Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog
1 2 3 4 Previous Next

LitBits

160 posts

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.

Browsing in the stacks of my local town library this summer, I was surprised to discover an edition of Kafka’s story that I hadn’t found in 2002 when I began to translate the German text of Die Verwandlung into English as “The Metamorphosis” for inclusion in an early edition of The Story and Its Writer. The copyright page of the book I found on the library shelf informed me that this English translation of the story had originally been published as a single volume in an edition limited to three hundred copies by Aeonian Press in Matituck, New York and reprinted in 1946 by the Vanguard Press, Inc. Its ISBN number was 0-88411-450-3. The name of the translator and the date of the Aeonian Press edition were not included.

 

I was disappointed I couldn’t find the name of the translator, but further omissions awaited me after I checked out the slim volume and took it home to read cover to cover. “A Note on the Text” before the title page promised “footnotes to this translation,” but after I’d settled into a comfortable armchair to read the book, I realized, much to my dismay, that it was seriously flawed. At the end several pages were missing in their stiff blue library binding. The text of Kafka’s classic story stopped abruptly on page 87 with Greta Sampsa’s words after she ceased playing her violin for the three lodgers, when she told her parents, “Things cannot go on like this. Even if you do not realize it, I can see it quite clearly. I will not mention my brother’s name when I speak of this . . . .”  I flipped over this page to find only one more sheet left in the tightly bound volume. It offered the final paragraphs of a brief biography of Kafka, evidently the end of the afterword.

 

No name of the translator of Die Verwandlung into English, no conclusion to the story, and no footnotes explaining the changes in the text between the appearance of the original German publication of the story in its first book edition in November 1915, which Kafka evidently read, and its next edition in 1917. No one knows if Kafka read and corrected this second book edition. In the 1946 English version of the story I’d just checked out of the library, someone (perhaps the translator) wrote in “A Note on the Text” at the beginning of the book, that “I count fifty-seven changes between this [1917] edition and the edition of 1915, of which I judge eleven to be degradations, ten to be improvements, and the rest of minimal consequences.” Most of the minimal changes were concerned with orthography and punctuation, but the ten “improvements,” according to this note, were incorporated into “footnotes to this translation.” Alas, these footnotes were nonexistent in the truncated volume my local library had put on its shelves.

 

So what had I learned from my discovery of this incomplete English translation of perhaps my favorite short story in the entire wide, wide world of short fiction? Despite its flaws, the little book gave me the most important new information that I was looking for — how the opening sentence was translated into English. How had the unknown translator met that challenge? Here is what I read: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream, he found himself changed in his bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.”

 

“Some monstrous kind of vermin” — those were the words I was seeking. No previous version of the story in English that I’d read had ever started that way. As I wrote in my commentary “Translating Kafka,” the first sentence of “The Metamorphosis” is the one that gives the most trouble to translators. I was a college undergraduate when I first read the story’s opening sentence in an early translation by Willa and Edwin Muir. I still remember how horrible it was to imagine their stark image of Gregor Sampsa transformed into an “enormous bug.” Their words were unforgettable, but years later when I did my own translation, I preferred “monstrous vermin” as being closer to Kafka’s multisyllabic word choice in German. 

 

I liked the phrase in English of “some monstrous kind of vermin” because its indeterminacy suggested Gregor’s hazy dream-state when he first woke up at the moment of becoming aware of his metamorphosis. In my reading of the story, Kafka created the worst possible nightmare for his protagonist. Gregor’s waking life is already difficult; his job as a traveling salesman gives him little personal satisfaction, and at home he must live with the callous selfishness of his family and the murderous intentions of his father. He can seek peace of mind only in sleep.  But in “The Metamorphosis” the dreamer can never escape his nightmare. Good-hearted Gregor awakens to find himself inexplicably transformed into a state of being worse than his troublesome life itself.

 

Ann Charters is the author of  The Story and Its Writer.

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.

Today's featured guest blogger is Bill Leach Liberal Arts Program Chair and Assistant Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

 

What do alien abductions, cops chasing robbers, and binge drinking zombies have in common? They’ve all been subjects of one-act plays written by student groups in my introduction to literature classes over the years.

 

I’ve always been a fan of introducing creative writing opportunities to students as a method of reinforcing the elements of short fiction, poetry, and drama.  Many of my ideas are not really mine at all. Our university uses The Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, and there are gems of writing ideas embedded in the text just waiting to be mined. These ‘Creative Responses” are sprinkled throughout, such as writing your own 55 word short story or writing a three minute phone call or email conversation between two characters based on the brief play Reprimand. These ideas can be incorporated as journal entries, test questions, and group activities.

 

I introduce group work early in the semester, which allows group members to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and provide a sense of commitment to the group for completing the tasks assigned. Toward the end of the semester, I introduce the groups to the project of writing a script for their own one-act plays. Years ago, I started this activity by asking the groups to write an alternate ending to the play Am I Blue by Beth Henley, which deals with many issues young adults face today. This activity also works in writing an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman. Studying original plays and writing in groups takes up a good chunk of classroom time, so I searched for shorter activities because of the premium associated with classroom time.

 

That's when I stumbled across the website 10-Minute-Plays.com. The site not only provides multiple examples of short plays, but it also provides students easy to follow directions on how to compose their play, which reinforces the concepts of plot structure.  Here’s an example of directions from the site:

 

Page 1:  Set up the world of your main characters (exposition)

Page 2:  Something happens to throw your characters’ world out of balance

Page 3-4:  Your characters struggle to restore order

Page 5:  Just when your characters are about to restore order, something happens to complicate matters    

Page 6:  Your characters either succeed or fail to restore order

 

The brevity of the 10 minute play allows students to work with the structure of drama, introducing conflict and providing a resolution just as longer, traditional plays do. In addition, the shortened format saves on group and classroom time, allowing for more in-depth discussions of other genres such as short fiction and poetry.

 

The students really enjoy the activity and work well together writing the scripts and even acting out the parts. It is a fun way to end the semester, and student feedback shows it to be something they learn from and remember.

 

As a caution, though, instructors need to be involved in the brainstorming part of the process, guiding students toward appropriate topics. If not, you may find yourself in the middle of many dramatic renderings describing drunken zombies fighting aliens!

Ann Charters is the author of The Story and Its Writer.

 

I’ve been a Kerouac fan since 1958, when I read his just-published novel The Dharma Bums.  In the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Beat Generation authors were men who rarely wrote about women as independent, equally talented individuals or even as equal partners.  Ironically, in the next generation, the discovery of the freedom of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style helped some of the women who read his books gain the confidence to become experimental writers themselves.

 

The tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer includes Kerouac’s experimental prose narrative “October in the Railroad Earth,” his story about his daily life in California in the autumn of 1952. It is considered the best short example of what Kerouac called “Spontaneous Prose.” He wrote the story in San Francisco while he lived in a skid row hotel and worked as a brakeman-in-training for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  In his commentary “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (also included in the tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer), he described his highly personal method of writing.  In his approach, Kerouac tried to write his mind into a text as directly, honestly, and completely as possible, hoping to capture the free, spontaneous flow of his thoughts and feelings at the moment of putting words down on paper.  

 

Kerouac composed “October in the Railroad Earth” eighteen months after he created his most famous novel On the Road during an inspired three weeks in April 1951, though he’d tried unsuccessfully for years to write it.  His novel, now considered an American classic, took nearly seven years to be published in 1957, but only after it had been first rejected and then completely revised into conventional prose by his editors.  The 1951 original so-called “scroll manuscript” of On the Road, unpublished for a half-century until 2007, reads much more like spontaneous prose. As Kerouac once told an interviewer, “I agree with Joyce, as Joyce said to Ezra Pound in the 1920s, ‘Don’t bother me with politics, the only thing that interests me is style.’”

 

Kerouac knew what he was doing. At the time he wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg that he was “originating. . . a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts.” Later the English critic Michael Horowitz understood that at midcentury Kerouac’s style –“That ingenuous art of spilling the beans – all that’s remembered laced with all that chimes in from the senses at the instant of writing, emptying consciousness as per action painter and jazzman’s delivery” – was to change the direction of American prose.

 

The woman author I have in mind who was influenced by Kerouac’s writing is the novelist and biographer Chris Kraus.  In 1997 she published her second novel I Love Dick, which elicited heated controversy at the time though recently it has become the basis of a successful American television series released on Amazon Video.  Like Kerouac, Kraus used what was happening in her own life as the basis for her fiction.  As a critic noted on the back jacket of I Love Dick, by “tearing away the veil that separates fiction from reality and privacy from self-expression . . . Kraus forged a manifesto for a new kind of feminism that isn’t afraid to burn through itself to embrace the whole world.”

 

I Love Dick is full of references to Beat-era writers, not only Kerouac but also less famous figures such as Lew Welch, John Wieners, Ron Padgett and Paul Blackburn —all males.  As Kraus writes in I Love Dick about the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning, the 1950s was a period “that believed in the utter worthlessness of Women.” [sic]  It was a time when the commercial success of women authors, even extremely talented writers like Flannery O’Connor who wrote in a conventional prose style, was the exception, not the rule.  The example of Kerouac’s courage creating his autobiographical, spontaneous prose method and following it despite the repeated rejection of his writing by established publishers, inspired Kraus to find her own voice as a writer.  Kerouac’s story encouraged her to create highly original autobiographical fiction in which she too expressed herself as openly, honestly, and freely as she could.

 

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

 

A student in my Composition and Literature course told me that she had trouble relating to Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She just “didn’t get” the story.

 

“She’s an old woman from a weird family. And she killed somebody.”

 

“Is Emily Grierson really that far removed from the average person?” I asked. “To somebody, each of us is old. And if we really think about it, aren’t most of our families weird in some way?”

 

A collective murmur of agreement engulfed the classroom.

 

“Okay, I may be old to my little brother,” she conceded, “and you’re right about odd families. Mine is definitely strange. But I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a villain.”

 

“But have you ever been angry enough, hurt enough to at least think about killing another person?”

 

The tendency to expect our students to regurgitate what we tell them about the literature, instead of helping students make personal connections, abounds in education. While this approach to the literature is not completely without merit, demanding broad acquiescence to our ideas and beliefs is one way we rob students of their ability to relate to the literature on their unique terms.

 

Of course this method does not mean students have free reign to interpret works any old way. No, “A Rose for Emily” is not a happy love story. Emily Grierson’s life is not one held in high regard for our emulation; her life, however, does represent elements of humanity that most of us face, problems with which we find ourselves wrestling, on a regular basis. Don’t we, after all, want to teach the literature in a more personalized way?

 

When I was 18 or 19, relating to the death of an old woman who had been sleeping with the corpse of the lover she murdered was a stretch of my imagination. The same applies to our students now until we allow them to struggle with their own lives and experiences in terms of the broader human condition: everybody ages, most of us fall in love, we hurt when we’re betrayed, we seek some form of revenge.

 

Our students experience an inherent longing for acceptance and validation, and it’s that same longing that compels Miss Emily to take Homer’s life. Is she a bad person? No worse than the rest of us. Does she give in to her momentary desire for some aberrant sense of retribution? Yes, but we’ve all probably at least considered doing the same thing.

 

Each person who reads the story can relate to the struggle to overcome momentary urges that, while at the time may seem perfectly acceptable considering a vulnerable emotional state, ultimately carry with them legal or moral repercussions that will result in a far greater struggle in the long run. That’s a key lesson our students should know.

           

As we provide students the freedom to relate to characters, not only the protagonists,  but the antagonists, too, in ways that make those universal struggles relevant, we empower students to move beyond a read-the-story-and-answer-the-questions mentality that permeates our profession. Sure, students may answer the assigned questions that accompany the readings, but do they actually care about how they’ve responded? Or, do they simply do the work in order to meet the requirements of the assignment? That’s really the core of our struggle as educators – creating relevance.

           

In the end, more students have something in common with Emily Grierson than they do Homer Barron. Homer may be the one who gets the poison, but Emily, like all of us, struggles with and succumbs to her desire to become whole after her fall. Once we give our students the autonomy to relate to the villain in the same ways we encourage them to find common ground with the characters we deem morally or ethically “good,” we help them realize that each of us has the potential to be the villain and commit a crime as egregious as murder. From Emily Grierson’s mistakes, though, we can all learn how to better manage our urges and begin to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Today's featured guest blogger is Tammy Powley, Professor at Indian River State College. 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the first day of your creative writing course started with an inspirational talk given by a famous author like Amy Tan? That and similar questions came to mind when I received department approval to develop my college’s first  creative writing course. This began my web journey as I looked for video resources to help supplement and inspire my creative writing students, and now Amy Tan greets my students during their first week of class. Throughout the semester they also hear from Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and many other authors.

 

Amy Tan arrives thanks to TED.com, which it a site best known for commenting on technology, education, and design, but in “Where Does Creativity Hide?” Tan examines how she personally creates, where her ideas might originate, and how life events affected her writing. Tan is a wonderful presenter. She is funny and easy to understand. My students watch this 22 minute video, and then I ask them to reflect, to examine their own approach to creativity. This is one of the earliest writing assignments in the course, a very simple response, but it starts them thinking and writing. This site also offers videos by some entertaining and thought-provoking poets, for example What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali and “The Danger of Silence” by Clint Smith. So, while TED.com is full of presentations from technology gurus, there is also plenty to glean from this site for creative writers and liberal arts studies. An added plus to this site is the inclusion of a transcript for each TED talk, and I have found the hyperlinks I use in my  course shell are also accurate and not prone to change, an issue that can come up whenever using free  content.

 

YouTube is more popular with Internet readers than TED.com and full of possible content. It requires a different approach when researching for curriculum, but I feel it worth considering since many educational institutions and similar organizations have free resources through this site. A few videos I have discovered useful over there for my writing students include “Write What You Know” presented by Nathan Englander and “Revising, Rewriting, and Overcoming Obstacles” by Sinead Moriarty. Writing instructors, however, should be prepared to spend more time culling through content on YouTube because there is the added task of determining if the person who posted the video is actually the owner of the content. Additionally, if the channel owner changes something (and it has been my experience that this occasionally happens) then links could be disabled at some point. Therefore, it is important to check links regularly for a course to ensure they still work.

 

Finally, one of my favorite video sources is  but not necessarily available to everyone on the World Wide Web. It is a database called Films on Demand, and many colleges and universities subscribe to it. The information available through this database seems to be endless, and I especially like that I am able to combine content from it with a book or e-text. For example, in one assignment I ask students to examine the basic ideas concerning plot and structure, and I bring in Edgar Allan Poe as an example. We look at his story “The Cask of Amontillado” and watch one of the film versions of the story provided through Films on Demand. This brings in more writing opportunities as I ask students to answer another response question: Did you feel the tension building, and were you surprised at the end? Then, they are given an opportunity to rewrite the story and bring it into the twenty-first century but keep the original sequence of events.

 

By combining videos with traditional curriculum sources such as handouts and textbooks, I am able to layer my learning strategies and provide a method for visual learners to engage in what may seem like abstract ideas to many of them. TED.com, YouTube, and Films on Demand are three resources that can help writing instructors create an engaging and encouraging environment, whether a course is taught  or in a traditional face-to-face setting.

So many of my students love being students. They enjoy reading and writing and researching. They are often good students and have been good students their whole lives. As a result, while graduation grows ever closer, those who are not pursuing graduate programs are concerned about their opportunities in the workplace. How do they find jobs that allow them to keep writing? How do they find jobs that allow them to be creative? How do they find jobs, period?

 

Here I outline my process for talking with students both in the classroom and in individual meetings. While I’m focusing on creative writing students, I have employed similar strategies with students across the disciplines, especially in the humanities. I recognize that the backgrounds of my students vary widely—from students who’ve never held a job to students transitioning from careers of twenty years or more—and I adjust my advising accordingly.

 

To first identify the fields they see themselves entering, I challenge my students to closely observe their own experiences the way they study texts in class. What recurring themes do they see in their interests, habits, and hobbies? Where are the turns, or moments of change and growth, in their personal narratives? What details or anecdotes exemplify their characters?

 

Often, students feel uncomfortable or flustered at the process of turning close observation onto themselves, so I draw from a variety of questions to guide our dialogue:

            What is one of your favorite projects you’ve done?

            What are your favorite classes? What do you like about them?

            Where do you best complete your work?

            What do you like to do outside of schoolwork?

            What’s your favorite job you’ve ever had?

 

Just as with our creative writing texts, I ask my students to notice what they notice. Through these questions, I hope students can identify for themselves the type of work they like to do, the spaces they work best in, and the meaningful experiences they’ve had.

 

Next, I show them how to research and compile lists of jobs that demand the work and skills they value. I direct them to the university’s career services website, and I encourage them to schedule appointments with counselors there. I also show them job ads and resources from LinkedIn, Poets & Writers, and AWP.  If my students have time before graduation, I suggest they take on an internship in a field of interest. Above all, I encourage students to conduct informational interviews; they need to call someone who has the job they’re interested in having and ask interview questions about that job.

 

Some of my students say they “just want to write” or they want to be novelists or poets. I encourage them in their pursuit of paths that allow them to write full time, but I am honest with them about the difficulties they may encounter. Their research assignment, then, becomes one of tracking the paths of their favorite writers and identifying the work those writers did that allowed them to write full time.

 

Once students find positions they’re interested in, the next step is articulating their skill sets and translating their skills into language that matches the job ads for those positions. For this translation process, I encourage more close reading and research. First, students have to break down the language of the ad and highlight key verbs and requirements. Then, they review the syllabi from their classes and examine the course goals and student learning outcomes, which often have clear verbs. I also encourage them to write out stories of their experiences and pay attention to the language they use when talking about themselves. Are the verbs in the ad the same or synonyms of words in the syllabi and personal stories? Are the experiences the job requires not exactly the same as what the students have, but similar?

 

Finally, I tell students to lean into their storytelling and argumentation skills. When putting together a resume and cover letter, and later preparing for interviews, I remind my students that they are experts in their own experiences. They need to familiarize their audience, potential employers, with those experiences in a compelling way. They can use story structures we employ in class—rising action, climax, falling action—to succinctly describe how they have successfully navigated workplace or workplace-adjacent situations.

 

By offering a structure for entering the job search process and reiterating the value of their skill sets, I’ve seen my students grow more confident and excited at the prospect of graduation. The strength of their searches rest on their abilities to re-see themselves in new, professional perspectives—a process that mirrors the way they return to their favorite texts and discover key elements they may have never noticed before. No matter what career path they pursue, I remind my students that if they desire to write they will find ways to do so, if not in the workplace itself, then certainly outside of it.

While reading stories from my students this semester I noticed in many pieces there was a clear tension between two characters, but no other elements of conflict. In our individual conferences, many students expressed a desire for deeper and richer stories beyond the single line of conflict. “It feels like my story is missing something,” one student said.

 

Both in conferences and in class, I encouraged my students to draw out a third element in their stories—a character, a weather pattern, an object—that bears significance to their stories and pulls at desires of the two characters already on the page. Then the stories have three central elements in conflict, a triangle of tension as one of my own creative writing instructors called it.

 

While my students understood how adding a third element to their stories would be effective, the question many of them asked was “How can I do this?” In response, I led the class in a guided story exercise of five steps. Each step built on the next to encourage students to pay attention to conflict and to go looking for trouble. After each step, I gave students a few minutes to wander on the page and see where the prompt took them before moving onto the next. I used “you” in each step to encourage students to get in the mindsets of their characters.

 

First, I asked my students to place themselves or a character in a room.

   Where are you?

   What are you doing?

 

Then, I drew their attention to another figure in the room.

   There’s another person in the room with you.

   What are they doing?

 

I turned toward dialogue, asking students to listen to their characters.

   What do they say to you?

   What do you say back?

   What are you doing while you’re talking?

 

I finally asked them to look for another figure in the scene.

   You may have already noticed this, or you’re just noticing now, but someone or something else is in the room    with you two.

   Who or what is it?

   What do they say or do?

   What do you say and do?

 

Finally, for the closing of the exercise, I encouraged students to explicitly consider elements of conflict and tension in the scene.

   What do you want?

   Who and what is in your way?

 

When students came up for air at the end of the exercise, shaking out their hand cramps, I saw the pages of their notebooks were filled. As a class, we discussed the benefits of the exercise. One student said she’d forgotten to look for a third character when she started writing, so she was grateful for the prompt to pay attention to one. Another student found the open-ended nature of the prompts useful, so that he had authority over where he sent his characters. Yet another student found the closing part of the exercise, the question of what her character wants, to be a powerful question to ask each of her characters to make sure they all had something at stake in the piece.

 

My students almost unanimously asked for more guided story prompts, with the condition they receive even more time to write than the fifteen minutes I had set aside. I’m eager to develop more of these exercises to support other fiction skills, such as creating turns, developing a clear setting, and tuning ears to dialogue.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Colleen KolbaDigital Teaching Fellow at University of South Florida. 

 

“I was not excited to read this book,” says a student, holding up a copy of Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé before our Introduction to Literature class starts. The poetry collection is the first book we’re tackling this semester. “But then she quoted Kendrick Lamar right off the bat, and I was like, I know this! I know what song this is from.”

 

My student is referring to Parker’s epigraph, a line from Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”: “The president is black/ She black.” Already, my student has access to one of the cultural conversations that the poems exist alongside. I know this. His words play over in my head, and I think, this is why I start my poetry units with contemporary poetry.

 

Many of my Introduction to Literature students are nervous about poetry. It’s the kind of literature that they oftentimes see as locked behind a gate and only with the right key or code can they unlock a poem’s “secret meaning.” They view poetry as an elevated form of writing, in contrast with prose writing, which they view as “casual” (a terribly vague word that, when I press for greater specificity, usually means accessible or colloquial or language that’s familiar). While I question their use of the word casual, it highlights students’ relationship with poetry. That it’s prose’s buttoned-up, stuffy counterpart, guarding a lock box filled with the secrets

 

However, contemporary poetry offers students the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the form. If they can understand how their own positioning within history and a culture (a familiarity with the allusions Parker makes to Lamar’s body of work, or references to the Black Lives Matter movement) allows them to read, interpret, and understand a poem, then they might be more prepared to turn to poems from other periods. When they gain confidence reading contemporary poetry, they’re positioned to be better readers of older words. They’re less intimidated by poems from other time periods if they understand that at one point, someone was able to read that poem not because they had unlocked a secret code, but because they had the cultural context to do so.

 

Perhaps here is where teachers might worry that this method invites students to dismiss older works because they come from a different context. However, I get sort of excited when a student says, “I don’t get it because the poet’s references aren’t relatable to me.” These kinds of comments offer a perfect segue into a discussion about what it means to be an empathetic reader and why poetry and literature matter. I’ll ask the student (and the rest of the class): “What if I assign a poem written yesterday by a person with a completely different gender, race, socioeconomic status than you? And the experiences they relate in this poem are nothing like what you’ve ever experienced? Is it not worth reading? Or trying to understand?” The student, as well as a few others, will say: “I would try to understand.” And so I prod further: “Why would you try to understand?” At which point, they’re a little bit cornered: “Because it’s good to hear and try to understand different perspectives and experiences.” We enter a discussion about how reading poetry from other eras can help humanize experiences that are different from our own, which then will usually spiral into a wider conversation about how poetry and literature can make us better people.

 

By unlearning some of the expectations that they have of poetry—that it’s inaccessible, it’s too formal or lofty for non-English majors—students can gain more confidence in their ability to read poetry, which will in turn make them better and more enthusiastic readers.

 

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.

 

Before the first workshop of the semester in any class I teach, I pass out a stack of papers, face down, and instruct my students to take one each. When everyone has a paper, we flip them over. I’ve given them a poem: "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Without introduction, I read the poem. I pause when I reach the ending. Some students’ heads are bowed, gazing at their copies. Some have their eyes closed. Some are watching me.

 

“Why do think I wanted to share this poem with you today?” I ask.

 

The responses from my students vary depending on the course I’m teaching. But often, one of the early answers is a question: “Because you like poetry?”

 

“I do like poetry.” I smile. “But what is it about this particular poem?”

 

Soon, someone points to the lesson plan on the whiteboard. “We’re going to talk about workshopping.” Another adds, “And you want us to be kind to each other.”

 

“Great observations. So what can we learn about kindness from this poem?”

 

The room is quiet. My students frown at the poem, or at each other, or at me.

 

It’s time for a short writing exercise. I ask my students to write their answers to two questions: what can you learn about kindness from the poem? How does the poem make you feel?

 

Most of my students are used to analyzing writing. They are used to looking for meaning. They are not accustomed to looking inward, at their own feelings, at how the work is affecting them. Poetry, in this instance, helps them identify their feelings and prepare them for the vulnerable process of workshopping. An honest conversation about something other than workshopping encourages them to trust their ideas and each other before diving into their own work.

 

After a few minutes of writing I ask my students to share their responses with a partner next to them, if they are comfortable. I walk around the room, eavesdropping. “This is a sad poem,” several students say. “But it’s hopeful,” others point out. “I don’t understand all of it,” some students say, and their peers offer, “I think that’s OK.”

 

I bring the class back together and encourage my students to share their responses. They are animated, responding to each other, almost as if I’m not present.  

 

“I don’t like poetry much, but this is deep,” one says. “It’s like reminding you to walk in someone else’s shoes, you know?”

 

“Everyone has sadness. I’ve got sadness, you’ve got sadness.” A student points to herself and then to her peers.

 

“So we have to respect each other,” says another student.

 

“Even if we disagree.”

 

“Especially if we disagree.”

 

I step into the conversation after a few minutes. I encourage my students to point out their favorite lines.

 

“I like the opening: 'Before you know what kindness is you must lose things.'”

 

“You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

 

“It follows you like a shadow or a friend.”

 

All or almost all of my students participate in the conversation about the poem, even my quieter students. The poem animates them. They connect with each other over favorite lines and ideas. They connect over confusion and questions. It’s these connections that are vital to successful, thoughtful, and trusting workshops.

 

I read the poem one more time after our discussion, so students can listen to phrases they haven’t noticed before, memorize lines they hold dear, and remember how kindness will take them far both in workshop and outside the classroom.

 

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

 

“These characters and what they represent are things that I normally don’t read about, but these stories compel me to look at the reality that some women face.”

 

My student, quoted above, echoes what many others tell me about the works we read in my Introduction to Literature course: these selections are not their usual reading material and these characters have little in common with the protagonists they’ve encountered in some of their favorite works. At this point in the semester, students have been unsettled by characters who face poverty, mental illness, and death.

 

This week, however, we venture into a terrain that is even more emotionally challenging. We are reading a collection of short stories by contemporary author Bonnie Jo Campbell entitled Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell’s stories often feature strong working class women who mitigate dangerous terrain—troubled relationships, economic hardships, and addiction. Campbell’s first person narrators, however, often present the greatest opportunity for critical analysis. In some instances, these narrators are processing through sexual assault and molestation, and readers are drawn into each woman’s effort to sort out the traumatic details of these violations. 

 

Although we know that posts about sexual assault and harassment swarm students'Twitter feeds, we may be reluctant to engage students in substantial discussions about these highly charged topics for fear that we are ill-prepared to deal with the emotional impact they may have. However, those of us who teach literature understand that the tools of our discipline provide a framework for such discussions. Through the lens of literary devices and critical approaches, we can create a space that allows for both analytical understanding and social empathy, even as we venture through the most emotionally vulnerable themes. 

 

In the case of Campbell’s stories, I ask students to consider how the author’s choice of narration allows readers to glimpse the thoughts of protagonists who have suffered through sexual assault. To aid in their analysis, I provide students with ample background information: my video interview Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell: Difficult Topics in Literature, a critical essay I’ve written about Bonnie Jo Campbell's Sources of Inspiration, and several reviews of the short story collection. These resources coupled with Campbell’s writing style—which is both lyrical and plain spoken—move my students toward a critical space that invites exploration rather than judgment.

 

Applying literary techniques to Campbell’s story “Playhouse” has led to complex discussions about the roots of sexual violence and the often complicit social responses they prompt, especially among family members. In this piece, Janie, the narrator, gradually discovers that she was gang raped three weeks earlier during a party at her brother’s house. She “feels sick and weird” (15) and her brother hasn’t returned her phone calls. The story opens with Janie returning to her brother’s house and learning that her brother, who recalls more about that night than Janie, is inclined to chastise his sister’s behavior and excuse the actions of his friends, one of whom he calls “a decent guy” (31). As Janie struggles to piece together her memories of that evening, the reader glimpses the emotional nuances of her discovery—experiencing first confusion, doubt, guilt, and then a sort of sickening knowledge. However, even as the events of that night become more lucid, she still struggles to identify the violation. After she tells her brother that she thinks she’s been raped, she second guesses herself: “The word raped feels all wrong, and my heart pounds in a sickening way” (31). When she says the word again, “it feels even more off-kilter, like I really am a drama queen, creating from thin air a victim and perpetrators and accessories” (31).

 

Students are quick to comment about how upsetting this story is, but I’ve noticed that when they are asked to frame their responses around questions of literary techniques, they are able to articulate a deeper understanding of the stories and the theme. When students are asked to apply a range of critical responses—including feminist, Marxist, and reader-response—their interpretations are even more enhanced.

 

Since many of Campbell’s protagonists live in poverty, students learn about the connection between sexual assault and poverty through Callie Marie Rennison’s New York Times article “Who Suffers the Most From Rape and Sexual Assault in America,” which explores how “women in the lowest income bracket are sexually victimized at about six times the rate of women in the highest income bracket (households earning $75,000 or more annually).” 

 

For some students, these topics are highly personal; a few will identify themselves as victims of sexual violence, often commenting about the realistic depictions in these stories. In every case, these revelations have enhanced the level of respect and community in the classroom.

 

These are difficult topics to discuss, but such conversations are already happening outside of the classroom. When we include them in a literature classroom, we can provide a framework that not only enriches our students’ knowledge but stretches their capacity for empathy.

Today's featured guest blogger is Howard Cox, Instructor at Angelina College.

 

 

My epiphany came one day when I was teaching Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in a sophomore literature course.  In Chapter VIII of the novel, Jake and his friend Bill are taking a stroll along the river Seine.  Bill, who evidently has decided to avoid hangovers by never sobering up, had previously suggested that they stop almost every ten feet for a drink.  After looking down the river at Notre Dame, the bridges over the river, and the islands covered with trees in the river, Bill remarks, “It’s pretty grand,” and “God, I love to get back.”

 

A few moments later, Jake, being considerate of his friend asks, “Want to have a drink?”  Bill says, “No, I don’t need it.”

 

The point I make about this exchange is that the beauty of the cathedral at night, the river, and the scenery is intoxicating enough in and of itself.  Alcohol isn’t necessary.

 

My students, many of whom already have extensive experience with alcohol, don’t get this.  My aha moment came when a student asked about part of the description that says, “Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky.”  “Why does it say squatting?” she asked. “How can a church squat?”

 

I explained that Notre Dame was a Gothic cathedral built in the Middle Ages with flying buttresses.  “Viewed from the right angle,” I said, “it looks like a giant toad squatting on the river bank.”  Blank looks were on every face.  “It’s a kind of awe-inspiring sight,” I offered.  “Have you ever seen something so amazing that you just kept staring at it?”  Crickets chirped in response.

 

I was a getting a little exasperated when inspiration struck, and I happened to be in a classroom with a computer hooked to a projector.  A couple of minutes later I had a southern view of Notre Dame, about four feet tall, up on the screen.  Comprehension began to creep into students’ faces.

           

“Yeah,” one said, “it does kind of look like a frog.”

           

“Definitely squatting,” said another.

           

I had learned an important lesson.  Our students, who have smart phones with more computing power than the spacecraft that went to the moon, often don’t bother to Google images of things they are unfamiliar with, any more than they look up new words on Dictionary.com.  Seeing something, though, is often key to understanding the point an author is making.  Incorporating this into a lecture yields surprisingly positive results.

           

The following week I was teaching Wordsworth in a British Literature course.  This time I was ready and was able to quickly reference online photos of Tintern Abbey and the River Wye.  It may not have helped any students to understand the themes in the poems we were discussing, but it definitely helped them to understand the inspiration for the poems and the places being described.

           

In recent semesters I have added props to the online visuals I have been using.  When discussing fiction dealing the American Civil War, I pass around a replica revolver, a Minie ball, and a kepi cap.  There is something about touching and holding an artifact that brings the literature to life for many students.  For a British Literature class on the Medieval Period I recently acquired a broadsword replica.  When I discuss how medieval swords were purposefully made to look like crosses, it is much easier to make the point when you have one to display and for the students to touch.  After a serious intellectual discussion about swords in that class, we took ours outside and sliced a watermelon with it.

           

My experience with using props and visuals has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are some legitimate concerns that some instructors may have:

 

  1. Cost: You can find anything for sale online these days, but I was surprised to find good quality replicas were available for not much money at all. The most expensive prop I have is a revolver replica that was $80.00. 
  2. Time constraints: It does take time to display visuals, and to have students interact with props.  Some advance planning is always involved, but I don’t find this to be any more burdensome than planning, say, a group activity, for example.  I often arrive a little early to pull up online visuals on a classroom computer, and to make sure the projector is working.
  3. Safety: Replica firearms are impossible to fire, but some states do have regulations concerning their display and use. Sword replicas are sold without sharpened edges. The only danger from either of these props is dropping one on your foot.