear to another reader.

 

Of course, reading literature isn’t quite the same as a scientific experiment, because we have different ideas about the value of ambiguity, which leads me to anther metaphor that might be useful:

 

Interpreting a piece of literature means making some of the same moves a musician does: This one might be more of a stretch, but hang with me: the pianist, the tenor, and the violinist all make choices about how to play the piece of music. But those choices are dictated by what’s on the page – the musical notes and notations on things like tempo and volume. When we read a piece of literature, we have to stick with what’s on the page – there’s no evidence of zombie activity in, say, A Doll’s House.  Or space aliens of “Ivan Illych.” But we don’t all read a passage quite the same way.  And even our own individual interpretation of a given passage will change upon repeated readings.

 

We can also learn a lot about the intellectual activities we need to engage in while we interpret literature—and while we write about literature—from other disciplines besides music. I think most important to keep in mind is the idea of the scientist who has to throw out huge amounts of data because an experiment failed. Or the failure of the code that the computer scientist writes.  Or the engineer who designs carefully and pays attention to very small details. While we may embrace ambiguity—and eschew a definitive interpretation of a text—we can certainly accept that some of our ideas fail. And most importantly, that sometimes our writing fails.

 

All of this leads us to an opportunity to talk about why some readings of a text might not work—and in turn, we help our students strengthen their interpretations. If we can encourage our students to recognize where an initial interpretation to a piece of literature goes somewhat awry, we can help them learn to return to the information—the text—and find new, better evidence; we can help students go back through the steps of their thought processes, and find better, more logical links among their ideas. That way, we help students develop more focused, plausible interpretations of literature, but also more focused, critical thinking and writing skills.

This blog was originally posted on February 7, 2013.

 

One of the issues I mull over in teaching and writing about drama is the effect of actual production on the interpretation of a dramatic text. Theater people are sometimes said to privilege performance over the text, while English teachers are sometimes said to privilege the text over the performance. Because there is plenty of wiggle room in any such question, I know the lines are not drawn hard and fast. But wherever one begins talking about a play, it is clear that every production, like every reading/discussion/analysis, is an interpretation of the text.

 

The recent Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which Sara Ruhl helped to translate with Elise Thoron and Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, concentrates on the text. Ruhl’s decision to produce a translation as close as possible to the rhythms of Chekhov led her to make some choices that resulted in a few awkwardnesses in English. For example, she often left out pronouns supplied by earlier translators and left in literal translations that were peculiarly Russian and more oblique than English equivalents. And because of Ruhl’s interpretation of the sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, she presents them much more as looking forward to their uncertain futures outside their home rather than looking backward to a time when their father provided security and an orderly life.

 

As a result, the play itself, with its frequent discussions of what “life would be like in two hundred years,” becomes in the Berkeley production very much about how the world will change, while asserting life for the individual might not change very much at all. When the Baron Tuzenbach is killed in a duel (clearly fought over Irina) at the end of the play, Chebutykin the doctor simply says, “There’s no difference. It’s all the same.” For him, all life is a dream.  For the rest, there is suffering.  The constant meditations on the meaning or lack of meaning of life are emphasized in the production and become central to its impact.

 

But even more central is the remarkable emphasis on work.  Tuzenbach, a Lieutenant, longs for the day he leaves the army and will go to work. The word “work” seems repeated more often in this production than it is in other translations. The family Prozorov is part of a class that avoids work, as we are told in the opening moments, but Chekhov knows in the future this class must work and his characters end the play with Olga as a headmistress; Tuzenbach in the brickworks (had he lived); Kulygin in his school; Andrei, the brother, in the Common Council; and Irina hoping to become a teacher. Masha, having lost Vershinin, looks forward to a life of boredom with Kulygin. Moscow, where the three sisters were born and raised, remains an ideal throughout the play, and at the end it is unrealizable.

 

One curious irony in this production is that with all the emphasis on work, the demand and need for work, all I could think is how many people in the audience and in the streets outside must also cry for work in an environment in which there are few jobs. This point alone helps to suggest an interpretation of the play that might have had nothing to do with Chekhov’s vision of Three Sisters.

This blog was originally posted on February 15, 2013.

 

Most of my LitBits blog posts have been focused on exercises or discussions aimed at motivating or inspiring the beginning writer. I’ve written craft exercises designed to help students mine their memories and interrogate their own lives. I’ve talked about helping student writers get over “writer’s block” and figure out just what they might write about. What I haven’t focused on, so much, is the intermediate or advanced nonfiction writer—the student who already has ideas and knows the basics of the genre, and who is ready to move on from “just getting started.”

In future blog posts, I hope to share some revision exercises, which I think are frequently overlooked when we talk about teaching creative writing (although I’d like to point out that some of the contributors to the recently-released text, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction offer  some really cool exercises designed to help the writer who has already started to refine her writing—and many of these ideas can apply to nonfiction of any length, not just the short-short stuff).  First, though, I have to come up with some of these exercises.

 

Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about a class I’m teaching for the first time this semester.  I call it “The Contemporary Essay”—although I had wanted to call it “The 21st Century Essay” at first, until I realized that a few of the pieces I wanted to teach were first published in the late 90s.  In my head, I still call it “The 21st Century Essay,” historical publication facts be damned.

I began to think of this class several years ago, as it became apparent to me that, over the past few decades, we’ve slowly begun to build a canon of great essays, memoirs, and works of literary journalism. I’d become quite comfortable teaching the works of Joan Didion, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Maya Angelou, Tobias Wolff, et al.  Comfortable to the point of complacency, I feared. Sure, I could occasionally sneak an essay by the likes of Eula Biss or Ander Monson onto the syllabus, to give my students a sense of where nonfiction seems to be headed, but I felt like I couldn’t really focus on where this genre was going until the students got an idea of where it has been.

 

This year, though, I’m fortunate enough to be teaching at St. Lawrence University, which has about half a dozen faculty members in the English Department with really strong backgrounds in nonfiction forms, and who teach these forms to undergraduate students in workshops that always seem to be filled to maximum capacity. I figured, “If I’m ever going to be working with students strong enough in the history of this genre to teach this class, that time is now.” So, with the enthusiastic blessing of my chair, I began to design the course.

 

I cheated a little bit—we spent the second week of class (the class meets for three hours every Wednesday evening) discussing some of that canonical stuff I said I wasn’t going to teach—Orwell, White, Didion, and Lopate’s introduction  to The Art of the Personal Essay. I decided, in the end, that I wasn’t comfortable starting with the present until we’d talked a little bit about the past. But beginning with the third class—last night’s class, to be precise—we’re focusing on the current scene entirely.

 

So, how did it go?

 

We wound up discussing work by Cheryl Strayed, Bob Cowser Jr., Pam Houston, Jill Talbot, and Eula Biss. The Strayed piece—“The Love of My Life”—seemed to be a particular favorite, as she writes about grief and sex in just brutally honest ways (if you’re offended by brutally honest depictions of unpleasant sex written by talented writers—and I know some people who are—don’t click on that link; otherwise, read it. It’s amazing). We also spent a long time discussing Talbot’s observations about the construction of self in the age of social media: “Everyone now,” Talbot writes, “not just writers, creates a written, published persona on a daily (hourly) basis.  Artifice abounds.”  We even wound up relating these ideas to Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s idea of self-fashioning during the early modern period.

 

How did it go? It was awesome.

 

I imagine we’ve all had those moments in the classroom where the discussion went so well, where all participants seemed so engaged, that the time flew by and you felt like the discussion should really go on over beers or coffee. It was 10 p.m., and I had to be up to teach at 8:30 the other day, and I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t drink with students, but… well, it was that kind of night.  It was the kind of class that makes one glad to do this for a living.

 

Will we be able to keep up this type of intense engagement?  It’s hard to say, of course—I can’t predict the future. All I can tell you is what’s on the syllabus—Steven ChurchJenny BoullyIra SukrungruangRyan Van MeterKristen IversenAkhim Yuseff Cabey.  E.J. LevyJohn D’Agata and Jim Fingal. And lots of other thought-provoking practitioners of this form.

 

I can’t say for sure that this class is going to be a roaring success based on how well things went last night, of course, but my feeling is that our students want to know more about the contemporary nonfiction scene. I walked into class worried that I might have trouble filling three hours; I walked out regretting that we didn’t have five hours to devote to discussing these authors and their work. So, as I usually am in pretty much all things, I find myself cautiously optimistic.

 

I’ll keep you updated with how things go with this class, and what I learn along the way.  In the meantime, I’ll try to think of some revision exercises. If you have some, please leave a comment.  For that matter, if you can think of an essay or writer I ought to include on the reading list for a contemporary/ 21st century essay class, let me know in a comment.