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2019

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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.”