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25 Posts authored by: LitBits Guest Blogger

 

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.” 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

Metrophobia sounds like it should be the fear of cities, but it is in fact the fear of poetry, and many of my first-year literature and composition students have it. It’s my job to effect a cure.   

 

I have no illusion that this class of mostly non-English-majors will form a poetry circle or a Billy Collins fan club. But I do know that my students need poetry. Like all forms of literature, poetry provides a frame of reference for understanding life, and it does so concisely and memorably. If, at some crucial point in their lives, my students remember a poem, write a poem, or seek out a poem, my job is done.

 

When I teach poetry, I teach the usual components: terminology, figurative language, and rhyme. I expose my students to a wide range of poetry, dispel the myth that poetry means whatever the reader wants it to mean, and teach them to analyze based on what the poem actually says. But I also try to include extra elements that I hope will make it stick.  Here are my top four:

 

  1. I let students write a poem, an idea borrowed from a colleague. As we begin poetry, students almost always ask if they will have to write a poem. I make it an extra credit item and do not require any particular form, only originality and the willingness to read the poem aloud in class. Sometimes a handful of students participate, sometimes almost a whole class. Students may not remember Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but they will remember a poem they wrote. Occasionally, a student tells me that a poem about a family member has been shared and treasured among the family.
  2. I let students analyze poetry in groups. When students talk about poetry together, they work out ideas in the poem in a way that they might not do alone or in class discussion. I often start with Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory.” This poem used to be a standard, but most of my students are not familiar with it. I divide the class into four groups, and each group reads the poem, discusses it, and takes responsibility for explaining one of the four stanzas to the rest of the class. I always suggest that they have a member of their group read it aloud first. As they reach the end of the poem, I am often treated to audible gasps and exclamations of “What?” as Richard Cory, with his seemingly perfect life, “[goes] home and put[s] a bullet through his head.”  When I hear that reaction, I know that students have gone beyond logical analysis and made an emotional connection with the poem.
  3. I use music to make connections. When we read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” students easily see in the first stanza that “me” and “Immortality” are exact rhymes that suggest that the rhyme scheme will continue in the second stanza. But they are always resistant to the idea that “away” and “Civility” in the second stanza are near rhymes, and it doesn’t get any better with “Ring” and Sun” in the third stanza. So I bring up the lyrics video to Magic’s “Rude,” a song my students are familiar with.  We look at the near rhymes suit/you, hand/man, say/family, choice/boys, and by the time we get to away/galaxy, they are sold, partly because the singer pronounces the words in a way that helps the listener understand that the words are meant to rhyme: away/galax-ay rather than away/galax-ee. I also show them how almost all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is written in ballad stanza and can thus be sung to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island (“The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”).  I even have a sing-along, even if it’s mostly me singing while my students laugh.
  4. I set aside a day to celebrate poetry. Taking inspiration from the Favorite Poem Project, I ask students to bring in their favorite poem. I direct them to Poets.orgPoetry Foundation, and to the Poets Laureate page of the Library of Congress for inspiration. I offer extra credit and bring cookies, and we read our favorite poems aloud.

 

I will never know if my students actually make poetry a part of their lives, but the fun lies in trying to make poetry accessible and memorable.

 

What are your tricks of the trade? Please comment and let me know!

 

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

 

My wife bought a wooden sculpture at a thrift store. Unusual, gaudy, frighteningly top-heavy, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. More precise adjectives than the three in the previous sentence I cannot provide, for doing so might undermine this post.

 

On the second day of my high school EN 101 (Composition) course, she delivered her prized sculpture to my classroom. I’d asked her to let me take it, but with a laugh, she told me that wasn’t going to happen as long as I was riding my bicycle to school.

 

“And be careful with it,” she instructed as she relinquished the piece. “It’s fragile.”

 

Okay, there’s one more adjective.

           

Fifteen students looked on as if I’d just been handed a stuffed meerkat or a bowl of balut, exotics we don’t see often in rural South Carolina. Silently, I placed the sculpture on the table, stood back, and allowed raised eyes and fresh brains to scrutinize the curiosity before them.

 

“Your assignment is to describe this.” They moaned, already bored with another mindless descriptive assignment. “But there’s one caveat: Use no adjectives, adverbs, or proper nouns.”

           

Stunned silence.

 

“In fact, no talking at all. Study it; take a closer look. Touch it carefully, but do not share your ideas.”

 

For twenty minutes they scribbled, scratched, annotated, erased, and synthesized. At last, I asked for their descriptions.

 

“This was hard,” a student said. “I didn’t realize how much I depend on adjectives.”

 

I shuffled the stack and prepared to read. “The thing looks like a leaf. It has veins and is shaped like a triangle.”

 

“Good metaphors,” I said.

 

“Somebody used the word thing,” a student added. “We can do better than that.”

 

“It reminds me of a feather,” another writer imagined.

 

“But what kind of feather?”

 

“I can’t tell you,” the author quipped. “That would mean using adjectives.”

 

I smiled.

 

“She has a history,” I read. “Once a tree, somebody cut her down and carved from what was left of her an object that resembles the leaf of a willow. The wood is the color of river sand. Through the leaf runs a rod, like rebar, and it holds the sculpture to a base made of wood. She longs to once again be a tree, to feel wind in her leaves. She longs for her past.”

           

We listened to the description devoid of adjectives, and in our minds a picture emerged. Students looked at each other in surprise, for they weren’t sure one of their own had the ability to create such an image, much less an archetypal story.

           

The years have taught me that students want to be challenged, that they thrive on the intensity that comes from having to create without sufficient tools – in this case, adjectives. What this deprivation promotes, though, is the necessary push beyond that which is easy to that which requires innovation.

           

Our students will usually venture to the boundaries we set, but if we make those boundaries too narrow, we deny students the opportunity to test their imaginations.

           

What was the sculpture? A leaf? A feather? A tree long dead turned into an object of curiosity? No matter, for if given the chance, our students will help us see the world around them in a new light. All we have to do is provide the initial motivation and a gentle nudge. Then, and only then, might those ubiquitous descriptive assignments become extraordinary.

 

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

 

“I think she’s a gold digger,” quite a few of my students once said during a discussion of Nora Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. When I asked how the students made this interpretation, they unanimously responded that Nora asks for money for Christmas. A reminder of the reason why, which occurs later in the play, only brought the response, “But we didn’t know that at the time.” Since backstory and exposition in drama take place through dialogue rather than through a speaker or narrator as in fiction and poetry, students often do not notice when characters drop "hints" in their lines.  Subtext, which often appears in dialogue in drama (as does almost everything else) can be particularly difficult to discern and interpret, even if it may seem far more obvious than a hint to some readers. After this class meeting, it became clear that students often expect strictly linear and explicit references in a literary text, including plays with their sometimes lengthy blocks of dialogue and monologue. This experience inspired me to create an exercise to help students track implied meanings in plays as outlined below.

 

1. Select a key piece of information revealed through subtext, such as hints about a character’s past or the foreshadowing of a character’s actions.

 

2. Write an outline of the play’s act and/or scene structure either on the board or on a handout to distribute and place the moment when the audience learns the full truth in the structure. You might want to include a section for events before the play’s action begins.

 

3. Have students break into pairs or small groups and ask each to answer a question such as:

  • When does the character first mention or hint at X?
  • When does the character first take a similar action or make a similar choice?
  • When does an action or event take place? (Sometimes it may occur before the play’s onstage events)
  • When does the audience first learn of X, and when does it occur? (These answers may also involve events prior to the play’s beginning)
  • Why does a character do or say X, and when does the audience learn of the reason(s) why?

 

4. Instructors can decide whether pairs or groups should answer the same question or different questions, depending of course on the lengthy and difficulty of the text. As for the above example from A Doll House, I have all groups answer the question about Nora’s interest in money as a first use of this exercise that is an example of the last bulleted suggestion.

 

5. Students can either place their answers on the handouts the instructor provides, or the instructor can chart the answers on the board. To provide support for answers, students should include specific page, act, and/or scene numbers.

 

Having students do this activity while the class discusses the first play of a course or unit introduces subtext in drama and the importance of close readings of dialogue. Alternatively, instructors could choose to use the activity only for a long and/or complex play, which may require multiple uses of the exercises during class time or for homework.  Revisiting these steps for more than one play can then gauge student progress with reading subtext in drama throughout the unit or course.

 

For a more-tech savvy approach to the activity, professors can make use of a plot-mapping software program like Plotist for a more impressive presentation or if a class is taught in a computerized classroom. A simple chart or outline in Word or on the board can work fine, too. The key is for instructors to use what is most comfortable for them and their students in consideration of available resources. After using this activity at least once, instructors might just find that students no longer accuse Nora Torvald of being a gold-digger. Mine, thankfully, no longer do.  

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

When students are first asked to write about literature, they often feel like strangers in a strange land. They are expected to analyze a work, incorporate quotations with in-text citations, and finish with a Works Cited list. It’s a tough task and a minefield of new rules. 

 

In a recent post, I speculated that song might be a good starting point for teaching students to integrate quotations into their writing.

 

I put that theory to the test by asking first-year composition students to explore a theme in song, comparing and contrasting two or three songs with similar themes.  When I gave the assignment, I introduced the idea of quoting lyrics. Using Usher’s “Confessions, Part II,” suggested by a class member, I demonstrated and they practiced.

 

Before the next class, students chose a theme, picked songs, and wrote a thesis statement and outline. Together, we looked at a couple of thesis statements, familiar territory for the students by this point in the semester. Then we began Works Cited pages. Because complete information is not always provided on lyrics sites and YouTube videos, students often had to search for the songwriter, producer, release date, and the name of the album. In an era when databases offer perfectly formatted article citations at the click of a mouse, citing a song is hard work. I walked around the classroom helping students search for information and format citations.

 

Students left class with a Works Cited page and returned with completed papers.  This particular class has struggled with the transition to academic writing, and results were mixed. However, every student succeeded to some degree. Certainly, all are much better prepared to tackle the research paper that is their next assignment.  All students identified a unifying theme in the songs they wrote about, and many developed their topics in creative and interesting ways. One student argued that while rap music is often singled out for objectifying women, other genres do the same thing. She used examples from pop and country music to illustrate the point. Another student compared songs that depict or refer to actual incidents of police violence against African Americans. Still another compared Tupac’s “Me and my Girlfriend,” in which the girlfriend is a gun, to a song about a flesh-and-bone girlfriend.

 

Because popular music often contains profanity, we had discussed how to handle the issue within the papers.  I told the class to go ahead and quote the profanity if they thought it was necessary, but I also urged restraint since they were writing an academic analysis. Restraint is exactly what I got. From music rife with ear-scorching profanity, my students culled the poetic and the profound, using profanity sparingly, if at all.

 

My students also amazed me with letter-perfect rendering of artists’ names. Every semester, I read at least one paper referencing “Hemmingway” or “Steinback,” but in writing about the artists they listen to every day, students had no spelling problems. I was the one who had to double-check to make sure that there was really no third e in The Weeknd, no apostrophe in Lil Jon, and no er at the end of Uncle Murda. My students were right every time.

 

What I was really looking for in these papers, however, was the successful integration of quotations, and students did well with this task. Only two papers contained “floating quotations” that were completely unattached to any sentence.  In all other papers, lyrics were introduced with a signal phrase, or better yet, embedded in the writer’s sentence. I had also shown students how to quote lyrics in the same way that they will, in future classes, quote poetry, with virgules marking the space between lines, and verb tense or pronoun form changed within brackets, if necessary, to make the lyric flow smoothly into the sentence. Only a couple of students did these higher-level tasks with complete success, but these tasks are also difficult for students in the next-level class, Literature and Composition.

 

Letting students write about popular music only sounds fluffy and easy. In fact, this assignment requires high-level skills and a bit of grit, but students are willing to put in extra effort because it’s a topic they value. Just last week, I pre-checked the Works Cited pages that students had prepared for their research papers. Those pages exceeded my expectations. For my students, music proved to be an accessible entry point to quoting and citing, and I will make this assignment a permanent part of my first-year composition class.

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

 

“It’s only a movie.” I will never forget that response from a student during a class discussion. While watching a film can be the most passive engagement with a literary text, I realized during that class why helping students become more active in the process needed to be more of a priority in my teaching. Creating a single exercise that would change perhaps a lifetime’s habit of passive watching into the active viewing and close reading of films would of course be too impractical. What I instead developed was a classroom activity to introduce, or, perhaps more accurately, more closely examine the three basic elements of film form: shot, take, and editing. 

 

In my classes, a felt pen or two and a whiteboard are the only materials I use to draw some basic storyboards. The storyboards do not have to look like they are ready to pitch to a Hollywood mogul to teach the elements. They just need to get the basic content across and let the students fill in the rest with their own movie-watching imaginations. One thing that helps accomplish this goal is to keep the frames all roughly the same size to imitate viewing a screen. The steps in the activity are as follows:

 

  1. The exercise begins with a long shot to establish a setting, just as many films do, particularly if the setting is new in the film. I usually make it of a city because I find tall buildings fast and easy to draw, but any setting is fine if an instructor is comfortable drawing it. 
  2. To establish a scene, the next step is to draw a couple of quick medium shots to settle in on a single location within the larger setting. In my classes, this is usually a park depicted as an area with some trees and a few quick figures in a couple of frames.
  3. The next step is to focus on a figure or two to establish the characters in the scene also in a medium shot. Drawing balloons with a line or two in comic-book or comic-strip fashion can introduce dialogue, which often occurs after establishing setting, scene, and characters.
  4. The last frames I draw are close-ups to show the complete the sequence of long to medium to close-up shots and also to discuss how close-ups also represent building intensity in a scene. I also draw an extreme close-up just of a character’s bloodshot eye and a bead of sweat (this is the quickest to draw) to show extreme intensity. Two regular close-ups can also work, and it can be useful to discuss how editing one close-up after another suggests the height of dramatic tension.
  5. On that note, discussing the length of takes while working through the shots can help explain their role in the narrative. Establishing shots, for example, tend to be much longer takes than close-ups, which reflect and underscore the building and rising of dramatic tension.

 

For those not inclined to draw the frames themselves is the option of using a page or two from a comic or graphic novel, both of which use storyboarding with balloons for dialogue, on an overhead. The frames vary in size, making the visual effect slightly different from film, but if Fellini thought enough of it to spend hours chatting with comic writers and artists, these examples should work fine. An option for the technologically adventurous instructor is the use of free Storyborder software for a dazzling presentation. Of course an instructor could of course use scenes from a film on DVD or streaming video. The key is to use whatever makes the instructor comfortable with illustrating the three elements.

 

After using this activity, I refer back to its frames/shots while discussing a later film in a course and/or prepping students for an exam.  It seems to be a good idea to provide a little extra reinforcement of the concepts of shot, take, and editing for a reminder to view films closely rather than watch them passively. One advantage of the software or comic approach is ready access to the exercise if instructors suspect their students are engaging in a little too much escapism and not enough analysis. Over the years, I have found students performing more of the latter and less of the former with the help of these steps and a couple of felt tip pens.        

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

 

Anyone reading this old enough to remember the song “Where the Party At” by Jagged Edge? The year was 2001, and I’d just finished what I call my “Middle School Odyssey” – teaching ELA to seventh and eighth graders – and had joyfully made it home to high school English.

           

I began my high school stint teaching ninth graders, and everybody knows there’s little difference between eighth and ninth graders. So, the odyssey continued. My students urged me to include music in my lessons, and eager to get them involved, I complied. Fridays found us listening to their favorite songs and talking about what we heard.

           

When one of them played “Where the Party At” that fall, we listened happily, tapped our fingers, and bobbed our heads. Several students sang along with the lyrics, and two were so moved that they broke into dance.

           

Music is an inescapable component of our lives. We listen to it in the car, from our phones, around the store, at the gym. Our students wear their Beats headphones like old people wear shirts: part of their wardrobe. What I realized early on was that while music takes us places our ordinary, soundless existences can’t, those words, those structural patterns attached to the music also stick in our heads, becoming part of us. With that in mind, I decided to keep “Where the Party At?” as a teaching tool for my high school students.

           

I try to play the song in my American Literature classes during the first weeks of a new semester. We enjoy the music, but most students don’t sing along because they’re too young or too cool or both. Because I also begin most semesters with a review of what a sentence is, how it functions, and the ground rules for clear academic writing, the refrain in the song – “Where the (da) party at?” – serves as an appropriate example.

           

“Grammatically,” I ask, “what’s wrong with the song?”

           

Silence.

           

“There are three key issues in the chorus that we want to avoid in our writing. Can anyone identify them?”

           

“They end the sentence with the word at,” someone shouts.

           

“Yes, and why is that wrong?”
           

“No object of the preposition,” another student says. “Sounds bad.”

           

“Good. What else?”

           

“They don’t say the word the; they say da.”

           

“Yes, and while saying da may not be that big a deal, do we want to write da in the place of the word the?”

           

“No,” they laugh.

           

“There’s one more,” I say.

           

This one always takes a moment, but someone finally realizes and blurts out, “Hey, there’s no verb in ‘Where da party at.’ It needs an is.”

           

Music may brighten our students’ days, help them study, and keep their workouts and practices on pace, but it also tattoos on their impressionable brains habits that drive English teachers nuts! Whether we’ll admit it or not, the music our students like doesn’t cultivate the most effective written academic communication.

           

Instead of beating them over the head with all the bad habits popular music creates, I try to help them recognize the influence music has on our culture. I play another hit from my past, “Run Around” by Blues Traveler from all the way back in 1994. Remember the first lines? “Oh, once upon a midnight dearie, I woke with something in my head.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – “Once upon a midnight dreary.” Honestly, they don’t get that reference any more than they know Poe is responsible for the raven on Baltimore’s helmets.

           

By the end of the semester, we’ve listened to and discussed a variety of songs inspired by the literature we read. Here are a few:

 

  • “Ahab,” MC Lars (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • “Tom Sawyer,” Rush (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer)
  • “Anabel Lee,” Stevie Nicks (Edgar Allan Poe, “Anabel Lee”)
  • “Richard Cory,” Simon and Garfunkel (E.A. Robinson, “Richard Cory”)
  • “Thieves in the Night,” Blackstar (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)
  • “Firework,” Katy Perry (Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”)

 

           

And while some of the songs might be a bit of a stretch, like Katy’s Perry’s “Firework,” and listening to the songs does require us to read all or part of the works referenced, students do appreciate our efforts.

           

To my surprise, some of my students are familiar with the band Iron Maiden, and any Internet search of their songs (“Flight of Icarus” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example) will reveal a strong literary influence. Like the band’s music or not, there’s no mistaking that the members either paid attention in high school or spent a lot of time with their noses in books.

           

When my students want to know where “da party at,” they know it probably won’t be in my classroom, but what they do know is that we’ll listen to Jagged Edge, laugh, bob our heads, and talk about literary influences on the culture. The odyssey continues.

 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

Halloween gives us a good excuse to scare up some literary wickedness to treat our classes. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” work well as paired readings, allowing students to examine literary evil as it unfolds under evening stars and morning sun.

 

One element your students can explore through writing or discussion is setting. Both stories are set in small villages, but from there, the differences are quite literally night and day. Hawthorne’s dark, tangled forest provides a perfect setting for Goodman Brown’s “evil purpose” of attending a witch-meeting. The dark facilitates illusion, and Hawthorne never allows the reader the comfort of certainty. The snakelike staff carried by Goodman Brown’s fellow traveler seems to “twist and wriggle,” but Hawthorne casts doubt, writing that the movement must be “an ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light.” Similarly, a natural depression in a rock holds a substance that might be “water, reddened by the lurid light . . . blood . . . or, perchance, a liquid flame.” Jackson’s story, on the other hand, takes place at 10:00 a.m. in the town square. What could possibly happen in broad daylight with all 300-some villagers present, chatting and hoping to “get home for noon dinner”? Even the rocks with which the villagers eventually stone Tessie Hutchinson are first presented in the guise of innocent play, as three of the village boys build “a great pile of stones” and protect them “against the raids of other boys.”

 

Going a bit deeper, students might be asked to discuss or write about how and whether the characters perceive the evil that exists in each story. In “Young Goodman Brown,” the title character feels guilty about his overnight journey away from his wife Faith and about straying from his religious faith.  However, he never recognizes his most profound mistake: losing his faith in humanity. Hawthorne suggests that the witch-meeting may have been a “wild dream,” but of course it makes no difference. Dream or no, Goodman Brown is doomed to misery because he can no longer see the good in anyone.  In “The Lottery,” the characters are completely blind to their own wrongdoing as they draw lots and stone Tessie Hutchinson without a qualm, even urging her to “’[b]e a good sport.’”  It’s tradition; they do it every year. How could it be wrong?  

 

These bitter stories can be made sweeter with treats that provide a playful reflection of elements in each story. Candy corn recalls the saying “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” from Jackson’s story, and gummy worms stand in for the staff that resembles a “living serpent” in Hawthorne’s story.  You might also re-enact the drawing in “The Lottery” by making a “lottery box” (any small box will do) and putting in exactly as many folded slips of paper as you have students, with a black spot on one of the papers.

 

I did this recently with my first-year composition students, using only “The Lottery” because it was readily available in The Brief Bedford Reader. As I passed around the box of folded papers for students to draw, an undercurrent of tension flowed through the laughter in the room as students made joking comments such as “It’s been nice knowing y’all” and “Prepare to die.” When the winner revealed herself, I told her that because of her, the class would have corn. I then handed her a bag filled with individually wrapped packets of candy corn and asked her to pass them out to her classmates.  As the students enjoyed candy, we watched a short adaptation of “The Lottery.”

 

Films are a good addition to this assignment, whether you link them online or show them in class.  I found two short films on YouTube, each less than 10 minutes long.  “The Lottery,” is reasonably faithful to Jackson’s story. “Young Goodman Brown” departs from Hawthorne’s story with a modern setting (and nudity that you will want to preview), but is faithful to the original tale in the protagonist’s reaction to woodland depravity that may never have happened.

 

Halloween is the perfect time for tales of terror, and the implications of these two stories are particularly terrifying. Hawthorne’s story suggests that even a “good man” can become blind to the goodness in humanity, while Jackson’s implies that people who participate in atrocities against others are not monsters but ordinary people--people just like us. Those thoughts are scarier than a graveyard at midnight, more horrifying than a host of brain-eating zombies, and ideal for discussion in a literature class as October draws toward its close.    

photoToday's featured guest blogger is Bill LeachLiberal Arts Program Chair and Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

Torn from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in honor of her novel’s 200th anniversary this year.

 

Recently, I asked students in my literature class to write an essay analyzing the symbolism in William Stafford’s poem “Traveling through the Dark.” I was shocked when one student suddenly bolted from the room never to be seen again!  What could be so frightening about poetry analysis that would drive someone into a state of panic and withdrawal?

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge….”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Many first year students are not familiar with the concept of ‘analysis’ as it applies to literature, and sometimes faculty need reminding that students can get apprehensive when asked to write an analysis. So, in the beginning of the semester, I take the element approach to help students see how the various parts of a story or poem are interconnected to the whole.

 

“I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from their sockets…The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and…still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.”  Victor Frankenstein

 

For example, to help allay fears and to make the practice of short fiction analysis more enjoyable, I’ve bestowed on my students the title of ‘Literature Detectives.’  I divide them into four or five ‘Squads’ and ask the squads to fill out a Surveillance Report. The Report asks them to:

 

  1. Identify the target (protagonist)
  2. Identify the threat (antagonist)
  3. Describe the conflict between the target and threat
  4. Describe how the conflict gets resolved and identify where the climax occurs

 

This activity is a fun way to introduce plot analysis which should be the first step in close reading.  Then the squad members write what they believe to be the major themes of the story and present their findings to the class.

 

After learning how easy and fun it is to analyze plot, students then dive deeper and look at elements of symbolism, setting, point of view, etc.  I’ve also designed a separate Report for analyzing poetry based on the elements approach that works equally as well.

 

Practicing analytic skills in group presentations helps prepare students for writing analysis essays on prompts such as the symbolism in “Traveling through the Dark.”

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.  With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!—Great God!”  Victor Frankenstein

 

Through the element/group approach, the quality of student writing has grown dramatically, producing more satisfaction in the study of literature from the student perspective.  I am very proud of their creations just as Victor Frankenstein was of his:

 

“…more, far more, will I achieve…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”

This week's features guest blogger is Phillip Chamberlin, professor at Hillsborough Community College

 

“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.

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

 

Teaching drama may pose the most difficult challenge of the literary genres for instructors.  Plays have speakers like poems, plots like fiction, and scenes like films, but without the benefit of stanzas, narrators, and shots to help guide readers. While plays from the Renaissance and earlier often have prologues to help set initial scenes and introduce characters, readers are largely left on their own to navigate the worlds of plays and the characters that inhabit them.  One of the puzzling facts about plays for students new to them is that they are written from the point of view of the stage rather than of the audience. As a result, trying to visualize character movement through dry stage directions like “walks up stage” can be quite difficult when a reader does not know which direction is “up.” While following the movement and action of characters on, say, an Absurdist stage that simply contains two characters, a tree, and a stump may not pose a particularly difficult challenge, most plays ask quite a bit more of readers. As even an experienced play reader will admit, keeping track of the placement of scenery and props, as well as characters and their movements, on a busy stage, not to mention a stage with scene changes, all while trying to read the dialogue can be a daunting task.

 

To help students visualize stage space, I often use a small group activity early in the semester or drama unit.  It will require some willingness on at least one student per group to do some drawing, although not anything fancy, and students do not seem to mind a little shared artistic responsibility.  For materials, each group only needs a piece of paper and a pencil (obviously easier to erase than pen).    

 

  1. Assign the specific scene/set for the groups, generally after some warm-up about the play or even after the play has been discussed if issues with reading stage space arise.
  2. Have students sort out who is doing the close reading of the setting and character movements and who is handling the drawing before pencil gets to paper. As is the case with much small-group work, the delegation of roles will be the key to success. Equally important will be the need for students to be open to the interpretations of others to make this a group effort.
  3. Once the basic set design is drawn with props, an instructor can ask to have each group show their work. It might be a good idea to make sure every group is on the right track before moving on to the last step.
  4. Where are the characters? Now that the groups have drawn a set for a particular scene, have the groups do some blocking of the characters during a key passage. Simple diagrams or stick figures should do just fine. You can also have them use arrows or another indicator of characters’ movement in the scene. Interpretations may vary, and they can also be included in the drawing up to a point. A picture full arrows and lines would probably defeat the purpose of visualizing the stage.

 

Variations could be using space on the board if the room and class size can accommodate it, and, time and tech permitting, students could use a free drawing program like SVG Edit  that works right in a browser with no need to download software. How many sets the students draw depends on the complexity of the play’s staging, as well as how much difficulty students in a class are having with navigating dramatic texts. As a result, all the groups could work on the same set if it is complex or challenging, or each group could work on an individual set for plays with multiple locations. Classes can also revisit this exercise during work on an individual play for reminders and clarification and/or use the exercise for each play covered. In addition, having students map out the stage space can also be the springboard for student interpretations of setting and directions. How far up is “up”? The answer is up to students’ productions of plays taking place in their own minds, a realization that can be a rewarding teaching and learning experience.             

 

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

This summer, teaching a hybrid literature and composition class, I developed a lesson in carpe diem poetry that was close to pedagogical perfection. Because it worked (and because not everything does), I share it with you. The lesson incorporates poetry and song lyrics and requires students to read, watch, listen, and write.

 

The first part of the lesson presents a definition of carpe diem along with a clip from the film Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) shows his students pictures of long-dead students and advises his own students to “Seize the day, boys . . . make your lives extraordinary.” 

 

After viewing the introductory film clip, students move to two classic carpe diem poems: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” I ask students to look at the formal structure of the speaker’s argument in Marvell’s poem and to contrast the formal structure with the intimate nature of the poem, in which the speaker argues that a specific “coy mistress” should make love to him. I also point out the more general, advice-giving nature of Herrick’s poem, in which the speaker cautions young women (“virgins”) to marry before they are past their expiration date.

 

Next, students listen to four contemporary songs and decide which two are carpe diem songs. I specify that a carpe diem song (1) alludes to the idea that life is short, and (2) names a specific thing that should be done because life is short. The songs students choose should contain both elements.

 

For the lesson, I chose songs I had heard in Zumba class or on Sirius XM’s Chill radio during my morning commute.  I had planned to link to music videos on YouTube, but on one video, I was stopped by a “potentially offensive” YouTube warning. Mindful of my still-in-high-school dual enrollment students, I decided that I would link the audio version of that song and let students find the video themselves if they wished. 

 

Another dilemma arose when I discovered that the song that had given me the idea for the lesson had no clean version available. I took the problem to my students and asked them if profanity in music offended them. They reacted just as I might have if an adult had asked my teenage self if I was offended by Mick Jagger’s onstage gyrations.  I included the song, prefaced with a warning that I had not been able to find a clean version. I then asked myself if this issue was the same as that of the video with the YouTube warning and decided that it was not. Some of the works of literature assigned in class also contain profanity, so these lyrics add no new element.

 

I have listed and linked my song choices below, but the assignment is endlessly adaptable to your own musical tastes and preferences. 

 

  1. “Bad, Bad News” by Leon Bridges, a song about seizing the opportunity to make “a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”
  2. “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, a song that riffs on the theme of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” This is the song with the YouTube community warning; judge for yourself. 
  3. “Havana” by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug, a song about a heart divided, chosen because of its wildly entertaining video.
  4. “Dead Soon” by Autograf, featuring Lils and Bonsai Mammal, a song that justifies seizing the moment with the lyric “If we don’t see another light / Then at least we had tonight.”

 

My students responded well to this assignment; all accurately identified the carpe diem lyrics (songs 2 and 4). When I asked myself if a 100 percent success rate meant the exercise was too easy, my answer was “not in this case.” Carpe diem is a fairly easy concept to grasp, recognize, and remember.  What really sold me on the assignment was not the success rate, but the ease with which students quoted song lyrics. My students find it challenging to make a point about literature and support that point with a concise quotation from the text itself. But doing the exact same thing with song lyrics seemed to be easy for them, perhaps because song lyrics are woven through their lives in a way that literature is not.  This accidental discovery suggests that one good way of helping students understand how to integrate quotations into their papers is to let them start with song lyrics. While I should probably seize the day and get to work on that, it’s a task for another day.