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.