Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > 2018 > January
2018
Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Happy Endings

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Jan 31, 2018

One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending? 

 

The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?

 

In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?

 

  1. Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
  2. He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
  3. He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
  4. He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
  5. He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
  6. It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
  7. There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.

 

Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.

 

So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”

 

To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.

 

On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:

  1. read the instructions on the board and write them down
  2. take one sheet of large paper for their group
  3. find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions

 

Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.

 

I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).

 

As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:

  1. What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
  2. Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
  3. What does this activity have to do with literature?

 

The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.

 

As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.

 

Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations. 

Many students these days are Bio Med, Finance, Marketing, or Nursing majors to name a few. These students are accustomed to 200-person classrooms where watching long PowerPoints and taking notes for the upcoming exam are common pratices. 

 

Writing classes, however, are often hugely different. With a cap of 22 students per class, we, as writing instructors, are able to learn our students’ names, and create a more engaging classroom environment by utilizing participatory techniques.

 

I’m almost positively sure that my students do not want to hear me lecture every class for an hour and fifteen minutes. By 2 P.M., if I were to do this, they’d be falling asleep while sitting up.

 

Enter: The Think-Pair-Share—a teaching technique I learned in a previous practicum course where students are asked to think individually about a set of questions, then exchange ideas with their peers, all before coming back to discuss together as a class.

 

More specifically, it works like this: My students read a brief piece of writing in class and are then given a one page set of about five questions. They are given 10-15 minutes to quietly write their own answers before they pair up with a classmate sitting next to them to exchange each other’s ideas. When this happens, the classroom breaks from quiet study hall to nervous laughter, smiling, and the exchanging of names. This is often how they meet one another for the first time. Then, after discussing their answers with their peers, we come back together as a class and I ask different groups to answer the initial questions handed out.  

 

The Think-Pair-Share works well for many reasons.

 

  1. It puts the onus on the students to articulate responses to in-class texts and allows for an interesting way of using class time (versus a one hour and fifteen minute lecture).
  2. It allows students to think both individually about their answers and also allows them to collaborate or exchange ideas after they’ve answered questions on their own.
  3. Instead of cold-calling on students, this method allows students time and preparation to thoughtfully articulate well-developed answers and gain the confidence they need to answer in front of the whole class.
  4. It allows them to have fun. They meet their neighbors, talk to their classmates, and while they are engaging with the text, questions, and answers at hand, they are also forming classroom relationships and rapport with their peers, breaking the pattern of staring into phone glows and computer screens.

 

In addition to lecturing, Think-Pair-Shares have revitalized my classrooms, have given students agency, power, and room to speak, and have strengthened the rapport between my students, and with me, their instructor. Because of the many positive outcomes associated with Think-Pair-Shares, these exercises have become, and will remain, mainstays in my writing classrooms.

As I gear up for the new semester, I’m finalizing my course syllabus, and again, as before every semester, I find myself curious about the best strategies to balance my desires to convey important information to my students and to create an engaging document that students will read. This school year, I’ve focused on two components of the syllabus: the content/structure of the syllabus and the use of the syllabus after the first day of class.

 

Inspired by strategies David Gooblar presents in “Your Syllabus Doesn’t Have to Look Like a Contract,” I carefully consider the visual choices I make in presenting syllabus content. Depending on the course, I model the writing and structure of documents that I expect my students to create throughout the semester. Then, I provide other necessary course information.

 

In my fiction workshop I ask my students to write letters responding to their peers’ work as well as their own, and so my syllabus for the course begins with a letter from me to my students. In the brief letter, I outline the three units of the course, provide an overview of our workshop structure, and make the final portfolio requirement clear. On the other hand, in my professional writing course, my students create professional documents, from emails to grant proposals to memos, and so I open the syllabus with a memo to my students. The memo format models the genre conventions of memo writing, and it clearly and succinctly conveys introductory information, including course structure, contact information, and office hours.

 

Many of my students have been under the impression that the syllabus is a single-use document, forgotten or discarded after the first day of class. To counter this, I make clear, both verbally and in writing, my expectation that the syllabus be a guiding document—a road map—to follow throughout the semester. I ask my students to bring their copies of the syllabus to each class and each class I return to it.

 

Specifically, I speak to the course goals and student learning outcomes, sections I include in every syllabus I write, regardless of course. (Many instructors, I’m sure, are required to include similar sections.) I find each is useful in helping students see the expectations I have for their learning and the tangible work we will do to achieve those expectations.

 

For example, when introducing or reminding my fiction students of their reading responses, I’ll ask them to return to the syllabus with me and recall the established goal of “understand[ing] primary and advanced tools of engaging creative writing.” Then I guide them to the corresponding learning outcome: “craft thoughtful responses to assigned readings, identifying the tools used in each.” I find this practice useful near the end of the class when I ask students to review what they’ve learned and I remind them about their homework.

 

I find the regular use of the syllabus serves several purposes. When I encourage students to use the syllabus as a functioning, working document in class, I find they turn to the syllabus for questions they might have about the course—my office hours, major assignment deadlines, etc.—before asking me. Students also return to the letter and the memo when looking for examples of document structure and design. Finally, since we continue to use the syllabus and reiterate course goals throughout the semester, when I ask students to identify what they’ve learned at the end of the course, they are able to, with specific examples. With these approaches to the syllabus, it lives throughout the semester as useful and important as it was on the first day of class.