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33 Posts authored by: LitBits Guest Blogger

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

Each semester, I teach an Introduction to Literature course for non-English majors. One of my goals in this course is to break down an idea they tend to bring with them from their high school English courses: there is one right way to interpret a text. We talk about our personal frame of reference for seeing and understanding the world and the role that this plays in how the meaning of a text is constructed. However, it’s easy for undergraduates to fall down the slippery slope of “we can each understand this work differently” to “literature means anything” or “any interpretation is correct.”

 

To reach a middle ground in the way my students understand interpretation, I turned to concept artist Sol LeWitt. Starting in the late Sixties, LeWitt created instruction-based Wall Drawings. He would write instructions for a piece of art and then a group of artists would execute the actual drawing. I’ve always found LeWitt’s Wall Drawings compelling since the instructions, while fairly simple and clear, can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader, and inevitably yield a different result reliant on the group executing the drawing. These drawings felt like a wonderful visual metaphor for literary interpretation.

 

On the second day of my literature class, I bring in a large roll of paper. I write the instructions for one of LeWitt’s Wall Drawings on the whiteboard. As students file in, I cut large squares from the paper. I usually get a few apprehensive glances. Class starts and I put students into groups of three or four. I ask them to:

  1. read the instructions on the board and write them down
  2. take one sheet of large paper for their group
  3. find a hard surface in the classroom or hallway to execute the instructions

 

Students disseminate with their groups and paper. On their way out of the classroom, some usually ask me to clarify a sentence or two in LeWitt’s instructions. I answer by telling them to give the instructions a close read, break them down part by part and examine the relationships between the sentences, and work together as a group to make sense of them.

 

I wander between my students. They chat happily, debating interpretations of the instructions and how to best execute their drawing. Students come alive when tasked at creating something in the classroom, especially creating in collaboration (which means the activity serves a secondary purpose as an ice breaker in the first week of school).

 

As each group presents me with their finished product, I tape them up in the classroom, side-by-side. Then, students free write in response to three discussion questions:

  1. What do you notice about the drawings in front of you?
  2. Who is the artist of the drawings? Who can claim ownership over the creation of these drawings?
  3. What does this activity have to do with literature?

 

The class discusses their answers to the three questions. Virtually all my students come to the consensus that there are many similarities between the drawings, due to the fact that parts of the instructions are more objectively understood. However, they point to differences in the way some more complex parts of the instructions are interpreted by each group. There are some facts we can agree on in the instructions, but other areas required interpretation. Thus, it’s not surprising that my students then slide into a discussion of the way that our interpretations of literature can be grounded in facts, but influenced by the way we read and construct meaning.

 

As a bonus, the second discussion question prompts my students to debate the roles of writer/artist and reader, raising questions about authorial intent, how much space a reader is given in co-constructing meaning, and how these dynamics impact our interpretation of a text.

 

Sol LeWitt not only serves as a way to introduce my students to the questions that literature raises and to think about interpretation, but it also gives the class a memorable touch-point for the rest of the semester. Students reference our “LeWitt activity” discussion as we interpret new works. And when my students start to say that “this poem can mean literally anything” I can remind my students of their drawings and the way they constructed their interpretations. 

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen Kolba, Digital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida 

 

I expected the worst during finals week my first year as a teacher: a huge stack of papers to grade, frustration over revision advice not taken, late nights to meet grade submission deadlines. While I certainly had a lot to grade, what I really struggled with was unexpected: boredom at the conformity of my students’ work. Their writing was polished and it was evident that their skills had improved over the semester. But the writing lacked energy, originality, and their own voices. I found myself wondering what they had really learned.

 

In preparation for the next semester, I re-examined how the course learning goals might still be met while allowing students to present their learning in a more individual and authentic way. If students could tell me how they would best be able to present their learning, then maybe they would engage with the final project with more investment. And when students are invested, they spend more time, produce higher quality work, and engage in the work more deeply.

 

Enter, the “pitch your own final” final exam. A final exam designed to give students agency over their own learning. What I’ve detailed below is how I present Pitch Your Own Final in my Introduction to Literature course (a writing-intensive general education class offered at my university), although different iterations of this same final can be applied to courses throughout the English discipline. How it works: 

 

A month before the end of the semester, I introduce the final exam. The guidelines are as frustratingly open-ended as they come: “Engage with at least one course concept in a new way to demonstrate what you’ve learned in this class.”

 

It’s important to note that I’ve scaffolded this kind of project into my course. Throughout the semester, my students have been given a little more agency over each assignment that they complete, in order to prepare for an almost instruction-less final.

 

The class is usually in a mild uproar at this final project. They ask question after question to try and get me to tell them what I want. I ask them to tell me what I want. This makes them furious. They beg for examples. I learned early with this kind of project to not give them examples (a practice I otherwise offer in my class) because what many produce will be a near copy of that example. I ask them to trust me, as they’ve done all semester, that they’ll get much more out of the project if they’re in control.

 

Students then develop pitches for their final projects. This is a critical step. It allows me the opportunity to give students feedback about their initial direction. I can jump in early to make sure students are either doing enough work for a final project or not too much work (I’ve had students pitch me ideas that would turn into a book if executed as they describe). What I usually receive is a mix of analytical and creative work, synthesized together to demonstrate the student’s evolved understanding of what literature is.

 

On the last day of the semester, students present a portion of their work to the class, and the results are diverse and astounding. I’ve had students examine literary translation through dance choreography, create video games, and one even live-coded music. They’re invested in the work because they’re allowed to take what they’ve learned and connect it to a mode that they already know (either in the form of their major, hobbies, or a medium they’re familiar with). Many, as they present, tell the class that they discovered that they knew much more about literature than they thought and that it relates to their own interests in relevant and unexpected ways. 

 

I step out of the classroom that day with arms full of large, weird textual/visual/analytical projects and an inbox full of links that will lead me to a new and surprising project and perspective. I’m looking forward to grading, at this point, because with each new project, I get insight into a completely new, non-conforming perspective.

 

Quick end note: As you can imagine, I’ve implemented this type of final in courses in which I’ve had the freedom and luxury to design the class myself. While I’ve used this final to meet departmental and university-level learning outcome requirements, I acknowledge that assigning a final exam like this is a luxury afforded to those with complete creative teaching control.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Susan Dunn-Hensley, Visiting Assistant Professor at Wheaton College, IL

 

 

“Do you feel my pain, / This anguish like no other / From taming with the words of France / This heart that came to me from Senegal?” (Leon LeLeau; translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy). These are the final lines of Caribbean poet Leon LaLeau’s poem “Betrayal.” I teach this poem to my History of English Language (HEL) classes as part of the unit on world Englishes.  Although LaLeau is speaking specifically of the French language, his lament for the loss of his language and culture echoes the concerns of many English speaking postcolonial poets, novelists, and playwrights. Reading LaLeau’s poem and other postcolonial works as part of a unit on World Englishes allows students to explore the varieties of World English resulting from colonization and globalization. These works also reveal the evolution of the English language in these postcolonial contexts and help students understand political and cultural factors involved in the spread and development of language.

 

 A few years ago, as I was teaching the History of the English Language in the same semester that I was teaching freshman composition, it occurred to me that the material that we were covering in HEL would benefit the students in my English writing classes. In particular, I began to consider how learning about language – the tool that all writers use – could actually help English writing students become more careful, sensitive, and effective writers.

 

In Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser argues that one of the great enemies of analytical reading and writing is the transparent theory of language, which presents words as if they were a clear window through which to view meaning, a meaning which can somehow be accessed without attention to language. As I thought about this assertion, I realized that many of our native English-speaking students grow up with the type of language privilege that makes it difficult for them to recognize the power of language to shape identity. As such, some students fail to appreciate the importance of gender nonspecific language and culturally sensitive language. Seeing the ways that reading about linguistic imperialism and post-colonial reassertion of identity helped my English majors better understand the power of language to both subordinate others and to assert and shape one’s own identity, I began to realize that this lesson could be particularly useful to non-English majors who may be headed for careers that would involve intercultural connections and the need for sensitivity to English language politics and privilege.

 

In order to help my freshman writers understand language in more complex ways, I decided to take components from my HEL class and modify them to fit an English writing class. Writing classes at the liberal arts college where I teach tend to have themes, so I decided to structure the class around the theme of Globalization and Language.

 

First, I began the semester not with my usual introduction to academic writing but with Brian Friel’s play Translations. The play, set in 1830s Ireland, dramatizes the replacement of Irish hedge schools with National Schools and the topological surveys of Thomas Frederick Colby and the royal Engineers that mapped and renamed Ireland, Anglicizing the landscape.

 

My students and I discussed the fact that language forms our identities and connects us to our own culture; however, language can also be a tool used to oppress, control, and redefine others. Beginning the course with a reminder of the power inherent in the tool that they were wielding gave many students a greater sense of the importance of their roles as writers.

 

Second, I focused our writing on language and global interconnections. One assignment asked the students to research the political and cultural ramifications of the English as a world language. The students selected a “variety” of English and researched the socio-political issues that accompany the use of English in that country or region. The variant could come from any number of places – Australia / New Zealand; South Africa; West and East Africa; India; Hong Kong; Jamaica; or Canada. The students simply had to select a variant and consider particular conversations and controversies pertaining to that variant. For the research paper, I allowed the students to select their own topics, but I required that the topics in some way address global interconnections.

 

Third, I incorporated Caribbean poetry into our lessons on analytical reading. Each poem that I selected dealt specifically with the complex interconnections between language and culture. Analyzing poems such as Grace Nichols’ “The Fat Black Woman goes Shopping,” Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem,” and LaLeau’s “Betrayal” reinforced lessons about the connections between language and power structures. However, it also reminded the students that, although English writing classes do teach students to write in Standard English, non-standard dialects are not linguistically inferior - but are, instead, an expression of identity.