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33 Posts authored by: Emily Isaacson Expert

[[This blog was original posted on January 23, 2013.]]


I’ve previously discussed on this blog ideas about the ambiguity and open-endedness of interpretation. Today I’m thinking specifically about how making connections across texts is central to the work of the literature classroom.


This is something, I think, that students often need to be given permission to do.  I’m not sure if it’s a matter of fear that they’ll have the “wrong” answer, or if it’s simply a matter of not remembering things, but I’ve found that my students  need some prodding to answer the question: “Does this text remind you of anything else we’ve read this semester?”  While I certainly include that question among their reading journal assignments, I’ve also found that a bit more direct intervention is important.


Certainly, we can do our own modeling of making connections, announcing when we see a connection with something else in the text.  (In fact, one of the things I love about teaching an intro to lit course is that I read things that are normally outside of my immediate area of expertise, and thus I begin to see connections I might otherwise have missed.)

But we can also create a situation where students are required to make those connections on their own.


I’ve found the following exercise to be helpful.

  • I have students read 5 to 6 poems before class, poems that fit within a theme. In our course, it’s poetry about death.
  • Prior to our class meeting, I print up a sheet of questions (see below), and print on separate strips of paper the titles of the poems.  Depending on the size of the class, I’ll make 3 or 4 copies of each poem title. In class, I divide the students into small groups and then go around and have one student in each group pick two of the slips of paper (think magicians asking you to pick a card).
  • Students then have the task of answering the questions about the poems and, more importantly, making connections among the poems, whether it’s through theme, the personas of the poems, or the figurative language that they see in the texts.  By having students select the texts for comparison at random, I am trying to encourage the students to think about the many complex ideas – and particularly the way that those complex ideas can appear across poems.

Sample questions (and these are drawn from various sources, including, most recently Judith Stanford’s Responding to Literature. I’ve been asking some of these questions for so long at this point, that I’ve lost track of which ones were inspired by what sources):


Directions for the group: Answer each question for each poem, keeping in mind where the poems have commonalities and where they have serious contrast:


  • What is the relationship of the speaker to the person who has died or is dying?  How might this influence the speaker’s feelings about death?
  • In depicting death itself, what sort of metaphors or figurative language do these speakers use?  How does this affect the way that they feel (or you as the reader feel) about death?
  • What other pieces of literature might be useful in a comparison here?  (These can be from any other day’s reading in the course.)  Why might they be useful?


Once my students have worked together — and after I’ve talked with each group — we come back together as a class to discuss individual poems and how each poet portrays death. When we deal with themes in literature such as mortality, love, learning, or any other big concept, we encourage students to deepen their understanding of the literature they read, and to connect these themes with their own lives and experiences.

Emily Isaacson

Embracing Ambiguity

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Aug 26, 2015

[[This blog was originally posted on January 1, 2013]]


I once had a delightful student who, despite her actual talent for interpretation, would get incredibly frustrated by the ambiguity of much of the literature that we would read for class.  I could always see the wheels turning and her brows furrowing when she would begin to explain her interpretation, particularly when she didn’t quite have an end in sight.  As a major in social sciences, she wanted unambiguous results and quantifiable answers.


And that’s just not what we do in literary studies.


From my perspective, it was actually delightful: when I see students struggle like that, I know that they’re developing intellectually.  I’ve always enjoyed the ambiguity of interpretation – or at least the possibility of multiple interpretations.  I’ve also generally been most interested in the many links that we can make across works of literature.


Most importantly, though, I think it’s important to emphasize with our students that this is a valuable skill: I’m reminded of Keats’ idea of negative capability or of James Baldwin’s idea in “Notes of a Native Son” of holding two apparently opposing ideas in his mind.  An ability to operate within that ambiguity, or to balance opposing ideas is necessary in our modern world: it allows us to deal with nuance and to sort out the complexities of our global lives.


So how do we do this?  How do we encourage students to feel comfortable with ambiguity?


One way would be to have students work through their own interpretations in small groups in the classroom, without the immediate intervention of the professor/authority figure. They could then report back to the class, offering possible readings and asking questions to spark discussion. It’s important, at the outset, to point out that there are some interpretations that will be more plausible than others, and that there’s no single correct interpretation. At the same time, each interpretation needs to be supported by evidence from the text. So students need to be able to make a claim and back it up with specific passages.


This approach would be most productive for students in introductory literature courses – it could work particularly well for non-majors – because it encourages interdisciplinarity in interpretations.  Asking students to talk about a text in terms of their own majors and areas of expertise will benefit the class discussion as a whole.


This approach does require a level of comfort on our part as instructors: We have to be willing to admit a lack of knowledge about something to our students (e.g., I’ve had students explain rules of football, the bone structure of birds, and music videos to me).  It also means linking literature to things in our own lives, or with our own interests.  It also means, I think, recognizing that our goal in the introduction to literature classroom is to develop the ideal reader, which is different from our goal in a graduate-level course on English.


And really, deep down, it’s about sharing our own love of reading and our own comfort with that ambiguity.

This blog was originally posted on January 16th, 2013.


In the student-centered literature classroom, one of the skills we try to teach is the ability to evaluate other people’s claims about a work of literature.  We can do this in a variety of ways, but one way I’m particularly fond of is based on an exercise that I found in Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Berkeley, K. Patricia Cross, and Claire Howell Major.  Their exercise is called “Send-a-Problem,” and it asks students to answer a series of open-ended questions about theme and character development, and then evaluate a set of answers. Their version of the exercise calls for the instructor to write each question on the outside of a manila envelope.  Students then work in small groups to answer the question, slide their answer into the envelope, and pass it along to the next group.  Eventually, groups will have answered all but one question; upon receipt of the final envelope, each group will evaluate all the answers to that last question, a question they have not yet themselves answered.


Conceptually, I like this exercise. Logistically, I hate it. So I’ve adjusted it to suit my needs. I simply create a list of questions, print each on a separate sheet, and give each group all but one of the questions.  Students take their time – often the bulk of a 50 minute class period – answering the questions as thoroughly as possible, then we redistribute and evaluate.

For example, I frequently use this exercise with James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  I’ve taught the story every year for the past 6 years, and I’ve taught it from a number of anthologies, including Ann Charter’s The Story and Its Writer and Abcarian, Klotz, and Cohen’s Literature: The Human Experience and I’ve drawn some of my questions from those authors.  I also write my own questions, based on the themes that we’re talking about in class – essentially questions that ask students to define concepts based on the story.

Here’s how it works in my classroom:



  • I write (or select from the instructor’s guide to the text) 6 or so questions for the day’s reading.  Each question is designed to require significant thought on the part of the group – and requires students to find specific quotations to support their claims. Here are some questions that I’ve used for “Sonny’s Blues.”
    • How do you react to Baldwin’s change of prose style in describing the scene at the nightclub? How does his change in style contribute to his message? In what ways does it make his message harder to decipher?  What does it suggest about the narrator’s change as a character? (Charters)
    • How should we read the reference to the “cup of trembling” in the last paragraph of the story? Should we read it to mean that trembling and fury will be visited on whites (“them that afflict thee”)? Or pushers? Or is the full biblical passage not relevant? Explain. (Charters)
    • What function does the narrator’s encounter with Sonny’s friend at the beginning of the story serve? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • What effect does Baldwin achieve by rearranging the order of events? (Abcarian, et al.)
    • How does Baldwin this story define family in this story?  What does it mean to be a member of a family?  To have connections with family members?  Is this something culturally specific? (Mine)
    • Who is the protagonist of the story? How do we you know? What is the central conflict for the protagonist? (Mine)
    • I create a Word document that presents each question on a separate page, and number the questions 1 through 6.
    • I make enough copies of question sheets so that each group (students will be divided into 6 groups total) will have 5 of the 6 questions.
    • I sort the questions and provide each group with a set of will get all the questions except the one that corresponds with their group number (i.e. group 3 does not get question 3).
    • I label each stack with a big post-it note indicating with the group number.


In class:

  • Students self-select into 6 groups (in my classes, that’s typically 4 students per group).
  • I distribute the stacks to each group.
  • I circulate while students write out their answers (and I discourage students from writing their names on the sheets).
  • Once students have had a set amount of time with the sheets, we redistribute, so that every question 2 goes to group 2, etc.
  • Once each group has a complete set of answers to a single question, they evaluate the responses.
  • I encourage students to select the best answer, add where necessary, or combine more than one answer to make the most complete answer
  • Each group then reports to the full class.


I like this exercise because it puts a lot of responsibility on my students.  It also gives them time to wrestle with complex discussion questions without the pressure of having the whole class listen or while the impatient instructor (me!) stands waiting.  Finally, I think it’s useful for students to examine how other people try to answer questions – it’s good for discussion and for their own written work for the class.