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2019

 

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch Professor at Montgomery College.

 

Poetic language is often the most evocative of all the literary genres. With just a few words, deep emotions and entire landscapes can come alive on the page. For students with limited experience reading and analyzing poetry, though, the challenge can be especially daunting. The short length—often less than a page per work—looks like an easier proposition than working through a lengthy story or play. After an initial reading, the work is over so quickly, and any deeper meaning rushes past the student. To help students slow down the reading of poetry and better visualize the images and emotions of speakers, I devised an in-class exercise for students early in a poetry unit or to help with a particularly difficult work.

 

Thanks to the Internet, access to paintings and other images for classroom use makes this exercise possible with a couple of points and clicks, but a hard copy of a work on the overhead can work just as well as a digital one. The most important element is for the painting to have a direct visual and/or thematic connection to the poem as the class works through these steps. 

 

1.) Show the painting to the class as a whole, and ask them to provide brief answers to questions that ask them to engage the work, keeping in mind the thematic connections to the poem. Some areas of focus could be:

  • Subject: Questions could ask students to consider what their response is to the physical subject, such as a flower, landscape, animal, or person (particularly if the figure is well-known from history, literature, or mythology)
  • Color: Which moods or atmospheres do certain colors or combinations of colors suggest in the painting?
  • Light and shade: How do these sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, differences underscore and obscure certain elements of the painting, and why?
  • Composition: How does the placement of figures in the frame draw your eye to certain elements of the painting, prioritizing them over others? If the painting is abstract, try to get students to focus on the shapes and colors in the frame, perhaps directly tying them to questions about color.

The idea is certainly not to turn a literature class into an art history one by having students consider all of these possibilities. Instead, select a few questions that you think best relate to the subject and themes of a poem for class discussion.

 

2.) Break the students into small groups and have them share answers about the painting, emphasizing the importance of subjective interpretation.

 

3.) Share the poem with the class as a whole on the overhead or by having students look at their own copies. Some moving back and forth between the poem and the painting to underscore the connection between the two in the exercise might be needed.

 

4.) Have each group look at a stanza in detail, or the entire poem if it is short, comparing/contrast their answers and discussion about the painting with the assigned stanza. Have each group consider how the poem reflects or challenges their previous answers and discussion, and why?

 

5.) Have each group report back to the class as a whole and welcome cross-talk between and among groups as interpretations share, question, confirm, and challenge what the group members interpreted.

 

One poet whose works lend themselves to the exercise is Blake since his poems and paintings appear in the same work. With a little creative zooming, or covering the poetry and painting can be kept separate in the first step. Another option is to use a painting that inspired a poem, such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name or Marcel Duchamp’s and X. J. Kennedy’s Nude Descending a Staircase. If a direct pairing is not possible, as is most often the case, a little savvy searching for paintings on the Web can yield rewarding results for the activity and student engagement with

 

Classes can revisit this exercise as an instructor sees fit to aid the visualization of words and images in poems as well as refresher just before an exam. Working through all of the steps is also not always entirely necessary. Sometimes I find that reminding students of some of the connections made about colors, patterns, and subjects can help keep foster ideas and discussion. When it comes from students’ own engagement with the challenge of poetry and not from lectures or notes, the results are so much the better for them and for the instructor.

This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College

 

For many students, studying literature isn’t a priority in college. Depending on their degree path, some students will never have to take a survey course, while others might encounter literature only in Composition classes.  Knowing that most students will not end up as English majors, explaining literature’s importance can be a tough sell.  Helping them see the relevancy of studying fiction, poetry, and drama can be tricky, unless they’re made to consider the value of literature early on, and especially if they come to that realization on their own.

 

Every semester, I like to start the first day with a discussion: What are your expectations for this class?  While the course syllabus will certainly cover my expectations of students, it’s less clear to them what their expectations of the class are (or should be), which is why I like to pick their brains on day one.  If I can understand what they’re worried about or what topics they’re unfamiliar with entirely, I can then address those fears and blind spots as we move through the semester together.  This time, however, I added a twist: Instead of simple discussion, I wanted to begin with a debate.  To add another challenge, I wanted to change students’ minds in just two minutes.

           

On the first day of class, I put a topic on the board: Should students have to study literature in college?  Naturally, the consensus was “no,” but I wanted them to really think about the question and address some long-term (and seemingly unrelated) outcomes of studying literature.  To help lead them to their yet-to-be-discovered revelations, I put students in groups of four.  If there was a group of five, one student would serve as the “moderator.”  Once settled in their groups, I explained that we would be working for two-minute intervals, but I didn’t reveal that they would be switching sides at some point. 

 

Here are the rules of the debate.  After the second step, I recommend explaining each upcoming step as they move through the process.

 

  1. Pair off within the group of four. Decide who wants to argue for studying literature and who wants to argue against studying literature.  Note: If five are in the group, one student can be the moderator.
  2. Once they have decided the sides they are going to take, put two minutes on a timer and tell them to write down (in their pairs) as many supporting points as they can during that time.
  3. At the end of two minutes, it’s time to present their arguments. Each pair has two minutes (one minute per person) to present their side to the other pair, but there is no debate just yet, only listening, from the other pair.  If there is a moderator in the group, that person should be paying attention to each pair’s argument, taking notes if needed, and deciding who’s making the stronger claims.
  4. Tell each pair that they’re now switching sides but that they can consider their groupmates’ arguments as they form their own reasons for or against studying literature.
  5. Repeat steps 2, 3, and 4.

 

Once we had finished, it was time to process their answers.  I opened a blank Word document, created two columns (“For” and “Against”), and turned on the overhead projector, so students could see the responses from each group.  As I began typing out their answers, it was startling to see the volume of creative and practical reasons they came up with for studying literature.  Likewise, it was surprising to see how few responses made up the opposing side, the side many professors might imagine would be inundated with reasons not to study literature.  Even if students professed to be “bored” with it, and even if they “didn’t have time” to read it, they couldn’t deny the “life lessons” and “comfort” that literature could offer them.

           

Despite the nature of teaching, it’s not every day that we’re able to see students struggle with holding an opposing belief; rarer, still, is witnessing students changing their own minds about a deep-seated opinion.  As professors, we want to instruct students to “think critically,” but commanding that to happen won’t always make it so.  Perhaps the simple act of self-doubt is the best way for students to come into knowing, and it’s even more powerful because they arrived there themselves.      

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

 On the first day of my Introduction to Literature course, as soon as we’ve finished our introductions and reviewed course policies, I distribute the first assignment, a poetry analysis. Although we’re still just getting to know one another, students are quick to react. “Poetry?” asks the bubbly guy in the corner, who just won a prize for memorizing everyone’s name. And from the look I his face, I can tell he’s not thrilled. He has not selected this course to be enraptured by poetry.

 

This student, and most of his classmates, enter my Introduction to Literature course to fulfill a general education humanities requirement. We’ve just learned, from class introductions, that the room is filled with a wide variety of backgrounds--from high school students to a retired military personnel to retail managers—and an even wider swath of career interests: nursing, finance, neuroscience, teaching, family counseling, physical therapy, etc. Few identify as English majors. Even fewer declare a love for poetry.

 

This setting is ripe with urgency. In their entire college career, this may be the only course where these students read poems, where they get the rare opportunity to be startled by their own humanness and consider, in the words of the late, beloved poet Mary Oliver, “their one wild and precious life”

 

Because of this sense of urgency, I always begin the course with an analysis of a poem, a recently published poem, far from the scope of Shmoop.com and Sparknotes.com study guides. This assignment works as a formative assessment tool, a way to determine how much knowledge of poetry students already possess; however, the assignment also provides me with a chance to slow down the pace of students’ typical reading experiences and ask them to really consider the way a poem works. Designed as a sort of “tell me what you notice about this poem,” the informal assignment gives them a low-stakes chance to practice a skill they will use throughout the course: paying close attention to language. Like the students themselves, the short papers produced from this assignment are varied in knowledge of poetic devices and sophistication of analysis.

 

After this initial assignment on a poem, we devote several weeks to the study of fiction, and after that, we launch into a three week unit on poetry. As such, by the time we delve into poetic devices and look at the contours of a poem’s design, the first poem students encountered in the course is slowly fading from their mind. After the poetry unit, we launch into the study of drama and by then, that first poem is a distant memory. All of this memory loss works perfectly when the course nears completion and that first poem reappears in a portion of the final exam that now asks students to perform a much deeper analysis, apply poetic devices with sophistication, and convincingly demonstrate how a variety of critical approaches could open up the poem to varied and rich meanings. This final summative assignment allows students to return to the poem that may have caused trepidation at the beginning of the course, but this time they are equipped with more tools and experience.

 

The assignment has consistently worked well at demonstrating the confidence and skills students have gained in the course. Many of them are impressed with their evolution as they’ve gone from providing a surface-level description, to conducting a close reading of a poem. In their final reflection of the exam, they often remark on their growth:

 

 

At first analyzing poetry was definitely not my strong suit at the start of this class, but recognizing the specific diction, syntax, imagery, and audience each poem contained aided me in combining everything I could figure out about each poem in order to find the overall theme and meaning. After this class I feel better prepared for writing essays about literary texts since I was able to develop a better understanding of different techniques.

 

 

 

Digging deep into this poem and all the poems we did in this class was enjoyable as it allowed me to be free with my thoughts and build on them as I continued to read.

 

 

I appreciate that the students feel more confident and less weary of poetry at the end of the course. And though I realize this new found appreciation for poetry will not convert any of them into English majors or, heaven forbid, poets, I do hope that they learn, as Mary Oliver advised that “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.”