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

LitBits

33 Posts authored by: Emily Isaacson Expert

This blog was originally posted on September 2, 2014.

 

Recently, I got into a conversation on Twitter with a number of other early modernists about survey courses, a discussion that stemmed from another English professor’s frustration with her anthology’s options for The Faerie Queene. While we discussed different anthology choices that we make for our surveys, we ultimately wound up in conversation about what we include in our British Literature surveys, and what we’re forced to leave out. Some of it simply has to do with what our anthologies give us; some of it has to do with our philosophy towards the course; and a lot of it has to do with the other options our departments provide for our students.

 

My friend with the initial complaint admitted that she tends not to teach much Chaucer in the survey, because she’s at an institution with a great course on Chaucer — and as an early modernist rather than a medievalist, she feels she can’t do The Canterbury Tales the justice it deserves. Instead she teaches other Middle English texts like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and sometimes excerpts of Piers Plowman.  Other people in the conversation admitted to leaving out The Faerie Queene altogether, giving them more time to focus on 17th century works. And others admitted — like most of us — that one of the eras covered by our surveys always gets short shrift. For many of us, it winds up being late 18th century work.

 

What I found most interesting was the conversation about how people chose the texts that they did, with many opting for relatively thematic courses (focusing, for example, on gender or the construction of the English national identity or on a particular literary pattern). Others — myself included — tend towards a more traditional style of survey course, which means trying to teach students a sense of literary history through the survey.

 

I’m in an odd position in that I teach both parts of the British Literature survey.  While different schools divide the course differently, I’ve generally taught in places that use 1798 as the dividing line — so I run into the problem of trying to teach everything pre-1798 in 15 weeks, then everything post-1798 in the next 15.  Oddly (or not) it’s really difficult to pick literature for both of them. Because of my department’s size, I’m also the only person currently in the department to teach all of the British Literature courses (we simply run a course called “Studies in British Literature,” which I will develop each time to cover a different era or topic; I’m also making my “Studies in the Novel” course a British novels course). So basically: I’m responsible for making sure my students have some sense of British Literature from Old English up to contemporary works.

 

This feels like a lot of pressure some days and my instinct is to look at lesser known writers, to focus on interesting issues of labor and gender through the time periods. But I also feel a responsibility to introduce my students to the traditionally canonical authors. I’m grateful that most anthologies include a wide variety of materials to work with — and I particularly like anthologies that include sections giving context, whether it’s the context of poetic traditions in the 16th century or the context of the laboring classes in the 19th century. Still it’s a tough balancing act, particularly given the span of time and the number of authors I always feel like we ought to be covering.

 

For me, I think that it boils down to the idea that these are called “surveys” rather than “studies in.” The purpose behind this really is to give the overview of how the literary landscape is shaped.  And the choices that I make are certainly informed by that.

 

But those choices — and my choice to include a lot of cultural context as well as less canonical authors — is also related to this idea of surveying everything. Alexander Pope (who I teach, most certainly) may have had major influence over the formation of the canon, but I cannot teach him without acknowledging — and having my students read — Mary Wortley Montagu’s work as well. They’re both part of the same landscape.

 

As I prepared my list of readings for my post-1798 class for the fall, I was reminded of how much I rely on poetry to get me through these courses. We can read multiple authors on these occasions, if the goal is primarily one of exposure to the names and the major movements.  It does lead to some weird mash-up days (we’re reading Derek Wolcott and Seamus Heaney on the same day), but it also allows for students to get a sense of the entire field. For additional coverage, I have students give presentations on texts we’re not reading in class, but which are represented in the textbook — and the explicit goal there is simply to have the exposure to the names.

 

Perhaps, most importantly, my course outcomes — beyond the sort of standard language about exposure to major figures of major movements — focus on the idea of students being able to articulate the relationship between the author, the text, and the world. I especially want them to do this through working on close reading and analysis.  And perhaps that is why, when it comes down to the moment of guilt about not including this author or that text, I am able to assuage some of my concern.  The real goal, then, is to teach students about the way we can read the work. Once they’re capable of that, they can go out and explore beyond our courses on their own.

This post originally appeared on August 19, 2014.

 

Throughout the last decade-plus of college teaching, I’ve been called upon to do a lot of teaching outside my immediate area of expertise. A great deal of this began when I working off the tenure track at Florida Atlantic University, where I began teaching a course called “Interpretation of Fiction.” This is a course that primarily covers short stories (though we also read a novel) – and the short story was the one form that I felt, as a student of early modern drama, that I was unqualified to teach. Of course I’d studied short stories in classes – I’ve got three English degrees, after all – but I still felt like I didn’t understand the form, or know the types of stories to bring to the classroom, given that this form simply isn’t something we think about much when we read Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton.

 

So it was a crash course in the short story, provided by Ann Charters’ The Story and its Writer. But because of that experience, I began reading much more world literature in earnest. I’d studied some Kafka as an undergrad; I’d read some Chekhov in my teen years, but never really thought much of it; and certainly I was aware of the weirdness of Borges’ works. But much of what I was doing in the first semester of teaching that course was learning alongside my students.

 

Because of that initial experience after graduate school, and because I’ve since worked exclusively at small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 1500 students (and with very small English departments), I’ve spent a lot of time teaching outside of my immediate specialties. And this will continue for the foreseeable future.

 

In my current position, I’m teaching the courses of a woman who taught at the school for more than 40 years (I am not replacing her. She is an institution unto herself, and I certainly am not trying to fill those shoes. I’ve got my own.). The courses I teach range from Shakespeare and the British Literature survey courses to the survey of modern world literature and the novels course. I’m also in the process of creating a 100-level course on literature about nature, because we’re an institution with a large number of environmental science majors – and this seems like a topic that will interest a large portion of our student population. On top of this, I’m already carving out a niche for directing honors projects that cover, in essence, nerd culture.

 

Some days, it’s overwhelming. And I miss the comfort of being able to speak extensively on a topic without a whole lot of preparation when students have particular questions. But at the same time, there’s something extraordinary to me about being, ultimately, a generalist. I’m pushed to learn more and more every time I teach, and I’m pushed to expand my own literary experiences.

 

And that probably explains why I don’t feel bad that my summer reading has been classical Japanese literature, and not the scholarly articles about non-Shakespearean dramatists that I know I should be reading instead. At the same time, I have these moments of guilt about relying primarily on my Twitter feed for news of what’s happening in my primary field (there are lots of great early modernists on Twitter, incidentally). I wonder if I’m doing this wrong.

 

But those moments are ultimately pretty fleeting, because I’m coming to accept that I can still do my research in the field, and then turn my attention to the Tale of Genji the rest of the time.

Emily Isaacson

The Value of Silence

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 14, 2015

This post originally appeared on April 16, 2014.

 

Lately, I’ve noticed that my tolerance for wait time—those moments of silence during a classroom discussion– is getting bad.  Really bad.  And perhaps, more importantly, my conviction that class is going horribly if my students aren’t talking nonstop has gotten stronger.  I want my students to be talking, and I want them talking now.

 

But that doesn’t work. That’s why I’ve been trying to be more conscious of (and patient with) wait time, which is something that has always been part of my struggle in the classroom.  And I’ve recently discovered that giving students time to look for answers before expecting a response has actually done wonders.

 

Take a class where I taught Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi.”  The story is a quest narrative where the narrator, in search of fulfillment and a transcendent experience, seeks out a mystic.  Critics argue that below the surface of Mahfouz’s tale lies a great deal of political critique.  To get to that, I wanted students to talk about the various characters that the narrator meets in his search – and particularly how, in the story, different members of Egyptian society treat the seeker along his quest.

 

I realized that if I wanted students to respond meaningfully to Mahfouz’s story, I needed to pose clear questions and give them a chance to process them. I needed to give my students time to look at the story for the answers and (most importantly) to point to direct quotations that would illustrate and support their answers.  I gave students 5 minutes and 3 questions:

1. Who is the character?

2. What profession is he in?

3. How does her respond to the narrator’s quest?

By doing so, I provided students with a way in to the text and an opportunity for them to process their ideas before responding.

 

I simply stopped in the middle of class and asked students to look at the text and apply the above questions to the characters they encountered. When we resumed discussion we were able to chart out on the board the various characters – and point to Mahfouz’s criticism of the figures of social authority in the text (for example, the saintly Zaabalawi is mostly like to be found with the drunkard, and not with the lawyer).

 

It’s so simple, and yet so hard sometimes to remember that in our classrooms, our students need time to process our questions and to re-read literary texts with our questions in mind. They need us to take off the pressure of answering questions immediately. To let this happen, I’ve learned that it’s a good practice to wait out a long silence.

Emily Isaacson

When Organization Fails

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 11, 2015

This post originally appeared on March 25, 2014.

 

I am both very organized and a complete organizational nightmare.  I am thankful that computers can easily and quickly search documents for key words.  I would never find old teaching material otherwise, because I am both a hoarder of the old stuff and a person who dallies with organizing systems, then tosses them aside.  (I did finally purge a large portion of my paper files last year, but I’ve still got a box of teaching files that I want to keep on hand.)

 

Now that I have about a decade’s worth of teaching files – some paper, but mostly now digital – I am terrified by this fact.  While I don’t want to be that straw man version of a professor pulling out the yellowed old lecture notes, I also know that I like to refer to my old notes as I plan to re-teach texts.  I want to look back at what I’ve done before and figure out what worked well, or even what didn’t work the last time I taught a particular work of literature.

 

This came back to me with some force as I’ve been preparing to teach Tartuffe to my world lit students.  I’ve taught the play a few times, but it’s been more than 5 years since I’ve done so.  I realized that I wanted to look at what I did last time I taught the course, even though I really won’t use many of those ideas.  I mostly just wanted to see what types of discussion questions I had asked last time around, to see if anything inspired me this time around.  Fortunately, I could find these by that search function, because I surely wouldn’t have found them just looking through the files on my laptop or my external hard drive.

 

But that really doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, which is that as college professors we tend to acquire a lot of stuff.  And we have to do something with that stuff.  I’ve got decent organizational patterns in place for my own scholarship and for any campus service that I do, but that’s mostly because I don’t repeat the same things over and over again – and because those files don’t serve the multiple purposes that my teaching files have to serve.  So I’ve been thinking about how to manage the files this semester from the get-go, something especially important to me because I’ve got four separate preps this semester (3 literature courses, 1 composition course).

 

As I’ve been thinking about organizing the materials, I’ve realized that I need to think about the multiple purposes of keeping teaching files and planning charts.  The first purpose is the more immediate one: I need to know what I’m doing class-to-class, and what I’ve done in previous classes.  The second purpose is to hang on to records over the long term, mostly for the possibility of future reference (something that digital storage makes much more possible, as I seem to occasionally move across the country for work).

 

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to just name things for the date that I did them in class, with the hope that I’ll go back and resort them later.  This means that I have a lot of files titled things like “February 20” – but with no reference to the course or to the material in them.  There’s also the problem of working on both my home computer and my office computer.  I use Dropbox for a lot of things, but that requires installation on a computer not my own, so this semester I’m trying Google Drive, which allows me to work at home and in the office on documents.  I’m also trying to keep titles descriptive, or at least numeric – a document titled 206Sept5 is the plan I’ve made for my world literature course for September 5, and I’m trying to do the same with titling any presentations (so a presentation titled 206Sept5 is a presentation relevant to that particular class period).  This doesn’t solve the long-term storage problem, but it does at least start me with a consistent system for titling things, something that has become a problem in the past with mini-lessons that I’ve used in PowerPoint or other presentation software.

 

On top of that, before the semester began, I spent a good chunk of time creating charts for each class that included the reading assignment, the relevant writing assignment, the relevant course objectives, and/or potential lecture topics (it totally depends on the course, but you get the general idea).  It’s something that I think will help me keep on track, and, perhaps most importantly, help me stay in control as I undertake this complex semester of learning the ropes of a new institution, teaching 4 preps (2 completely new, one  a course I’ve taught before with a textbook I taught in a very, very early version).

 

This is, I suppose, the lament of every person who teaches.  So I suppose I’d like to hear from you, dear readers: How do you keep yourself organized when it comes to teaching materials?  And should I just give up on the old stuff and simply create things anew and hope for the best?

When I teach introduction to literature, I almost always teach Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”  And when I teach that I have traditionally begun the class period by writing a list of objects from the story as students call them out.  We then talk about what the objects mean and what they say about the characters, and we’ve generally attempted some work at categorizing them.  As I kept going back to this way of teaching the story semester after semester, I realized that I was doing the bulk of the intellectual work — I was leading the students to an answer I wanted them to reach, rather than pushing them to explore the items and think about the way that they all fit together to make up the whole of the story.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Categories of objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Tools; apparel/gear; emotional items; weapons; and food.

 

So the most recent time I taught the story, I tried an experiment – and while I admit it needs a bit of fine-tuning, I think this is something that can work well.

For this lesson, I needed index cards, markers, and lots of masking tape.

1. First, I had students work in pairs to come up with a list of items from the story.  I encouraged them to identify items from different sections of the story –not just from one paragraph or one page.

2.  Students then wrote the items on the index cards.  On the front, they wrote the item, and noted the page number and the weight (if it was listed).  On the back, they wrote the category that O’Brien gives the item (i.e. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”) and the person who carried the item.  Each pair had to complete 25 cards.  (Note: I think 25 cards was too many for the particular class session that I tried this, though I’m not sure if that’s a function of my overestimation of what students could get done or if it’s a function of my overestimation of how many students had done the reading.  I’m also not sure that the information on the back was entirely necessary.  I’m still mulling that over.)

3. Next, each pair joined another pair to form a group of four.  I then directed the students to swap cards with other groups: 25 cards went to one group, 25 to another.  The end result was that each group had 50 cards written by other groups.  The groups eliminated any repeats and then worked to sort and categorize the items, according to what they saw as commonalities among the items.

4. We then worked as a class, listing the categories and  narrowing them down – for example, one group listed apparel and another listed gear so we folded the into a single category.  I wrote the major categories on index cards, taped them to the wall and then the students worked to put their cards under the appropriate classification.

 

One of the things that we noticed while doing this is that students had different ideas about some of the objects – are those objects that hold superstitious value really necessary items? Is Kiowa’s hatchet a weapon or is it more of an item with emotional significance?

 

This assignment also gave us the opportunity to really visualize the number of objects that the characters in the story carry (and that’s why I’m not sure that the problem was really that I gave the students pairs too many cards).

 

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Recreational items; tools/utilities; and apparel/gear.

 

Ultimately, this exercise was designed to help students slow down and pay attention to details, to read carefully what the O’Brien’s characters “think” they’re doing, and to take note of what the narrator actually presents to us about the actions of the characters.  We were able to focus on the material as a metaphor for the emotional experience of the characters, and the students’ physical interaction (even if through the place-holder of index cards) drove home the importance of those details in the story.  Even if we could not feel the weight of the objects, we could more firmly visualize their impact in our analysis.

[photo credit] Emily Isaacson, 2013. Objects in “The Things They Carried” identified by students: Weapons.

This post originally appeared on February 25, 2014.

 

One of the great challenges in teaching a survey course full of non-majors is making sure everyone knows how to write about literature.  This past semester, I faced that challenge in my world literature course – I had a room full of students, ranging from high school students taking college-level courses to senior English majors working on their capstone papers.  I didn’t want to lose my seniors, but I also know that when a sophomore psychology major sits down to write an interpretive paper in my class, that student might feel lost.

 

I decided that a bit of group writing in class might help.  I built the following exercise around the analysis of symbol and setting in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but you could easily adapt it to work with any narrative text.

1. First I divided the class into 8 groups – 2 groups for each act of the play – and gave students topics to work on for their particular act.  Some groups analyzed Chekhov’s use of setting; others worked on the symbols within their given act. (So, basically, the questions were:  “How does setting operate in Act 1?” or “What do the symbols of Act 1 tell the audience about the theme of the play?” and so on for each act).

 

2. Once the groups had gathered their information – and by this, I mean direct quotations from Chekhov’s play that supported students’ claims– I had them work together to write paragraphs, using in part a model (PIE or Point, Illustrate, Explain) that I learned when I worked for Barclay Barrios at Florida Atlantic University. Basically, my directions were this:

  • Make a claim about the topic (i.e. write a topic sentence that explains your main idea about setting or symbols in the play; in the model I learned from Barclay, this is the “Point” part).
  • Introduce the context for the quotation.
  • Give the quotation (this is the “Illustrate” part).
  • Explain the meaning of the quotation.
  • Explain how all of this works together to support your topic sentence (this is the “Explain” part).

3. Next, students swapped paragraphs with another group for review.  After they looked at each others' work, making notes for what needed clarification and elaboration, groups went back to work to revise their paragraphs.

4. When they finished revising, groups read their paragraphs aloud to the whole class.

This exercise succeeded in helping my students with their analytical skills – both in terms of reading a literary text and in reading and responding to their peers’ writing.  While not every student quite got the message that the exercise provided a model for how to write an analytical or interpretive paper, it did give me something to refer back to as I encouraged them to rethink and revise.

Emily Isaacson

Starting Fresh

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Sep 9, 2015

This post originally appeared on February 14, 2014.

 

I always enjoy the beginning of the semester: new students, new classes, and new school supplies (I still love those, all these many years past grade school).  This year, starting fresh, for me, also means a new university: I’ve recently started teaching at Heidelberg University in Ohio.  It means a change in student population, a change in curricular expectations, and a change in the number of freshmen that I teach.

 

It also means that I’m able to take what I learned in my last job – including the critical thinking program that I coordinated for two years – and apply them in this new setting.  And I’ve been thinking a great deal about the critical thinking part of the work that I was doing, in the context of this new job.  My previous experience with critical thinking was in a program with a relatively set curriculum, or with at least a set paradigm of critical thinking that was to be applied to all disciplines.  Here, however, I am freed from those constraints: I can pick what works and discard what hasn’t worked for my own teaching.  And I think that my teaching is the stronger for it all, both from working within a particular program that forced me to reconsider my course objectives and the objectives of the various assignments in my classes, and from now having a bit more room to play around with other frameworks of critical thinking.

 

What I’ve noticed in my classes so far (and there have only been a few meetings up to this point) is how much of the critical thinking vocabulary has become normal for me.  And more importantly, how many of the techniques I began to practice while working within – and eventually running – that critical thinking program emerged as I spoke with students this week.  In running a brief class discussion, I found myself asking students to clarify their thoughts with more precise language (clarity and precision were two standards for evaluating thought that we worked with a great deal in our program); I found myself asking students to paraphrase what other students had said, to ensure engaged listening – and engaged thinking, another technique that I began to practice in earnest under the past program.

 

(Also, I should note that it’s always pleasing, at the beginning of a semester and the end of a long summer of writing and relaxing, to realize that you actually remember how to do the thing that pays the bills.)

 

All of this – the critical thinking experience, the new students, the movement out of a specific critical thinking curriculum – is enabling me to develop a more specific paradigm of critical thinking for my literature students, particularly the students in my survey courses.  This semester, I’m teaching a survey of world literature, and I’m going to try to implement some of the ideas I’m working on in terms of deliberately cultivating critical thinking skills in a literature class.

 

It’s all a big adventure.  I hope to continue to chronicle it here and elsewhere, and I hope you’ll follow along.

This post originally appeared on February 5, 2014.

 

In my world literature course, I’m using The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, which has – among other features – some nice chapters on context.  For my class today, I had students read the section called “Society and its Discontents,” which includes selections from Zola, Nietzsche, Maupassant and Nitobe.  We’ve also recently read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” and selections of Baudelaire’s poetry (and if you’ve never read “Carrion,” you really ought to. Just probably not while eating).

 

We’ve been at this for a while now, and I’ve been the one making connections across the pieces of literature (primarily, I’ve been letting the students off the hook and not allowing for quite enough wait time during class discussion, something I’ve addressed in a separate post).  It occurred to me that my students might see connections that I don’t see – or at least that they’d reach their own conclusions about the ennui and general discomfort with the Industrial Revolution and scientific materialism of the nineteenth century.

 

To do this, I had students divide into groups to discuss the readings and make connections.

1. Each group selected three readings: one of the contextual readings; one of Baudelaire’s poems; and either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s short story.  The major question that students worked towards answering was “How does the selection you’ve chosen from today’s reading illuminate the Baudelaire poem and the Russian short story?”  It’s a purposefully broad question, in part because I wanted to see what students might do with it.

2. Each group also considered a handful of questions about the contextual selection from “Society and its Discontents”:

  • What does this reading say about modern society? About the middle class? About urbanization/industrialization?
  • What does the reading have in common with the poem and the short story?
  • How does the reading differ?

Really, these are simple questions. They focus on the themes that we’ve been covering (and some fundamental concepts for the working definition of “modernity” that we’ve been using), and they simply ask the students to compare and contrast.

 

As a result of this structure and degree of freedom, students chose and discussed the pieces that they felt worked best together – and they came up with a varied list, of course.  Students were able to discuss the literature in conversation with contextual materials, and identify, for example, the theme of the oppressiveness of middle class life expressed in all of these works.

And so it also happened, perhaps most sneakily on my part, that I got my students to review a pretty good chunk of material for the midterm exam which is next week.

This post originally appeared on August 19, 2013.

 

I want to encourage my students to find something in literature that resonates with them— and so I encourage them to make connections between their reading and their lived experiences. But I’ve been thinking a great deal about the limits of identifying with characters, particularly where that identification leads to a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation of the text at hand.

 

My experience of late has been that a number of my students will latch onto some aspect of a character or the character’s story that is recognizable to their own experiences. They make a personal connection, but often ignore other details of the work—even the ones that negate that identification—which of course gets in the way of thoughtful interpretation.

http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/litbits/files/2013/08/Issacson_6.5.13.jpg

[Photo Credit: Langston  Hughes, 1942. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress]

 

I run into this quite frequently when I teach Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” because I teach a lot of students from Protestant denominations that engage in revival services.  This is a useful opener: We can start with a discussion of what a revival service involves—and students can invoke their own experiences as children trying to understand the figurative language of adults.  However, for many of my students who are born again Christians, this becomes the stopping point: they bring their own experience of giving themselves to Jesus to the discussion, project that onto the text, and totally miss Langston’s own crisis in faith.

 

I was surprised, recently, when I ran into this problem when discussing Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” in class.  While talking about the motivation of artists—and their need to create—I worked to draw my artistic students into the conversation.  Several of them spoke of the urge or the need to draw, to paint, to play an instrument, to write, but one student pointed out (quite rightly, actually), that we can’t entirely know why artists are artists.  And I suspect that she took exception to my suggestion of the artist’s alienation.  It simply doesn’t match her own feelings or experience.

 

On the one hand, I want to say that Kafka is profoundly correct about the alienation of the artist.  But on the other, I need to remember that this is not necessarily an experience that all19-year-olds can identify with or articulate.  Especially 19-year-olds who haven’t dyed their hair weird colors and painted their fingernails black.  (Ahem, guilty.)

 

What both of these instances—discussing the work of Hughes and Kafka—remind me is that while it’s useful to allow a certain degree of personal identification with a text—it’s a way in, no doubt—we have to continually work to refocus the attention of the class back onto the text itself.

 

As I discussed in my earlier post about Melville’s “Bartleby,” part of our work in teaching literature is about reframing the conversation. There’s a constant need to remind ourselves and our students that we have to go back to the text itself to support our interpretations.  When we look for the themes of a literary work or try to define the concepts at its center, we need to look solely at what the author presents to us.

 

We might agree with what the author presents, or not. Either way, it’s still the author’s point of view—or at least the point of view put forth in the text that matters.

 

Connecting with a text should not get in the way of interpreting it. In the end, then, it’s all about the words. And we have to help our students remember to go back to them.

This blog was originally posted on April 9, 2013.

 

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), author of “A Hunger Artist.” Photo by Atelier Jacobi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), author of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons

 

I had an epiphany while grading some Intro to Lit papers recently: Students do not trust their ability to make connections.

This is by no means an original observation.  But while grading those papers – and thinking about this post – I finally understood my undergraduate advisor’s admonition that I needed to learn to trust my intuition more. I always took it to mean a distrust of reason, a distrust of analysis.  And I was totally unfair to my advisor, because that’s not at all what she meant.

 

What she meant was that I wasn’t trusting myself when I saw connections.

 

I recognize this problem in my own students’ writing.  For the current paper my students are working on, I’ve instructed them to write about the importance of setting in two pieces that we’ve read so far in class.  One piece of advice that I give on the assignment sheet is that students be deliberate in their choice of texts: They shouldn’t simply select pieces because they like them. The pieces need to connect somehow.

 

As I read a number of their draft papers, I saw that my students had picked short stories that work together – but that many were not quite sure of why and how the stories connect.  A number admitted in their introductions that they simply picked two pieces that they liked – or two pieces that “spoke to them” somehow.

 

From my point of view, I could see the connections.  I found them obvious.  For example, one student wrote about “A Hunger Artist” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  She wasn’t quite sure why she paired these stories, and couldn’t say more beyond: “I found them interesting.”  I see the connection between the trapped artists.  It’s there – though it’s not necessarily a connection I would have made immediately or without that student’s impulse to pair the two.

 

This student isn’t yet seeing that connection, or at least isn’t quite able to articulate the connection.

 

In my comments on the drafts I asked a lot of questions, as I always do, most notably about the relationship between the chosen pieces; I wanted students to get beyond: “I like these.”  I made suggestions in my final note to the student writing about the Kafka and Gilman stories—suggesting the idea of cages and the idea of the artist as a possible connection.  And I made similar notes on a number of other papers, where students seemed to have some intuition about connections but weren’t quite articulating them.

 

In the end, this gets me thinking that what we’re doing in Intro to Lit, inherently, is dealing with creative thinking – and not just critical thinking or analytical writing.  Pushing students to see the connections that they already sense helps them build on their own creative abilities.  And part of that is a willingness to trust instinct.

 

This is not to suggest that any intuitive connection that someone sees is going to be right.  That’s part of the critical and analytical work we do in class.  We look for what’s most plausible, what’s most persuasive.

 

This sort of ambiguity, this creative thinking, is essential in any field.  My friends who are scientists are creative people – they make observations and see connections.  My friends who are musicians do the same thing.  It’s a matter of knowing what we’re actually looking at.

 

That, if nothing else, is what I want to convey to my students in my Intro to Lit class.  That’s what the class is good for.

This post first appeared May 25, 2013.

 

I confess that I spend far too much time on social media.  I like Facebook to connect with far-flung friends and family members.  I use Twitter to interact with other early modern scholars (and I’ve developed a number of professional contacts because of my use of the site).  Last fall, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, I began to use Pinterest to start collecting (“pinning”) items that interested me – especially, like a huge number of users, crafts that I’ll never actually attempt and recipes I might try when I’m feeling particularly ambitious.  I joined tumblr over my winter break, mostly to figure out what it’s all about – and I’ve discovered it’s both a place to aggregate things that inspire me and a place to post some of my own creative work,in particular, my photography.


From my tumblr for my Renaissance Literature course.

I’ve also been looking at these as opportunities to connect with my students.  I’m really not trying to be a hip professor (I’m pretty far from that). I’m just trying to encourage my students to engage with materials outside of class – and beyond our textbook.

 

For a number of years, I’ve kept a Facebook page for the English majors at my institution.  And I’ve also made a half-hearted attempt to engage my students on twitter by including a suggested hashtag in the syllabus.  But that’s something that I’ve not really been able to keep up – by the second week of the semester, I’m struggling to come up with appropriate things to say about the readings or about the classes.

 

But I’ve found a different use in tumblr and pinterest.  If you’re not familiar with either site, you might take some time to just look around at the blogs (tumblr) and the boards (pinterest) – and one of the advantages is that you can look at things without necessarily having a membership to the site.

 

I’ve found them useful because both can serve as aggregators of information.  Both are visually oriented – and both make it very easy to link to off-site material.  Tumblr pages look and behave primarily like the blogs we’re all familiar with, though it is more visual than textual, typically.  Pinterest boards act like virtual bulletin boards, where we can simply collect information to sort through later.  I think the metaphor of pinterest appeals to me more as I collect information.

 

From my Pinterest board for my Renaissance Literature course.

 

I don’t know how much my students have made use of the boards, but I’ve encouraged them to look at them repeatedly.  I link from our Blackboard site.  I use them in class to pull up specific, relevant information.

 

What’s most important, though, is that maintaining these sites has not been particularly time consuming: I have buttons on my bookmarks bar on my browser that allow me to quickly add something.  And I’m looking at quite a lot of the same things anyway, so why not take the moment to share it with my students?

This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2013.

 

I don’t know about anyone of you out there, but at a certain point in the semester I feel an exhausted relief when I look at the scheduled readings and see that I’ve been smart enough to assign texts that I’ve read before, that I’ve taught before.  I have that moment when I think, “I don’t necessarily have to re-read this – I’ve done this before.  I’ll just do what I did last time.”

 

It’s not a good habit, but it’s an understandable one, I think.  And I suspect that most of us give in to the temptation from time to time.

 

But last week, I was reminded once again why it is that I need to re-read for class – and not just because I need to be sure that I’m completely prepared.

 

I was preparing to teach “A Rose for Emily” (and Faulkner happens to be one of my favorite authors) – and it’s something that I’ve taught at least once a year since 2006.  So I’m pretty familiar with the story.  But I re-read it anyway.

 

Because we’re focusing on setting in my course right now, I tried to pay particular attention to the details of setting, as described by the narrators.  Many are the details  I’ve always paid attention to in class (Miss Emily’s house as “an eyesore among eyesores” and the dust and stagnant air throughout the story); but this time, one small detail jumped out at me at the very beginning of the story.

 

As the narrators describe Miss Emily, they say that she “had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery.”

 

The cedar-bemused cemetery.

 

What an extraordinary description – and one that I’ve probably read (and perhaps even noted) in the past.  But this time, I was reading a clean copy (we just switched editions, so my book has no annotations yet) – and so this simply struck me.

 

And that’s the point.  While it is important to re-read in order to prepare for class, it’s also important to re-read to simply recharge.  I know that I get caught up in the frustrations of the semester and the general exhaustions of life, but I also know that when it comes down to it, I actually love the stuff that we do in literary studies.  Cheesy? Sure.  But honest? Absolutely.

 

And that energy and enjoyment is infectious – and students will notice it.

This post originally appeared on February 19, 2013.

 

I’m always looking for ways to explain to students how reading and writing about literature is relevant to what they’re doing in their other classes—while I might think it’s obvious that reading carefully and writing clearly about a poem is of enormous benefit, many of my students need a bit more persuasion. I need to be more direct about what it is that we’re actually doing.  My thoughts on this come in part because the longer that I’ve taught and the more students I’ve encountered, I’ve found myself persuaded by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s argument in They Say, I Say: while good students will intuit the moves the academic writers make, most students will not.

 

And I think that’s true of much of what we’re doing in the classroom. My students need to know why they’re writing the types of things that they’re writing, and why reading literature can help them in other courses. (A side note: I absolutely think appreciation and refinement of taste is important: however, that doesn’t exactly fly with first-year students who view my class as a school subject to suffer through. I think it’s worthwhile to try to persuade students of all of the values of what we do.)

 

Over time I’ve come to look for metaphors for reading literature and writing about their interpretations that might help put the intellectual work we do in some context. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

 

Writing and reading is like practicing for a game: Athletes have to practice certain moves over and over again. We’re doing the same thing in the literature and writing classrooms. Whether it’s practicing how to write a thesis statement or how to pick apart a poem, we need to practice it alongside someone who has more experience and who can help us improve our technique. (Of course, that’s simply the teacher-as-coach metaphor favored by some educators.)

 

Writing about literature is like writing a lab report: Analysis is taking something apart.  In science, we work in the lab to take things apart and to figure out how they work together (whether it’s a chemical reaction or the internal organs of the frog), then we figure out what it all means in our lab report. When studying literature, we’re doing much the same thing: dissecting the work in front of us. The words on the page are like the data we collect. The work that we do in interpreting those words – and in writing that essay about our interpretation – is like the lab report, because we’re explaining our thought process in a way that is clear to another reader.

 

Of course, reading literature isn’t quite the same as a scientific experiment, because we have different ideas about the value of ambiguity, which leads me to anther metaphor that might be useful:

 

Interpreting a piece of literature means making some of the same moves a musician does: This one might be more of a stretch, but hang with me: the pianist, the tenor, and the violinist all make choices about how to play the piece of music. But those choices are dictated by what’s on the page – the musical notes and notations on things like tempo and volume. When we read a piece of literature, we have to stick with what’s on the page – there’s no evidence of zombie activity in, say, A Doll’s House.  Or space aliens of “Ivan Illych.” But we don’t all read a passage quite the same way.  And even our own individual interpretation of a given passage will change upon repeated readings.

 

We can also learn a lot about the intellectual activities we need to engage in while we interpret literature—and while we write about literature—from other disciplines besides music. I think most important to keep in mind is the idea of the scientist who has to throw out huge amounts of data because an experiment failed. Or the failure of the code that the computer scientist writes.  Or the engineer who designs carefully and pays attention to very small details. While we may embrace ambiguity—and eschew a definitive interpretation of a text—we can certainly accept that some of our ideas fail. And most importantly, that sometimes our writing fails.

 

All of this leads us to an opportunity to talk about why some readings of a text might not work—and in turn, we help our students strengthen their interpretations. If we can encourage our students to recognize where an initial interpretation to a piece of literature goes somewhat awry, we can help them learn to return to the information—the text—and find new, better evidence; we can help students go back through the steps of their thought processes, and find better, more logical links among their ideas. That way, we help students develop more focused, plausible interpretations of literature, but also more focused, critical thinking and writing skills.

Emily Isaacson

Fashion and Literature

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Aug 31, 2015

This blog was originally posted on February 1, 2013.

 

I’ve written before about linking the material world with literature, because it’s something I’m interested in as a scholar.  But it’s also something that, I think, often helps students delineate time periods of literature.

 

I’ve used this idea when introducing students to different eras of British literature, especially when one of my course goals is to help students identify differences between those eras.  When I taught a survey of British literature after 1800, I spent time on the first day of each era showing students images of popular women’s fashions.  I simply pull up pictures (thank goodness for Google’s image search!), and together we examine the lines of the dresses and the accessories.

 

This becomes most effective when we’re  moving from one time period to the next.  For example, when we began the Victorian era, I pulled up a couple of pictures we’d look at for the earlier part of the 19th century (here are some Regency fashions) and then a large number of Victorian-style dresses and men’s fashions.  We were able to make some broad generalizations about some of the changes on mores, as suggested by the changes in styles of dress.  In addition to offering some general fun, the activity engaged the students visually and reminded them that as literature scholars, we can read all sorts of things—hats, vests, corsets, and bustles—as texts.

[[This blog post originally appeared on February 6, 2013.]]

 

http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/litbits/files/2013/02/Untitled.png

Herman Melville, a few years before the 1953 publication of “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”

 

I’ve been thinking a great deal about how to approach the concept of character in my introduction to literature courses. I’ve traditionally begun each semester by talking about characters and introducing my students to some of the basic terms that are important in reading characters (i.e. protagonist, antagonist, flat, round, static, dynamic).  This semester, I’m not entirely satisfied with the approach, particularly because my intro to lit class is comprised entirely of non-majors. This has gotten me thinking about why and how we talk about characters. In my experience, students enjoy discussing characters —especially the ones they strongly identify with. But while my students may identify with a character, they don’t always know why they do. Even more importantly, they often don’t know what to do with characters they do not identify with:  Characters with backgrounds that are unfamiliar.  Characters who are different.  Characters who are, in all honesty, weird. I’ve also been thinking about how I introduce students to the careful analysis of literature.  So often, when talking about characters or plots, students want to speak in very broad and uncritical terms. To handle both of these tasks— dealing with strange characters and working on critical analysis—I decided that we would look at how characters in a text describe one another.

 

I recently tried this with my class in our discussion of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” because who is more remote from students’ experience than the morose 19th-century copyist? First, we needed to establish what we knew about everyone else who appears in the story.  We began class as I always do with “Bartleby”: We made lists of the details that we knew about the narrator, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.  I made sure that the description the narrator gives of himself, that he was “an eminently safe man,” was part of our discussion.  From there, we moved to Bartleby.  After talking about Bartleby’s initial appearance at the lawyer’s door, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn,” we spoke specifically about what each word means.Next, I put students in charge of careful analysis. To do this I had them form pairs, and I assigned each a different paragraph from the story where the characters (mostly the narrator) describe Bartleby or interact with him. I asked students to read their assigned passages carefully, alert to Melville’s choices, especially word choices, in his presentation of Bartleby. In their pairs, students then answered these questions:

 

  1. Where in the story does the passage appear? What is the context for it?
  2. What is said about Bartleby in this passage, and which character says it?
  3. At this point, how does this character perceive Bartleby?
  4. How do you know this? That is, what specific words in the passage suggest this to you?
  5. In the passage, how does the character’s description of Bartleby compare with descriptions of Bartleby elsewhere in the story?

 

After  I’d given students time to work on this— and they certainly worked on it— I went  through the story chronologically, having them report back to the class about the discussion they had in answering these questions.  This led us to talking about the language that the narrator uses in telling his story, the various descriptions of Bartleby, and, most importantly, the way that the narrator changes as he describes his perceptions of Bartleby.  Bartleby really does not change all that much, but the narrator does.  And the narrator’s response to him tells us everything. In truth, this approach is primarily a matter of reframing basic questions: Who is Bartleby and why does he matter? Rather than simply asking students to respond to Melville’s character and story, I’m offering them tools and a set of questions to apply.  By looking at Bartleby through the point of view of other characters and the story’s narrator, my students could step of their own responses and, potentially, see the humanity they share with Bartleby.