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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.