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36 Posts authored by: LitBits Guest Blogger

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

I entered my first writing course as a college student with the smug assurance that my rural Northeast Georgia education had given me all the skills necessary to be academically successful after high school. At 8:00 A.M. on that inaugural Monday morning, English 101 (Composition) provided my first taste of higher education. The professor, a short, astute woman, stood at the front of class, her blue blazer and matching skirt affording her an air of reality that should have awakened me to the fact that I wasn’t in Elberton any more.

 

“Does everyone know what a comma splice is?” she asked after providing us an introduction to her expectations for our out-of-class writing assignments.

 

Like statues, we sat still. No one said a word, each of us complacently invisible.

 

“Does anyone have any questions about splices?”

 

Silence.

 

“Wonderful,” she sang. “This is indeed a first: A whole class of students prepared for college writing.”

 

The voice in my head screamed for me to say something, anything, but my anxiety about all these strange people in that strange place left me ignorantly dumbfounded.

 

“Your first essay will be due in two weeks. You will lose twenty points for each comma splice.” She paused. “And no one has any questions about splices?”

 

Two and half weeks later she returned my first college essay with a shocking zero written in red on the first page. I had made five comma splice errors – in the first three paragraphs. Devastated, I felt myself on the verge of tears.

 

Apparently, I wasn’t the only student that day to receive such a depressing grade on that first college writing assignment. As I looked at the woeful faces of my classmates, I saw that majority of us had indeed messed up in a big way.

 

“Now,” said a smirking professor. “Who would like to know what a comma splice is?”

 

A sea of hands shot toward the ceiling.

 

“Wonderful! Wouldn’t this have been so much easier had we done this on the first day?”

 

My professor graciously allowed her students to rewrite that first essay, and I am proud to say that not only did I become an expert on comma splices, but I also made an A on the rewrite.

 

Throughout my teaching career, I have heeded the tacit wisdom of my first college professor by allowing my students the option to rewrite or clean up essays that do not meet their (or my) expectations. This option, while one that requires me to work a little harder, pays bigger dividends in the end. The investment of time on both our parts (students and professor) on the early essays pays off when the papers take less time to read at the semester’s end.

 

The paper rewrite (or clean-up) produces several necessary outcomes for our students:

  • Students take increased ownership of their writing, especially when a grade improvement is involved.
  • Students’ understanding of their mistakes becomes more relevant when they can see measurable evidence of their efforts.
  • Students begin to understand and use the rubric from a practical level instead of a theoretical or “in-one-ear-and-out-the-other” level.

 

The rewrite may not be for everyone. Warming up to it took me several semesters, but once I saw the benefits in my students’ writing, I realized I could not omit this necessary step in the writing process if my goal was to help my students become clearer, more effective writers.

Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert. Daniel has taught Literature and Communications courses for Colorado Technical University since 2010. In addition, he teaches on-ground English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award at CTU in 2017 and 2019.

 

Daniel enjoys writing fiction, essays, and poetry. He published a poetry collection, Love Adventure (with his wife, Anhthao Bui), in 2017. He published his first collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, in 2016. His fiction appears in the anthologies When Words Collide, Flash It, Daily Flash 2012and Daily Frights 2012. His writing also appears in the periodicals Silver Apples, The Daily Breeze, Easy Reader, Other Worlds, and Wrapped in Plastic.

 

 

The term “theme” may be defined as “the central idea embodied by or explored in a literary work. . .” (Gardner 1437). Some students, and even some instructors, may undervalue the importance of theme. However, the importance of theme can be better understood when we view it as a way to bridge the gap between literature and “real life” events. For example, with the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) causing most colleges to transition from on-ground to online teaching within a matter of days, our students are contemplating the pandemic’s worst-case outcomes. How can we as instructors help to put these concerns in context? Perhaps by teaching the theme of apocalypse, which reminds our students that they are not alone: authors have contemplated the end of the world for centuries.

 

The double threats of pandemic and climate change have engendered an increasing concern for the health and well-being of Earth and its inhabitants. Science fiction author Sheila Finch suggests that apocalyptic literature provides a type of catharsis for the reader: “There’s something compelling about other people’s horrendous events, the greater the destruction the greater the fascination, just as long as we ourselves are safe” (104). We can illuminate this fascination for our students by comparing the work of two poets: William Butler Yeats and W.S. Merwin.

 

The apocalyptic imagery throughout W.S. Merwin’s poetry mirrors similar imagery in William Butler Yeats’s work; specifically, his poem “The Second Coming.” Yeats was influenced by the carnage of the First World War to imagine a time when “things fall apart” (3). Merwin evokes images of ecological disaster rather than man’s inhumanity to man in “Rain Light” when he describes a hill emblazoned with “the washed colors of the afterlife” (9) at a time when “the whole world is burning” (12).

 

In the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” Yeats tells the tale of a time of chaos in which humanity is separated from nature and God. Nature, in the form of a falcon, tries fruitlessly to reconnect with man: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (1-4). Merwin also uses avian imagery, as well as the image of an endless and pointless loop, in his poem “The Speed of Light”: “…we did not see that the swallows flashing and the sparks / of their cries were fast in the spokes of the hollow / wheel that was turning and turning us taking us / all away as one with the tires of the baker’s van” (16-18). The natural world succumbs to industrialization as the speaker laments the end of the day: “… we thought it was there and would stay / it was only as the afternoon lengthened on its / dial and the shadows reached out farther and farther…” (22-24). The speaker begins to realize too late that the end has arrived: “…we began to listen for what / might be escaping us…” (25-26). Finally, Merwin brings us to the end of the day “…the village at sundown calling their animals home / and then the bats after dark and the silence on its road” (27-28).

 

In the second stanza of “The Second Coming,” Yeats describes a perversion of the Second Coming of Christ: after 2,000 years of Christ’s guardianship, 20th-century Earth has given birth not to a savior but a destroyer; a god of war: “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…” (14-15). Yeats ends his nightmare vision with a rhetorical question that leaves no hope for the future: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (21-22).

 

Merwin evokes his own nightmare in his poem “Rain Light.” The speaker recalls the dying words of his mother: “…my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right” (2-3). Perhaps the speaker’s dead mother is the ghost of Mother Earth. The speaker is mankind, who is left to tend a world in tatters. The world has lost its luster and is now only a shell: “…the patchwork spread on the hill / the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born” (8-10). Merwin’s poem ends on a bittersweet note, as the still-alive flowers provide a glimmer of hope: “…see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning” (11-12).

 

In his poem “My Friends,” Merwin addresses a theme visited by Yeats in “The Second Coming”: the devastating effects of war. Merwin’s speaker laments the degradation and ultimate loss of his comrades in arms: “My friends without shoes leave / What they love / Grief moves among them as a fire among / Its bells…” (3-6). These witnesses to war’s devastation lose their ability to see, but they can still hear the world ending: “My friends without fathers or houses hear / Doors opening in the darkness / Whose halls announce / Behold the smoke has come home” (21-24). Who is to blame for this destruction? Is it the predatory desire to destroy that is embedded in the human heart? “This message telling of / Metals this / Hunger for the sake of hunger this owl in the heart” (27-29). We are doomed to destroy the Earth and each other because we are predatory owls, hungering for the next kill.

 

Will the apocalyptic visions of William Butler Yeats and W.S. Merwin cause your students to work harder to prevent the cataclysm of pestilence or climate change? Perhaps. More likely, the study of apocalyptic themes will cause your students to realize we are not alone: for centuries, literature has motivated us to weather the storms that assail us.

 

Which authors do you use to teach the concept of theme? I would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Finch, Sheila. Myths, Metaphors, and Science Fiction: Ancient Roots of the Literature of the Future. (Conversation Pieces Number 39). Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2014.

 

Gardner, Janet E., et al. Literature: A Portable Anthology. Fourth Edition. Bedford, 2017. p. 1437.

 

Merwin, W.S. “My Friends.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. n.d. https://poets.org/poem/my-friends. 14 November 2019.

 

-----. “Rain Light.” The Merwin Conservancy. 2019. https://merwinconservancy.org/2013/10/rain-light-by-ws-merwin/. 14 November 2019.

 

-----. “The Speed of Light.” The Merwin Conservancy. 2019. https://merwinconservancy.org/?s=the+speed+of+light. 14 November 2019.

 

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Fourth Edition. Ed. Gardner, Janet E., et al. Bedford, 2017. p. 500.

 Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert. Daniel has taught Literature and Communications courses for Colorado Technical University since 2010. In addition, he teaches on-ground English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award at CTU in 2017 and 2019.

 

Daniel enjoys writing fiction, essays, and poetry. He published a poetry collection, Love Adventure (with his wife, Anhthao Bui), in 2017. He published his first collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, in 2016. His fiction appears in the anthologies When Words Collide, Flash It, Daily Flash 2012and Daily Frights 2012. His writing also appears in the periodicals Silver Apples, The Daily Breeze, Easy Reader, Other Worlds, and Wrapped in Plastic.

 

When is it appropriate to use the biographical approach to teach literature? Sometimes an author’s autobiography proves to be as interesting as the fictional stories they tell. On occasion, the line between an author’s life and their literary output blurs. When we find the same themes in an author’s life and their fictional stories, it is an opportune time to utilize the biographical approach in our classes.

 

A case in point is the prolific speculative fiction author Harlan Ellison (1934-2018). One of his last stories, “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” was published in the 2014 anthology In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon (edited by mystery authors Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger). The story was also published in Ellison’s short story collection, Can & Can'tankerous (2015). The unnamed narrator of Ellison’s story shares three important traits with the beloved fictional detective Sherlock Holmes: a craving for justice, a meticulous desire to solve mysteries (both old and new), and a (mostly) endearing eccentricity.

 

Let’s start with the third similarity, the undeniable eccentricity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There is much evidence of this in the canon: his habit of firing a gun into the wall of his flat or his practice of keeping his best tobacco stored in a Persian slipper are merely two examples. Likewise, if you have spent any time in science fiction fandom, you probably already know Harlan Ellison was eccentric – you may have encountered the legends of Ellison using peculiar methods to get even with editors and publishers who wronged him (such as mailing dead gophers to their offices). Having met Ellison in person, I can attest to his uniqueness and his eccentric character. Let me say just this: Nobody made an entrance like Harlan Ellison.

 

Much of Ellison’s writing is very dark, and “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” is no exception. This is a story about a wrong that is righted in a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful manner. The story begins with an explanation of the wrong. The author explains it this way: “A bad thing had happened . . . A man in Fremont, Nebraska cheated an honest old lady, and no one seemed able to make him retract his deed to set things right. It went on helplessly for the old lady for more than forty years. Then, one day, she told a friend” (Ellison 215). Could Harlan Ellison be the friend in question? Is this story fiction or nonfiction? Ellison gives the reader a choice: for those who choose to believe it is fiction, he writes, “have at it . . . for those who choose to believe that I am recounting a Real Life Anecdote, I’m down with that, equally: your choice” (215).

 

The first actual scene of the story finds a man in bed in a New York high-rise apartment. It is early morning. He awakens to the ringing of his bedside telephone. He picks up the receiver, and a voice on the other end instructs him to watch his window curtain. Sure enough, a figure in black steps out from behind the curtain. The figure is holding a raw potato with a double-edged razor protruding from one end. The razor-potato man holds the weapon to the recent sleeper’s throat. The voice on the phone tells the recent sleeper to follow his directions precisely or his throat will be cut.

 

The recent sleeper is told to sell an item in his possession, a “painting by a nearly-forgotten pulp magazine artist named Robert Gibson Jones,” to a particular dealer (218). Presumably, this is one of the items that was stolen from the old lady by Billy Brahm, the perpetrator in Nebraska; the recent sleeper is apparently Billy’s brother.

 

I use words like “presumably” and “apparently” because this story is a mystery in every sense of the word: Ellison tells the story in a scattering of fragmentary scenes that are interspersed with descriptions of seemingly-unrelated events from seemingly-random corners of the globe. Is Billy brought to justice? Is the Robert Gibson Jones painting (not to mention the forty-seven other stolen pieces) returned to “the old woman Back East” (223)? I can’t answer these questions; every time I reread “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” I feel as if I learn something new.

 

Ellison’s story ends with a man in London (the story’s apparent protagonist) reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Red-Headed League.” He closes the book, smiles, and repeats a Latin phrase uttered by Sherlock Holmes in the story: “Omne ignotum pro magnifico” (223). Translated to English, the phrase means “Everything unknown is taken for magnificent.” Holmes’s foes are amazed when he finds them out, simply because his methods are a mystery to them. Billy Brahm was undoubtedly amazed to be brought to justice after forty years. Could the voice on the phone, the man in London, and the “He” of the story’s title be Harlan Ellison himself? Could Ellison be the mastermind who used Holmesian tenacity, resourcefulness, and, yes, eccentricity to bring a forty-year-old mystery to a satisfying end?

 

I will go one step further: Ellison ends his very unusual, eight-page tale with a dedication: “[To] the memory of my friend, Ray Bradbury” (223). What if the events recounted in “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes” are mostly true, except for Ellison’s description of the victim? I can imagine not an old lady but an old man (named Ray) telling his friend Harlan the story of his Robert Gibson Jones painting (and forty-seven other items) being stolen from him forty years ago.

 

Can I imagine Harlan Ellison promising his old friend to right this forty-year-old wrong? Can I imagine him carefully, meticulously constructing a less-than-legal, less-than-peaceful plan to bring the thief to justice? Can I imagine him hiring the Razor-Potato Man? Yes, but I can imagine lots of things. It’s only fiction, isn’t it?

 

In cases like these, when the clear distinction between an author’s life and writing blurs, biographical details can enhance an understanding or interpretation of the writing in question. Be careful, though, that students don’t elide author and writing too much – there is a fine line between using biography to interpret literature, and assuming literature is biography.

 

Which authors have you encountered whose lives mirror their fictional creations? How do you use biography to teach literature? I would love to hear from you.

 

 

Work Cited

Ellison, Harlan. “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes.” In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon. Ed. King, Laurie R. and Leslie S. Klinger. Pegasus Books: 2014. pp. 215-223.

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College. 

 

The following dictum still bothers me: “Just write what comes to mind. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation. Write what you feel.”

 

This vague instruction does little for student writers who need to develop academic thinking and writing skills. In reality, what students need is less “do what you want” and more “here’s a specific set of guidelines.”

 

Instructors turn to the ubiquitous journal assignment for any number of reasons: to begin the class, to transition from one standard to the next, or to consume time. While students often meet this much-clichéd strategy with disapprobation because they’ve been “journaled to death,” by providing a few specific objectives, both students and teachers can benefit from an otherwise mundane activity.

 

Working with first- and second-year college writers clarified two (among others) distinct realities:

 

  1. Students need more instruction about how to organize body paragraphs.
  2. Students have been allowed too much time to write what they feel, not why they feel.

 

Many students leave high school having spent hours and hours expressing their opinions without having to justify (or support) those ideas.

 

“I believe this law should be changed.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like it.”

“Why don’t you like it?”

“It doesn’t work.”

“Can you provide examples of how and when that law doesn’t work?”

 

That’s usually where that dialogue ends, for asking students to justify their opinions with logic and fact also means not blindly validating what they think simply because they think it. While changing said law might be necessary, the student bears the responsibility of being able to think and write critically about those ideas.

 

Our blind assertion that students’ feelings must be spared in our efforts to give them voice discounts the reality that many are leaving high school without the foggiest notion what critical thinking is. Professor Digory Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe laments this fact when he asks, “Don’t they even teach logic in schools anymore?” Unfortunately for our students, life today depends heavily on emotion and feeling while routinely discounting logic.

 

In order to prompt students to understand an organizational structure that can help them begin to critically analyze, I use a specific template for in-class journal responses (which most often come in the form of body paragraph practice):

 

topic + support + analysis

 

The topic consists of the points that support the thesis. The support (evidence) comes from poems, plays, short stories, novels, movies, songs, National Geographic articles, etc. The analysis, the most difficult part, starts with students’ ability to think logically and critically about specific issues.

 

While the analysis component will take time to cultivate, the topic and support can begin immediately. The journaling assignment can be simple: How does Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” exemplify a theme from the Harlem Renaissance?

 

Students’ responses will vary, and much of what they write may feel like simple summary; however, as the instructor exuberantly lends guidance - maybe walking from desk to desk, peering over shoulders – old habits begin to crumble, newer, effective writing strategies taking root: topic + support + analysis. Students begin to focus on why instead of what.

 

Instructors can add increasingly structured guidelines to the template:

  • the use of signal phrases to announce quotations (support);
  • weening students off their dependence on the second-person you;
  • employment of the third-person point of view when responding to literature;
  • more developed transitions (beyond the tired standbys like first, second, finally, for example, and in conclusion) that utilize diverse syntax and punctuation; and
  • more attention to spelling, punctuation, agreement, and usage.

 

Give it a try. Educators already know that students perform better when they know their boundaries. Provide some guidelines and watch students’ thinking and writing skills grow. At the very least, the final product of journaling with a purpose will be more palatable when you’re wading through that stack of papers next weekend.

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

As the semester winds to a close, I know the students in my Short Story class are growing a bit weary: they have read more than thirty short stories, written nearly three pages of weekly informal posts, completed literary research projects, and undertaken exams that require close readings of quotations. Now is the ideal time to reflect on the take away—helping students connect the dots between the skills they acquire by taking a literature course and the skills they will need in any career.

 

As an undergraduate, I could not articulate the career path of an English major beyond teaching or (in bigger dreams) creative writing. The career options for English majors wasn’t a topic of conversation among my professors either. But more and more I see how the skill set we practice in a literature course—interpretation, critical reading, and analysis—are vital to any profession that demands acute communication and writing skills along with a global mindset.

As any student of literature knows, one of the key characteristics of reading an imaginative work is the way it transports us to other places, invites us to consider other experiences, and broadens our worldview. What employer wouldn’t want an employee who possesses the ability to move between multiple perspectives and viewpoints? And what’s more, someone who can clearly and accurately articulate these multilayered ideas? “It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers,” says Liz Kirschner, head of talent acquisition at Morningstar Inc., a Chicago investment-research firm in George Anders’ article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Good News Liberal Arts Majors: Your Peers Won’t Out-earn You Forever” (Good News Liberal Arts Majors).

 

And yet, this message—how enrolling in literature courses can enhance career readiness--has not reached the mothership. Partly, I think, the fault rests with those of us who teach these courses. When I started my teaching career, I made several unfounded assumptions about my students and the value of literature. For starters, I thought, like me, students understood the innate value of literature to make them better readers, thinkers, and interpreters. I also thought it wasn’t my job to talk about career preparation, a task best left to the experts in career services. I was also, and still am, highly resistant to seeing my students’ education as purely training for work. However, when I invite my students to consider, through reflective writing, how the skills they develop in a literature course will transfer to a variety of professions, I am emphasizing the relevancy of the course. Embedding a time to reflect on the transferable skills gained in liberal arts classes is one way I hope to correct the gap between what students learn in courses like mine and how well they articulate that learning to future employers. This is an idea I address elsewhere in "Lost in Translation: Preparing Students to Articulate the Meaning of a College Degree."

 

In my Short Story course, this opportunity takes the form of a final reflection. Students consider how the skills they’ve practiced in the course—including critical reading, analytical writing, inference and interpretation, and the application of literary approaches-- has helped prepare them for their career pathway.

 

The responses I receive are as varied as the career paths students enter:

 

So often in my English career path I’ve been taught to analyze, but only to find the hidden meaning or symbols inside a text, never to try and view a work from a different perspective. These critical approaches were a fresh new way for me to interpret everything in my life, not just reading. The career path I’ve chosen with English and Marketing completely revolves around the method of analyzing, forming questions and digging deeper or further into what I want to accomplish. My marketing solely revolves around reader-response criticism and I’ve never really noticed until taking this class. My job is to collect feedback on what is and isn’t working when attempting to market off products and ads. I listen to the feedback, I analyze what should be done about it and then I act for a new plan or a better one.

 

First, this course improved my critical thinking skills and these are very important in any career, especially a medical career because you must figure out what illness or condition a person has based on symptoms, that it isn't just clear to you what somebody has. It also helped me by making sure I take many perspectives and look at the situation from many points of view so then if one solution doesn't work I try it from a different direction. Reading and analyzing literature helps to cultivate humanistic qualities which will help me imagine being in the patient's place and understand what they could be feeling not just physically but emotionally. This will also help me to question, explore, and understand the patient's journey.

 

I am hoping to have a major in engineering so this class really helped me in developing the analytical thinking skills I will need is this field of study. I learned that just reading a text and trying to explain what the overall meaning is does not essentially give you all the combined information you need. Examining outside information about a text, for example using the biographical or historical critical approaches, in order to understand the author of a piece of writing or the basis of what influenced a text historically based on the time in which it was written and the differing cultural values exhibited provides for a more structured review of a literary text.

 

Creating space for students to draw connections between the skills they practice in literature classes and the skills they will need in any profession reinforces the relevancy of the vital work we do to prepare students for their future.

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose, Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

In Julie Schumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, protagonist Jason T. Fitger demonstrates how aptly the letter of recommendation functions as a vehicle of complaint, forced praise, and political maneuvering. Schumacher uses the genre of the LOR to poke fun at Fitger’s folly --his deep longing for his ex-wife, his fears that his creative writing career will languish at his middling university, and his festering rage at higher education’s growing neglect of the liberal arts. At times, Fitger captures exactly what frustrates most of us about the process of writing a letter of recommendation: managing to say something positive and specific about students we barely know, or students who narrowly passed our courses, or students who desperately need the letter written in the next 24 hours.

 

No doubt these requests are irritating and complicated, but they don’t diminish the noble essence of the LOR.  All satire aside, Schumacher’s novel reveals how even the most cynical professor finds himself writing letters that demonstrate deep admiration, concern, and hope for his students. In a letter to the Internship Coordinator at a State Senator’s Office, Fitger recommends a student whom he described as “a wide-eyed earnest individual who will undoubtedly benefit from a few months spent among the self-serving pontificates in the senator’s office.”

For some in higher education, the LOR may serve as formality, a lifeless genre, a necessary process for scholarship applications, college admissions, and employment.  However, I’ve always considered them one of the most eloquent genres we employ because it allows us to express the depth of our students’ potential. 

For students, the LOR offers a chance to glean how much their professor genuinely admires them.  I can recall the moment I read my own professors’ praise, detailing my accomplishments and predicting my future successes.  These letters boosted my confidence more than a high grade on a paper or exam. This was a chance to see how my professor felt about my learning, about my potential.

 

Now I get to witness first-hand the same effect the LOR has upon my students many of whom, like me, are first generation college students. While I rely on some familiar templates, I use excerpts from the students’ own writing and examples from class discussions to illustrate the exceptional contributions these students will continue to make.  Last semester, I wrote several LORs for students who were applying for scholarships or admission to four-year colleges. One student, who consistently performed well in the class, was, nevertheless, surprised and moved by the letter.  “I can’t believe you wrote that about me,” he said.  He had received positive feedback on several assignments, but he was re-taking the course, having dropped out the year before to enter rehab; he still carried such deep doubt and anxiety.

 

In many ways, then, the LOR is the vehicle for change and mobility, a chance to start again, a chance to move forward with support and confidence.  It’s our way of telling the world that these students are ready and hungry, on the brink of discovering their own best selves.

 

April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

 

Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambertan educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.

 

When National Poetry Month comes around each year, I think back on the first time I taught poetry as part of a college composition class. It was nearly twenty years ago, and the class was English 102 (a second-year composition course at East Los Angeles College). I taught everyone from Yeats to Langston Hughes in 102 (and still do). My poetry assignments usually fall into one of two categories: literary criticism or rhetorical analysis. Asking students to identify a poem’s major theme and explain how the poet uses symbol, tone, syntax, and other elements to convey that theme to the audience can be a valuable exercise. I now teach writing at three different institutions, and I still enjoy discussing poetry with my students.

 

It wasn’t until very recently that I realized I was ignoring an important literary subgenre--the poetry review--when asking students to write about poetry. I was re-reading a review that I posted to Amazon.com on April 13, 2010. It was, of course, National Poetry Month, and it was a review of Ms. Anhthao Bui’s poetry collection, Yellow Flower. (Full disclosure: Ms. Bui is now my wife).

 

After re-reading my review of Anhthao’s collection (which weighs in at a mere 3 paragraphs), I thought about how asking students to review a poem (or a poetry collection) could help them formulate and support an argument. After all, isn’t a review an argumentative form of writing? The author is essentially asking the reader to read (or not to read) the piece in question. Such an assignment would require students to utilize rhetorical techniques as well as identify literary elements such as form and symbol.

 

My review of Anhthao’s collection begins with a catchy title (“Anhthao Bui’s Flowering Talent”) that ties in with her title poem’s central image (the yellow flower). I provide a clever but obvious “hook” in my first paragraph by alluding to a quote from Emily Dickinson that Anhthao uses in her collection: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I go on to identify several of the themes I believe are at work in Anhthao’s poetry, including the struggles of immigration, the heartache of love gone bad, and the dichotomy between the personal and the universal. 

 

The final paragraph of my review begins with a question: “Is Bui the Yellow Flower of her book’s title?” I don’t attempt to answer the question, but I conclude on a positive note, calling Yellow Flower “a deftly-conceived poetic portrait of a woman’s life.” My review is not perfect by any means, but it could provide an interesting subject for a rhetorical analysis by my students. Such an analysis could be followed with an opportunity for the student to write their own poetry review. I plan to try this with my students next semester. I will report back to let you know how it goes. 

 

How do you use poetry in your composition classes? How do you help your students engage with poetry? I look forward to hearing from you.     

 

 

 

             

To continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, we're re-posting the following blog from Phillip Chamberlin professor at Hillsborough Community College. This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 23, 2018. 

 

“I lost six friends and neighbors—all under 25 years old—to suicide. And since then, I’ve lost about five friends to heroin overdoses and suicide. It’s just like this cluster of death that surrounds me, surrounds my neighborhood. It’s kind of a desperate thing.” –John Ulrich, college student from Boston

 

The young man quoted above stands on his apartment building as he gazes into the lens of the camera. He’s about to recite his favorite poem, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. His personal connection to the poem is obvious, as is his passion.  The rhythm of his performance varies greatly from that of the author's, but no matter—it’s a valid reading, and he’s moved by the poem, and so are we.

 

This video and many others like it are featured in the Favorite Poem Project, a project founded by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, that features compelling videos of ordinary people introducing and then reciting their favorite poems. The website describes the participants as being “Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, representing a range of occupations, kinds of education, and backgrounds.” Most of the people on camera are quite ordinary—they may have interesting stories, but rarely are they overtly eccentric. Because the participants are not famous poets or academics, they could perhaps be called outsiders. But that would be missing the point: In the world of poetry, there are no outsiders.

 

I teach at a community college that serves a population almost as diverse. Some of my students are younger than sixteen (as participants in high school dual enrollment programs) and some are older than sixty. Some have never had a day of employment, and others are changing careers. Some have disabilities. Some are multilingual. Some are already avid readers, and some avoid reading as much as possible. Some even write their own poetry. Others think they hate it.

 

In my experience, these Favorite Poem Project videos have had a welcome role in many of my courses, at least the ones that discuss literature (whether in depth or as part of a brief overview). In elective literature classes, which tend to be full of students already passionate about reading, they work. In prerequisite composition classes, which tend to include a population of students with a much wider range of skills and academic preferences, they also work. Whether I teach in traditional classrooms or in online environments, they work. Students invariably find something intriguing and relevant in these ordinary people, their favorite poems, and their interpretations.

 

Sometimes I assign specific videos, like the Jamaican-American photographer who finds himself surprised by his connection to New England poet Sylvia Plath, or the construction worker who finds inspiration and comfort in the words of Walt Whitman, or the law student who responds enthusiastically to the world view of Wallace Stevens. Sometimes I encourage students to select videos on their own.  Either way, assignments involve viewing, ruminating, responding, writing, and discussing.

 

In face-to-face classes, sometimes I assign groups of students to present a video to the class—that is, they respond to a response and continue the conversation. In online courses, these videos serve as the basis for at least one of our weekly discussions. Even when students don’t respond favorably to a video, something interesting happens: They begin to see poetry in a new light. And to be honest, sometimes I do, too.

 

Imagine where instructors could take these activities to make them even deeper, more involved, more challenging. Instructors could even ask students to create their own videos. (They would need to be brief enough to be digestible for contemporary audiences yet deep and meaningful enough to be worthwhile—a worthy challenge.) Or, instructors could ask students to base an extended essay project about these poetry fans and their responses. The essay project itself could have a multimedia component. The possibilities are exciting, and resources like the Favorite Poem Project will continue to keep poetry relevant for students from many different walks of life.

April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

 

This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College

 

In an effort to use more collaborative learning activities in my classroom, I have redesigned much of my Composition II course.  The poetry unit has benefited the most from these new classroom activities because so many students are baffled by poetry, even if they find certain lines beautiful.  It’s weird!  How do you even read it?  Why does it look like that?  I’m so confused!  If you’ve ever heard those cries of frustration, then you, too, know that most students wouldn’t pick poetry as their favorite part of English class.  Now that my classes are working on their poetry paper, I’m hearing less of “I have no idea what to do!” and more of “This was easier than I thought,” which suggests that the in-class activities have made an impact.  Most recently, my students spent a day “walking through” six different poems in our Poetry Gallery: 

  •   "Oxygen" by Mary Oliver
  • "The Lungs" by Alice Jones
  • "Home-Baked Bread" by Sally Croft
  • "The Joy of Cooking" by Elaine Magarrell
  • "The Author to Her Book" by Anne Bradstreet
  • "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur.

 

The concept of a “gallery” in a writing classroom isn’t new: almost any assignment can be modified to accommodate different “viewers,” who walk around the classroom, stopping to look at a paragraph, a paper, an image, or a poem, in this case, and leave comments on or next to it.  It’s a good way to get students out of their seats, which helps shake-up the regular classroom routine, but it also gets them to think about (and write about) lots of new ideas, all in the span of one class period.

 

For this activity, I recommend using four to six poems.  (I used six, but having fewer would have allowed more time at the end of class to discuss them.)  Print them out, and tape them around your classroom.  Tape two or three sheets of paper next to each poem, so students have a place to leave their comments. 

 

To organize students, I used a random number generator app and then put them in six groups, enough to match the number of poems we used.  Each group had two to three people, so it would be easier to have discussions about each poem.  The groups came up with team names that they used to distinguish their answers on each piece of paper.  They also took turns writing down their responses.

 

To begin, each group was assigned a poem as a starting point.  After five minutes or so, or once everyone was finished, they rotated clockwise.  I put questions on the overhead projector, and groups used these to form their responses to each poem:

 

The poem’s meaning:

  1. What is the poem about when you read it for pleasure?
  2. What is it about when you read it for meaning?

The poem’s language:

  1. What’s an unfamiliar word that your group would have to look up? If you know every word in the poem, what’s one word that seems important to the poem’s tone, theme, or meaning?
  2. What’s your group’s favorite phrase? What makes it beautiful, strange, or interesting?

 

Once everyone had read and responded to each poem, the rotation brought them back to their starting point.  The groups looked over all the notes everyone had left and then circled their favorite responses to each question.  Each group had a chance to discuss their poem, but everyone was welcome to offer up their own interpretation.

 

I selected the six poems based on a shared theme (breathing, food, and writing) with another poem on the list, so students could begin making comparisons and thinking about how each poet treated a similar subject.  Interestingly enough, one student observed that each of the six poems, to her at least, seemed to be about our souls: What do we need?  What hurts us?  What fulfills us?  Her comment sparked a class-wide discussion, in which other students began pointing out subtle references and examples they hadn’t otherwise thought of, such as Alice Jones’s nod to the spiritual nature inherent in breathing, thanks to the word “transubstantiation.

 

All in all, this interactive, discussion-based activity worked well to conclude our readings for the poetry unit.  As my students have begun working on their close-reading of a poem, I have noticed that many of them have selected the poems we spent time discussing and analyzing in class, even if they initially thought one of them didn’t make sense, like “The Joy of Cooking.”  Contrary to previous semesters, this group of students seems to enjoy the puzzle-solving nature of poetry, which gives me encouragement to keep finding new ways for them to interact with this baffling, beautiful literary form.

April is National Poetry Month! We've asked some of our LitBits bloggers to discuss how they approach poetry with their literature and creative writing students.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Cristina BaptistaAmerican Literature Teacher at Sacred Heart School in Greenwich, CT.

 

We all know those first few words of The Waste Land: I don’t think T. S. Eliot had in mind that what may make April—National Poetry Month—“the cruellest month” for teachers is the struggle to keep things fresh. I teach high school juniors; by the time they reach my American Literature course, National Poetry Month is no surprise. As elementary students, they listened to teachers read from illustrated books of accessible poetry. As middle schoolers, they wrote simple rhymes, carrying them around on Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day.

 

Students are often eager to write poems—but writing, feeling-through and feeling part of poetry are not the same.

 

Nowhere are possibilities of poetry clearer than when pen is physically pressed to paper (or finger to keyboard) while the mind roves over a startling combination of images, headlines, and phrases. The aforementioned childhood exposures to poetry are simply a preamble, a whetting of the cleaver-like intellect, as Henry David Thoreau calls the mind.

 

For Emily Dickinson, poetry was a chance to “dwell in Possibility.” So, as I refresh my National Poetry Month assignments, I’ve considered the potential of allowing students not just to write or read but to dwell in the possibilities of poetry, to use their words not as a direct line to an audience but as a series of lines thrust large and widely into a world, into spaces, times, and ideologies beyond them. I want students to understand that poetry is a constantly living organism, an ongoing conversation—and they are very much an essential part of it.

 

For my high schoolers, I’ve found the most edifying possibilities include being able to find one’s self in a poem—particularly one that is playful, unexpected, and a puzzle-piecing together of sundry parts. I like to think of a poem as a Frankensteinian creature that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be yet and, thus, a very adequate reflection of the young writer. And it’s okay: students, like poems, are works-in-progress, not final pieces. People are this.

 

Therefore, one of the most effective National Poetry Month writing assignments I’ve created involves words, images, and history (personal and national or global). It is an assignment designed to engage students with themselves and their world alike. It is also an essential practice at lateral thinking, a key method of nontraditional problem-solving used by scientists, technicians, and poets, among others, to force the mind to make connections where, on first appearance, there are none to be made.

 

We start with a few timed exercises, as well as some at-home preparations. In advance of the in-class writing, I ask students the class before to bring next time:

 

  1. a newspaper headline, from the current week, that caught their attention
  2. an image from their birth year (note: this is not a baby picture but, rather, an image from a work of art, a screen-capture from a film, or a photograph that was significant and/or in the news the year they were born)

 

Then, in class, I time out five minutes of free-associative writing. First, they have to write anything that comes to mind when they see their selected headline (even better if they’ve never actually read the story attached to it). Then, I time them for another five minutes and they have to write a response to their selected image.

 

Next, I go around the room and distribute, at random, a line from a famous poem, something we’ve read in class that year. It could be a line from Anne Bradstreet, Langston Hughes, or Tony Hoagland. For another five minutes, I ask them to write freely—the only caveat that they have to start with the line they were given.

 

By now, we will have discussed Gertrude Stein and free-association; they will understand the value of “messy,” Cubist-style work more disassembled than assembled. They will see the value of poetry not as answer but as a point of departure.

 

After these exercises (about 15 minutes of writing without overthinking or intervention), I ask students to reread what they’ve written. Can they identify any surprising links among their three separates exercise responses? Does a particular word or theme keep emerging? Does something surprise them?

 

Now, using these ideas, assemble a poem. Revise freely (or not), but combine the three task responses.

This work vitally force students to find timeless connections, recurring patterns of human behavior, interests, desires, and tendencies throughout their lifetimes and beyond. They are given a week to keep working, at home, on their poem. It is not long before I have students remarking, “I never knew I felt so lonely until I picked this image and saw how it fit with the line from Georgia Douglas Johnson,” or “how strange I keep talking about the color ‘orange,’ as if that means something to me. Maybe it does.”

 

The best part of this exercise? I do it, too. It gives me space to write and the students enjoy when I share my work alongside theirs. It makes them feel like we are all in this moment of assimilation together, all backstroking our way through some beautiful yet unpredictable waters, part of a growing conversation about human experience. And there’s nothing cruel about that.

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

 

“But why do that?” students often ask when we discuss plays. Sometimes due to the opaqueness of subtext or even with the seeming (at least to experienced readers) transparency of dialogue and action, characters’ motives can puzzle readers. Without a narrator to provide the thoughts and feelings of at least one if not all characters, drama requires recognizing some different textual clues from fiction. Characterization in both genres, though, in works from the modern period to the contemporary, as well as quite a few before it, relies on a psychological approach based on motivations. Getting students to recognize what drives characters, who in the early stages of reading a play may seem like random blocks of dialogue on the page with little to differentiate them, can be quite challenging. Another challenge for instructors is to prevent a literature class from becoming Psychology or Method Acting 101 in the process of teaching characterization in drama. 

 

To help students better understand characterization in drama, I developed a small-group classroom activity that instructors can use at any point in the discussion of a play or as part of a review for a paper or exam. The starting point is for the class to identify an important moment or moments in the text that have serious rewards or drawbacks for a character or characters. This added warm-up can help students from only looking for dialogue and directions related to the one character in question. After assigning a moment and character(s) to the groups, the activity proceeds as follows:

 

1. Students list the reasons/motivations why a character makes the decision and/or takes the action with support from dialogue and direction in the play, usually two or three reasons will suffice.

 

2. Students also consider and list the character’s goals for the decision and/or event. The instructor may need to remind students that these goals may be quite different from the actual outcomes for the characters.

 

3. A simple flow chart presented on the board can help students follow the logic of the character’s motivations and goals. Distributing hard copies of the chart to the groups to use can also help keep them on task.  On one side are the motivations that lead to the action and/or decision in the middle of the chart.  On the right side are the character’s desired outcomes.  A sample chart is below:

 

4. Once groups have completed the charts/provided answers, each group does a mini-presentation for the class of motivations and goals. To frame the discussion of characterization within the larger context of the play and other dramatic elements, some questions to ask of the class as a whole can be:

  • How practical are the motivations and/or goals of the character, and what clues does the text provide?
  • Does the character achieve the goal—why or why not?
  • How does the setting contribute to and conflict with the character?
  • Which characters have competing motivations and goals, and how do they complicate the plot?

 

Each small group can work with the same character and event or with different ones, depending on the number of characters and complexity of the plot as well as how challenging the students find characterization in this text. It can also be helpful to review with students that what other characters say and do towards or in response to a character are also part of characterization. This discussion during the warm-up can help the small groups and whole class to avoid just looking for and discussing the assigned character as if he or she were along on the page and stage. Classes can also revisit this activity during work on an individual play for clarification and/or use these steps for multiple plays in a unit or course. The ultimate goal is for students to start asking “But why do that?” as they read, discuss, and write about plays as part of their regular engagement with them.  With practice, students can answer that question for themselves, both within the plays they read and within their own reading processes.         

 

Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California.

 

I first met Ray Bradbury in 1995, after joining The Southwest Manuscripters (a writing club based in Southern California). The prolific science fiction writer (who preferred to be called a “fantasist”) delivered yearly addresses to the Manuscripters, because they were the first club to invite him to speak, in the days when he was an obscure wordsmith, making a penny per word for his stories.

 

Based on the content of Bradbury’s presentations, I knew he hated the idea of college professors pontificating on the “hidden meanings” of his written work. Nevertheless, I wanted to ensure that future generations would continue to read his work, so I started teaching Bradbury ten years ago. I am careful to allow students to explore Bradbury’s themes without interfering with their critical reading process by interjecting my own ideas. I like to think Ray would approve.

 

I first taught Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in English 28 (a developmental course designed to prepare students for first-year composition) at East Los Angeles College. Although I have read science fiction since grammar school, I did not read Bradbury’s novel until after I began teaching composition. When I did read it, I was struck by the timeliness of its themes. In the era of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, Bradbury’s focus on censorship, political paranoia, and human rights seemed eerily relevant.

 

For my developmental English course, I asked my students to write a three- to four-page review of Fahrenheit 451. I gave my students the option to answer a variety of optional questions, including the following: “Which social trends do you observe in our society that are also present in Bradbury’s novel?” This question gives students the opportunity to explore Bradbury’s 21st-century dystopian setting without falling back on the novel’s major theme (censorship). My students have taken me up on this challenge over the years, and have addressed everything from online education to the “dumbing-down” of America in their reviews of Fahrenheit 451.

 

After teaching Fahrenheit 451 for several semesters, I began to use the novel in English 102, a second-year composition course. Instead of requiring my second-year composition students to write a review of the novel, I asked them to address the positive and negative effects of technology by analyzing Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1950. The story depicts a “house of the future” that does everything from making its owners’ breakfasts to singing them to sleep. There is only one problem: the house’s occupants are gone. Bradbury strongly suggests their absence is due to the fact that a Neutron bomb or ERW (Enhanced Radiation Weapon) has been detonated; such a weapon kills people but leaves structures intact. Both Fahrenheit 451 and “There Will Come Soft Rains” teach a similar lesson: technology is a double-edged sword; its benefits depend upon the intentions of those who use it.

 

Eight years ago, I began teaching Literature 201, an online literature survey course, for Colorado Technical University. For the first few sessions, I used Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When the class was revised to focus more heavily on short fiction, poetry, drama, and emerging literary genres (such as blogs), I decided to introduce Fahrenheit 451 into the course. I believe Fahrenheit 451 demonstrated to my online Literature students the kind of far-reaching accomplishments an author could achieve in a novel: Bradbury addresses contemporary issues (such as nuclear war) as well as enduring questions (such as the quality of education and the effects of the media on public opinion) in fewer than two hundred pages.

 

I currently teach six English courses at three institutions. I use Fahrenheit 451 in four of my classes. Ray Bradbury did not write Fahrenheit 451 as an attempt to predict the future, but instead to ask the question all speculative fiction authors should ask: “what if?” I believe his prediction of such technological marvels as the drone and virtual reality are incidental to his core themes of censorship and the importance of human individuality. These themes are not only timely, but timeless.

 

Which works or authors have helped to shape your composition pedagogy? I look forward to your comments.

 

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch Professor at Montgomery College.

 

Poetic language is often the most evocative of all the literary genres. With just a few words, deep emotions and entire landscapes can come alive on the page. For students with limited experience reading and analyzing poetry, though, the challenge can be especially daunting. The short length—often less than a page per work—looks like an easier proposition than working through a lengthy story or play. After an initial reading, the work is over so quickly, and any deeper meaning rushes past the student. To help students slow down the reading of poetry and better visualize the images and emotions of speakers, I devised an in-class exercise for students early in a poetry unit or to help with a particularly difficult work.

 

Thanks to the Internet, access to paintings and other images for classroom use makes this exercise possible with a couple of points and clicks, but a hard copy of a work on the overhead can work just as well as a digital one. The most important element is for the painting to have a direct visual and/or thematic connection to the poem as the class works through these steps. 

 

1.) Show the painting to the class as a whole, and ask them to provide brief answers to questions that ask them to engage the work, keeping in mind the thematic connections to the poem. Some areas of focus could be:

  • Subject: Questions could ask students to consider what their response is to the physical subject, such as a flower, landscape, animal, or person (particularly if the figure is well-known from history, literature, or mythology)
  • Color: Which moods or atmospheres do certain colors or combinations of colors suggest in the painting?
  • Light and shade: How do these sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, differences underscore and obscure certain elements of the painting, and why?
  • Composition: How does the placement of figures in the frame draw your eye to certain elements of the painting, prioritizing them over others? If the painting is abstract, try to get students to focus on the shapes and colors in the frame, perhaps directly tying them to questions about color.

The idea is certainly not to turn a literature class into an art history one by having students consider all of these possibilities. Instead, select a few questions that you think best relate to the subject and themes of a poem for class discussion.

 

2.) Break the students into small groups and have them share answers about the painting, emphasizing the importance of subjective interpretation.

 

3.) Share the poem with the class as a whole on the overhead or by having students look at their own copies. Some moving back and forth between the poem and the painting to underscore the connection between the two in the exercise might be needed.

 

4.) Have each group look at a stanza in detail, or the entire poem if it is short, comparing/contrast their answers and discussion about the painting with the assigned stanza. Have each group consider how the poem reflects or challenges their previous answers and discussion, and why?

 

5.) Have each group report back to the class as a whole and welcome cross-talk between and among groups as interpretations share, question, confirm, and challenge what the group members interpreted.

 

One poet whose works lend themselves to the exercise is Blake since his poems and paintings appear in the same work. With a little creative zooming, or covering the poetry and painting can be kept separate in the first step. Another option is to use a painting that inspired a poem, such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name or Marcel Duchamp’s and X. J. Kennedy’s Nude Descending a Staircase. If a direct pairing is not possible, as is most often the case, a little savvy searching for paintings on the Web can yield rewarding results for the activity and student engagement with

 

Classes can revisit this exercise as an instructor sees fit to aid the visualization of words and images in poems as well as refresher just before an exam. Working through all of the steps is also not always entirely necessary. Sometimes I find that reminding students of some of the connections made about colors, patterns, and subjects can help keep foster ideas and discussion. When it comes from students’ own engagement with the challenge of poetry and not from lectures or notes, the results are so much the better for them and for the instructor.

This week's guest blogger is Krysten Anderson, Assistant Professor of English at Roane State Community College

 

For many students, studying literature isn’t a priority in college. Depending on their degree path, some students will never have to take a survey course, while others might encounter literature only in Composition classes.  Knowing that most students will not end up as English majors, explaining literature’s importance can be a tough sell.  Helping them see the relevancy of studying fiction, poetry, and drama can be tricky, unless they’re made to consider the value of literature early on, and especially if they come to that realization on their own.

 

Every semester, I like to start the first day with a discussion: What are your expectations for this class?  While the course syllabus will certainly cover my expectations of students, it’s less clear to them what their expectations of the class are (or should be), which is why I like to pick their brains on day one.  If I can understand what they’re worried about or what topics they’re unfamiliar with entirely, I can then address those fears and blind spots as we move through the semester together.  This time, however, I added a twist: Instead of simple discussion, I wanted to begin with a debate.  To add another challenge, I wanted to change students’ minds in just two minutes.

           

On the first day of class, I put a topic on the board: Should students have to study literature in college?  Naturally, the consensus was “no,” but I wanted them to really think about the question and address some long-term (and seemingly unrelated) outcomes of studying literature.  To help lead them to their yet-to-be-discovered revelations, I put students in groups of four.  If there was a group of five, one student would serve as the “moderator.”  Once settled in their groups, I explained that we would be working for two-minute intervals, but I didn’t reveal that they would be switching sides at some point. 

 

Here are the rules of the debate.  After the second step, I recommend explaining each upcoming step as they move through the process.

 

  1. Pair off within the group of four. Decide who wants to argue for studying literature and who wants to argue against studying literature.  Note: If five are in the group, one student can be the moderator.
  2. Once they have decided the sides they are going to take, put two minutes on a timer and tell them to write down (in their pairs) as many supporting points as they can during that time.
  3. At the end of two minutes, it’s time to present their arguments. Each pair has two minutes (one minute per person) to present their side to the other pair, but there is no debate just yet, only listening, from the other pair.  If there is a moderator in the group, that person should be paying attention to each pair’s argument, taking notes if needed, and deciding who’s making the stronger claims.
  4. Tell each pair that they’re now switching sides but that they can consider their groupmates’ arguments as they form their own reasons for or against studying literature.
  5. Repeat steps 2, 3, and 4.

 

Once we had finished, it was time to process their answers.  I opened a blank Word document, created two columns (“For” and “Against”), and turned on the overhead projector, so students could see the responses from each group.  As I began typing out their answers, it was startling to see the volume of creative and practical reasons they came up with for studying literature.  Likewise, it was surprising to see how few responses made up the opposing side, the side many professors might imagine would be inundated with reasons not to study literature.  Even if students professed to be “bored” with it, and even if they “didn’t have time” to read it, they couldn’t deny the “life lessons” and “comfort” that literature could offer them.

           

Despite the nature of teaching, it’s not every day that we’re able to see students struggle with holding an opposing belief; rarer, still, is witnessing students changing their own minds about a deep-seated opinion.  As professors, we want to instruct students to “think critically,” but commanding that to happen won’t always make it so.  Perhaps the simple act of self-doubt is the best way for students to come into knowing, and it’s even more powerful because they arrived there themselves.      

Today's featured guest blogger is Lisa DuRose Professor at Inver Hills Community College

 

 On the first day of my Introduction to Literature course, as soon as we’ve finished our introductions and reviewed course policies, I distribute the first assignment, a poetry analysis. Although we’re still just getting to know one another, students are quick to react. “Poetry?” asks the bubbly guy in the corner, who just won a prize for memorizing everyone’s name. And from the look I his face, I can tell he’s not thrilled. He has not selected this course to be enraptured by poetry.

 

This student, and most of his classmates, enter my Introduction to Literature course to fulfill a general education humanities requirement. We’ve just learned, from class introductions, that the room is filled with a wide variety of backgrounds--from high school students to a retired military personnel to retail managers—and an even wider swath of career interests: nursing, finance, neuroscience, teaching, family counseling, physical therapy, etc. Few identify as English majors. Even fewer declare a love for poetry.

 

This setting is ripe with urgency. In their entire college career, this may be the only course where these students read poems, where they get the rare opportunity to be startled by their own humanness and consider, in the words of the late, beloved poet Mary Oliver, “their one wild and precious life”

 

Because of this sense of urgency, I always begin the course with an analysis of a poem, a recently published poem, far from the scope of Shmoop.com and Sparknotes.com study guides. This assignment works as a formative assessment tool, a way to determine how much knowledge of poetry students already possess; however, the assignment also provides me with a chance to slow down the pace of students’ typical reading experiences and ask them to really consider the way a poem works. Designed as a sort of “tell me what you notice about this poem,” the informal assignment gives them a low-stakes chance to practice a skill they will use throughout the course: paying close attention to language. Like the students themselves, the short papers produced from this assignment are varied in knowledge of poetic devices and sophistication of analysis.

 

After this initial assignment on a poem, we devote several weeks to the study of fiction, and after that, we launch into a three week unit on poetry. As such, by the time we delve into poetic devices and look at the contours of a poem’s design, the first poem students encountered in the course is slowly fading from their mind. After the poetry unit, we launch into the study of drama and by then, that first poem is a distant memory. All of this memory loss works perfectly when the course nears completion and that first poem reappears in a portion of the final exam that now asks students to perform a much deeper analysis, apply poetic devices with sophistication, and convincingly demonstrate how a variety of critical approaches could open up the poem to varied and rich meanings. This final summative assignment allows students to return to the poem that may have caused trepidation at the beginning of the course, but this time they are equipped with more tools and experience.

 

The assignment has consistently worked well at demonstrating the confidence and skills students have gained in the course. Many of them are impressed with their evolution as they’ve gone from providing a surface-level description, to conducting a close reading of a poem. In their final reflection of the exam, they often remark on their growth:

 

 

At first analyzing poetry was definitely not my strong suit at the start of this class, but recognizing the specific diction, syntax, imagery, and audience each poem contained aided me in combining everything I could figure out about each poem in order to find the overall theme and meaning. After this class I feel better prepared for writing essays about literary texts since I was able to develop a better understanding of different techniques.

 

 

 

Digging deep into this poem and all the poems we did in this class was enjoyable as it allowed me to be free with my thoughts and build on them as I continued to read.

 

 

I appreciate that the students feel more confident and less weary of poetry at the end of the course. And though I realize this new found appreciation for poetry will not convert any of them into English majors or, heaven forbid, poets, I do hope that they learn, as Mary Oliver advised that “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.”