Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog > Author: Emily Isaacson
1 2 3 Previous Next


33 Posts authored by: Emily Isaacson Expert

As an English professor at a small school, I teach a wide range of courses including, of course, composition. And like most places, my department expects regular conferences with students in those writing courses. I’ve always liked them, because they give me a chance to get to know my students better and because they allow for that individualized attention that’s so necessary in the teaching of writing.


For my literature courses, though, I’ve not always had this opportunity. For some courses—particularly upper division literature courses—I’ll require a conference while a student is working on a research paper, but that doesn’t have the same feel as the conference in a WRI 101 course. By the time students are writing a research paper in a junior/senior level course, they likely have taken other courses with me or— at the very least— have been in class with me for 10 or more weeks. I have always liked the idea of introductory “getting to know you” type conferences, but I’ve always found those to be awkward and a bit directionless.


Last year, though, I hit on a way to meet with students individually that involves meetings early in the semester, but also gives those meetings some direction.


One caveat, before I explain: this takes up an enormous amount of time in the weeks that I do this. But, as I hope I can show here, I think it’s worth it.


When I teach a survey course, I have students keep commonplace books as part of a larger assignment that helps them prepare for class, review for exams, and make some sense of the larger trends of literary eras. This assignment comes in three parts: the commonplace book, where students record at least one interesting quotation each class session; the individual conference with me; and a written response that works to define the style and interests of an era. Because we divide our British Literature survey courses at 1798, we quite easily fall in line with the traditional demarcation, so I’ve got three sections of each survey course.


For the commonplace books, I create a template in a word processing program that I share with the students. It simply includes the following things for each day of class (thus, if we have 42 class sessions, I give them 42 entries):







Students are certainly encouraged to use this, but I also like to encourage them, if they prefer, to handwrite their commonplace books in a notebook of their choosing. That latter option is what most students take up, with many even customizing and decorating their books (a practice I strongly encourage).


When it’s time for conferences, I have students sign up for a meeting during the last week or so before an exam. They come to my office and I ask them a simple set of questions: What stuck out for you? What patterns are you seeing? Who was your favorite author? From those questions, we’re able to have a conversation about the things that interest the student, following whatever path they start us down. At the end of the conversation, I encourage them to bring it all together, asking them to identify some major characteristics of the era in terms of prominent themes and style.


After this conference, students write a paper that explains what they see as the defining characteristics of the time period. In grading these, I’m simply looking for whether or not the students seriously engage the work and show some recognition of patterns across a particular era.


I’ve found that this has been incredibly useful in getting to know my literature students. More importantly, though, I found that in doing this my students have become much more fluent with the literature itself. They’ve begun quoting on exams where I’m not necessarily requiring them to do so (that is, they’re quoting when answering questions that don’t ask for quotations, but where quotations are ultimately useful); they’ve become more adept at recognizing quotations; and they’ve become better at expressing the larger trends across an era, pointing out places where non-canonical writers break the mold of elite literary practice.


It is a lot of work in terms of time, but because I’ve created it as a relatively low-stakes assignment (do the work, get the points), I hope that I’ve developed a situation where students are becoming increasingly confident in their ability to participate in a conversation about literature and about literary history.

As I was teaching my Introduction to Literary Theory course this semester, I thought a lot about what it is that we’re teaching students to do.  I paid particular attention to the way that I taught students about formalism, which led me to further thinking when we hit other theories, including deconstruction, feminism and Marxism. 


One of the things that’s so difficult about formalism for students -- whether they’re in a theory class or in an introduction to literature class -- is recognizing the rigor and care that we show when we’re serious about close readings.  For years, I’ve been trying to impress upon my students that they shouldn’t settle for a single example of something.  Rather, they should be paying attention to every instance of an image, thinking about how it changes over the course of a text.


It hit me this year that I’ve been framing this all wrong for my students.  It’s all about the patterns.  For many of us -- particularly those of us who are a couple of decades away from our first college English course -- it’s easy to forget that finding themes and patterns of images is not particularly intuitive for most people.  This is something that seemed entirely obvious once I realized it -- and it’s something that many of the questions in anthologies ask students to do (e.g. “Trace the patterns of light and dark in ‘Araby.’”). But how often do we speak to our English majors about patterns?


Of course, it’s not simply about finding a pattern -- or to put it in more scientific language, it’s not all about finding a complete dataset.  It’s about figuring out what to do with that textual information.  What we want to encourage in our students is not simply an ability to find all of the metaphors that are about animals, or all of the images that engage the ear, or every time the color yellow shows up in the novel. Instead, we want to help our students build the pattern and interpret from there.


Even our work using theory requires this special kind of careful thinking: we cannot simply cherry-pick what we want from a text to make the point we want to make. We have to look at all of the possibilities and figure out whether or not they help our thesis or defeat our thesis -- and then we have to go back to reconsider our original impression of the text.


  While I don’t have a particular exercise to help with this -- I’ll be working on that over the summer -- I think it’s an important insight for me.  It provides my English majors some boundaries on their interpretations (it can’t mean whatever you want it to mean, but must instead be plausible. Or, as I tell students, you cannot insist that Hamlet is about pterodactyls in space, because you want it to be.); it also gives us a way to talk about the interpretation of literature with students who are less comfortable with ambiguity.  It gives everyone a way in.

Every spring I’m tasked with teaching the Introduction to Literary Theory course.  My structure for the first part of the course is to assign two days to each general type of theory that I introduce to students -- one day to introduce the major concepts of a theory, one day to have the students apply the theory to a short story. 


When I teach the basics of New Historicism, I like to have the students do a bit of online research to have them find things that might be relevant to Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” To find things, it’s been particularly useful to send them to the ever-growing digital collections of the Library of Congress.  I gave the students some suggestions for things to look for (men’s fashion; education; Pittsburgh; railroad travel) and set them to work in our building’s computer lab.


Once students find files that they think are relevant -- whether  pictures or documents -- they email them to me.  We work through a number of the pictures discussing what they can tell us about the early 20th century in the United States and how that understanding might illuminate our reading of Cather’s short story.  Particularly useful this time around were the documents and images students found about education.  For example, a couple of students came across this image of “an old fashioned boys’ school” that shows just how prescriptive and even imprisoning the schooling was -- and that’s something that Paul rebels against.  Even though the photo is clearly staged, the students could parse the details and think significantly about what perceptions of education were 100 years ago. 


One of my constant pieces of advice for my students is to embrace the digital.  They don’t necessarily need to read e-books or learn to code, but they do need to learn to search for things and to become comfortable in a digital environment. “I don’t do computers” isn’t a choice at this point for our students.  And the fact is, we’ve got an extraordinary set of tools available to us freely for our research: with more and more libraries and museums digitizing part or all of their collections, we have opportunities to explore things that were shut off from most of us just a few years ago.  It doesn’t replace the experience of seeing the artwork or the rare book in person and this doesn’t replace the experience of working with the expert librarian, but it does open up new avenues for teaching -- and I’m excited by the possibilities.

Emily Isaacson

Collective Annotating

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Dec 8, 2015

Much of the literature I teach is in the public domain, so it’s fairly easy to find online.  I always select editions of books, of course, but inevitably some students really, really want to use the Project Gutenberg version.  I’m not particularly a stickler about this, and while it makes for some complicated moments in looking for a specific quotation, it’s generally been workable. Of course, like most everyone who teaches literature, I’m really ordering editions of texts for the work of the editor, most especially the endnotes.


At the same time, these electronic versions of texts without notes give us a blank canvas to work on as readers.  To that end, I’ve been working on teaching students how to annotate texts in ways that are useful to them. 


This fall, I had students in two different classes do this work.  In my British Literature survey course, we looked at John Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness,” and in my first year college skills course, we looked at “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  For both texts, I selected difficult vocabulary words and various references that I anticipated that students likely would not know.  Then, in groups of 2-3, students looked up the words or phrases randomly assigned to their group and found definitions that seemed to best explain the terms in the text.  (For these types of assignments, I almost always have students work in small groups, rather than on their own, to ensure that everyone has access to a smartphone or a tablet.)  After students found their terms, we worked together to annotate the text.  I asked for terms, students gave us definitions, and I annotated the document projected on the screen.  In one class, I tried with footnotes; in the other I used the comments feature of Google Docs.


Screenshot 1.jpg

Screenshot 2.jpg


The purpose of this is two-fold.  It reminds students that they can and should look things up, an essential skill for anyone doing a careful reading of the text.  It also gave us an opportunity to slow down and examine the choices that the authors make and allowed us to untangle the complex images and references in both pieces.


I’m considering further ways to implement this type of activity in the courses I teach. A document that students share and annotate together (rather than having me do it) would be useful.  This might actually be most effective as a wiki, which my LMS supports.  Mostly, though, I’m interested in this idea of students working together to build knowledge, even when things might be readily available online.  They’re working through a process which can encourage them to take control of their own reading and their own interpretations.

This post originally appeared on 10/24/12.


In addition to teaching literature and writing courses, every fall I teach a course that develops skills for student success.  Recently we worked on note-taking. The exercise I used reminded me that when we give lectures, we need to make sure that our students connect with the material we’re presenting.


The exercise is this: Students watch a brief video lecture (I like Liz Coleman’s TED talk from a few years ago, “Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education”); they take notes and then compare and discuss their notes.  However, what I discovered recently is that when my students watched Coleman’s brief lecture (18 minutes!) they began to get tired and stopped paying attention, the longer the talk went on. This really defeated the purpose of watching Coleman’s lecture, especially because she presents her most essential points toward the end of her talk.



My students missed the big point.  They got information, but they couldn’t do with it what they needed to.


This experience lead me back to a workshop I went to this summer at the Foundation for Critical Thinking’s annual conference.  One of the points made by Linda Elder, a workshop facilitator, was that rather than asking students to engage with large portions of content over long periods of time, we should have them engage with it several times over a class period.  As a rule of thumb, she suggests that when lecturing, we should try to break every 5 to 10 minutes to give students a way to directly and individually connect with the material.

The result should be an engaged lecture and discussion—not a situation where we simply throw out a question for the class to answer (which is something many of us do by default).  That method can work, but only when students pay attention and are already willing to participate in class.


I think a good solution to getting students to connect with the content of a lecture is to have them write briefly about what they’ve heard (as in a 1-minute essay), or to make a list of the major points of the talk, or to simply summarize for a neighbor what they learned from the lecture.  To some degree these requirements may seem artificial, but I think they can be quite useful.


On the one hand, we need to teach students how to be better note-takers – and we should give them clues as to what it is that’s important in our lectures.  On the other hand, our students may not have the attention spans we want them to have (also, we might not have the attention spans we want them to have).


Most importantly, though, there are ways to get our students engaged with our lectures. By having them respond to short writing prompts, to compose a focused list of the main ideas of the talk, or to talk briefly with a neighbor, we can encourage every student in the class –not just the ones who are already interested– to engage with course content.

Emily Isaacson

And now we dance

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Oct 27, 2015

In my survey of British Literature course, I assigned a contexts section from our anthology that talked primarily -- though not exclusively -- about leisured entertainments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  I always like taking a look at sections about non-literary culture in my literature courses, because it gives us the opportunity to think about the relationship of the author and the world she or he lived in.  I work to impress upon my students the idea that this is not simply about “background” vaguely understood, but that it’s about understanding the interaction of art and ideas.  As a guiding principle, we talk a bit about M. H. Abrams’ classification of literary theories based on the concepts of the text, the world, the audience, and the author.


It’s also a good opportunity to have students think materially about the world that the authors lived in.  While on this particular day I did spend a good bit of time talking about tobacco (and looking at anti-tobacco broadsides) and time talking about the non-theatrical entertainments that a person might find in the suburbs of London, I also introduced the students to a fairly basic but important courtly dance: the pavane.


The dance itself is one I learned in a workshop at the 2013 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.  Up until this particular class I hadn’t had opportunity (or courage) to introduce my students to a dance.  However, because the steps are simple and the tempo is slow, it’s one that I can do fairly easily -- and I told my students, many of whom looked a bit weary, that if I was the one teaching it, they would certainly be able to do it, as I am famously clumsy.


So I sent them outside and lined everyone up with a partner.  And we danced.  At least, we tried to dance.  We were able to discuss how this dance could inform social customs, and I’m trying, in turn, to show the students how those things should inform our understanding of the literature we’re reading.  At the very least, my students will remember that the study of literature is something that we do.  Even if it means doing something that feels a little silly.


Link for the pavane (it’s a download):

This post originally appeared on July 9, 2015.


I’ve taught courses online during summer sessions for the past several years.  I find it a challenge, and I’m constantly retooling the courses to make sure that students are getting the most out of the experience — and particularly to make sure that I’m providing enough resources for the students who are in the course, beyond my responses to their exams and their written work.


So over the past few years, I’ve been slowly adding features to my online courses.  When I first began to do this, I simply used discussion boards, my personal blog (as opposed to lecturing), and exams with essay questions.  Last year, I began adding short video lectures to my courses — I simply use pre-loaded software on my MacBook to record, and then upload everything to my YouTube channel.  This year, along with those video lectures I added narrated PowerPoints about important literary terms, which were uploaded to my Google Drive and linked to through our Moodle page.  I also had students write daily journal responses (informal), weekly blog posts (a bit more formal), and interpretive papers (most formal of all).  And this summer I finally figured out how to create a timed exam in Moodle.


In previous summers, I’ve taught 200-level courses designed for and taken by English majors.  This summer was the first where I’ve taught the introduction to literature course as an online course.  In thinking about how it went, I’ve recognized a few things about the problems of online education, but I’ve also begun to think about how I can incorporate some of these features into my traditional classroom in the coming academic year.


First: the downside.  Having all the material online — and having students do the work asynchronously — means that students must be extremely motivated to get everything done, and that includes watching the videos.  While I tried to keep most of the videos brief (fewer than 10 minutes), I admit that some of them went longer than that.  Because I use YouTube to store all the videos, I can also see how often they were viewed, and in some cases, it was rarely or not at all.  This definitely constitutes a problem, particularly for students who are unused to textual analysis of literature.  I realized in reading the journals and blog posts that students were simply not getting some things.  Even though I make it a point to avoid complaining about my students publically (only praising them for their awesome work), I actually reached a point where I complained on Twitter something to the effect of  “Anyone who thinks online education is the way to go has never taught Yeats online.”


So, teaching introduction to literature, when the students don’t make use of all the materials available, has the possibility of being disappointing.  Nevertheless the experience of teaching online — and trying out the different tools at my disposal — does give me some ideas about how to more effectively use our Learning Management System during the regular academic year.


One thing that I’m considering is moving the exams online, rather than taking up time in the classroom for them.  This would be particularly useful in my survey course (British Literature before 1798), because I typically run an exam after every major time period — and we lose two class days to those.  I could reclaim those days for more readings, or those could be days of workshopping student papers.  It’s a matter of mashing those 1,000 years of literature into 15 weeks.


Another thing that might be useful is to create short (5 minute) videos about some of the literature, highlighting the most essential ideas that we’ve covered in class, or talking about things that are essential for students to understand.  For example, when talking about Chaucer, I talk to the students about what Middle English sounds like — but what if I were to have a short video (or audio) linked to the Moodle page so that students could go back to it?  Or what if I were to have narrated PowerPoints talking about important literary or historical terms for that survey course?  While I certainly want students to continue to develop their note taking skills, I’m probably most concerned with making sure they know the material and can use it in the classroom.


While I don’t know which of these things I’m going to incorporate into my courses — particularly that survey course — in the fall, I think it’s important to be open to better ways to connect the students with the ideas.  I certainly don’t want the tech to obscure the teaching — but rather I want to let it be a tool towards a better educational experience for my students.

This post first appeared on January 28, 2015.


One of the great challenges for many of us is getting students to really engage with the readings. Students may read before class, but don’t annotate. Student may not read at all. And many students don’t necessarily think on their feet about the readings at hand. One of my challenges in the classroom is getting students to go back to the text itself, rather than simply talking in abstract terms about what happened in a story or a play.


As a member of my university’s faculty development committee, I’ve found myself in charge of a workshop on this very topic: getting students to engage with the reading. Given that’s it’s time for a new semester, I thought it might be useful to share a list of activities to use in the classroom to help foster thoughtful engagement with the text itself. Some of these are things I’ve written about before, some are ideas from other people that I’ve found helpful.


In-class discussion questions

Everyone approaches classroom discussion differently, and every class dynamic requires some different approaches to the way we present the questions to the students.

  • I’m a frequent user of small groups in my classrooms, and I’ve developed a number of ways to get the groups working on ideas. This particular exercise is one that encourages students to consider their own answers — but then to also evaluate the quality of other people’s answers.
  • This semester I tried something new with students who were reluctant to jump into full-class discussions. I projected 4-5 discussion questions (usually culled from the instructor’s manual to the textbook) and gave students the first 5-10 minutes of class to find information that would help answer those questions. I wish I could tell you where I ran across this idea, but it worked wonders with a class that was reluctant to join in discussions.
  • I’ve long used student-generated discussion questions in my upper division classes.
  • This guest post by Ben Bunting has some nice ideas about literature and contexts as discussion openers.


Writing as Discussion

Many of my courses are writing intensive courses, so I try to integrate written analysis of the literature into classroom participation.

  • I’ve found success with having students write analytical paragraphs as part of their approach to the texts, which can work in any classroom where analyzing information is central.
  • Barclay Barrios suggests having students write argument haikus about complex informational texts, which could certainly be translated into discussion-openers in a literature classroom. I will be doing this next semester, most assuredly. (Barrios has also suggested a way to do this with Vine.


In class reading

Actually having students read in the classroom can be useful, particularly early in the semester when they’re just figuring out how to do the work of the literature classroom.

  • Critical Reading , as exemplified here, is a technique I picked up from the Foundation for Critical Thinking. It can be useful when students are approaching a really challenging work. It helps students recognize the need to slow down as they read, and can build confidence in the idea that they can actually do the difficult reading.
  • I also like to have students make use of contexts sections in anthologies.
  • Having students view characters through the eyes of other characters in the text can be a useful way to understand character motivation.


Multi-modal approaches

Encouraging students to have fun with the literature, while still looking carefully into the text itself can be a useful way to engage students who are not English majors.

  • I recently had students create comics about Charles Dickens.
  • In teaching “The Things They Carried,” I’ve had students create categories of the items in the book — and I think this is something that could be adapted for a wide variety of stories and poems.
  • Barclay Barrios has written both about drawing the argument (which I’ve adapted as drawing the poem)
  • Joanne Diaz also has her students use the Woodberry Poetry Room to teach students about active listening.


I think that all of these are adaptable for different levels and for different texts, which is generally how most of my teaching goes: I see what others are doing, and I adapt it to what works with my particular groups of students. I’m looking forward to another semester of teaching — and I certainly plan to adapt some of these activities in new ways for my classrooms.

This post originally appeared on May 18, 2015.


This was the year that I embraced creative projects in my literature courses.  My department chair has been doing them for ages, and he’s been very encouraging.  His only stipulation is that English majors must write a long seminar-style paper at some point in an upper-division course- but we leave the choice of when to write that paper to the students.  Additionally we’ve got lots of non-majors taking our courses, and we want them to see connections across disciplines, so working on something other than pure literary criticism is useful to them. So this year in addition to the traditional term paper, I’ve given students the option to put together creative projects or write papers based on their own majors, using the literature. For example, several psychology majors have described the pathology of characters.


In the fall, I had the students put together an exhibition of their work. This spring, I coordinated with my department chair, who taught the other upper-division literature course, to have the students put on a mini conference where students gave brief presentations about their work.


Students who take the creative option must still write a researched introduction, but they’re otherwise given free rein to do what they want.  Letting them explore literature in this way not only gives them the opportunity to make connections between the material and their own interests, but also gives them the opportunity to really shine.


And shine they did.


One student used social media to explore Katherine Mansfield’s stories, another created a board game based on Northanger Abbey; someone created a commonplace book of tips for how to get by in Bath (also based on research about Jane Austen), while another wrote and performed songs based on Wide Sargasso Sea.  Students in both semesters developed thoughtful lesson plans using the works that we read; both semesters, students reworked pieces of literature as film scripts. And the students who opted for traditional papers wrote some incredibly thoughtful and thorough scholarship.


Sometimes I bemoan the fact that I don’t know how to teach students to be creative.  This semester in particular, I was reminded that they already are — and that I just need to give them room to be so.

Emily Isaacson

Thinking with Analogies

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 24, 2015

This post first appeared on March 24, 2015.


In preparation for our university’s re-accreditation process, my department has been reviewing the goals and objectives for our majors.  One of the things that we want to make sure our literature majors understand is the distinction between the major eras of British and American literature. Our upper division courses are broadly defined — Students in British Literature, Studies in American Literature, Studies in the Novel, and so on — which allows us to break out of the periodization paradigm. However, we run four survey courses that all literature majors,  and most writing majors, take: the standard issue Brit Lit before and after 1798, and American Lit before and after 1860.


Thus, our goal is for students at the freshman/sophomore levels to form an idea of what constitutes each major era of literature — in their junior and senior year, they may engage in a more intensive study of a single time period (I’ve taught early modern drama) or a study of a theme across time (in the fall, we’re exploring concepts of trauma and disability through an examination of monsters and monstrosity in British Literature).


But how to get students to remember the differences between the eras in order to help them gain a sense of literary history?  At this point, my own understanding of literary history is intuitive — and sometimes I forget that it’s not as obvious to students why Tennyson is a Victorian or why Swift is clearly a product of the eighteenth century.  I may lecture at the beginning of each new era on what the essential components and hallmarks are (and I’ve written previously about using fashion as a way into each era), but that doesn’t mean students are putting the pieces together as we read through the literature.


To deal with this, I tried something new when finishing up my last survey course.  To help students review for the final exam and to help them get a sense of the shifts from Romanticism to Victorianism to Modernism/Postmodernism, I decided to have them work out analogies from pop culture to explain the differences.  My example was from Friends: Phoebe is Romanticism, Monica is Victorianism, and Ross, with all his overwhelming anxieties about the world, is Modernism.  And then I set students to the task of coming up with their own analogies and explanations of their choices.


When students shared their ideas, we had a range of things — Twilight, zombies, superheroes — that made sense to them, and looking over the comprehensive essays on their final exams, I think that the exercise helped students delineate the time periods.  I plan to try this again in the fall with the pre-1798 course, and I’m looking forward to whatever weird analogies my students determine.

This post first appeared on January 13, 2015.



This year, in teaching my Shakespeare course, I used the 450th birthday as an excuse to get students to bring Shakespeare awareness to campus. To that end, I created an assignment that I called “Pop-up Shakespeare,” which I described like this:


You will be developing some sort of experience for your fellow Heidelberg students, whether it’s through chalking Shakespearean sonnets onto the sidewalks, developing a Shakespeare film festival, performing flash mob scenes, or creating a Shakespeare-related volunteer project (just to suggest some ideas). For this assignment you can work with a group or alone. You must document the event through pictures; you will also write a brief analysis of your work, explaining why you chose to do what you did.


The object of the assignment was to encourage students to have some fun with Shakespeare and to exercise some creativity in doing so. It was ultimately a small part of the final grade, but I wanted something that would make Shakespeare just a bit less intimidating and would make literature a bit more visible on campus.


The results were fun — and I heard from a number of colleagues in other departments how much they were enjoying the different things that students were posting around campus. We had some sidewalk chalk, we had a movie night in one of the residence halls, and mostly we had a lot of great signs.

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.

This post first appeared on December 2, 2014.



I’ve been a slow adopter of using Google Drive, despite many years of having Google-supported email at the different universities where I’ve worked.


But in my late adoption of it, I’ve come to realize how useful it can be in the classroom, particularly when it comes to facilitating a lot of the work that I do to create a student-centered discussion.

I realized over the summer that I could use Google Drive for a couple of things. The first was to create journal templates for my students in my 100- and 200-level courses.  In those courses, my students keep daily reading journals — and by having students write in a journal that I can see, I can immediately tell who is doing the work. More importantly, I can draw ideas into the classroom that students write about in their journals. It took some work to set everything up (I created a template, then made copies for all of the students), but it’s been a useful way to keep an eye on what interests the students in what they read.


My other major use of Google Drive is to create what are essentially collaborative documents of discussion questions.  I did this initially because I’ve got an assignment that’s always been a bit clunky for me in terms of organization. In my 300- and 400-level courses, I’ve always taught students how to write open-ended discussion questions, and then I’ve had them submit questions daily (in lieu of a quiz).  We use those questions in class to guide our conversation.


Previously, I’ve tried having the students just hand the questions to me in class (which really made me work on the fly) or email me either the night before or the hour before class.  With the email, I wound up spend a lot of time collating the work, which also meant the potential for missing some of the questions in the overflowing email inbox.  As I was preparing for my courses over the summer, I remembered an admonition from my student teaching days — if you can let the students do the work for you, have them do the work for you.  Thus, for this, I’ve got the students in my upper division courses writing and collating their discussion questions in Google docs. Here, I simply created forms for each day of class — titled with the name of the text we’re reading and the assigned chapters of acts — and shared an entire folder with the class.  Students submit questions until 30 minutes before class — then I print the entire thing off and use it as we work through the literature. I’ve found that students’ questions are less repetitive when they see what’s been asked before — and I’m even noticing that students will sometimes reference other students’ questions in their own (in which case, I know we have to discuss a certain topic).


I went into the semester thinking that this would be all we use shared documents for.


Then I decided that the students in my novels course really needed to take a careful look at the chronology of events in Dracula.  I realized that this was not something we could really just do on the blackboard. We’ve been doing chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of plots at the beginning of class, but there are simply too many days and too many different narrators in Dracula for that to be effective.


So I created a shared document that simply lists all of the dates in Dracula when a character writes in a diary, sends a letter, or receives a message from a solicitor’s office. On the first day of class, I shared it with all of the students in the class, projected it from the overhead, and set students to the task of sorting things out.  Students worked in groups of two or three, huddled (admittedly) around their phones, laptops, tablets, and the classroom computer, adding to the chronology together.


Screen Grab of Google Doc.jpg

Once we spend the first chunk of class doing that, we take a look at the story in order — and it’s really helped the students find the details of Dracula’s movements (“Oh, wait! That’s what the dog on the ship was!” “Oh, that’s why there was the detail about the escaped wolf!”).  I also color code the document, according to the different characters narrating (i.e. John Seward’s diary is in green, Mina Murray/Harker’s journal is in purple), which allows us to see how the narrative bounces from one character to another, and how the characters themselves have to piece information together over time.


In doing this we’ve been able to have an effective discussion of the structure of the novel, which has shown the students that they can, indeed, break down the narrative into its parts and look inside the inner workings of the novel.

Emily Isaacson

Making Comics

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 18, 2015

I’m a big fan of multi-modal approaches to reading comprehension — I’ve written before about having students draw a poem, and I’ve adapted Barclay Barrios’s idea about IKEA directions for my freshman orientation group. Most recently, I borrowed an idea from my colleague — a Germanist who teaches a course on fairy tales — for my day on Charles Dickens in my survey course: create a comic highlighting the main points of the story.


On this particular day, my students read “The Story of Little Dombey” and “Sikes and Nancy,” which are Dickens’ own adaptations of his work for his public speaking tour — essentially, they are selections from two novels that he performed for his audience, giving only the central parts of these two particular episodes.


So, to prep my students, I showed them a few examples from Hark, a vagrant. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the artist takes literature and history as a subject matter for 6 or 9 paneled comics.  They’re funny, they’re spot on, and they can show students how it’s important — even in making jokes — that we have something to hang on to from the literature. (My favorite is “Dude Watching With the Brontes”.)  For me it established a tone for the class — we’re serious here in our study of literature, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. This is supposed to be fun — but reflective of the text in front of us.


From here, I provided groups of three a sheet with six panels on it, and had students select one of the two stories. The directions from this point on were to pick the 6 most important moments, and illustrate them as best as they could. This work got students talking about the plots, and particularly identifying the plots that didn’t quite work out of the context of their respective novels. But they also talked a great deal about the central themes of the stories.


What the students came up with was amazing. In general, students approached the topic differently. We had lol-speak. We had serious attempts at illustrating the important moments. We had references to contemporary pop-culture — and one group even explained that the last moment of “Sikes and Nancy” would be saved for the post-credit sequence.


After students worked on their comics, I had the groups explain their choices, which allowed us to look at what they saw as not only central moments in the stories, but also the themes of the stories. What was remarkable about the effort was that students gravitated towards similar moments in the two stories. For example, the groups that chose “Little Dombey” all focused on the little boy’s complaint that money (his father’s highest concern) could not bring back his dead mother.


Student Cartoon Panel

In all, the students were able to sort out the plot, the characters, the themes without my intervention — and that goal is certainly a huge part of working on their ability to read literature.

Emily Isaacson

Performing as Professor

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 14, 2015

This post originally appeared on October 7, 2014.


When I talk to my students about writing papers, I discuss the idea of audience — most often, we discuss how things are different when speaking to our friends at another college about our weekend and speaking to our parents about it. From there I have the students think about what they’d tell the Dean of Students. That’s the one that typically gets students thinking about what they’d leave out of a discussion, and the different tone that they’d likely use.


What we’re really talking about, ultimately, is the aspect of performance for our audience. And that performative aspect is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of my presence in the classroom: I perform differently on Twitter than I do in person; I perform differently around my friends than I do in the classroom; in fact, I perform differently in front of my colleagues than I do in front of my students.


This is not to say that the shifts in my personality are huge — the same basic “me” is there — but rather that I’ve recently become very conscious of that performance aspect of my teaching. In the classroom, my goal is to be approachable, but authoritative. I want my classroom to be a fairly laid-back space, where students are comfortable grappling with the complexities of the texts in front of them. I also want them to have fun with the literature, and this is where I’m most conscious of the way that I become performative — and, in fact, have become so increasingly over my years of experience.


What I’ve noticed in teaching over the past several years is that I’ve become much more conscious of the space that I take up in the classroom — particularly the way that I take up that space.  I’ve always been one to pace across the front of the room, or even move into the rows of students.  While this has the potential drawback of being distracting for some students, I also think it’s important for keeping students engaged and showing that I’m paying attention to them.


But that’s not quite what I’m talking about either.


What I’m really talking about is becoming, in some ways, much bigger, more physically expressive than I normally am in day-to-day conversation.


Perhaps the easiest way for me to explain this is to talk about what happens when I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Students — particularly Intro to Lit students — don’t always quite visualize how very terrifying it is when the narrator is creeping about the smooch above the mopboard in that final section. What’s particularly frightening in that scene is when she looks over her shoulder at John and he faints. It always strikes me as a little bit like some scenes from The Grudge (a movie I’ve only seen trailers for, by the way), but I think that even just suggesting that to the students doesn’t quite do it. So, I show them where the mopboard would be, then I lean over — almost getting down on the ground — and begin creeping, turning my head abruptly back in to explain how terrifying this might be.


It’s very physical, and it’s something that I find that I do more and more as I teach. The performance usually doesn’t wind up being quite this undignified (it is probably a sight when I’m wearing high heels and doing this), but as I continue to teach I’ve found much more hand waving, much more exaggerated movement on my part. It’s not really the sage on the stage — most of the courses I teach are almost entirely discussion-driven — but it is an acknowledgement that we’re onstage when we’re teaching, no matter what.